Interview: Gravitas Ventures’ Nolan Gallagher on Getting a Billion People to Watch Indie Film

The CEO of the VOD distributor on extending the company's reach into theatrical distribution and his global ambitions....Read More
Joel Edgerton in "Felony"

After seven years filling television and computer screens as a video-on-demand distributor, Gravitas Ventures is taking their act to the big screen, an evolutionary step that they’re not taking lightly if this Presidents Day weekend is any example. In Los Angeles, they’re overseeing the release of “Down and Dangerous,” a scrappy crime thriller that’s one of three films they’ll have in theaters this month. In New York, their recent pickup, the Joel Edgerton potboiler “Felony” will be screening at Film Comment Selects. And between the coasts, a hundred million homes will have access to the company’s considerable catalog of movies, one that’s growing more impressive in quality as much as quantity now that Gravitas has begun to dip their toe into theatrical distribution.

It’s an exciting time for the company, which operates out of a humble two-story building in El Segundo, and its founder Nolan Gallagher, a veteran of Comcast and Warner Brothers before going out on his own. With a staff that includes more than a few filmmakers of its own – its vice president of acquisitions Melanie Miller naturally debuted the claustrophobic horror film “Detour” she produced through the company’s many distribution channels and manager of marketing Joe Wilka is a director of shorts, Gravitas has served as a platform for new talent in building a network for indie film across cable and satellite providers, as well as online outlets such as Amazon and iTunes.

While most distributors are headed in the other direction, learning the VOD business to take advantage of the audiences that never have a shot to see their films theatrically, Gravitas’ development into a full-fledged distributor has resulted in attracting films whose ambition matches the company’s reach, evident in their recent acquisition of Michael Tully’s nostalgic ‘80s comedy “Ping Pong Summer” out of Sundance. Armed with new hire Dusty Smith, whose handling of the multi-platform releases of “Arbitrage” and “Margin Call” at Roadside Attractions was the only thing more impressive than his work on the company’s popular Twitter account, Gravitas plans to distribute 12 to 18 films theatrically annually in addition to their robust slate of VOD offerings.

In the midst of a very busy winter, Gallagher spoke about why it made sense to get into theatrical distribution, the maturation of video-on-demand as a platform and the company’s even greater ambitions to distribute indie films throughout the world.

When did buying all rights to films, including theatrical, start to seem like a good idea?

We really started this last year. There were just great films that we came across that we wanted to work on. It’s just so much easier than trying to get just video-on-demand rights. Most producers or sales agents don’t want to have to do two or three different deals with a distributor. They would rather do one deal with one distributor for all rights.

Last year, we got to work on some really interesting movies, especially some Sundance movies like “Hell Baby,” which was a horror comedy from the producers of “Reno 911.” Later in the year we worked on “Sunlight Jr.,” which was a Tribeca film with Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon and Norman Reedus. We also released a documentary called “Dear Mr. Watterson,” which is about the legacy impact of the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip, in November.

In all those instances, we wanted to get all-rights. We would then partner up with different entities on the theatrical piece, or we would hire people to book the theaters. We liked the experience of working on these higher-profile, cast-driven films, but we really wanted to have a one-to-one relationship with exhibitors and really glean that information of what works for certain exhibitors.

That’s why we launched Gravitas Theatrical and announced that in conjunction with hiring Dusty Smith, who had been at Roadside Attractions and had really helped build up their business over the last nine years.

Are you having a different conversation with filmmakers now than you did a few years ago? It would seem as video-on-demand has become more accepted, there would be less resistance to it.

Certainly three, four, five years ago, we would have to spend a lot more time talking about video-on-demand and why it’s important. I think the industry has embraced video-on-demand, whether that be producers or directors. They are using VOD in their own life, generally, whether it’s renting movies on Comcast or DirectTV, or using iTunes and watching movies on their IPad, or they have an Amazon Prime account, or they watch Hulu.

As consumers have become more familiar with all these different viewing options and more and more distributors, including Gravitas, have had successful simultaneous theatrical and VOD releases, it has allowed our company to focus more on marketing or [launching] theatrical releases as opposed to trying to explain the benefits of VOD where you can release in 100 million homes in North America, or a billion homes globally, on the first day.

