CinemaCon Passepartout Award: Rebecca Kearey, Head of International & Business Operations, Searchlight Pictures

Rebecca Kearey, the winner of this year’s CinemaCon Passepartout Award, has played a major role in Searchlight Pictures’ transformation into a powerhouse of art house film. The domestic distributor of five Best Picture Oscar winners so far this century, Searchlight has Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things in the running at this year’s ceremony.

Searchlight helps bold ideas and filmmakers break through to the mainstream moviegoer. This was particularly important during the pandemic recovery, when there was uncertainty about whether moviegoers would return to the cinema for low- and mid-budget films. The last few months have made Kearey hopeful on that front: She notes that 2024 is the first year since the pandemic that “the audience is coming back and seeing these movies and willing to engage more.”

In advance of CinemaCon, Kearey spoke with Boxoffice Pro about the evolution of the art house marketplace, both domestically and abroad.

At Searchlight, being on the art house side, your films often push more boundaries than those that come out from a larger, more mainstream studio. How does that affect the international release of these films? I’m thinking particularly of Poor Things, which has a lot of graphic content that definitely earned it that R rating.

Different territories react very differently to different kinds of movies; for Poor Things, in particular, obviously there are some markets we’re not releasing [it in, like] the Middle East or Southeast Asia. And then, different cultural touchpoints work well for certain movies and not for others.

We started our campaign for Poor Things at the Venice Film Festival. It went on to win the Golden Lion, which was phenomenal. The Italian press at Venice were very, very positive about the movie. As were all the press—we came out of that festival with great reviews. It’s overperformed in Italy. It’s been number one at the box office for three weeks in a row. It’s overperformed in Greece, Yorgos’ own country. Latin America has been phenomenal: Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and all of the other countries in Latin America have done really well with it.

[It has] this sort of Southern European, Latin sensibility, in a way, where it [presents] this artificial world-building that really clicks. It’s not like London could ever have produced Salvador Dalí, right? It’s imagination, the fantastical creation, the really deeply creative side of this film that’s really clicked in certain markets. So it’s doing really, really well everywhere.

Comedies, in particular, can be a tough sell for international audiences.

I would say that sharp humor, anything that you would consider black comedy or anything satirical tends to work well internationally. [Lanthimos’ 2018 film] The Favourite did well internationally, and obviously the U.K. was huge on it. The harder sell, internationally, is mainstream, perhaps “American” comedy, which is a lot tougher. That works well in Australia and the U.K., but it’s harder to translate as you go further afield.

What have been the challenges of marketing Searchlight titles internationally over the last year? You had the strikes preventing talent from doing promotional appearances, and marketing teams and budgets have taken a hit across the industry.

Marketing teams have been cut—there’s [been] consolidation amongst the studios, and probably the streamers, too. I noticed that American Fiction [from Amazon MGM Studios] isn’t even dated for [international theatrical] release, outside the U.K, as far as I can see. The same with [Amazon MGM Studios’] Saltburn. That was [released internationally in] the U.K. and Australia only. Those films aren’t being theatrically released across Europe. That’s not great from a theatrical perspective, because those are really interesting movies that I’m sure there is a theatrical audience for out there in other territories.

Obviously, festivals are very, very important for us in the U.S. as well as internationally. The bigger ones still attract national and international press, the big outlets that we need to report on the movies and review the films. Starting in Venice was key for us [with Poor Things]. After Venice, and into release [in late December to January], we took the film to 40-plus international film festivals [in order to] keep everything alive in terms of the profile of the film [and] getting local Academy members to watch it on the big screen first, just to make sure that we’re creating as all-encompassing a theatrical a big screen environment for the movie as possible. Local festivals allow us to do that.

We put out trailer materials ahead of Venice, and then obviously we had the SAG strike, so we were going into Venice without our actors. We wanted to make sure that we were creating materials where [star Emma Stone] got the chance to speak as the producer and the lead, because she wasn’t going to be able to be there. [Searchlight Pictures released a trailer featuring Stone, as herself, speaking about the importance of the character of Bella Baxter to her.] Those kinds of materials were very important in the run-up to showcasing the movie at Venice. That dictated the follow-through as well, because the strike didn’t end as quickly as we wanted it to or thought it might, so we were in the position of working with limited materials involving our actors from there on in.

Again, the local films and the ground game are incredibly important to us. You’ve seen the film; it has incredible scope. We had heads of department who were out there helping us pitch the movie in as many different ways as possible. They were in Venice, then later at the London Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. We used the tools that we had for press. We were in this strange environment where we didn’t have actors who were able to talk about their acting in the movie, so press really bandied around the technical crafts. It just so happens that Poor Things fires on all cylinders when it comes to technical crafts. It was a unique and strange environment, but it actually worked really well for Poor Things.

We did an interview with Frank Rodriguez back when he was head of distribution at Searchlight, and he spoke about the importance of awards season and Searchlight’s general ethos, as well. [Late last year, Rodriguez moved to the position of general sales manager at Amazon MGM Studios.]

Totally. [Award season] is a little bit of an industrial complex, but it does elevate movies that don’t have $200 million marketing campaigns stacked against them—or even $150 million marketing campaigns. It allows us to work publicity and gives us multiple opportunities to recognize what’s great about these movies in a way that a huge blockbuster Hollywood movie can do in a weekend. Our lifting is longer, and harder; it’s almost like a collaboration with the press. [We have] a really great relationship with press when it comes to awards season, because [it lets you] promote all of these fantastic things about these movies, not just in trade press but also in consumer press, which ticks a lot of boxes for people who aren’t paying attention to the trades, because why would they? They’re regular cinemagoers who maybe read something in USA Today or The New York Times or The L.A. Times or BuzzFeed or whatever it is that they’re watching and reading. Award season gives us multiple chances to get to a general cinemagoer, which is great for us.

