Robert Schwartzman is part of one of Hollywood’s great filmmaking dynasties, but when he ventured into directing himself, he discovered that the world of distribution for up-and-coming filmmakers was broken.
The multihyphenate, who is Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew, has acted in movies like “The Princess Diaries” — where he played Anne Hathaway’s love interest Michael Moscovitz in what became her breakout movie — and has fronted the rock band Rooney since 1999. In recent years, however, Schwartzman has become more ensconced in the family business, directing indie features such as “The Unicorn,” “Dreamland” and “The Argument.”
“I felt a frustration that certain films were being overlooked in the market, like when you don’t get into a film festival, and the movie doesn’t make the cut sometimes,” Schwartzman tells Variety. “It’s pretty emotionally devastating for a filmmaker to feel that rejection.”
He continues: “You want to put [the film] in the hands of somebody that just cares, and is willing to put in some time and effort to help that movie reach an audience.”
Schwartzman co-founded distribution banner Utopia with business partner Cole Harper in 2018 to offer a more artist-focused approach for filmmakers, and provide “another home” for acquiring independently produced and financed movies.
The company has so far made a number of big swings on the film festival circuit following its breakout success in 2020 with dark comedy “Shiva Baby.” Out of January’s Sundance Film Festival, it won the U.S. distribution rights to Lena Dunham’s buzzy sophomore movie “Sharp Stick” — “It’s not every filmmaker that has that brand in the market,” says Schwartzman of Dunham — and at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it picked up Iranian crime thriller “Holy Spider,” for which lead actor Zahra Amir Ebrahimi won the festival’s best actress prize.
“I’m really excited to see us going to bigger film festivals and being in those conversations,” says Schwartzman.
The company has, in a relatively short period of time, carved out a clear identity for itself in the U.S. distribution landscape, where its offbeat tastes and keen eye for non-English language cinema have put Utopia in the orbit of A24 and Neon. Schwartzman credits colleagues such as head of acquisitions Danielle DiGiacomo, formerly of the Orchard, and head of sales Marie Zeniter, an ex-Magnolia executive, for helping cultivate the brand and landing some of the splashier deals.
Yet, as it grows and takes on more talent-driven, higher-budget fare, the distributor is confronting the same tensions between art and commerce as any company looking to achieve scale. It’s also navigating a specialty box office that’s still crawling back after the worst of the pandemic. “We really like putting movies in movie theaters — that’s a big thing for us,” says Schwartzman. But he also recognizes the need to find a streaming partner for Utopia releases in the future, akin to what companies like Neon have done with Hulu.
“The struggle is that we’re getting a lot of submissions from really, really interesting new filmmakers — new voices that we’re all going to be hearing about one day. But now the hard question is, ‘What can we really take on? What can we really devote the time to?’ The reality is we’re not able to take on a certain quantity of movies, because you start to really sacrifice the quality of the release, so we are having to say ‘no’ more, which is really hard.”
Being an independent distributor in the theatrical market is like “swimming upstream,” says Schwartzman. “You have to really fight for your place and for your slot.”
“But we’ve been hitting more screen counts as a company, and we’re taking some bigger risks in putting more resources behind certain titles that we’re acquiring at key festivals,” he adds. “That’s how we’re going to be competitive.”
Elsewhere, Utopia is building out its production side, and getting involved earlier in film projects and even TV series. There isn’t a specific number of titles to target per year, but delving into originals “felt like a natural progression for the company,” says Schwartzman.
Thanks to his background in filmmaking and packaging, “projects started naturally coming our way that were looking for packaging support early on,” he says.
Utopia is currently working with “Walking Dead” star Norman Reedus on a TV adaptation of “Sorority House Massacre.” There’s also a documentary about the Blues Brothers in the works, alongside a doc on British Invasion band the Zombies. Projects on the originals side don’t necessarily need to be Utopia releases.
“It’s about identifying projects that we think we can help grow faster, and be a sort of incubator and accelerator for creatives,” notes Schwartzman.
Crucially, the executive wants to keep taking risks and growing Utopia into the artist-friendly distributor he feels the industry desperately needs.
“My uncle [Francis Ford Coppola] was known for taking big risks in his life as a filmmaker,” explains Schwartzman. “He self-financed ‘Apocalypse Now’ and basically went broke trying to make his masterpiece — and it worked. I just think it’s really interesting when you throw yourself into something that you believe in. That’s the kind of world I like to be a part of.”
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