This week, we’re celebrating the people who made some of the best films of the year possible.
When Aaron Gilbert and his wife Brenda were brainstorming names for the production company they’d start together in 2010, they were looking for something that would signify strength. When they put their heads together, they ended up putting their names together as well, taking the first two letters of her name and the last two of his to form Bron. No doubt if you’ve been to a film festival in recent years, you’ve seen the studio’s logo – a roiling river of liquid metal that eventually solidifies into the letters making up the name of the company, a sight that’s as fiery and bold as the film that usually comes after.
“I’m sorry to tell you we’re changing that,” laughs Aaron Gilbert, upon hearing praise for the blazing nameplate from his base of operations in Vancouver. But that’s only because Bron probably no longer feels like it needs such an announcement to be recognized as one of the most prolific and muscular producers around. With that power, they’ve invested in the kind of smart, compelling character-driven films with A-list casts that have gone missing in the marketplace as studios chase blockbusters and indie productions have had to become even scrappier.
“I really want to make films that are important that can balance the line of what is critically and culturally significant and at the same time commercially relevant,” says Gilbert, who is currently enjoying his most prominent success to date with “Fences,” Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play that marks Bron’s first co-production with a major studio.
The film is just one of eight Bron productions to reach the big screen in 2016, but Gilbert hasn’t been one to put quantity over quality. Instead, Bron’s ability to be a shrewd identifier of talent and needs within any given production, owing to Gilbert’s experience in film financing, has helped build a slate of films that is mightily impressive in its daring and diversity. Seeing the value in films as eclectic as the clever and charming Rebecca Hall-Jason Sudeikis romantic comedy “Tumbledown” and Nate Parker’s incendiary account of the slave revolt led by Nat Turner, “The Birth of a Nation,” the company has enabled filmmakers to have the resources commensurate with their ambitions, making each project stand out in a crowded field.
“The journey to get to this point maybe was a little longer than tougher than expected when we first started,” Gilbert says now, but it’s hard to imagine any company establishing themselves as quickly or soundly as Bron has, presiding over 40-plus productions since they first went into business six years ago.
Gilbert has been laying the groundwork for Bron ever since he started out in the entertainment industry, though the unique perspective he’s gained has come from working in numerous mediums. Initially learning the ropes of dealmaking and talent relations by managing bands, Gilbert’s first brush with the film industry arrived when he took a job consulting at Mainframe Entertainment, a Vancouver-based computer animation studio (now known as Rainmaker Entertainment) that created shows and movies for toy brands such as Mattel and Hasbro. It was there where he developed both a love of storytelling and of animation, as he marveled at how the studio built tales around established properties such as “Actionman,” “Transformers,” “Beast Wars,” and “Barbie.”
“That was a company that on a production level was one of the best there is at delivering wonderful stuff at a budget, so I gained a love of animation at that time, and I always knew I wanted to get back to that world at some point,” says Gilbert, who made it one of Bron’s first priorities to start an animation arm, run by his wife Brenda. “But I wanted to do so as an owner/producer as opposed to a service provider, and the very important thing for Bron is we’ve never done any service work [for other companies]. Everything we own or co-own, period.”
While Gilbert’s animation ambitions would have to wait, his first opportunity to produce a live-action film came unexpectedly upon learning that the filmmakers behind the 2010 Kat Dennings drama “Daydream Nation” lost an investor. Gilbert was thrust into working the phones to get the proper backing for the film, but did it so efficiently others came calling. Likewise, the first time he had to take on a producing role beyond financing was also unplanned, seeing the title of a sci-fi film called “Paradox” become a little too close to a self-fulfilling prophecy before rolling up his sleeves and reaching into his own pockets to save it. The experience proved to be a trial by fire that gave him the confidence to carry on as a producer.
As he picked up the finer points of how a production should work as a creative endeavor, Gilbert used his financial acumen to create an infrastructure that would make them work as business ventures. He structured a fund with Media House Capitol, in which he was a senior debt lender, that could allow for flexibility in financing indie films, able to provide small but crucial loans to productions as needed or delivering up to a third of a film’s budget. As a result, Bron was able to get involved in a number of films right from the start, and with interest from all sectors of the industry in someone with money, Gilbert leveraged his newfound access to learn about projects at an embryonic level, how distribution and different vehicles for financing work, and the sales cycle. Armed with that knowledge, along with his good taste and amiable demeanor, it wasn’t long before filmmakers began to take notice of Gilbert.
