EXCLUSIVE: It’s no secret that the independent film game is not for the faint-hearted, with the last decade seeing a number of companies and financiers collapse under the weight of the industry’s constant state of flux. But amidst the turmoil and unprecedented change, Teddy Schwarzman has been quietly building his Black Bear label into a full-fledged independent film studio.
The company, which Schwarzman founded as a financing and production outfit back in 2011, has now grown into a business that has tentacles in international sales; theatrical distribution in Canada (Elevation Pictures) and, more recently, the UK (Black Bear UK); a management business; a documentary financing joint venture with New Regency dubbed Double Agent; and a television strand, the latter of which recently deficit-financed AMC’s crime drama Monsieur Spade starring Clive Owen.
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When Deadline sits down with Schwarzman in his Santa Monica office for a rare interview, Black Bear has kicked off this year’s fall festival season with three buzzy titles at Telluride and Toronto: Craig Gillespie’s Dumb Money, starring Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Shailene Woodley, Sebastian Stan, America Ferrera and Pete Davidson; awards hopeful Nyad, starring Annette Bening as marathon swimmer Diana Nyad alongside Jodie Foster; and the Greg Kwedar-directed drama Sing Sing, which A24 acquired for U.S. theatrical in a competitive situation following the film’s premiere at TIFF.
This trifecta is emblematic of everything the company has spent the past 12 years slowly and strategically building: Black Bear not only produced and financed each title but also repped international sales for Dumb Money and Sing Sing via its Black Bear International arm led by John Friedberg. Dumb Money was Black Bear UK’s first theatrical release, while Sing Sing will also be distributed by the company in the UK and Canada next year. Black Bear Management represents the latter’s writer-director Greg Kwedar and writer Clint Bentley.
“It’s an eclectic slate that I think is hopefully a combination of the personalities within our company striving towards critically driven and commercially minded content,” Schwarzman tells Deadline.
What becomes apparent when speaking to the Black Bear CEO and founder is that he boasts an incredible knowledge of the temperature of the global business, and that relationships – both within the company and outside of it – are extremely important to him. Yes, he’s worked to build this company from the ground up, but he’s done it also by surrounding himself with people he considers to be the most talented in the business.
“We’ve always tried to look at things patiently and analytically,” Schwarzman says of the company’s growth trajectory. “We think about things on a relationship level and figure out the key pieces that are too undeniable for us not to look at from a growth standpoint. But, at the same time, we are not a company that grows for the sake of growing. We grow if it helps us feel even more connected to the core belief that we have here of trying to make high-caliber, character-centric content that we feel personally invested in but have a real audience.”
New York-born Schwarzman says he had always been drawn to the entertainment industry and despite a brief stint out of college working in the financial sector on Wall Street, he ultimately chose not to follow in the footsteps of his father Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of global private equity firm Blackstone Group. He chose to study law with an intention to become an entertainment lawyer but, keen to become closer to the creative side of the business, he jumped ship.
He began to interview for internships in the production sector in New York. “As I interviewed for those internships, I asked to read their entire slate so that I could understand what their projects were and whether I would be aligned with interning at those companies, which I didn’t realize at the time would be a bit presumptuous to ask but I wanted to know what they were doing.”
After turning down a job to work for Harvey Weinstein (“I had just finished reading Down and Dirty Pictures and I just did not want, from an ethical standpoint, to start my career in entertainment working for him — it just felt like the wrong move”), and a stint as a PA on Don Roos’ The Other Woman starring Natalie Portman, his high school friend Dana O’Keefe, who was working at John Sloss’ Cinetic Media, got him in the door of that New York-based outfit.
“Sloss took pity on me and offered me a job and I took a massive pay cut for a major education,” says Schwarzman, who began running the finance packaging part of Cinetic. While there, he “read every script they had on their server and all the legal documents that weren’t confidential” so he could understand the business and creative sides of the business more fully. While there he helped put together a raft of indie projects including Richard Linklater’s Bernie, starring Matthew McConaughey (the latter of whom Black Bear would end up working with on Gold and upcoming The Rivals of Amziah King).
After nearly three years at Cinetic and learning the inner machinations of the indie film production and finance game, Schwarzman saw an opportunity in the marketplace. He left with Ben Stillman to set up Black Bear Pictures in January 2011 (Stillman stepped down from Black Bear last year after 11 years). The company’s current partner and Head of Operations, Michael Heimler, joined in 2013.
