Kohn’s Corner is a weekly column about the challenges and opportunities of sustaining American film culture.
Every year around this time, I relish the opportunity to vanish into a Cannes hype bubble and pretend world-class auteurs dominate the film business on a global scale. But for now, I’m going to take a break from the laughing gas and recognize that it’s a tough time for the specialty distribution business, especially in America. Many of those promising Cannes titles won’t follow me home.
Few films that are not in English make it to our box office. Most get lost in the streaming vortex, if they are lucky enough to land there. Art house houses nationwide continue to face declining audiences. Prestige films for the Oscars do not guarantee strong returns. A24’s winning streak came to naught with the flop of its most expensive production, “Beau is Afraid,” suggesting that even its adoring audiences have no interest in the daring and original work. Mainstays like IFC Films have been forced to reevaluate their agenda due to an ever-changing market and fickle business demands. As I wrote in this column last month, the big indie downturn has arrived.
Which is why I am very happy to break the news of a perennial distribution entity revving the engines for Cannes and beyond.
A little over a year and a half ago, reports were circulating that Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner were looking to sell Magnolia Pictures just in time for its 20th anniversary. Now, sources tell me that Cuban and Wagner have reversed course. After exploring a few options, the company behind 21st century art house hits like ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’, ‘Let the Right One In’ and ‘Melancholia’ pulled itself off the market and doubled down on its ambitions. Longtime executive Dori Begley has been named co-CEO alongside Eamonn Bowles.
Begley has worked her way up the ranks of Magnolia’s extravagant and ever-changing business model since she was hired as director of acquisitions 16 years ago. Her promotion puts home-grown talent in charge of the company’s future alongside a brave veteran of the 90s indie boom.
I heard murmurs of these changes at this week’s lively BAM gala, which counted Spike Lee among its honorees; Magnolia was one of the few cinema benefactors at the event, along with A24 and Cinetic. When I contacted a company representative, he confirmed that the company was no longer for sale.
“For more than 21 years under Eamonn’s leadership, Magnolia has been an expert in steady growth while navigating an unpredictable market, and for the past 16 years, Dori’s acumen has been instrumental in that,” Wagner said in a statement provided. at IndieWire. Mark and I could not have wished for a better team to lead the company into this exciting next chapter.”
In his (characteristically playful) statement, Bowles — who moonlights as the frontman of rock ‘n’ roll band The Martinets — added, “I couldn’t think of a better person to direct Magnolia Pictures than Dori. Her intelligence, integrity, energy and grace, not to mention some of the most impressive hair in the industry, make her uniquely qualified to help grow the company to greater heights. We are excited about what comes next.”
“In true Magnolia form, we see the uncertainty and fluctuation of this moment as an opportunity to evolve and grow the business,” Begley wrote to me in a statement. “I have enormous respect for the enduring integrity and dexterity of this company and couldn’t be more proud to help guide us through the next phase in partnership with Eamonn, Magnolia’s strong foundation and one of the greatest champions of specialty cinema. “
These are good things that happen to good people, but some may wonder what the future looks like for a company that hasn’t produced a big hit in a while. Magnolia released the searing Romanian documentary ‘Collective’, which earned nominations for Best Documentary and Best International Feature at the 2021 Oscars, but you should go back to 2018’s ‘RGB’ and 2017’s ‘I Am Not Your’ even sooner Negro” to find anything that has achieved some commercial success. His last serious box office draw was the Palme d’Or winner and Academy Award nominee Japan’s “Shoplifters,” which grossed $3.3 million in 2019.
That reading would assume that the arthouse business is defined solely by box office and awards, but over the past two decades, Magnolia has amassed an impressive catalog of provocative and acclaimed films. It includes revered documentaries such as ‘Jiro’, ‘Man on Wire’ and ‘Capturing the Friedmans’, as well as top-notch genre work such as Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Mother’ and ‘The Host’. All told, Magnolia has over 600 movies in its library, less than the voluminous offerings some overeager shoppers have amassed in recent years, but impressive considering the emphasis on quality.
Libraries are central to the monetization game. All streamers pay licensing fees to fend off constant churn from subscribers, and Magnolia’s eclectic curatorial approach pays off in pieces thanks to the consistency of its aesthetic standards. It won’t have the insane valuation that led Amazon to pay MGM $8.8 billion, but what does it do? (And that deal has yet to justify itself for Amazon.)
Another boost for Magnolia this week came via Disney’s second-quarter earnings report. As I wrote last year, Disney has become one of the biggest benefactors of the specialized world thanks to the lucrative production deals Hulu maintains with several buyers in addition to its in-house Searchlight. During this week’s Disney earnings call, CEO Bob Iger revealed that Hulu would be getting its own box on Disney+ in the US, instantly amplifying the potential audience for films appearing there. (This is also the first step on its path to buying Comcast’s stake in Hulu worldwide.) While these output deals can be fickle (sorry, black-and-white movies!), they do provide some serious leverage. for companies looking to bid competitively.
Now, Magnolia heads to Cannes with renewed confidence in its place within the streaming ecosystem. There are a handful of big acquisition targets in the official Cannes selection thanks to Todd Haynes’ “May December” and the Jude Law/Alicia Vikander thriller “Firebrand,” along with juicy genre offerings like Takeshi’s gay samurai epic Kitano “Kubi” is intriguing new work from some of the best European directors of the past 40 years, including Aki Kaurismaki (“Fallen Leaves”) and Ken Loach (“The Old Oak”). So who knows? Maybe some highlights will follow me home after all.
This is a funky time for the content business, but there’s a promising contrast in smaller companies with rarefied strategies. The Magnolia situation suggests opportunity for any business with a solid library, good taste, and a constant habit of ingesting new work. Other film entities exploring sales might consider the alternative to chasing a big deal: Shut the hatches, make the most of what you’ve got, and keep building it for whatever the unpredictable future may bring.
As usual, I welcome your feedback for this week’s column: email@example.com
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