Rising production company Foxtail Entertainment eyes underserved markets
Less than a year old, Foxtail Entertainment can already boast four high-profile projects, including To the Bone and Assassination Nation. Formed by producers Matt Malek and Anita Gou, the company targets what Malek calls "underserved markets that have a global audience."
Speaking in a Tribeca hotel, Malek is warm and outgoing, eager to provide details about his previous projects as well as to speculate on where movies are heading.
"I got into movies by accident," he says while sipping orange juice. "I had some physical problems from playing college soccer, and the only surgeon who could fix the problem lived in Los Angeles. So that led me to Hollywood."
The son of an Iraqi immigrant, Malek repeatedly expresses amazement that he is working in the industry at all. He earned a philosophy degree at Villanova University before studying for four years in a seminary—experience that came in handy when he was named executive in charge of production for Martin Scorsese's Silence.
The Silence shoot had an enormous impact on Malek. "I never thought I'd do anything remotely close to this in quality," he says. "But it was the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life. I almost quit the business afterwards."
It was while working on Silence that Malek met Anita Gou, a 26-year-old former New York University film student whose family owns a studio in Taiwan. (Gou was called back home due to a family emergency before the interview.) Malek praises her work ethic and accessibility, but is more impressed by her instinctive understanding of what makes a story work.
"She can read seven scripts in a day, fully digest them, and explain their strengths and weaknesses," he says. "She's a real producer, has had real experience running a studio, and is a great writer—although she doesn't want to let anyone read her work."
The two partnered to develop projects for independent filmmakers, an area they believe the industry tends to overlook.
"We're an opportunity company," Malek explains. "We call ourselves a development fund, but what we really are is a development-oriented finance entity that has the ability to greenlight our own content."
Foxtail can initiate projects, like Thirty Eight, a police drama set in St. Louis to be directed by Michael Carney (Same Kind of Different as Me). Or it can provide finishing funds, which it did for The Last Animals, a documentary about the efforts to protect African rhinos and elephants that screened at Tribeca.
"Everybody had written The Last Animals off," Malek remembers. "We saw something valuable there and met with director Kate Brooks. We felt that the others were missing what was valuable about the movie, so we put up money to help with a recut."
Foxtail had the chance to be involved in the initial stages of To the Bone, a passion project for director Marti Noxon (Lifetime’s “UnREAL”). But Malek says that he and Gou did not feel comfortable being the first investors before their financing was fully in place.
"Anita and I are committed to never promise something we don't have the ability to perform," he says. "At a later point, To the Bone was about to be shut down, and they called us for money. We funded the movie within 24 hours."
To the Bone gave Malek firsthand evidence of the industry's gender bias. "It's shockingly good for a $3.3 million budget," he says of the movie, "but with Keanu Reeves and Lily Collins, and Marti's great script—listen, if Marti were a male showrunner, she would have gotten five million easy."
A deeply personal drama about anorexia, To the Bone impressed everyone who saw it at the Sundance Film Festival, including Netflix executives who paid $8 million for distribution rights.
Written and directed by Sam Levinson, Assassination Nation is the fourth Foxtail project in the pipeline. After meeting with Levinson, Foxtail made an offer within 12 hours. Production began only three months later.
"To the Bone and Assassination Nation are both excellent examples of female-driven stories that are completely not what is considered the Hollywood norm," Malek points out. "But when they get made, they increase perhaps three or four times in value. To the Bone will be one of the first Netflix originals that they didn't finance."
According to Malek, Foxtail is looking for movies that will provide thoughtful, provocative content to a millennial generation that deserves more than short Internet videos. He is concerned about the growing influence of social media, of virtual reality and augmented reality, worried that they are contributing to political and social polarization.
"Movies are a way to challenge, to invoke higher-functioning powers in a way that videogames and other media do not," he observes. "We want to make movies that don't preach, that don't try to give answers to questions, but that offer both the A and B scenarios."
Foxtail has an enviable track record so far, but an even more ambitious upcoming slate. "Three of our next four projects are budgeted above $20 million," Malek says. "We bought a script Michael Carney has about King David, and we hired Terry Rossio [Pirates of the Caribbean 6] and Bill Marsilii [Deja Vu] to write an original screenplay. And we are now set up so that every one of the intellectual properties we bought last year is keyed up to move."
Malek notes that he built a relationship with Rossio and Marsilii that extends back years, just as he has with other filmmakers. "They're writing a psychedelic science-fiction thriller for us. I knew when we started Foxtail that it was the right time to go to them. And because we don't have a hundred-million-dollar war chest, they know we're not lying when we say this means something to us. We can't let projects sit on the shelf."
Foxtail has been approached to invest in several virtual-reality projects, but Malek is leery of the format. "Do I think VR is going to take over the universe? No," he says. "I don't even think it's going to be a market disrupter in the way people were predicting. I think it's going to become an adjunct tool used in marketing, in advertising and explicitly in the gaming area to assist the storytelling process. It's not, 'Oh my god, we've got to switch our strategy to VR.' It's a tool, and like any other tool you need to know about it. But it's not going to take away from our core principles."
Malek is passionate about his properties, determined to protect them from the neglect and disinterest that can occur in larger companies. He is still bitter about what he believes is the mishandling of his last two projects, Silence and A Hologram for the King. "I am the master of movies that are really good but that distributors decide, for whatever reason, not to do a good job on," he says ruefully.
Malek's real-life experiences inform what he is trying to do in the movie industry. He describes a multi-cultural childhood in Detroit, followed by the intense demands and isolation of seminarian life.
"I grew up with a very different view of the world than most Americans," he confides. “I had an Iraqi immigrant father who was very American, as American as apple pie, and he loves that this country gave him an opportunity. It hurts me to see how so many Americans don't value what we have."
Malek says his strength as a producer is his ability to remove obstacles, to give his directors everything they need to get their work done. His skill set complements Gou's creative mentoring, her way of making artists comfortable.
"We are small, we're keeping our head low, and we punch above our weight," Malek adds. "Look, every film is its own animal, and if you think you know what you're doing, you're already lost. But the important thing is I've made mistakes, but I've never made them twice."