“We wanted to do something that we thought could add a level of passion, professionalism and rigor by betting on great filmmakers, really strong material and character-centric content, in a fiscally responsible way, despite an industry that is incredibly unpredictable,” Schwarzman says.
Black Bear Pictures launched with two smaller indies — At Any Price, which it produced with Killer Films, and family dramedy A.C.O.D., the former of which Schwarzman says was “a great crash course in production” — before investing in the Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe starrer Broken City, an investment he notes “helped propel the company forward.” The company produced and financed JC Chandor’s sophomore feature film All Is Lost, starring Robert Redford, following the director’s 2011 debut Margin Call. Then came its big break: In 2013, a project called The Imitation Game, based on the British mathematician Alan Turing who was responsible for breaking the Nazi Enigma code during World War II, fell out of Warner Bros. Black Bear was able to quickly step in and came to the project’s writer Graham Moore and producers Nora Grossman and Ido Ostrowsky with a plan of how to make it.
“We felt it was imperative to make it in the UK with a British actor and an all-British cast and be as true to the idea of the story of Alan Turing as we could be,” says Schwarzman. “We recognize that it was written by an American and had American producers on it, but we wanted to make sure that there was a strong British nexus.”
The film, which went on to star Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, Keira Knightley, and was directed by Headhunters helmer Morten Tyldum, went on to earn nearly $240 million worldwide and earned eight Oscar nominations, including a win for Adapted Screenplay.
“For us, it was a wonderful validation of the taste and professionalism and diligence that we had been trying to bring to the company, though no one can ever predict whether you’re going to have a film that works,” Schwarzman says.
At the time, Schwarzman had been eyeing up distribution opportunities in Europe before he was introduced to former eOne execs Laurie May and Noah Segal who were keen to set up distribution in Canada after the merger of Alliance Films and eOne. “I loved the idea of being so close to U.S. distribution without having to put out what would be ten times the amount of capital,” says Schwarzman. “We would learn the business of distribution and see how distributors are thinking about the films that we are actually making and hopefully it would make us better at producing our own films by understanding how they are monetized.”
Elevation Pictures was born in 2013 and The Imitation Game became the first release for the Canadian distributor. The initial idea was to release 25 films per year, but that has grown to 35-40 films per year, making it the Canadian market’s biggest distributor. Last year, films on its release slate garnered 20 Oscar nominations.
Black Bear then started to look at other areas of potential growth and synergy, and as theatrical distribution began to be disrupted by the streaming giants, it turned its head towards international sales and management.
“To be honest, I didn’t imagine we’d do both,” says Schwarzman.
As Elevation grew, Black Bear had forged a close relationship with Friedberg, who had been running the international sales arm of STX in the UK, and the two would often talk about how they could do more business together. Friedberg sold Black Bear titles I Care a Lot, which earned Rosamund Pike a Golden Globe for Best Actress, and Neil Burger’s The Marsh King’s Daughter.
“John was incredible at selling our Black Bear films, despite the fact that he had bigger titles at STX and other priorities,” says Schwarzman. “But he always maximized the value of our films in ways that were greater than we had imagined while still allowing us to retain real upside should those films perform.”
Black Bear then entered a multi-year output with STX International in exchange for STX’s U.S. distribution arm subbing Canadian distribution rights to Elevation. “There were wins on both sides because we were helping support STX releases and they were picking up sales revenue from our titles,” says Schwarzman.
When STX restructured, Schwarzman seized the opportunity to bring Friedberg and some of his team in-house, launching Black Bear International at Cannes in 2022. The outfit is arguably one of the most prominent players in the international sales arena, consistently bringing big packages to market. In addition to Black Bear’s production slate, it’s handled third party-sales for projects such as Guy Ritchie’s The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Nicolas Cage starrer Longlegs, Daisy Edgar-Jones starrer On Swift Horses and many more. At the American Film Market earlier this month, the company launched five new titles including Ritchie’s latest untitled action project with Henry Cavill and Jake Gyllenhaal.
