Originally published in Variety on Feb 10, 2016.
Ben Browning, 37, and Aaron Ryder, 45, are FilmNation CEO Glen Basner’s dynamic duo, helping to grow the financing and production company’s slate of films as co-presidents of production and acquisitions. Ryder joined FilmNation in 2009, a year after the company launched as an international sales venture, while Browning, a veteran in film financing and the international marketplace, came aboard in 2014 (he was the producer who put Passengers together, now a Sony title).
In Berlin, the two will be on hand to update foreign buyers on FilmNation titles, including in-house productions The Founder, directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Michael Keaton as McDonald’s impresario Roy Kroc, and Denis Villeneuve’s Story of Your Life, a sci-fi epic starring Amy Adams that landed a U.S. home with Paramount in a massive $20 million deal.
Browning and Ryder recently sat down with THR in their Hollywood office to talk about FilmNation’s intention to make three movies a year, finance another three and sell an additional four to five internationally.
What is the biggest complaint or concern you hear from filmmakers?
Ryder: Not enough good material. I have my own theory that some of the screenwriters are tied up working in television right now and aren’t writing as many spec scripts as they were two or three or five years ago.
Browning: I think the other complaint you hear all the time, and it’s a big part of the narrative, is that the audience’s taste is narrowing because of other entertainment options and that independent film has less of an audience. And yet, we don’t see that happening at all. In fact, more and more, we see, weekend after weekend throughout the year, smart moviegoers are underserved when it comes to intelligent tales. But then what happens in the fall is that they all jam into one another. We have started to see in movies like Mr. Holmes that we had this summer, and others we calendared throughout the year, is that the appetite is growing.
FilmNation and The Weinstein Co. will release The Founder in the U.S. on Nov. 25, during the heart of awards season. Did you work with McDonald’s in making the film, and have the execs there raised any objections?
Ryder: No, not at all. The story we’re telling is outside of the McDonald’s corporation. It’s very much the story of Ray Kroc, this blue-collar, 52-year-old milkshake machine salesman, and what he went through when he walked into a hamburger stand in San Bernardino, Calif., and saw the future. And by no means does it tarnish McDonald’s. We don’t anticipate any sort of pushback from that corporation.
Have you found yourselves eating more McDonald’s?
Ryder: You know what’s funny? It’s actually had an effect on me appreciating a good hamburger. I might today be more excited about eating a really great burger than I am eating a really great steak.
FilmNation came aboard the Oscar best-picture nominee Room early in the process, helping to arrange financing and handle international sales. Do you think your competitors questioned your judgment?
Ryder: Yeah, probably. It was not an obvious acquisition. For us, it was about tracking [director] Lenny Abrahamson. We felt what he would do would likely be extraordinary, and it is. The way we work here is we try to keep a list of filmmakers that we’re actively trying to find projects for. It’s a list of 25 to 35 names. And then we keep an eye on others because maybe there’s a sales project that we can get involved with, which was the case with Lenny and Room. Room has earned north of $10 million in the U.S. Overseas, it’s still early in its run but has grossed north of $6 million. Is that a success? Browning The distributor in the U.S. [A24] has shown a real patience. And I think it will see more of an Oscar bump relative to its box office than any of the other [best picture] titles.
Mud, among the first FilmNation productions, was another not-so-obvious film that ended up reinventing Matthew McConaughey’s career.
Ryder: Mud is indicative of the type of film that we want to be doing more of. We didn’t finance it, to be clear, but we produced it and we sold it. It’s not an obvious movie, it doesn’t look like on the page that it would have a lot of international appeal, and, really, at the end of the day, there was only one big reason to make that film — we loved it and we felt like it needed to be made.
Browning: I think it’s also pretty clear to us as a company that unless you can have your own projects — stuff you run, produce, finance and manufacture — it’s a lot tougher at the moment, partly because of competition for other distributors. It also just has to do with having a real pipeline of quality stuff, which is why we’re going to Berlin, to show the entire international marketplace what’s coming down the pipeline. The Founder is a perfect example because it was a year ago in Berlin that we introduced the project to international buyers. And in one year’s time, we went through prep, put the whole movie together and shot the film.