At a rather subdued Berlinale in 2022, Emma Thompson was — as might be expected — one of the highlights. In town for a special gala screening of comedy drama Good Luck to You, Leo Grande alongside her co-star, newcomer Daryl McCormack, the actress was in typically upbeat spirits (and was even thanked by one reporter in the press conference for bringing the “party mood” to an otherwise party-less festival).
Leo Grande — which first premiered in Sundance just weeks earlier and came to Berlin for its European premiere — was a classic stripped-back COVID production, a uniquely told two-hander set almost entirely in a hotel room and following a widow who hires a sex worker to achieve her first orgasm.
A year on from its Berlin bow and, alongside a solid international box office (it was released on Hulu in the U.S.), Leo Grande has managed to keep its momentum going long enough to become an awards contender, and goes into this Sunday’s BAFTA ceremony with an impressive four nominations, including leading actor nods for both Thompson and McCormack (who also earned a Rising Star nomination).
For Alison Thompson and Mark Gooder, the industry vets behind Cornerstone Films, which sold Leo Grande, the feature was the perfect example of a project that brought something fresh and original to the market.
At Berlin this year, Cornerstone — based in London (Thompson) and L.A. (Gooder) and also behind the Australian indie distributor The Reset Collective — is launching three features it hopes will do the same — the Kate Moss biopic Moss & Freud (produced by the supermodel), revenge thriller The Prima Donna starring Toni Collette, and Irish drama Four Letters of Love starring Pierce Brosnan and Helena Bonham Carter.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Thompson and Gooder discuss working with Leo Grande writer Katy Brand on her next — and less lo-fi — film, how they’re getting closer to the IP thanks to a new creative partnership, and why they know as little about Mike Leigh’s super-secretive next project as anyone else (even though they’re the ones selling it).
For a film that first premiered over a year ago, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande has had a phenomenal run, getting four BAFTA nominations.
Alison Thompson: It’s great to see the film do so well, both in terms of its critical acclaim and the fact that this is a small film that’s done $13 million at the international box office. In today’s world, that’s a pretty decent number. And it totally over-indexed in our own little distribution company Reset in Australia, which is fantastic. It’s been a really lovely journey.
The BAFTA leading performance nominations for Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack must have been very nice surprises, or did you see them coming?
Thompson: You never know, but you always hope. Even in summer as the film was rolling out and there was a huge amount of love for it, you still never really knew how things were going to land. But this was a film that was released very early in the season and has managed to retain that momentum.
Leo Grande is basically two people in one room. Did its success show you what could be achieved with such a small-scale production?
Thompson: Absolutely. Yes, it was a COVID film so it was shot during 2021. But I think it just demonstrates, more than ever — and Mark and I talk about this constantly — that it’s about concept, its about having that marketing hook and something that audiences can immediately identify with, no matter what its genre. And that’s what Leo Grande did.
Mark Gooder: I think it points to the marketplace in general. You need to have ideas that have something to say, that have a fresh/original point of view, or they’ve shifted the point of view. That’s the key, because it lifts everything.
You’re working with Leo Grande writer Katy Brand on her next project, which is a road movie. Could you not convince her to do another film set in one room again?
Gooder: She was so done with just four walls.
You’ve got three fairly big-name projects launching in Berlin this time, which is a great show of confidence in the market after a rough few years.
Thompson: We feel the three all have a very distinct proposition to them as well, and we’re focused more than ever on that. We’re really pleased to have these three new titles — you have to work really, really hard for a very long time. The lead-in time now is longer than ever to get your ducks in a row and material market ready. So we’re frantically busy ourselves to get to that point. We’ll see how it goes. But we feel quite optimistic and upbeat about where we’ll land.
You recently announced a content management company GenStone with Leo Grande producer Genesius Pictures. What does that partnership give Cornerstone that you didn’t have before?
Gooder: Ultimately, it gives us more vertical integration and a closer proximity original intellectual property. So acquiring those rights and second stage development. We come across a lot of projects that have been developed, but from our perspective haven’t been developed enough. So if there’s a great idea embedded in the script, but it’s not ready, then we’re likely to say no to it. But we’ve never had the funds to be able to sort of contribute to the process at that point and move it to the place we feel it needs to be to get it to the marketplace. So GenStone is really taking an opportunity, finally, where we can come in earlier and roll up our sleeves. And that’s the exciting part of it. I think most companies need to be vertically integrated right now in order to have any success. This is an old model, but t’s a model that is more important now than ever before. You can’t function as a sales company just on your own in its own lane. It doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s not like we’re sitting there saying, ‘What do you want us to sell?’ We’re sitting there saying, ‘What can we bring to the marketplace?’
There’s been a noticeable shift toward genre films on your slate. You launched the spider horror Sting in Cannes last year, and have recent titles such as Unwelcome, Starve Acre and The Tank. Is moving to genre needed to get theatrical play, or does it help guarantee ancillary sales?
Thompson: We’re not alone in this of course. If you look at this year’s EFM and the projects that have been announced, there are lots of genre movies for sale. But that’s because we all gravitate towards a space that we feel can work, and the genre space has been comparatively successful over the last two or three years and during the COVID period. And genre movies work very well in the ancillary space as well. A lot of them actually don’t need the kind of P&A spend that you need to apply to a different kinds of movie with movie stars.
Gooder: I think the key is the talent. The model to put a genre film together is a strong script and very sellable idea. You don’t need a cast. So your financial model doesn’t suffer from trying to land someone and waiting. And for Sting, it was shot on a stage in Sydney as an American movie. It’s set in Brooklyn. But it was an Australian filmmaker so therefore it got the offset. It also managed to get investment from Screen Australian as an Australian film. So when you put all that together it’s a very attractive financing model.
You launched Cornerstone in 2015, which feels like a lifetime ago now. What has changed in the industry and the way you work since then?
Gooder: People don’t buy in volume anymore. The value proposition of movies has become binary. We like to use that word a lot at the moment. A film either has value or it doesn’t. The ‘doesn’t’ part is a shocking element that’s been introduced to the marketplace in the last seven or eight years. You know, no value!
Alison: I think we’ve also seen that there’s huge resilience within our business, within the independent space. I think the entrepreneurialism that is in so many people has really helped them survive through incredibly difficult times, and what continue to be quite challenging times. I’m actually, in some ways, surprised by just how many of us are actually still here and making a living.
You’re working with Mike Leigh on his typical secretive and still untitled next project. It’s been secret and untitled for far too long. Can you share any details at all?
Gooder: Who would have thought he would have set it in deep space!
Thompson: But the short answer is ‘no.’ It’s a film by Mike Leigh, that’s it. But that in itself gives it a concept and point of difference in the marketplace, and there are lots of people who buy into that concept and love Mike Leigh. But I’m very happy that finally he’s making the film because he was due to shoot it in 2020. And it didn’t happen as it was hit by COVID.
Gooder: But we’re honored to be working with a master filmmaker like Mike Leigh. And you don’t need any more than that. You can’t say that about many filmmakers. But in the space that he works, the stories that he creates and the process that he goes through, he’s kind of on his own. And some buyers feel that way.
I hope buyers know more about the film than I do when they’re looking to acquire it
Gooder: No, absolutely not.
So you’re in the dark as much as I am?
Gooder: Yeah. And the buyers. It’s a beautiful act of faith.
You genuinely have no idea either what the film is either?
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