While Schwarzman admits they hadn’t been thinking of growing theatrical distribution, when the opportunity came to take on STX’s UK distribution team, it seemed like a good next step for the company. “The UK is definitively a difficult market – not due to audience interest – because I think it’s got a highly sophisticated, highly film-literate audience but the economics in the UK are tricky when the theatrical settlement rate is so low and one of the lowest in the world [independent distributors can expect to take just 28% of box office earnings]. This means your P&A is much riskier there than it would be in any other territory.”
But for Schwarzman, it was a compelling prospect to build a company that would look at releasing films in a meaningful way, with appropriate price points on content they believed could really break through the market.
GameStop short squeeze drama Dumb Money, says Schwarzman, felt like the right film to kick off the UK theatrical banner. It was a film, he says, that started in a similar way to The Imitation Game in that it was originally developed at MGM before falling out of the company after Amazon acquired the studio. Schwarzman stepped in to finance the movie, which was written by former Wall Street Journal reporters Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo based on Ben Mezrich’s novel The Antisocial Network.
Says Schwarzman of the script: “It was entertaining, irreverent, but incredibly human. At the same time, it was telling what on the surface seemed like a complex, financially minded story but actually was the story of everyday workers who had been isolated and somewhat lost during the unique time that was the pandemic and found a way through social media and technology to find each other and find a voice.”
The film, while critically a success, didn’t hit the mark in the UK, taking $1.6 million across a wide 560-print release, but Schwarzman is confident in the company’s upcoming UK slate that includes Black Bear productions and third-party projects such as Michael Mann’s Ferrari in the UK in December, Ed Berger’s Conclave, Ritchie’s untitled actioner and Black Bear productions Relay with Riz Ahmed and Lily James, McConaughey starrer Rivals of Amziah King and Sing Sing.
Management and docs
Anonymous Content veteran Keith Redmon and former ICM agent Joanne Roberts Wiles head up Black Bear’s growing management division, a strand of the business that Schwarzman had always felt would be a natural step for a company that invests heavily in its relationships with writers and directors.
“I liked the idea of getting more immersed in both the successes and problems of creators, writers and directors and try and take the infinite amount of data that comes through our production expertise, our distribution knowledge, our sales apparatus and our creative acumen, to try and help make the process and help guide the careers of some really incredible artists.”
It’s a bespoke approach the company is taking and with Redmon and Wiles as linchpins, the company has slowly begun to build a team with “the thesis of starting global in order to come back to English language.” The company manages a stellar roster of international talent with more than 100 clients on the books including The White Lotus breakout star Simona Tabasco, The Teachers’ Lounge director Ilker Çatak, directors Tyldum and John Hillcoat, The Power of the Dog’s Kodi Smit-McPhee, Godland’s Elliott C. Hove, Yellowjackets’ Karyn Kusama, Rye Lane’s Raine Allen-Miller, Chernobyl‘s Johan Renck and Cha Cha Real Smooth‘s Cooper Raiff.
“The idea is to make sure we understand and can meet clients where they’re coming from rather than just trying to tell them how it works here [in the U.S.] because many people have tried to be jammed into a system that is very different than the system that they’re used to and I think starting from an area of cultural sensitivity to understand what makes them thrive, will then allow us to provide the strongest advice,” says Schwarzman.
Last year, Black Bear Pictures and New Regency Pictures formed joint-venture outfit Double Agent to produce and finance premium non-fiction content, headed up by old friend O’Keefe. For Schwarzman, it’s nice to come full-circle with his former Cinetic colleague.
“Dana and I conspired many times over the last 15 years how we could collaborate and when,” he says. “As Black Bear started to grow, we saw the proliferation of documentaries and docu series and audiences finally embracing that medium. Setting up Double Agent with Dana at the helm just made sense given the strong friendships that existed between us all.”
Double Agent is currently producing Alex Gibney’s latest documentary Musk about Elon Musk, which pre-sold to HBO for North American streaming and TV rights, as well as Asif Kapadia’s 2073 with Neon and Film4. It’s also producing The Man Will Burn, a docuseries about the Burning Man festival.
“I’m a firm believer in building businesses based on people and allowing people to do their best work by feeling fully supported and, ideally, finding areas of complimentary overlap,” Schwarzman says. “At Black Bear, culturally, we all click very well and we are passionate about what we do. We’re in direct communications about what is working and what’s not, where we see opportunities and where we don’t, why something works, why it doesn’t. And I would say we all live and breathe what we do.”