Most studios have struggled to keep high-level productions free of COVID-19 in the past year: Blockbusters such as “Mission: Impossible 7” and “The Batman” periodically paused as a result of positive cases. But AGC Studios and Centropolis’ sci-fi thriller “Moonfall” — one of the most expensive indie pics in years, with a budget of $140 million (second only to Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”) — has been wholly shot during the pandemic without any setbacks.
Directed by Roland Emmerich (“The Day After Tomorrow,” “Independence Day”) and starring Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson, “Moonfall” follows a ragtag team’s mission into space to prevent the moon, knocked off its orbit by an unknown force, from a nasty collision course with Earth. U.S. distributor Lionsgate recently set a Feb. 4 release date, and AGC will preview early material at the Cannes virtual market in late June.
“It’s fantastic for independent distributors to have a movie of that scale delivering in 2021, as most independently financed films of any size [face] a roadblock because of the insurance and the financial implications of that,” says AGC Studios boss Stuart Ford, speaking of the effects of the pandemic. “For [a big movie] to power through is tremendously encouraging.”
The former IM Global executive founded AGC Studios in 2018, with backing from Latin American private asset management firm MediaNet, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Greg Clark and Image Nation Abu Dhabi. Recent projects include “Midway” and “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” with heavy hitters such as “Moonfall” in the pipeline. More than 130 film and TV projects are in active development, and the studio has a 20-title slate, including Sylvester Stallone-starring “Little America” and Brad Peyton’s “Universe’s Most Wanted,” to woo buyers. (For more slate highlights, see below.)
Delivering “Moonfall” on time during the pandemic was a vast undertaking but of utmost importance for stakeholders, including AGC, China’s Huayi Brothers, CAA, Lionsgate and producers Centropolis and Street Entertainment. The film’s COVID costs alone amounted to $7 million-$8 million, which is around 5% of its budget.
Nonetheless, it’s projects of that scale that distributors are increasingly looking for in order to draw audiences back to movie theaters, says Ford. “The pandemic has accelerated the trend of a ‘flight to quality,’” he says. “The room for nontheatrical films in the marketplace, or even films that might have been termed as ‘programmers,’ are being squeezed further and further. And for most of these distributors, in order for the theatrical release to make economic sense, they need it to perform and be something of an event.”
AGC Studios aims to have control over its output by self-financing a significant portion of the pipeline, as well as diversifying the slate and devoting equal resources to independent films, streaming films, scripted and unscripted television and nonfiction content. “What became apparent in 2020 was that certain components of that pipeline were more viable than others in the short term,” says Ford.
More intricately financed projects went on the back burner, and the onus was put on movies funded through the studio’s cash reserves that could bypass some of the more cumbersome insurance and completion bond requirements.
“We made films like ‘Locked Down’ with Doug Liman and ‘Demon’ with Neil Blomkamp, effectively by funding them with cash and taking a leap of faith that the finished product would sell,” says Ford. Other projects on the slate have gone to streamers like Netflix (Gabrielle Union-fronted “The Perfect Find” and Simon Leviev doc series “The Tinder Swindler”) and Amazon (Spanish-language miniseries “News of a Kidnapping,” dating show “Love on Deck” and Kelly Rowland-produced dance comedy “Stand Battle”), which don’t incur the same insurance headaches, as well as documentary projects, which have more modest budgets.
AGC’s ability to self-fund is crucial, says Ford, “because it gave [us] some control over [our] destiny from an output perspective, at a time when our Hollywood peers were waiting till production could ramp up again, but also in terms of the asset value of the business because making films for streamers is great for momentum and cash flow … but generating self-ownership is very important.”
Going into Cannes, the presales market remains more vital than ever. While huge plays such as Apple’s $25 million deal for Sundance hit “CODA” raised eyebrows when it undermined the film’s existing international presales, Ford says the industry must take pains not to “erode” the independent presales market.
“In just over a week in Cannes [in 2019], AGC and CAA laid the foundations to fully finance ‘Moonfall’ and globally distribute the finished product,” says Ford. “Whatever sector you compare that to, it constitutes swift, sophisticated business activity.
“As an industry and community, we mustn’t lose sight of that unique commercial strength or allow the inevitable competition between theatrical distributors and streamers to erode the sanctity of that area of the business.”
Highlights of the AGC Studios slate are below.
Titles in post-production:
Synopsis: Suddenly and without warning a mysterious force knocks the Moon from its orbit around Earth and sends it hurtling on a collision course with life as we know it. With mere weeks before impact, and against all odds, a ragtag team launches an impossible last-ditch mission into space, leaving behind everyone they love and risking everything to land on the lunar surface, unlock its secrets, and save our planet from annihilation. But first they must battle an unknown power that will challenge everything we know about the moon, the universe, and ourselves. MOONFALL is the first battle waged by humanity against a seemingly unstoppable enemy, unlocking a mystery of cosmic proportions.
