The sweet smell of success

Anonymous Content Producer / Partner Michael Sugar gives the lowdown in Karlovy Vary.

by Richard Mowe

Michael Sugar: " I have to sell it - so I have to love it."
Michael Sugar: " I have to sell it - so I have to love it."

The production and management company Anonymous Content that has backed any number of films, directors and TV series (among them Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Wild at Heart, Winter's Bone, and HBO's True Detective, recent recipient of 12 Emmy nominations (*) and the upcoming The Knick, from Steven Soderbergh and starring Clive Owen) has been the subject of a special focus at Karlovy Vary.

Under the direction of its founder Steve Golin, the veteran producer behind Being John Malkovich, and producer and partner Michael Sugar, the company represents directors such as Richard Linklater, Marc Webb, Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, and actors including Emma Stone, Idris Elba, Samuel L Jackson, Robin Wright and Ryan Gosling, among many others.

Michael Sugar, talking in the splendiferous surrounds of Karlovy Vary’s Grand Hotel Pupp, gives an inside track on what makes the industry tick.

RM: How did the special Karlovy Vary focus come about?

MS: It is wonderful for us. We have sent many of our films and clients to the Festival over the years. I work primarily in talent management. And many of our film-makers have been here including Cary Fukunaga [of Sin Nombre and True Detective fame] who has attended several times. I have been trying to come for many years and then when they decided to give us this honour we could not refuse. What could be better?

RM: Was it a given that you would go in to the business – your father was a producer and a distributor?

MS: I have always wanted to make movies and tell stories. I was lucky as a child to come to Festivals like this because my father was selling films. I never thought about doing anything else but I went to law school with my mother hoping I might be a lawyer. That didn’t happen!

RM: Having seen it all from the inside were you not put off – because the hassles and frustrations of the business can be extreme?

MS: I was sheltered from the hassles because as a 12 year old I was sitting at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes sipping cokes and feeling pretty special. I was never that aware about the tensions although I did see the levels of stress that it could induce. I am very connected to film and I always have been. It was something I could not shake off so I went with the flow.

RM: What was it about the role of producer that attracted you rather than that of a writer or a director?

MS: As somebody who represents some of the finest directors and screenwriters in the world, I realised pretty quickly that I could not do what they do. But believe me, if I could do what Steven Soderbergh does I would do it. Producing for me is the closest I can come to the creative process. It combines the business aspect with the creative aspect and I really do enjoy that. It continues to be great fun, but we have taken chances on some projects that haven’t worked.

RM: So do you learn from your “mistakes”?

MS: Yes you do learn. We did a film called Rendition and I was very proud of it. It was about something that was important to me personally, but we found out from doing that film that you should not do something that is in the news. Audiences have had enough already. And then we followed that up with The Fifth Estate which did not perform well either, although I am also proud of it. I think the biggest mistake you can make in this business is to not pursue the things that matter. You hope you find an audience for anything that you do because it is so much work for so many people. You have to tell the stories that are screaming inside.

RM: In this multi-platform world where the way people consume films is ever changing and at such a fast pace do you regard that as a particular challenge?

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective
Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective

MS: It is a huge challenge for everybody. I think that the audience will find good writing, good content, and good stories come what may even if the way that audiences are consuming is changing the through-line remains quality. If you watch a video on You Tube that is different: it is not a product but it is a shared experience. In terms of the movies and television that we are trying to make it still needs the imprint of quality for it to penetrate to a larger audience regardless of the platform. So for us True Detective was a very transformative for our company and in some ways for the television business. We had never really explored television up to that point.

RM: Why did Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra only find an outlet on television in the States whereas it was released theatrically elsewhere?

MS: HBO, who were behind it, have been an extraordinary partner for us at Anonymous Content and our clients as well. Steven wants to tell stories that hit a big audience. Around 20 million people in the States saw the movie on HBO – there was no way that even in the best possible result theatrically would 20 million people see it. Let’s face it 20 million people see X-Men. Steven is one of the most extraordinary film-makers ever, but what is interesting he is always open to good ideas and he will embrace them.

RM: Why do you think he seems to have turned his back on making films for the cinema?

MS: I think Steven was concerned about the changing platforms and I think he had told all the stories he had wanted to tell in the medium of cinema and now he is telling stories on a new canvas with things like Candelabra and the new show The Knick with Clive Owen which is fantastic. And cinema is more challenging to find budgets.

RM: What are the projects that you are concerned with at the moment?

MS: Our company are preparing a film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy which will start in a few months. We are preparing a second season of True Detective and also a second season we hope of The Knick. We are about to start a film called Spotlight which is about the journalists on the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe who broke the story about the Church of New England and their cover-up about the molestation of many, many people. Tom McCarthy is directing that. We are also preparing Bastille Day with Idris Elba, an action film. And, of course, we are also active in commercials.

RM: Who are you most proud of having “discovered”?

MS: My early clients before they became as successful as they are now include Gavin Hood. He was my first client and the heart and soul of my career from way back. Now he is off making a new film, an international thriller, Eye In The Sky, with Helen Mirren and Colin Firth. Cary Fukunaga has been a constant since his first short film. Marc Webb who just finished Spiderman, and Michael Sucsy , whose first film was Grey Gardens and now The Vow were all nurtured along by us.

RM: How do you look at a project - from an audience’s point of view?

MS: I always try to look at an artist from the point of view of a fan first. I have to sell it so I have to love it. Some people don’t but I do. It is the difference between the best steak in a steakhouse that you go to and a piece of steak on an airplane. It is still steak but you know when it tastes different. When I saw Cary Fukunaga’s short film it had all the qualities of a fully produced film but in 15 minutes. For Gavin Hood it was the same with his first film The Storekeeper and Marc Webb was one of the top video directors in the world. It is also about how does the story translate in to Hollywood terms. I remember talking to the president of 20th Century Fox after Tsotsi when we were talking about Gavin doing X-Men Origins: Wolverine and we had to articulate why a guy who had directed a low budget movie like Tsotsi for three million dollars was capable and was the right choice to do a 200 million dollar movie. We just looked a the characters in that Tsotsi is very similar to Wolverine - a man suffering existential angst and I always try to find connective tissues. Mark Webb did the same moving from 500 days of Summer to Spiderman because in the case of Spiderman at its core it is the story of two young people finding love and what does that mean against circumstances that are bigger than they are. I try to find the through line. I believe a storyteller is a storyteller and the canvas is dictated by the story, not the other way round. You look at the greats such as Peter Jackson coming from Heavenly Creatures, Christopher Nolan coming from Memento and Steven Soderbergh coming from sex, lies, and videotape. I feel that one of the biggest hurdles of representatives working in Hollywood is to articulate to the people who spend the money why a certain director from one genre is right for another and my answer simply is that they are good. There are not that many great storytellers.

RM: Do you believe that festivals are important in the career of certain films?

MS: Absolutely – Tsotsi would not have had won an Academy Award if it had not been for the Toronto Film Festival – it just would not have been on the radar. It is really about feeling directly connected to the audience. That is the most important thing that Festivals do. I love seeing audiences embrace films and film-makers. Usually I am the minder so it is a novelty here in Karlovy Vary for me to have my own minder. It is a reminder of why when we go home and push another boulder up a hill of why we do this because there are certainly easier ways to make a living.

(*) True Detective has received 12 Emmy nominations today (10 July), including ones for Best Drama Series and for Best Actor in a drama series for both Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey.

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