Cannes Market: Nigel Sinclair On New Start, Lessons Learned From Exclusive Exit (Exclusive)

“The takeaway for me from Exclusive is realizing that independent films can be made as good as studio films”

When Guy East and Nigel Sinclair launched their new company, White Horse Pictures, just one year ago ahead of the Cannes Film Festival, it was a more modest iteration of the successful partnership they ran for years at Exclusive Media. That international sales and financing company, which they founded, was behind such hits as “Snitch,” “The Woman in Black” and “End of Watch” but also the money-losing “Rush.”

Now working as producers rather than financiers, Sinclair sat down exclusively with TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman at the Studio Canal offices overlooking the port at the festival to look ahead at an upcoming $100 million project and reflect on the lessons learned from the admittedly painful exit from the company he cofounded.

Sharon Waxman: Bring us up to date on what you’re doing now. What happened with Exclusive? Walk us through it.
Nigel Sinclair: I can’t comment on Exclusive because I signed an agreement not to do that. We had a great time, we had a fantastic group of people… As everybody knows, Exclusive got out of the production business and is mainly a rights-holding business. It has a fantastic library that we built up with 1,000 titles over seven years. We decided, Guy and I, the thing we learned during that seven-year period was how to make better movies. One of the areas of independent filmmaking that always frustrated me was that we put together really classy films and they never seemed to fulfill their promise. Sometimes because the marketing wasn‘t as strong as it should have been, and sometimes because the films weren’t as good.

One of the things we did really well at Exclusive is that we built a collegial team in the office that took films like “Woman in Black” and “End of Watch,” to name two, and really helped the director make the film the best it could be. David Ayer‘s film “End of Watch” was a masterpiece, a story of brotherhood set among cop relationships.

What was the insight you gained that helped you make better films?
The realization that films that are closely-woven dramas. Every scene and every frame needs to be right. Encouraging the director to take the time. We gave David extra editing time, extra money for visual effects, extra money for music, and we supported his extraordinary talent. The film did $40-something million US box office, cost about $10 million to make, a little bit less. It is widely acclaimed by filmmakers as a reference movie.

We rehearsed the movie for almost three months. We did the same with “Snitch.” Even the ones with big directors, like “Rush,” we created an environment more like an indie studio. It was a team of people with horizontal egos.

So what happened with “Rush”? Not every film works, not every film knocks it out of the park. Why didn’t it work?

I think we were unlucky with the date, sandwiched between “Gravity” and “Captain Phillips.” Sometimes you can’t explain it. Films don’t catch on. If I had a dollar for every person who said, “I loved that movie, and by the way my wife loved it…” It was very much a love story set in the world of racing, it wasn’t a racing movie with a love story bolted on. Peter Morgan wrote it, and Ron [Howard] made a movie that was genius. These people could have been astronauts, in the stock market. It happened to be motor racing.

It was on budget, a joyful experience. It just didn’t perform well in the US.

Rush-2013

Nobody wins on every movie. And it was widely reported that Exclusive was left with a $15 million shortfall on that movie. But I was very surprised that the company went away, or that you and Guy did. You’re two people who know what you’re doing in a world that’s very hazardous.

The company didn’t go away – it still exists. The rights business is a real business run by Marc Schipper, my very good friend. But the decision was made that the company was going to get out of the production business, which it did. And Guy and I left. But it’s not for me to comment on Exclusive.

The takeaway for me from Exclusive is that experience of realizing that independent films can be made as good as studio films. You can bring them to a peak… because we worked on post and had the resources. So we decided to form a company concentrating 100% on production. Primarily start it with millennials to bring a fresh point of view in storytelling.

The dirty little secret is the traditional analog ship is sinking. And the digital ship is coming up through the waters. And we’re sitting here in Cannes in a festival that is organized for the analog industry.

It’s remarkable how it’s still organized that way.
We’ve learned to do fewer movies and to concentrate on making them excellent. We succeeded at Exclusive in creating a collegial group brimming with ideas, it wasn’t one person’s opinion that dominated. On different movies, we genuinely had different people clustering on the film. We wanted to bring that to White Horse. We have two documentaries in production right now, about the Ford Mustang and the Beatles [directed by Ron Howard].

And we have three movies we’re working on that I can’t yet name. So philosophically that’s where we are. Guy’s in London, I’m in Los Angeles. We’ve succeeded in a year in building an esprit de corps not unlike Exclusive.

You don’t want investors?
No, you always have to bring investors in. It’s a matter of timing.

Is there a budget window you’re in?
I would say the floor is probably $2-$3 million and the ceiling is the natural ceiling for independent films, about $45 million. The sweet spot for independent movies is under $20 million. But we’re working on a $100 million movie we’re setting up at Lionsgate.

At the moment, do you feel optimistic, cautious, pessimistic? I ask because many people felt that if Exclusive couldn’t make it work, than no one could.
All companies have idiosyncratic circumstances, so you can’t deduce objective truth from any single company. There isn’t a truth to find there. What for us was a different experience was to realize the sales business has become very much a service business. The biggest single stress being the breakup of a homogenous home entertainment market. As soon as you go online you’re very exposed to piracy and movies become a commodity.

I’m extremely optimistic. We have a few projects with a surprising level of interest. If you can make your film a top-50 film, you’ve greatly increased the odds. Whatever happens, what we do know is if your film is in the top 50, you’ve got a better chance of survival than if it’s not.