On the eve of Sundance Film Festival’s kickoff, Nick Shumaker — the New York-based boss of AC Independent, the sales and finance division of Anonymous Content (“Spotlight”) — is feeling celebratory. The banner will celebrate its first birthday with five movies playing in Park City: “Kneecap” (pictured above), “Between the Temples,” “War Game,” “Union” and “Handling the Undead.”
Within a year, AC Independent has become a force in the indie film landscape, handling sales and financing for some major projects, such as Alex Gibney’s “Musk,” “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon” as well as the U.K. rights for A24’s “Talk to Me” and the recent Golden Globe-winning animated film “The Boy and the Heron.”
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Shumaker, a former agent at UTA, talked to Variety about the company’s international DNA, his hopes for the theatrical market and optimism about the resilience of independent film — as illustrated by the success of “The Boy and the Heron,” which just scored a BAFTA nom, as well as Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall.”
You’re going into Sundance with five films including “Kneecap,” “Between the Temples” and “War Game.” Do you anticipate a busy market in terms of deals after a quiet AFM?
For films that are unique and have audience reach, there is a market. Budgets, as always, are a huge factor, and by proxy producer fees. But after the theatrical successes of the last six months, from Italy to France to the U.K. and the U.S., I believe thought-provoking, non-algorithm-based films will continue to find a home, especially those that are strong enough to reach across the Atlantic, Pacific and beyond.
How do you see the market post-strikes?
The target has become more refined but that’s always the case. I believe we have seen a modest rebound in theatrical cinema, but the voice of the auteur needs to be compelling, original and thought-provoking. The territorial success of discovery films like “Aftersun” are as important as the mini-major independents like “Poor Things,” “Saltburn” and “Past Lives.” It’s great to see films like “Anatomy of a Fall” and “Zone of Interest” continue to find theatrical audiences around the world, while seeing boutique companies like GKIDS reach new box office heights, while new players like Mubi expand their theatrical interests.
Streamers have scaled down their acquisitions. How has that impacted you? What’s your take on the future of theatrical for indie movies like the ones AC is handling?
I see a theatrical rebound in the independent sector that’s being led by a younger generation, which is wonderful to see and admittedly humbling to us older folks. The optimist in me sees my 17-year-old daughter going to the cinema more with her friends as a natural response to the pandemic – cinema as an art revolves around discussion and not cell phone checks, bathroom breaks, short term memory and isolation. Windows will change in terms of how we view, and the theatrical exhibitors need to adjust accordingly. This will take time.
As it relates to streamers, it can be tougher to factor them into our models because their mandates seem to shift regularly. So of course we will continue to work with them, but it’s a bit more challenging to predict what they’re after filmwise.
Do you see the titles in your Sundance slate as theatrical movies?
Yes, I believe these films can exist theatrically and excel. The rollouts can be different, which alone is exciting, but they are films that should marinate with audiences and provoke dialogue well after their first play. Our pre-sold film, “Handling the Undead,” will receive a theatrical rollout with Neon.
You’ve just turned a year old, so it’s time to look back. Why did you decide from the start to have this international focus, rather have a U.S.-centric approach?
In many ways, we are a filmmaker-focused company that has always staked out international partnerships — and my acumen gravitates in that direction. International opportunities are natural to us and our risk can be managed in a more tenable way, while still being able to support the creative needs of a team, with films that can travel internationally — be it territory by territory or in all-rights deals. I believe this has been reflected in our nascent lineup at Sundance from last year that saw “Scrapper” win the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, “Upon Entry” to get a slew of Spirit Awards nominations, “Boy and the Heron” to earn a BAFTA nomination and to take to brass at the Globes, to our current internationally diverse lineup. As always, we are humbled daily by the directors and creatives that we work with.
How have you been able to access these high-profile international projects?
My personal experience is largely in the international space, so a lot of it is continuing to build upon existing relationships, and lots of travel. That’s augmented by trusting our partners and a mutual willingness to bet that these films will discover parched audiences. We have explored new markets in the last 12 months, from French animated films to acquisitions in the U.K. Ultimately, the investment is about the opportunity, and there needs to be a shared incentive on both sides of the table.
What targeted investments have you made and how have you been making those decisions?
In the last year, we’ve invested or are closing deals on several new films, some of which will be announced as soon as EFM. They range from European narrative co-productions to director-driven nonfiction. When we assess a project, be it nonfiction or narrative, it largely comes down to the business plan and the team, from director to sales. But it’s not purely about numbers — we need to feel impassioned by the filmmakers while keeping in mind their place in the market. We need to responsibly trust our gut. At Sundance, we have three films that we have co-financed or executive produced, and two that we are acting purely in a sales capacity.
What have you learned in 2023?
I’ve learned to continue to think outside of the box and not to be complacent. 2023 really reinforced the idea of staying curious and keeping your eyes open. I would have never thought that we would co-acquire U.K. rights to “The Boy and the Heron,” one of the more important films of the year, or invested in the marketing costs for “Talk to Me. It has been invigorating to see that teamwork grow across borders, which has always been a staple of Anonymous. Finally, listening to the younger generation and treating their opinions as more than equal is essential. Our fingers always strive to be on the pulse – theirs is often just on a different part of it that sheds light on the future as opposed to just replicating the past.
What do you expect in the next year?
I expect my posture to improve from holding my cell phone in a way advised by the best concierge doctors in Zurich. I expect that to alleviate my neck pain. I expect a resurgence in independent voices and different models for those voices to find homes, despite confusion from the streamers.
For AC Independent, I’m very excited by our growing slate of third-party and AC Studios-produced films. We have a robust slate of narrative films from around the world ranging from directors like Zyganitsev and Slaboshpytski to the English-language debuts of several up-and-coming and established European directors which will soon be announced and are ready to be introduced to partners worldwide. t really demonstrates the machine of Anonymous working effectively, from David Levine’s development slate to David Davoli’s expanding joint ventures, as well as our managers, who remain an amazing source for top shelf material. I also am excited to see “Kneecap” live in concert this week – possibly twice!
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