US distributor prepares for the next chapter

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Robert Schwartzman is part of one of Hollywood’s great film dynasties, but when he got into directing he found the world of distribution for up-and-coming filmmakers was broken.

The multi-hyphenate, who is Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew, has starred in films like ‘The Princess Diaries’ – where he played Anne Hathaway’s love interest Michael Moscovitz in what became his film hit – and has fronted rock band Rooney since 1999. In recent years, however, Schwartzman has become more entrenched in the family business, making independent feature films such as “The Unicorn”, “Dreamland” and “The Argument”. “.

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“I felt frustrated that certain films get overlooked in the market, like when you don’t walk into a film festival and the film doesn’t play sometimes,” Schwartzman said. Variety. “It’s quite emotionally devastating for a filmmaker to feel that rejection.”

He continues: “You want to put [the film] in the hands of someone who cares and is willing to put in the time and effort to help this movie reach an audience.

Schwartzman co-founded distribution banner Utopia with business partner Cole Harper in 2018 to offer a more artist-centric approach to filmmakers and provide “another home” for acquiring independently produced and financed films.

The company has so far made a number of big leaps onto the film festival circuit following its smash hit in 2020 with the dark comedy “Shiva Baby.” At the Sundance Film Festival in January, he won the US distribution rights to Lena Dunham’s second film, ‘Sharp Stick’ – “Not every filmmaker has that brand in the market,” says Schwartzman by Dunham – and at the Cannes Film Festival in May, he selected the Iranian crime thriller “Holy Spider”, for which lead actress Zahra Amir Ebrahimi won the festival’s best actress award.

“I’m really excited to see us go to bigger film festivals and be part of those conversations,” says Schwartzman.

The company has, in a relatively short time, forged a clear identity for itself in the distribution landscape in the United States, where its quirky tastes and keen eye for non-English speaking cinema have placed Utopia in A24’s orbit and from Neon. Schwartzman credits colleagues such as acquisitions manager Danielle DiGiacomo, formerly of The Orchard, and sales manager Marie Zeniter, a former Magnolia executive, for helping cultivate the brand and securing some of the most eye-catching deals.

Yet, as it grows and adopts more talent-driven, higher-budget fare, the retailer faces the same tensions between art and commerce as any company seeking to achieve scale. It also navigates a niche box office that is still crawling after the worst of the pandemic. “We really like putting movies in theaters – it’s a big thing for us,” says Schwartzman. But it also recognizes the need to find a streaming partner for future Utopia releases, similar to what companies like Neon have done with Hulu.

“The problem is, we get a lot of submissions from really, really interesting new filmmakers – new voices that we’re all going to hear someday. But now the difficult question is: ‘What can we really do? What can we really spend our time on? The reality is that we are not able to accept a certain amount of films, because you start to really sacrifice the quality of the release, so we have to say “no” more, which is really difficult.

Being an independent distributor in the theatrical market is like “swimming upstream,” says Schwartzman. “You really have to fight for your place and for your place.”

“But we’ve reached more screens as a company, and we’re taking greater risks by putting more resources behind certain titles we acquire at key festivals,” he adds. “That’s how we’re going to be competitive.”

Elsewhere, Utopia is bolstering its production side and getting involved earlier in film projects and even TV series. There’s no specific number of titles to target per year, but delving into originals “felt like a natural progression for the company,” says Schwartzman.

With his background in film and packaging, “projects naturally started coming to us that were looking for packaging support early on,” he says.

Utopia is currently working with “Walking Dead” star Norman Reedus on a television adaptation of “Sorority House Massacre.” There’s also a documentary about the Blues Brothers in the works, alongside a documentary about British band Invasion, the Zombies. Projects on the original side don’t have to be Utopia releases.

“It’s about identifying projects that we think we can help grow faster, and being kind of an incubator and accelerator for creative people,” Schwartzman notes.

Basically, the executive wants to continue to take risks and make Utopia the artist-friendly distributor he feels the industry desperately needs.

“My uncle [Francis Ford Coppola] was known for taking big risks in his life as a filmmaker,” says Schwartzman. “He self-funded ‘Apocalypse Now’ and practically went bankrupt trying to make his masterpiece – and it worked. I just think it’s really interesting to get into something you believe in. C It’s the kind of world I like to be part of.

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