Director: Roland Emmerich
Producers: Centropolis, Street Entertainment
Cast: Halle Berry, Patrick Wilson, Michael Peña, Donald Sutherland
U.S. distributor: Lionsgate Films
Synopsis: A story inspired by the largest counterfeit coupon caper in the history of the U.S. Connie & Jojo are two BFF housewives in suburban Phoenix who stumble upon a scheme to counterfeit coupons and create a $40 million cartel. When a SWAT team busts their stash house, they find crates of assault rifles, high-end sports cars, and boxes of tampons stuffed with cash. QUEENPINS is a buddy comedy in the vein of The Heat, Superbad, and Bridesmaids, set in the absurd world of extreme couponing.
Directors: Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly
Producers: AGC Studios, Red Hour Entertainment
Cast: Kristen Bell, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Vince Vaughn, Paul Walter Hauser, Joel McHale, Bebe Rexha
U.S. distributor: STX Films
Genre: Supernatural Horror
Synopsis: In DEMONIC, a young woman unleashes terrifying demons when supernatural forces at the root of a decades old rift between mother and daughter are ruthlessly revealed in this horror-thriller from director Neill Blomkamp.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Producers: STABILITi Studios, AGC Studios
Cast: Carly Pope
U.S. distributor: IFC Films
The Perfect Find
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Synopsis: Based on the best-selling book by Tia Williams (The Accidental Diva). Jenna Jones (Union) is desperate to have a fresh start in the world of beauty journalism, and takes the only job available to her at a magazine where her boss is her frenemy, Darcy. Jenna finds herself struggling to keep up with her younger and more social media savvy co-workers while keeping Darcy happy. When Jenna starts a relationship with the company’s new videographer Eric (Powers), she thinks her life is finally turning around – until she finds out that Eric is Darcy’s son.
Director: Numa Perrier
Producers: AGC Studios, Codie Oliver
Cast: Gabrielle Union, Keith Powers
Worldwide distribution: Netflix
The Tinder Swindler
Synopsis: An investigation of the ongoing case of Shimon Hayut, alias Simon Leviev, who seduced and swindled scores of young women out of millions of dollars. Other than a brief prison stay in Finland, Hayut has eluded justice despite being spotted throughout Europe with an entourage that includes a personal assistant, a secretary, and a bodyguard.
Producers: Gaspin Media, AGC Studios, Raw
Worldwide distribution: Netflix
News of a Kidnapping
Synopsis: A prestige Spanish-language mini-series adapted from one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s most powerful works tells the story of 10 Colombian men and women who are kidnapped by the Medellín drug boss Pablo Escobar in 1990 and used as a bargaining chip in the larger war on drugs.
Director: Andres Wood
Producers: AGC Television
Cast: Cristina Umaña, Juan Pablo Raba, Julieth Restrepo, Constanza Duque, Brandon Figueredo, Majida Issa, Helena Mallarino.
Worldwide distribution: Amazon Studios
Genre: Crime Thriller
Synopsis: Fleeing a botched jewelry heist, a criminal gang hide out in a beachside estate where two women live. This is a hothouse filled with secrets, betrayal and desire — all of which will come to the surface as the gang awaits their fate.
Director: Sebastian Guiterrez
Producers: AGC Television
Cast: Carla Gugino, Ana de la Reguera, Philip Winchester, Amelia Eve, Gaite Jansen, Gentry White, Nora Arnezeder, Margot Bingham
War of the Worlds S2
Genre: Sci-fi Thriller
Synopsis: When astronomers detect a transmission from another galaxy, it is definitive proof of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Within days, mankind is all but wiped out; just pockets of humanity are left in an eerily deserted world.
Directors: Gilles Coulier, Richard Clark
Producers: Urban Myth, Studio Canal, AGC Television
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Lea Drucker
Titles in pre-production:
Universe’s Most Wanted
Genre: Sci-fi Adventure
Synopsis: A small town is in for a big surprise – and a fight for the world’s survival – when a space ship carrying the universe’s most wanted and dangerous criminals crash lands in their backyard. Soon the sheriff’s son becomes a hero when he finds himself helping an intergalactic peacekeeper to keep the ragtag group of alien prisoners from escaping and taking over the world.
Director: Brad Peyton
Producer: AGC Studios
Cast: Dave Bautista
Start date: October 2021
Synopsis: The year is 2028. America as we know it has become bankrupt; many of its citizens have fled overseas to urban metropolises like Hong Kong where “refugees” live in a walled off city within-a-city, alive with bogus chain stores, neon signs and rock music – and other recreated sights and sounds from home. Against this backdrop, a Chinese billionaire hires a former American Force Recon member to rescue his daughter from the neighborhood known as LITTLE AMERICA.
Director: Rowan Athale
Producers: Balboa Productions, AGC Studios
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Celina Jade
Start date: September 2021