Swiss film producers and financiers Karl Spoerri and Viviana Vezzani have been Sundance regulars for more than 15 years, but this edition is special.
The pair, who were driving forces behind the Zurich Film Festival (ZFF) up until 2019, are in Park City this year with Thelma, which is the first feature from their new company Zurich Avenue to make it into Sundance.
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Josh Margolin’s action-comedy-drama, starring 94-year-old June Squibb as a L.A. grandmother who sets off on a friend’s mobility scooter on a mission to track down an Internet scammer, is proving one of the early hits of the festival.
“On a personal level, it’s very meaningful because Sundance was always a big influence for us at the Zurich Film Festival from the start,” says Vezzani.
“We always loved going as programmers so getting Thelma accepted at Sundance was a dream come true.”
Former ZFF co-founder and artistic director Spoerri recalls their first trip to Sundance in 2008 as also being memorable because it was where they fired off an email to Oliver Stone asking whether be interested in financing for W out of Zurich.
“It was a key moment. We were in the fourth year of the Zurich Film Festival and starting to move into production financing,” he says of their first push into film producing and financing under the banner of Millbrook Pictures from 2008 to 2011.
Having spearheaded ZFF over the course of 14 years, the pair resigned from the festival in 2019.
They announced the launch of Zurich and L.A.-based development and production company Zurich Avenue in 2022, specializing in developing and creating high-end, filmmaker-driven feature films, TV series and documentaries with international potential.
Alongside Thelma, its credits to date include Bill Pohlad’s Dreamin’ Wild, and Coky Giedroyc’s Greatest Days.
Dreamin’ Wild, starring Casey Affleck, Zooey Deschanel and Beau Bridges, world premiered in Venice in 2022 and was released by Roadside Attractions in the U.S. last summer. Greatest Days is the big-screen adaptation of the UK smash-hit musical The Band, with Aisling Bea and music from Take That.
The company also co-developed Netflix feature Nyad, starring Jodie Foster and Annette Bening, with Black Bear Pictures.
Vezzani says of the U.S. connection: “We both love North America, Canada and the U.S., and just spend a lot of time there. We also share a great love for American cinema and the tradition of American cinema. So, I think that influences a lot of where we look to for collaborations and projects.”
Zurich Avenue fully financed Thelma via its Swiss finance entity SPG Three, backed by private Swiss investors.
Spoerri first started connecting private equity with film while building the Zurich Film Festival, which launched in 2005 without public money.
“It had no public funding for many years which is why we started off very small, but we went on to raise a tonne of money from private sponsors. We were always trying to bring private money to film,” he says.
“After three, four years, when the festival really started to grow, we were also able to attract some public money but to this day, I would say, 80% is private money and 20% is public money. When we left the festival in 2019, 90% was private money and we’re talking about a festival with a $10M budget. So, there was a lot of private money.”
He adds that Zurich Avenue will not fully finance every project it boards, with the company figuring out the mix of finance on a project-by-project basis.
Zurich Avenue connected with Thelma – lead produced by Zoë Worth and Chris Kaye at L.A.-based production company Bandwagon – via CAA Media Finance.
Spoerri and Vezzani forged strong connections with CAA Media Finance’s Roeg Sutherland and Benjamin Kramer, after inviting them to one of the early editions of ZFF’s film finance focused Zurich Summit. The pair have been regular attendees ever since.
“We have a great relationship with CAA, so we look at what they send us,” says Vezzani. “Thelma was maybe the quickest decision we’ve ever made. We were in L.A. We saw the script and met the team, and it was like instant.
“We do say, if it doesn’t scream ‘yes’, then it’s a ‘no’. I don’t say we always go by that. We’ve had projects where we maybe didn’t listen to our gut feeling 100% but on Thelma that was definitely the case.”
Vezzani suggests further future collaborations could be cooking with the Thelma team, which also includes producers Nicholas Weinstock and Benjamin Simpson.
“We try to focus on long term partnerships. When you have a partnership with somebody that is successful on all levels, then I think it’s natural to want to focus on those and try to collaborate on more things.
“I know some people like to go to festivals and take meetings from 8.30 in the morning to 10 at night but that’s not the way we normally like to do things,” she adds.
As Thelma hits the festival circuit at Sundance, where the movie is looking for distribution via CAA Media Finance, Spoerri and Vezzani are now doubling down on their development slate after the Hollywood strikes hiatus.
Projects include Sigal Avin’s psychological thriller A Perfect Marriage, produced by Patrick Wachsberger and Ashley Stern at Picture Perfect Federation.
“We’re about to get a new draft from Sigal,” says Spoerri, adding that development activity is finally picking up again.
Further previously announced projects include Robert Schwentke finance world drama Bad Company, about the real-life collapse of German electronic payment specialist Wirecard, and So Happy For You, based on Celia Laskey’s best-selling novel exploring female friendship through the prism of a wedding party.
The company is also developing its first TV series Hansen, based on the Hansen Family Saga books by German writer Ellin Carsta about the fortunes of a 19th Century coffee importing family, set in Hamburg, Vienna and Cameroon.
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