The independent film world can be brutal and there’s a high mortality rate for companies looking to break into the movie business. Over the past year, the likes of Broad Green, Alchemy, and Relativity Media have either scaled back their operations or shut off the lights entirely.
But Bold Films, the producer of “Nightcrawler” and “Whiplash,” believes that betting on auteurs is the key to its longevity. Now in its 14th year, it has inked “first look” deals with Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Productions and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Nine Stories Productions, and it’s preparing to unveil its most ambitious slate yet, a series of films featuring the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Keira Knightley, and Dev Patel.
Over the past two years, Bold has moved from buying packages, the industry term for films that agents cobble together with scripts and talent attached, to ramping up its in-house productions.
“The package market is thin,” said Bold Films CEO Gary Michael Walters. “The number of ready-to-go projects is quite limited, which is strategically driving us to become much more active in developing our own projects.”
The company has also been willing to write bigger checks. It’s gone from backing low-budget indies to supporting larger productions in the $8 million to $40 million range. Walters believes the higher production values are an important way to stand out at a time when people are skipping multiplexes to stay home and watch Netflix.
Bold Films has another key difference. In recent years, Hollywood has gotten enamored of Chinese money, but a box office slowdown in the Middle Kingdom combined with a capital crackdown, has curbed foreign investment. Bold doesn’t have that problem. The company is wholly backed Michel Litvak, a Belgian industrialist. Walters says his support and creative insights are the key to making Bold work, praising Litvak’s passion for “outstanding, original storytelling.”
Not everything Bold has endorsed has paid off — Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, “Lost River,” for instance, was a critical and commercial dud. But the company has showed an unerring ability to bet on emerging or little-known directors such as Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”), Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”), and Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”). It’s a filmmaker-friendly strategy that they will be carrying forward.
First up is “Shot Caller,” a drama about a family man (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who goes to prison after a fatal car accident. The Ric Roman Waugh film premieres next week after getting a warm reception at the Los Angeles Film Festival. That will be followed by “Stronger,” a drama about Jeff Bauman, a man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon Bombing with Gyllenhaal in an Oscar-bait role. David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express”) directs the picture, which will screen at the Toronto Film Festival.
Then there’s “Collette,” a biopic about the legendary French novelist that will star Knightley. Walters promises it will be a sexy and glamorous look at Belle Epoque Paris, covering Collette as she morphs from a bright young farm girl to the toast of literary society. Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”) directs. The film will be looking for domestic distribution, possibly in Toronto.
Going forward, the company is financing “The Son,” an adaptation of a Jo Nesbo thriller that will reunite Gyllenhaal with his “Prisoners” director Denis Villeneuve. Gyllenhaal’s Nine Stories will produce and developed the project. It also enlisted Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the team behind “Spectre,” to write the script.
Bold is also developing a biopic about Ruth Handler, the founder of Mattel and the creator of Barbie, with Witherspoon eyeing the film as a starring vehicle. She will produce it with Bruna Papandrea through their Pacific Standard label. Bold recently enlisted Rosalind Ross (“Lioness”) to write the script.
Finally, the company is working on a movie about the creation of the Chippendales, with Stiller and Patel starring in the stripper saga. Walters says A-list directors are circling.
A decade ago, any number of these projects would have been set up at a Paramount or a Warner Bros., but times have changed. Mid-size dramas and thrillers have largely been abandoned by studios in favor of animated fare and superhero adventures.
“Robert Evans was a phenomenal, director-centric executive at Paramount, but these days ‘The Godfather’ would probably be made as an independent film and not at a studio,” said Walters.
And quite possibly it would have been a company like Bold making it.