Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we shine a spotlight on key executives and companies outside of the U.S. shaking up the offshore marketplace. This week, we’re talking with British multi-hyphenate Charles Dorfman, who, through his two banners Samuel Marshall Films and Media Finance Capital, has worked across a range of titles from The Lost Daughter to 2nd Chance and his own directorial debut Barbarians. In his first major interview, he outlines his ambitions as a writer-director and as a financier-producer.
Charles Dorfman is coming off the back of a banner twelve months. Not only did the British writer-director-producer see the release of his debut feature Barbarians but he also was a quiet fixture during the Oscar race this year, having produced Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter.
Barbarians, which recently won the Jury’s Special Award at the Fantasporto Festival in Portugal earlier this month after it had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest last year, is a home-invasion thriller-satire starring Iwan Rheon, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Tom Cullen about a dinner party gone wrong. IFC Midnight released the title theatrically in the U.S. last year.
Meanwhile, psychological drama The Lost Daughter was brought to Dorfman from Pie Films’ producing partners Talia Kleinhendler and Osnat Handelsman-Keren. Dorfman’s Samuel Marshall Films banner co-financed that project with Endeavor Content before it went on to earn three Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay (for Gyllenhaal), Best Actress (Olivia Colman) and Best Supporting Actress (Jessie Buckley). It also won Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards and a DGA Award for Gyllenhaal.
“It’s been a great year,” Dorfman tells Deadline in his first major interview. “And we’re just getting started.”
In 2018, Dorfman set up production and equity finance banner Samuel Marshall Films and debt financing outfit Media Finance Capital. In addition to Barbarians and The Lost Daughter, Samuel Marshall Films has produced Ramin Bahrani’s documentary 2nd Chance, which premiered in Sundance earlier this year and was acquired by Showtime, as well as 2019 documentary Untouchable, which followed the rise and fall of Harvey Weinstein. The company was also involved in Open Road Films’ Liam Neeson actioner Honest Thief.
Media Finance Capital, meanwhile, has a portfolio of 32 projects with recent titles including HBO documentary Tina, The Colour Room with Phoebe Dynevor and Matthew Goode and upcoming Russell Crowe feature Prizefighter: The Life Of Jem Belcher.
The philosophy behind the two companies, says Dorfman, is “trying to find the balance between commercial reality and creativity.”
“It depends where that balance ends up, to where a project will flow to,” he says, noting that Samuel Marshall takes a bit more of a creative view with more risk while MFC takes a more commercial, number-crunching standpoint.
When it came to The Lost Daughter, Dorfman knew its original writer Elena Ferrante and when Gyllenhaal’s adaptation was presented to him, he was attracted to it from the get-go. “The script was so well-written,” he recalls. “There was not a lot of fat on it, it was very concise. I was such a big fan of Maggie as an artist and an actor, and I just really wanted to get involved.”
For now, Dorfman says the idea is to build up a strong slate of commercial thrillers and action titles that sit in the $25M-$40M budget range which have a strong pre-sale value in the international marketplace. He cites films such as The Fugitive and Double Jeopardy as examples of titles he grew up enjoying that he sees opportunity for in the current market.
“I think there’s an opportunity there to focus on interesting talent working in that space, that can still be pre-sold,” he says, pointing to Liam Neeson as an example.
“Who would have thought that Liam Neeson would have become the star he has become?” he says. “It’s amazing. I’m really interested to see if people can follow in that vein. It’s about looking for those talents from a commercial standpoint while also backing people with vision creatively with a little more risk, like Maggie with Lost Daughter.”
It’s been an interesting journey for Dorfman to get here. A quick Google search reveals that he’s a man of many hats, who has worked through a raft of sectors in the business. But he tells Deadline that his main passion has always been to direct and make films. His father is British entrepreneur Lloyd Dorfman, founder of foreign exchange company Travelex and prolific arts philanthropist in the UK.
After studying theatre at university, Charles worked as an actor for a few years before pivoting to the exhibition space, becoming one of the original investors in indie UK cinema chain Everyman, which operates 35 cinemas in the territory. He trained as a manager there before having a brief stint as its interim CEO.
Then he went on to work as a development executive at prolific UK production house See-Saw Films, where he worked on titles such as The King’s Speech, Shame and Tracks.
“I had an amazing experience at See-Saw,” recalls Dorfman. “They have such a history of working with the same people, developing that rapport and relationship with talent. That’s the dream really but I think these things have got to also come naturally.”
Dorfman is also the CEO of Dorfman Media Holdings, which holds strategic investments in a select group of entertainment and media-related businesses unified by a passion for storytelling. These businesses include: IP incubator and production company Vespucci, which helps fund investigations and narratives for a vast network of journalists with an aim to bring stories to the screen; production and VFX house Untold Stories; entertainment marketing agency Think Jam; and talent-led marketing agency Talent Village.
“I was always really interested in investing in companies along the value chain of a film that could stand alone, but then possibly work together if and when the opportunities arise,” says Dorfman. “I just think that always made sense to me. With Vespucci, for instance, the focus on working with journalists who, when it comes down to it, really are the people who can sniff out a good story, as a route to develop IP and developing stories, that just made a lot of sense to me. We’re all kind of chasing the same story.”
While Dorfman sits as a director on most of these companies, and remains non-executive director of Everyman Cinema, he’s clear that these businesses are run by their “excellent management teams.”
“If there are ever opportunities that come up with a collaboration between these companies between Samuel Marshall or MFC, then I’m a big advocate for that but it’s not a necessity,” he says.
For now, the focus is to continue to write and develop projects he can direct while also building a slate of thrillers that fit into that commercial $25M-$40M bracket. He currently has a few projects in development that he’s looking at as vehicles for his next foray into the director’s seat. Additionally, once his slate is built, Dorfman says he’ll look seriously into setting up an international sales arm. Next month, he’ll be actively taking meetings at the Cannes Film Festival.
“I like to trust my instincts in as far as what stories I’m drawn to, and a good script is obviously very important,” says Dorfman. “I believe in the power of storytelling and a good story that is well-told is always going to find its audience.”
This week’s edition of Deadline’s International Disruptors is presented by Guillotine Vodka.