TORONTO — Jason Cloth still remembers the night his biggest shot at Oscar glory slipped out of his hands.
The Toronto-based financier had just finished celebrating his 2016 film “The Birth of a Nation” at a dinner party with director Nate Parker. The slave uprising drama was receiving warm reviews, secured a major distribution deal with Fox Searchlight and seemed positioned to collect armfuls of trophies during awards season.
Heading back to his hotel room, Cloth was feeling optimistic — until Aaron Gilbert, his partner at Creative Wealth Media called him to break the news.
Industry trade Variety was set to publish a story that dove into the details of a 1999 rape case, in which Parker was acquitted, that also involved the film’s co-writer Jean Celestin. They were students at Penn State University at the time, and while Celestin was initially found guilty of sexual assault, his conviction was overturned when the accuser declined to testify for a retrial. The woman committed suicide in 2012.
Even before the #MeToo movement put sexual assault under the microscope in Hollywood, Parker’s involvement wasn’t a good look for the film. He didn’t just direct the movie, he played the main character, who leads an uprising motivated by the rape of his wife. Any prospects for “The Birth of a Nation” were quashed before it hit theatres that October.
“That was our lightning in a bottle,” Cloth says while sipping water at his downtown Toronto office, where he brokers Hollywood deals using Canadian funds.
“It killed us. I’ve never seen a film go from what should’ve been a best picture winner to not even an Indie Spirit Award nomination.”
While Creative Wealth Media and its partner Bron Studios didn’t lose money on the production, since Fox bought the film’s rights, Cloth says it was a crash course in Hollywood business. Sometimes a film’s best ingredients can become a significant risk somewhere between the script stage and final cut.
But that doesn’t mean he regrets the investment.
“If the same parameters came up, I would still take that film,” Cloth insists.
He says the experience taught him it’s crucial to perform a thorough background check on talent involved in each project.
“If there’s ghosts in the closet, we want to know about it,” he says. “If there’s rumours, we’d rather walk.”
The dust kicked up by “The Birth of a Nation” helped Cloth establish his company as a calculated risk taker interested in making prestige films.
What makes Creative Wealth Media unique is that it’s backing Hollywood productions largely with Canadian money. Pension plans, mutual fund operators and the country’s highest net worth families are some of the key investors getting behind indie films with trusted stars attached.
Denzel Washington brought two of his movies — “Fences” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” — to the Canadian financier and wound up picking up several Oscar nods, including two for himself and a best supporting actress win for Viola Davis.
This year, Cloth hopes he’s sitting on another Oscar winner with “The Front Runner,” a biopic about American senator Gary Hart and a presidential campaign that was derailed by his extra-marital affair. Hugh Jackman is gathering buzz for his role as the senator in the Jason Reitman film, which opens Friday in Toronto and Vancouver.
“If ‘Front Runner’ works we will be a three-year in a row Oscar-nominated production company,” Cloth boasts.
But if it doesn’t work, Creative Wealth Media will move onto the next project. They’ve invested nearly US$200 million in production this year on movies like “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” with Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon, and the ultra-violent feminist action flick “Assassination Nation.”
Next year, they’ve lined up US$500 million in film and TV financing that includes an untitled morning show drama produced and starring Reese Witherspoon for Apple’s streaming service, and “Fonzo,” an Oscar bait drama with Tom Hardy as Al Capone.
Cloth says his company enticed Hardy to work on “Fonzo” with the same strategy that worked for Jackman on “Front Runner.” His business partner Gilbert promised both actors they were playing roles of a lifetime — the kind of parts that win Oscars.
Those assurances got Jackman and Hardy so excited they agreed to scale back their usual pay grade to “nowhere near what their normal rate is,” he says. The cheaper movies lowered the risk and boosted the upside for everyone involved.
It helps that Cloth has a proven track record for spotting potential.
Nearly a decade ago, he met two Ottawa-raised entertainment managers seeking a loan to get their silky-voiced singer the Weeknd started. Nobody knew the artist, born Abel Tesfaye, but the managers were certain they represented a future superstar.
A few years later, a lawyer friend suggested Cloth wade into the film industry by supporting an independent movie that saw its key investor pull out at the 11th hour before production. The experience opened Cloth’s eyes to a new world of growth.
“It’s an industry that has almost no volatility,” he says.
“What other industry (exists where) a drop in economic activity has almost no bearing on your business? Nothing touches film and television.”
But not every movie delivers on its promise.
Creative Wealth Media’s first few projects were Canadian films “Into the Forest” and “Hyena Road.” While they didn’t lose money, he says he didn’t consider either “financially successful.”
Cloth says he’s become more attuned to audience tastes — a mystery that most film executives constantly struggle to understand.
“(We) are really careful to ensure we have within our slate a female-centric film and actors with ethnic diversity,” Cloth says as an example.
But he acknowledges that his company is still tied to projects with uncertain futures.
Luc Besson’s upcoming film “Anna” is one of them, he says. Creative Wealth Media signed on as a co-finance partner before Besson was accused of rape by an actress earlier this year.
And while the case is being investigated by French authorities — and the director denies any wrongdoing — the uncertainty throws the film’s prospects into question.
“That one worries me,” Cloth says of the film, set for release next year.
“There’s very little we can do to protect against that, other than try and work with established filmmakers that have this open history that we can check.”
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David Friend, The Canadian Press