“When I first got started, when nobody knows who you are, I don’t think you’re going to see some of the greatest artists in the world really entrust their careers with me in that context,” says Gilbert. “I had to prove myself and build a body of work and build relationships with the agencies and the distributors and casting directors and others so they felt comfortable and confident that I was a good home for their talent.”
Bron hasn’t let them down. Knowing that indie budgets can’t compete with those of studio films, the company has placed a premium on giving writer/directors the ability to take chances and offer dynamic roles to actors they might not be seeing elsewhere in films that never feel small. The company has also been unusually supportive of female and African-American filmmakers, backing Reed Morano’s directorial debut “Meadowland,” Shira Piven’s biting satire “Welcome to Me,” and Deon Taylor’s thriller “Supremacy,” among others. When Marc Abraham, a decorated producer in his own right as the co-founder of Beacon Entertainment and Strike (responsible for such films as “The Hurricane” and “Children of Men,” respectively), was looking for a partner on the Hank Williams biopic “I Saw the Light” that he directed, he teamed up with Bron. Gilbert now looks back on the film as a major turning point for Bron.
“[Marc] really became a wonderful friend and mentor to me and seeing unbelievable artists at work [on “I Saw the Light”], the relationships that came from that film – that was our first bigger movie for Bron,” enthuses Gilbert. “We hadn’t really done a film of that size before, both production-wise and production value-wise. We’ve made films since then [of that size] and have others in the queue for this coming year, but I could point back to that movie as where Bron 2.0 started.”
Considering what Bron has already accomplished, it’s hard to fathom what’s next. 2016 began for Bron with the triumphant bow of “The Birth of a Nation” at Sundance, where the film earned prolonged standing ovations and became the biggest sale in the history of the festival, and though controversy would ensnare its driving creative force Parker shortly before its October release, Gilbert remains proud of the film and calls its Park City premiere “one of the best nights of my professional life.” He also put his weight behind such provocations as the Patricia Rozema’s post-apocalyptic thriller “Into the Forest” with Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page and Bobby Miller’s raucous comedy “The Master Cleanse.” 2017 will bring new films from Miguel Arteta, reteaming with “Chuck and Buck” writer Mike White, for the Sundance-bound comedy “Beatriz at Dinner” with Salma Hayek and John Lithgow, and Jason Reitman, who reunited the creative team behind “Young Adult,” including writer Diablo Cody and Charlie Theron, for “Tully,” as well as “Monster,” an adaptation of the Walter Dean Myers novel that will serve as the feature debut of acclaimed music video director Anthony Mandler.
“We’ve been lucky that a lot of people have sought us out, which is exciting for me,” says Gilbert. “It’s one thing when you’re first getting started and you’re making all the phone calls and you’re trying to find the projects and the deals, [but it’s another] when people are calling, wanting to work with us because they like the films that we’re making, they like how we’re making them and our reputation is strong.”
Bron has steadily grown its operations to match the demand, now employing 150 people spread across a number of different departments. Although Gilbert insists Bron will continue to get involved in intriguing productions that they don’t package themselves, he’s “excited as heck” about the work being done by a development team of five to cultivate more projects in house. On the day we spoke in early December, production wrapped on “Parallel,” the first film from The Realm, Bron’s newly created genre arm, led by Bron execs Garrick Dion and Matthias Mellinghaus, that is targeting the release of three to five sci-fi and horror films per year. And while the long process of animation has meant delayed gratification as far as Gilbert’s first love, 2017 will see the release of Bron’s long-awaited first animated feature “Henchmen,” a comedy about the low-level employees of criminal masterminds with a voice cast featuring James Marsden, Rosario Dawson, Alfred Molina and Jane Krakowski.
“I love the power of animation and I love what it could be if you do your job right,” says Gilbert. “You can create a franchise and create characters people love and can live on in multiple mediums for a very, very long time.”
Already, Bron is making the kinds of films that have staying power, something that Gilbert has witnessed time and again as he’s become a regular presence on the festival circuit. With films that often push the envelope, he rarely will know how an audience will receive them, but comes away each time humbled by the experience.
“Every film we make is a business unto itself and is almost like a living and breathing thing because you put so much energy into them over such a long period of time,” says Gilbert. “There’s an emotional connectivity – sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the movie – to every one, so once you finally see it in a public setting [with] people reacting to it – hopefully positively – that’s an incredible thing.”
And still, with Bron pictures, it’s usually the audience that’s left in awe.