That’s particularly important for movies like Slumdog Millionaire or The Shape of Water, both Best Pictures Oscar winners for Searchlight that didn’t have A-list stars at the helm. You can still get some of those bolder ideas out in front of people.

I see that as our job, in a way. Our job as art house distributors and independent distributors in the U.S. and internationally is to bring people out, to break movies out that don’t necessarily look like they’re blockbuster movies on paper and to get as wide an audience as possible for these films. And also to start or further careers for people. The most sort of satisfying element of this job is to introduce a casual moviegoer to a movie that they might not have even heard of, and [then to] get them to start coming back to these art house movies.

You were there at the very beginning of Searchlight, right? What’s your career journey been like?

Exactly. Searchlight started in ‘94, and its first release [Edward Burns’ The Brothers McMullen] was in ‘95. I came on as an assistant marketing coordinator in ‘95. There were probably seven people at the company at that point. It had been started by Tom Rothman, and we were based on the Fox lot in L.A.

I had done a graduate degree at the University of Southern California, and my working visa ran out after a year and a half. I had two choices: Stay and get another job for a company that would sponsor me, or go back to the U.K. At the time, we were working on some really great British movies—or movies with big British elements to them, like [Bernardo] Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty—and one of the producers on that film, Jeremy Thomas, said that the U.K. is about to get this lottery financing into the film industry, so if you were thinking of going back, this was a really good time because there was about to be a production surge.

So I went back and became a film sales agent, which is a very different job from being in a studio. You’re really independent. You’re putting [the release of] films together, and you’re selling films to the international marketplace as well as the U.S. marketplace. You’re taking films to the markets and the festivals, creating materials, and then selling them to a Sony [Pictures] Classics or an IFC [Films] or Searchlight. We sold Bend it Like Beckham to Searchlight, for example.

Going from marketing at Searchlight to being a film sales agent must have required learning to speak a whole different language, in a way.

Right. What [a distributor’s] price points are. Who they have their pay TV deal with. What’s their backstop, and how much can they afford? Why isn’t Germany buying right now? Oh, it’s because the pay TV deals have all run out. You get a really great sense of the whole independent film, nonstudio marketplace.

And then, to cut a long story short, I ended up coming back [to the U.S.] and did another gig in L.A.. I ultimately came back to work for MGM/United Artists 19 years ago, when it was run by Chris McGurk. [I worked there] during their last year, before they sold to Sony in 2005. [After handing off MGM/UA’s marketing campaign to other studios], I went back to Searchlight. I started at Searchlight working on domestic marketing, and when I came back the second time I ended up running their international [marketing] for them.

You mention getting to know the entire independent cinema ecosystem. The festival scene is a huge part of that, and it’s changed so much since Searchlight was founded. There was a period where streaming outfits would drop a ton of money to acquire some of these art house films, though it feels like that’s tapered off a bit.

There was a 10-year patch—we’re still kind of in the tail end of that. A great example is when Amazon bought Manchester by the Sea at Sundance. It was a film that we absolutely loved, but we couldn’t compete on the price point for. Sundance is kind of the eye of the storm as a festival, because there are very few festivals where movies show up with the [worldwide distribution rights] available to buy. By the time you get to Cannes [in May], a lot of territories have been chipped off, because that’s the way some of those films get put together, with presales. Same thing in Venice. But Sundance really is one of the festivals where you can still find worldwide rights, or a lot of rights, still available. So it became a festival that was in the eye of the storm in terms of streamers [getting into film distribution].

You’d see an Amazon or an Apple come through and take something off the board really early on.

Overpaying, distorting the marketplace and working from a different set of financials from everybody else. We run numbers all day long, looking at revenue streams. What can justify an acquisition price here? What can justify a production price there?

But they have that big tech money.

When they really want to go for it, it’s pretty hard—almost impossible—to compete.

But you don’t know what they’re going to do with the film down the line: Are they going to put effort into marketing and releasing it in theaters? I’m reminded of Apple spending $25 million on CODA at Sundance. That one was barely put in theaters.

We’ve been through the cycle enough times now that filmmakers are aware of what that deal means for them.

If you’re a big-name director, they’re going to treat you well. If not …

Exactly. It’s a different equation for different folks. Covid put a few spanners in the works in terms of, will the theatrical marketplace ever come back? If you’re a filmmaker, the decision during Covid—or even just after Covid, when we were still trying to open back up—[to go into theaters had to consider the question of], Will anyone actually go? I felt for the first time this year that the marketplace for independent art house movies really did start coming back

There was a definite concern that people would get used to watching these mid- to low-budget films at home.

American Fiction, The Holdovers, Anatomy of a Fall: There are a number of movies that are smaller but still [earn a] decent gross. You’re starting to see the real shoots of this coming back, and I’m so relieved by that, because I think the conversation with filmmakers is now very different. [That period when there was] sort of a streaming arms race to overpay or to pay a lot of money for these movies—it was difficult for us. Then Covid was really challenging, and the theatrical comeback took some time. I feel like this year at least the audience is coming back and seeing these movies and willing to engage more. And you know what that means: They’re seeing trailers; they’re seeing art; they’re having conversations about what movies are coming up. It’s just a much healthier build.

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