Has the influx of higher-profile titles on video-on-demand been a rising tide that lifts all ships or has it made it more difficult to stand out?

Part of why we really enjoy VOD and our company has grown is that we’ve had relationships with video-on-demand [providers], whether it be cable operator or some of the other companies that I mentioned, like iTunes, going back to when I started the company in 2006. We’ve been working with our core partners just to raise the profile of our films with cable operators, whether that’s running advertising when we think people are going to be interested in renting our movie or doing co-marketing campaigns where we have talent interviews and cite certain VOD operators where people can easily find film. We try to really draw focus to our films out of the all the other hundreds of thousands of choices that people have.

You’ve done some interesting things to stand out from an acquisitions standpoint. Last year, you struck blanket arrangements with Slamdance and the Austin Film Festival to distribute their award winners. Have those deals worked out well?

Yeah, we’re really happy about it. There’s so many great films that maybe don’t get into the five most high-profile film festivals out there, but are just tremendous films. We’re actually releasing [one right now] called “Brightest Star,” which was identified and acquired out of the Austin Film Festival, It’s a great film that tells about lost love of someone in his twenties, but in a very non-linear fashion and has a really unique point of view on love at that time in your life.

We’re just thrilled that we could work with the Austin Film Festival or Slamdance to raise the profile of quite a few films. There’s been a half a dozen films that we saw either at Slamdance or Austin that we hope to do theatrical releases on. You’ll see that that might be part of our ongoing festival strategy where the filmmakers will have the option to work with Gravitas, but it’s not binding. We want any filmmaker to evaluate all of his or her options. It’s a great way where a prominent film festival can validate, either through audience awards, or with a hand-picked jury, what are great films and then we’re happy to get it out to 100 million homes, and sometimes in theaters. That’s really worked for us.

Is there anything you’re particularly excited about in terms of the direction of the company?

One thing that we’re really going to be focusing on is growing our international footprint. We think that there’s a real opportunity for a lot of films to release globally on the same day, and get into a billion video-on-demand homes.

“Sound City,” the Dave Grohl film, really, I think, will be seen as a trendsetter. Last year, we handled the global release on the film. Dave and his management team said, “Look, we got into Sundance. We’re going to play at this epic concert in Park City, Dave is going to be a tireless promoter between Sundance and South by Southwest, where he was a keynote speaker. His fans have been waiting for this movie and we want you guys to release it in a billion homes ten days after it’s Sundance premiere.”

We said, “Sure.” He didn’t want to go the traditional route of hiring a sales agent, waiting for the movie to sell in 24 hours or three months, waiting another four months to set a theatrical date, and similarly, hiring an international sales agent who took it from [international film marketplaces such as] MipCom to AFM to Berlin, and so on — all of that took time. It takes months or years. He wanted to have fans interact globally on day one.

In hindsight, the film has performed exceedingly well. It’s not the perfect path for every film. There are good international film companies out there that for certain films that’s the right path. But for a lot of films, including documentaries, we think it makes sense to harness all of the marketing, all the reviews, that might be happening in North America, and allow consumers in other countries to rent or buy it immediately.

We did that with “Dear Mr. Watterson” because the Calvin & Hobbes strip has been published in over 200 different countries. And “Brightest Star,” we subtitled the film, and we’re releasing it in numerous markets. That’s really what gets us excited about not just what the landscape looks like today, but where we think it’ll be three to five years from now.

In all those homes and theaters, the first thing audiences will see is the company’s name affixed to a napkin. Where did the logo come from?

People like it. It was kind of like a little bit of an inspiration from my father. He had worked for the same company for 38 years. I came up with the logo before “Mad Men” came out, but it’s along the same ethos of that generation. You do the deal on the back of a napkin. Your word is your bond. I always liked that concept and have tried to be a straight shooter and encouraged everyone in our organization to be as candid and transparent as possible. When you do a deal with a filmmaker or a producer, you’re getting into a five- to 10-year relationship. I thought that the napkin imagery was a good way to convey some of the core values of Gravitas.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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