René Bastian is the founder and president of Belladonna Productions, Inc.
He has produced seminal independent films such as SUE, L.I.E., TRANSAMERICA, A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS, FUNNY GAMES, THE CALLER, AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK and THE GOOD GUY; and is currently in production on THE MORTICIAN, SELF-STORAGE, KEYS TO THE KINGDOM and LOST IN BLUE.
His award winning films have been released internationally to great critical and commercial success and René has been recognized for his work by receiving the prestigious Motorola Producer’s Award in 2002 and by being listed among “10 Producers to Watch” by Variety Magazine in 2005. Most recently, Belladonna Productions was named among 9 international production companies deemed “power houses” by V Magazine.
René is originally from Hamburg, Germany and lived in Barcelona, Spain prior to moving to the US in 1991. He currently resides in New York City.
Q. What brought you to New York?
A. I came to New York to study at NYU, but also to give my life new direction. I was in my early 20s and had a background in business, but wanted to get involved in a more creative field. New York seemed like the ideal place to explore that.
Q. When did film become your passion? Did something in particular inspire you?
A. There were many things that attracted me to film. Firstly, my love for cinema, but then I suppose the fact that it is so multifaceted as a creative from of expression, but also as a business.
Q. What were the challenges in starting your own production company with Linda Moran?
A. We built the business from the ground up and it grew very organically, as we grew better in our business. There were many challenges along the way, as making films is a risky and complicated business and getting good at it takes a long time, but we managed to overcome every crisis thus far and grew better from it.
Q. How do you feel the independent film world has changed with recent developments in technology? How has this effected your position in the independent film world?
A. We are at the beginning of a dramatic transformation in our business, which is very scary for a lot of market participants. Digital production, exploitation and marketing are changing the game very quickly. Essentially we are going through the same process, the music business went through a few years earlier, and so what is happening is not necessarily a surprise. Nobody can be absolutely certain, where this journey is going, but certain trends are emerging. We as a company anticipated some of these developments a while back and so far I feel like we are sailing the transformation very well. So, I am very positive about these changes and about the future of our company. Ten years from now, we will look back and will find that the foundations of media empires were laid in this environment right now. It would be presumptuous to state that that is in our future, but we do have a vision for it.
Q. In the process from production to distribution, what has made you and Belladonna so successful?
A. I think our strengths are taste, conviction, hard work and integrity. The most successful independent films ever made, were films that did not conform with the norm. It is our belief that you can’t have extraordinary success with something ordinary. The industry always looks at past performance in it’s green-lighting decision making mechanisms. That systematically excludes original content. When you are small and ballsy with your choices, you have a shot at greatness. For us, that worked very well a good number of times, but of course it’s risky, as just because something is unprecedented, it does not mean it will be greatly successful. So you have to have good instincts or good taste. Beyond that, there are a lot of people in this business for the wrong reasons or not with the full commitment required. We are enjoying an important benefit acquired by being in the business for a long time, by being honest and true to our word and by fighting for the filmmakers and by working hard to get their movies made. A good reputation over time gives you access to talent and capital, you just don’t have early in your career. That enables you to create better work.
Q. What are your biggest obstacles in the film making process?
A. Access to capital. The relationship between the film industry and the capital markets is very strange. I am still to see a really good marriage between filmmaking know how and financial know-how. A lot of the money that flows into our business is entering the space under wrong premises. In the independent film space, you find a lot of vanity capital and even in the studio world there is a lot of misrepresentation going on. The real story of how money is made in our business is highly complex and many investors rather hear about movie stars and film festivals than about the tasselated nature of the revenue streams. We like to tell the real story and treat film as a proper business. Sometimes that makes our story a bit harder to tell, but at the end expectations and results tend to be much more in keeping with reality.
Q. What have been the high and low points in your career?
A. There are many of both. Whenever you screen a movie for the first time with an audience and it actually works it is an indescribable thrill. We were fortunate to have made a few films like L.I.E., Transamerica and A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, which worked and played well at big festivals and won important awards. Attending the Academy Awards with Transamerica, was certainly the fulfillment of a life long dream. On the negative side, it is of course the films that fizzle which hurt and in reverse there is nothing more nerve wrecking than watching a film with an audience that does not respond. That’s like dying a small death. Beyond that, filmmaking is something you learn on the job and by the nature of the business, you try to do new things all the time, so you learn things the hard way all the time. There are many stories to be told of money falling out in mid production or seemingly small mistakes one makes, which turn into potentially big disaster. Films are multi million dollar investments and if something goes wrong it is usually very expensive. Living with increased heart attack risk is part of our job.
Q. The films you have made address very diverse themes. Is there a particular style that these scripts share that moves you to produce them?
A. Early on, Linda and I went almost purely by gut reaction and almost did not think much about potential audiences. That was terribly naive and stupid, but made us make L.I.E. about a pedophile and Transamerica about a transsexual main protagonist, which we may not have touched if we had been more calculated. At the end these films were highly acclaimed and quite successful. That’s what I meant earlier with trusting your instincts. Today we operate essentially the same way, but we have become savvier in our thinking about marketing and the demographics that might be interested in our films. We try to balance our taste with the realities of the market. Early on, we gravitated toward darker subject matters and I feel like we are often still identified with riskier materials. While we still may have a dark streak, we have gotten some of that out of our system now and we may respond to anything that we deem good and marketable. We have a very board physical comedy and a sex comedy set in the Caribbean on our slate right now. Ultimately, the aim is to strike a balance between quality and commercial appeal. Good films, should not be bitter medicine, but should entertain. That’s essentially what we’re striving for.
Q. Is there any particular genre of film that you have a preference to making?
A. No, we are happy to work in any genre, as long as we think it’s good.
Q. Now that films in 3D are becoming commonplace, what moves might Belladonna be taking to take advantage of this technology?
A. We made our first 3D film at the end of last year. It was a fascinating experience and an incredibly educational one. We probably made the lowest budget 3D film ever produced and it looks gorgeous. Some of the equipment we used had never been used before and we had to have a swift learning curve. But now we understand the technology and get the potential of 3D as a creative tool. It is incredibly powerful. We may just make all of our films in 3D going forward!
Q. Where do you see your career going from here? What would be the next logical progression?
A. We will be strengthening our distribution and marketing capabilities and develop Belladonna heavily as a brand. Production companies need to become vertically integrated. It is not enough to just be making films. One has to be capable to exploit them and reap the benefits of merchandising and licensing. In the past we left that to the studios. Now technology is empowering us to do what they are doing, even if so initially at a smaller scale. I call the company we are striving to be a “micro-major”, as a riff on the major studios and the mini-major studios. We will become a small studio in full control of development, financing, producing and distributing films. That’s the vision.
Q. What do you hope to achieve in 2010 and how do you feel Pelime might help facilitate this?
A. Social media is playing a critical role in the way media is changing and thus in our plans described above. Pelime is a great forum for creative people to have interdisciplinary dialogue and learn from each other in this fast changing world. I expect that Pelime will enable me to advance our aims in building a community around our brand and our projects, create awareness for what we are doing and I also hope to learn for like minded people about their experiences in other fields.