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There is no denying that Marc Goldberg, the CEO of Signature Films and Entertainment, is a risk-taker, and he’s the first to admit that it doesn’t always pay off. The last few years have been transformational for the business, but it hasn’t been an easy journey.
Signature’s evolution is the stuff of Hollywood movies. The company started out of the exec’s UK home as an independent distribution outfit focusing on the home entertainment sector just as the bubble was bursting. In Goldberg’s own words, an attempt to get a foothold in the theatrical market was a “disaster.” Still, here we are in 2022, with the company’s Signature Films arm embedding itself in the industry as a player in the production world that the industry should be paying attention to.
The Estate, led by Toni Collette and Anna Faris, recently wrapped in New Orleans and is one of 12 movies Signature has already filmed. There are a dozen more on the future production slate. They’ve released over 1,000 films as a distributor, including The Peanut Butter Falcon and the Liam Neeson actioner, The Honest Thief. Goldberg and his team have come to play, so I caught up with him to talk about the highs and lows, wins and loses, and getting a seat at the table in Hollywood.
Simon Thompson: Going back to the beginning, why did you see a need for Signature to exist in the marketplace?
Marc Goldberg: To be quite honest with you, there wasn’t really a need. I don’t think there’s ever a need for another film distribution company in the UK. When I started 11 years ago, if you were starting independently, it was a world dominated by how many DVDs you could get on the shelf, and I think it was the same for any independent in the world. That was how you tried to start the bedrock of the business. Before I began Signature, I was a hotshot DVD sales guy for different companies, which is an excellent job to have in your 20s as it was a sexy product back then, and I was good at it. It was seeing the opportunity by having these relationships with all these big retailers. Rather than take other people’s product and get it on the shelves, why don’t I give it a shot and see if I can go and license films myself and do it that way? It was more about my need to try and branch out and do my own thing at 30. It was a moment in my life where it was a now or never situation.
Thompson: Did you catch the crest of that wave at the right time?
Goldberg: The DVD market had reached its plateau at that point, so looking back, I probably started at not a great time. In the years that followed, the market slowly declined, and the notion of this world being dominated by digital players was on the horizon. Still, it wasn’t what people counted as part of their business plans. That was certainly the case in the independent world, but it might have been different for the studios. I see what Signature is in the UK market now, and I think we’re unique. We do things in a very robust way with our own sort of stamp on it but being truthful, looking back, it was like, ‘Have I got enough shekels to get together to buy a handful of pretty average movies and try and get them on the shelves at retailers like Tesco. That was my M.O. from the start, seeing if I could make enough to pay the bills.
Thompson: Have the last ten years of digital growth changed the Signature model?
Goldberg: With home entertainment, I see all aspects, whether it’s SVO
Thompson: After proving viable in the UK, what was the catalyst that led to the growth that then led to the US expansion? Was a US expansion always on the cards?
Goldberg: The US expansion was solely driven by production. We’re a distribution business in the UK and various other territories. In 2015, I took on a partner who took a percentage of the company, and as part of that, he gave us a credit facility to grow it. We were at a stage where we were doing lots of different things in the home entertainment world, but we weren’t doing anything theatrically, and it seemed like the next best way to grow the business was to go for it theatrically.
Thompson: How did that go?
Goldberg: It was a disaster. In a way, it was a good thing that it was a disaster from the very start because it taught us that releasing films in the independent arena widely is almost impossible to make work long term. Thankfully, the movies that we put out last didn’t damage us too much. More by default, rather than design, we were like, ‘Well, if we can’t buy big movies and release them with huge P&A, what if we turn our eye to producing films?’ So, that’s what we did, and thankfully, the first couple of movies that we did were successful, so financially, it worked for us. I was at a point in my life in terms of talking about US expansion where it was my family and me just having a moment in our lives where we said, ‘Let’s give it a go.’ We had about 18 or 19 staff; I had a really good management team. It was working really well, and I didn’t need to be there every day, and I could be overseeing it from Los Angeles. I was backward and forward all the time, meeting agents, understanding how the whole thing works, so I took that huge gamble and moved over here. I said, ‘Let’s give it a go for a year,’ I came over with my wife and three kids. Five years later, I’m still here, thankfully, and we’ve made many movies, just coming off making the biggest one that we’ve done so far. Lots of stuff happened in between, such as selling the company and buying it back, but in terms of the question, it was the start of the company’s production arm that meant we are where we are.
Thompson: When you came over here, how accepting was the industry, and how long did it take you to get taken seriously by the industry as a production company?
