Young Massachusetts film producers finding early success
Paul Bernon and Sam Slater aren’t dabbling in the film industry. They’re just not the dabbling type.
Bernon, 35, is a principal at Wellesley-based Rubicon Real Estate, which owns and manages about a million square feet of industrial and retail property in New England. Slater, 28, of Boston, oversees real estate holdings, agricultural properties, and his family’s foundation.
These men make money. So when the two developers last year decided to launch a local movie company, Burn Later Productions, they took the venture quite seriously. Now they’ve got the film industry taking them seriously, as well.
Their indie comedy “Drinking Buddies,” starring A-listers Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, premiered at Austin’s SXSW film festival last month and within days was picked up for US distribution by Magnolia Pictures. On Sunday, it won the Vail International Film Festival’s award for Best Film. Next up is their film “Pasadena,” a family drama starring Cheryl Hines and Peter Bogdanovich, which will have its debut at the Sarasota Film Festival next Saturday.
While Hollywood filmmakers have flocked to Massachusetts to take advantage of the state’s generous tax credit, Bernon and Slater represent something else: wealthy, homegrown entrepreneurs interested in growing a film business based in Boston. Despite being known for their work in real estate, the newly minted producers say they’re spending half their time on movie business, hoping to make Massachusetts a real base for the industry, rather than just an inexpensive place for out-of-towners to film.
More than that, they want the films they make to be good. “We’re not doing it to be able to hang out with the actors,” Bernon said. “The storytelling is really paramount to me.”
Ever since the state enacted the film tax credit in 2006, Massachusetts has drawn filmmakers, from hometowners like Ben Affleck, who returned to tell Boston stories like “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone,” to Hollywood heavy hitters like David O. Russell who, three years after making “The Fighter” around Lowell, is now back in Boston shooting a political drama starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Christian Bale.
The tax credit, which reimburses producers up to 25 percent of the costs of filming in the state, has been controversial since its start, with critics saying it’s too expensive and hasn’t created enough jobs for Massachusetts workers, while supporters counter that besides creating jobs, the incentives support tourism by drawing visitors to area sites and movie locations.
Massachusetts Film Commissioner Lisa Strout says that Bernon and Slater are part of a new crop of young, business-minded movie lovers who come to the film industry with sharp entrepreneurial skills.
Strout likens Bernon and Slater to filmmakers like Megan Ellison, the 27-year-old daughter of Oracle cofounder and billionaire Larry Ellison. Megan Ellison founded a film production company and has gone on to make prestigious movies such as “The Master” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Strout said these producers are committed to the creative process, but they also bring an understanding of the bottom line to their projects.
“I think it’s fascinating to people who understand finance,” she said, of the film industry. “How it gets put together, how much of it is debt, how much of it is equity.”
Bernon wanted to be a filmmaker when he was younger and studied film at Boston University. His wife, Ashley, remembers him writing a lengthy paper about Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”
“He had fully analyzed the whole thing,” she said.
Bernon wound up pursuing real estate, working for Intercontinental Real Estate Corp., and joined Rubicon in 2004. Three years later, he found himself returning to his old passion by writing scripts with a friend who went to Babson, Chris Modoono.
One of their shared projects wound up turning into “Teacher of the Year,” a comedy starring Lexington’s Rachel Dratch, formerly of “Saturday Night Live.” They partially financed the project and raised money from investors. The short wound up running on Will Ferrell’s popular comedy website, FunnyOrDie.com.
It also played at the Tribeca Film Festival, due in part to Slater, who met Bernon at a dinner, talked about his interest in film, and wound up signing on to help finance post-production and promote the movie.
Slater loved the work. “I need to have four or five jobs at the same time,” said Slater, who studied history at George Washington University. “I’ll always be doing five different things.”
Within months of finishing “Teacher,” Bernon and Slater set up Burn Later and got rolling on “Pasadena,” which was filmed in California in 2012. Bernon had also already signed on to help finance another film, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” executive-produced by Jay-Z, which will open in limited release this month.
Next, he and Slater took a meeting about the “Drinking Buddies” project, which would be helmed by “mumblecore” director Joe Swanberg, best known for his indie features. They were interested. Of course, Bernon admits that he didn’t even know what mumblecore was. (The genre is known for its naturalistic and often improvised dialogue.)
Still, they went for it, investing in the project, temporarily moving to Chicago for the filming, working to secure a cast, and getting a crash course from more experienced members of the crew such as cinematographer Ben Richardson, who worked on “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and coproducer Alicia Van Couvering, who worked on Lena Dunham’s breakout film “Tiny Furniture.”
Couvering said that despite coming from the real estate world, Bernon and Slater arrived on set as creative filmmakers.
“Paul and Sam really want to be a part of movies happening,” she said. “I hesitate to say they’re in it for the right reasons, because it sounds patronizing, but they have a real awareness about how the system works.”
Their business and personal skills were strangely right for an independent movie set. Part of the job of being a producer is corralling talent and keeping people happy. Bernon and his wife are well-known on the philanthropic scene and have hosted political fund-raisers, and Slater is a longtime Boston night-life fan, who recently bought and remodeled The Place downtown.
“Producing a movie is a lot like throwing a big wedding — with a bunch of celebrities and also an army,” Couvering said. “You kind of have to bring a party-host vibe to it.”
Steve Samuels, who is also a Boston real estate developer and has produced films such as “Michael Clayton” and “In the Valley of Elah,” said both fields require you to be able to choose the right partners, evaluate risks, and balance business with creativity, which is why he thinks Bernon and Slater have found success.
“These are all hallmarks of successful real estate entrepreneurs,” Samuels said. “The trick is to use those tools in film as well.”
With good early buzz on “Drinking Buddies,” expected to be a summer release, the partners find themselves in high demand. They won’t say what’s next, but they promise that whatever is in the works will be filmed in Massachusetts.
Primarily, they want to film movies here so that they can be at home with their families. (The Bernons have two children and Slater is engaged to yoga teacher Jessica Klapman.) But also, because of their real estate jobs, it’s cost-effective for them to film locally because they can make use of space they own or manage. Had “Drinking Buddies” been filmed in Boston — which was Bernon and Slater’s original hope — they would have had bars and restaurants at their disposal, as well as thousands of square feet of office space.
And, of course, they want to show off their home state.
“Not to geek out,” Bernon said, going on about his hometown loyalty. “We’re proud to be from Massachusetts.”