Robert Schwartzman on Rising Utopia’s cast technique and originals

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Robert Schwartzman is part of one of Hollywood’s great cinematic dynasties, but when he ventured into self-realization, he found the world of distribution for up-and-coming filmmakers damaged.

The multi-hyphenate, who is the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, starred in films like ‘The Princess Diaries’ – where he played Anne Hathaway’s love interest Michael Moscovitz in what became his hit film — and has fronted rock band Rooney since 1999. Lately, however, Schwartzman has become more entrenched in the family business, leading indie options such as “The Unicorn,” “Dreamland” and “The Argument.”

“I felt frustrated that some movies weren’t available in the market, like when you don’t enter a film contest, and the movie usually doesn’t make the cut,” said Schwartzman said. Selection. “It’s quite emotionally devastating for a filmmaker to really feel that rejection.”

He continues: “You want to put [the film] into the arms of anyone who cares and wants to put in the time and effort to help this movie reach an audience.

Schwartzman co-founded distribution banner Utopia with associate Cole Harper in 2018 to provide filmmakers with a more artist-centric approach and provide “another home” to purchase independently produced and funded films.

The company has made plenty of huge leaps onto the film competition circuit so far following its 2020 smash hit with the dark comedy “Shiva Child.” At January’s Sundance Movie Pageant, he was awarded the US distribution rights to Lena Dunham’s sophomore film, ‘Sharp Stick’ – “Not every filmmaker has this model available on the market,” says Schwartzman by Dunham – and on the Cannes Movie Pageant in May, he chose the Iranian crime thriller “Holy Spider”, for which lead actor Zahra Amir Ebrahimi received the competition’s best actress award.

“I’m really excited to see us go to bigger film festivals and be in those conversations,” Schwartzman said.

The company has, in a relatively short period of time, carved out a transparent identity for itself in the US distribution landscape, where its quirky tastes and avid eye for non-English speaking cinema have placed Utopia in A24’s orbit and from Neon. Schwartzman credits colleagues such as acquisitions manager Danielle DiGiacomo, formerly of the Verger, and sales manager Marie Zeniter, a former Magnolia government, for serving to domesticate the model and land some of the splashiest deals.

But, because it grows and accepts more talent-driven, higher-budget fare, the retailer faces the same tensions between art and commerce that any business looking to expand faces. He also navigates a specialized office that is always crawling again after the worst of the pandemic. “We actually love getting movies into theaters – that’s a huge factor for us,” says Schwartzman. But he also recognizes the need to find a streaming partner sooner or later for Utopia releases, like what companies like Neon have done with Hulu.

“The struggle is that we get a lot of submissions from really fascinating new filmmakers – new voices that we’re all going to listen to at some point. But now the laborious question is, “What can we actually address?” What can we really devote time to? The thing is, we’re not able to tackle a number of movies, because you start to really sacrifice the quality of the output, so we have to say ‘no’ on top of that, which is basically laborious.

Being an unbiased distributor in the movie theater market is like “swimming upstream,” says Schwartzman. “You really have to fight for your place and your place.”

“But we’ve reached incremental screen counts as an organization, and we’re taking greater risks by putting additional assets behind certain titles we buy at key festivals,” he adds. “That’s how we’re going to be aggressive.”

Elsewhere, Utopia is building its production side and getting an early interest in film projects and even TV series. There aren’t a certain number of titles to focus on every 12 months, but delving into the originals “felt like pure evolution for the company,” says Schwartzman.

Because of his background in film and packaging, “tasks started to come naturally our way who was looking for packaging help early on,” he says.

Utopia is currently working with “Strolling Useless” star Norman Reedus on a television adaptation of “Sorority Home Bloodbath.” There’s also a documentary on the Blues Brothers in the works, as well as a documentary on British band Invasion, the Zombies. Tasks on the originals side don’t have to be Utopia releases.

“It’s about figuring out which jobs we hope we can help develop faster and to be kind of an incubator and accelerator for creative people,” Schwartzman notes.

Basically, the manager needs to keep taking risks and making Utopia the artist-friendly distributor he feels the company desperately wants.

“My uncle [Francis Ford Coppola] was identified for taking huge risks in his life as a filmmaker,” says Schwartzman. “He self-funded ‘Apocalypse Now’ and mostly went bankrupt trying to create his masterpiece – and it worked. I just guess it’s really fascinating when you get into something you think about. This is the kind of world I would like to be a part of.

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