Goldberg: I’m a pretty tenacious character. It takes a lot of rejection for me to finally pack up my bags. You don’t have a seat at the table. Starting a distribution company in the UK, you’ve got to find a route into the market, but there is no shortage of production companies here, and we’ve only made a couple of films even though they had had some big movie stars in them, such as Final Score. That gave us some sort of flag to wave. While agents, managers, lawyers, and talent are not interested in independent distributors outside the US, we were known among the sales agents. They have relationships with various players needed to build relationships, so we weren’t completely unknown. There was a fragrance of Signature in the air, and I’m very proud of everything we do. Sarah Gabriel was a sales agent, not from a production background, and she’d been selling us movies. As I moved here, she was leaving where she was working and had this ambition to join effectively, a startup. She saw my ambition and came to work with me, this crazy producer going around town and paying people for development, writing scripts, and optioning things. That gets you noticed because you’re someone who can pay, so generally, people are ready to open their doors. It took me six to nine months to try to find projects that we felt could work commercially and that we could get financed. It’s not like going out and acquiring a film and then releasing it. It’s huge amounts of money, time, months, pain, blood, sweat, and tears to try and get there, and then the pandemic happened just as we were about to start making some of these films.
Thompson: Did that stop you in your tracks not having the same resources a big studio had? Many of them were forced to stop for at least some of the time.
Goldberg: We actually kicked into gear and made a couple of films in that time. Before Covid, there were a couple of things that we got done, and at the end of March, when we wrapped on The Estate, it meant we’d produced six films in the last year, and I’m really proud of that, and we’ve got four more that we have locked and ready to go through to the end of the year. There are probably another 15 to 20 on the slate, sitting on the subs bench and getting ready in different ways. It has been a journey since I arrived here in the summer of 2017. I can’t believe we’ve been here for five years, and we’ve been stuck at home for a lot of it. The Estate was one of those projects from the very early days where we went out, took the chance to develop the script with the writer, and hoped that we would get there. I look at myself five years ago, and I wouldn’t say I thought it was easy, but I didn’t know it would be as hard as it was to get the film’s made. At the same time, we have now built ourselves into a place where the doors are open, and we are getting projects every day from all sorts of people, and it’s very exciting. We’ve grown the team and have five people working here. Since repurchasing the company in the UK, we’ve now got over 42 staff between the US and the UK. The number of films we’re making here doesn’t include the stuff we’re doing in the UK. We’re committed to making at least four or five projects in the UK, too, and it’s coming together really well.
Thompson: When it comes to budgets, what is the sandbox Signature likes to play in?
Goldberg: Last year, we made three or four films in the $1 million budget range, which were concept rather than cast driven, and we like doing that stuff. It works for us. We’re driven by seeing what works in the distribution world, and if we can emulate that in producing films that stand up, even if they haven’t got a big cast, we are interested in doing that. We also like to work in that kind of sweet spot of the $5 million to $10 million action thriller where it needs to have some element of cast that makes sense to make the numbers work. Then there are films like The Estate; the $15 million to $20 million-plus budgets, where it’s a film that we feel are high pedigree films with fantastic filmmakers and casts that we think audiences all over the world are going to enjoy. That has Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Anna Faris, and Kathleen Turner. We’re proud of what we do, but obviously, those big-budget, cast-driven films also excite many other people who want to come and work with us. The feeling around The Estate, the size of the production, and the breadth of the cast have opened our eyes to doing more things like that.
Thompson: You say there are these prestige movies for you, so are you looking at making serious headway into theatrical, a mix of theatrical and streaming, and potentially awards-worthy content?
Goldberg: What we are seeing now would never have happened in the world gone by because theatrical would never allow that, but now they can’t stop it. If it turns out that we do release The Estate theatrically, that would be fantastic. Still, if it ends up on an SVOD platform like Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, all these guys are winning Oscars and other major awards for their movies released straight to streaming. I’m entirely open to the discussion all the time as to how the films get released.
Thompson: In this industry in 2022, is there a five-year plan? Do you have one? Can you have one now, with things in such flux?
Goldberg: You’ve hit it spot on. I’ve done some interviews in the past, and people generally ask me, ‘What’s the five-year plan?’ If you just said five years ago, this is what I’d be doing, I don’t even think I’d have said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ We just started looking into it; we moved here and thought it’d be nice if we could make a couple of films. All the things that happened in between, I would never have predicted. It’s very difficult to say what will happen in three or five years, but I do have the clear ambition to continue working with great filmmakers. I want to make a dozen more films in the next five years, grow the distribution business in the way it has continued to grow, and keep that trajectory going. We sold Signature and bought it back. I have a new investor working with me. I don’t have any plans to sell or do an IPO because I enjoy having our independence, controlling the business, and having everything under one roof regarding distribution and production. Being able to finance movies ourselves entirely is a fantastic feather in the hat where we can be the masters of our own destiny. It’s a case of asking, ‘What can we do with that?’ We see this next phase as Signature 3.0 and I couldn’t be more excited for what the future holds.