Last year, the Sundance Film Festival dropped a surprise title into their Tuesday-night lineup: Get Out. It was received rapturously, became an instant cultural touchstone, and is arguably the most important film of 2017.
This year, the surprise title in that Tuesday slot (Jan. 23) belongs to a Canadian company, BRON, run by spouses Brenda and Aaron Gilbert. They can't know whether their film will explode in the same way. They can't even say what film it is. But since their company also has three other pictures blasting through Sundance's opening days, plus a half-dozen high-profile titles ready for release, it looks like BRON itself is poised to break out. (The Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 18 to 28.)
"We're on a wild ride," Brenda said in a phone interview this week. They formed their company in 2010, consulting with film producers from their "very small home office." Now they have financial backing from Creative Wealth Media and a $50-million line of credit with Comerica Bank; a 20,000-square-foot studio in Burnaby, B.C.; animation studios in Duncan, B.C., and London, Ont.; and offices and studio spaces in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto.
BRON – an acronym of their names, BRenda and aarON (they like that it sounds like "brawn") – creates, develops, produces and finances movies, television, animation and digital content. Sometimes they're in from a story's inception; other times, they come in later. Their 40-odd projects include the film Fences, which won an Oscar for Viola Davis; the controversial The Birth of a Nation; the excellent but underseen Beatriz at Dinner; and Denzel Washington's Roman J. Israel, Esq, written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Although they've only done one Canadian film – Patricia Rozema's Into the Forest – they say they'd like to step that up.
Their 125 animators are developing The Willoughbys, voiced by Ricky Gervais, Terry Crews, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short. As well, they recently announced a TV partnership with former HBO executive Michael Ellenberg in a company called in Media Res, which is behind Apple's first foray into television: The Morning Show, starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston.
Aaron, who grew up in London, Ont., and moved west at 20, had been film-adjacent for decades, working in the music, animation and licensing businesses in Los Angeles and B.C. But until 2009, when he helped a friend secure financing for the drama Daydream Nation, he'd never been on a set. Producing two "humble sci-fi movies," he says in a separate phone interview, taught him what grips and gaffers do, and he caught the bug.
"We quickly realized how much we loved assembling the pieces, making something special happen," Aaron says. "There are easier businesses to be in. But I love finding an incredible script or article or story or writer. It became an addiction, a feeling we crave."
With zero track record, BRON's first job was getting access to talent. Producing Welcome to Me (2014), starring Kristen Wiig, and Rudderless (2014), starring Billy Crudup, put them on people's radar. Then came The Birth of a Nation. Although the film was welcomed by a wave of love at Sundance in 2016, it drowned when rape charges against writer/director/star Nate Parker resurfaced.
"The end result, which was a situation we had nothing to do with, was disappointing and sad and hard to go through," Aaron says. "I'm still not over it, to be honest. But the making of the movie and the sale at Sundance helped put a light on BRON for sure."
"We said, 'Okay, where do we go from here?'" Brenda elaborates. "Aaron and I have been married since 1999. We have three kids," a son, 17, and two daughters, 13 and 8. "We've been knocked down a lot, faced challenges, and they made us stronger. We saw it as an opportunity to communicate that we still believe in the kinds of films we want to make," which are ones that balance social and cultural relevance with commercial viability. (Any comparisons to companies like Participant Media or Killer Films would be most welcome.)
"We want our films to be conversation pieces well beyond the theatre," Brenda says. "There doesn't have to be consensus on the subject, but let's think about these ideas."
Fences and The Birth of a Nation deal with race issues. Tully, due in April, from writer Diablo Cody, director Jason Reitman and star Charlize Theron, takes on postpartum depression. The Front Runner – also due in 2018; also directed by Reitman – stars Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, a politician brought down by social media before the term social media existed. The upcoming The Red Sea Diving Resort, starring Chris Evans, is an action thriller, but tells the real-life story of Mossad missions that saved 30,000 Ethiopian Jews. And The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent's followup to The Babadook, due in August, tells the story of a female ex-convict and an aboriginal man making their way through 1825 Tasmania.
As well, Brenda is launching BRON Life, a label focusing on "films that hit on the humanitarian level," and helped found Drawn Together Vancouver, a grassroots organization dedicated to getting more women into the upper echelons of the animation business.
It's no surprise to hear that she's an insomniac. "My friends are a little worried," Brenda admits, laughing. "I don't sleep a lot. I get up at five, but I've been known to be up earlier, sending out e-mails. I try to exercise. I try not to e-mail when I'm exercising. But it's hard not to. I can stay in the studio for 14, 16 hours at a time, and never see the outside. People tell me about the weather." She laughs again. "I give great advice. I never take it."
At Sundance, BRON's films will premiere on four consecutive days: Saturday evening, it's Leave No Trace, from director Debra Granik (Winter's Bone), about a father (Ben Foster) and daughter living off the grid – not legally – in a nature reserve near Portland, Ore. Sunday at midnight it's Assassination Nation, from writer/director Sam Levinson, billed as "a one-thousand-per-cent true story about the how the quiet, all-American town of Salem absolutely lost its mind." Monday afternoon it's Monster, starring Jennifer Hudson and Jeffrey Wright, about a 17-year-old honours student charged with murder. And Tuesday, it's the surprise drop.
"We're going to be taking our vitamins," Brenda says. "And we'll try to take a step back. These moments go by quickly. I want to take it all in." As Aaron puts it, "I hope we can sustain this for a long time."
Special to The Globe and Mail