Arts interview

Legion M and the future of production

MANDY and the evolution of production companies

Directed by Panos Cosmatos
Screenplay by Panos Cosmatos, Aaron Stewart-Ahn
Starring Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Bill Duke, Richard Brake
Not Rated
Playing Sept. 14, 2018

I noticed in your background that you were involved in the “New York Rock Exchange,” and I couldn’t tell at first whether that part of your music interests or had to do with your mechanical engineering background!

Yeah! Well, actually I graduated in ’95, and my first job was designing the amusement park rides at Universal Studios, and then I was a toy designer for a while… then I got into music, and then I got into, you know, movies and TV… This is like, my fifth career.

Wow, yeah, definitely a long path you have there, it seems like.

That’s one of the cool things about an engineering degree, in that it prepares you to be successful in a lot of different areas.

Right! So the thing that makes Legion M unique is obviously the way you’re funded, through your sort of crowdfunding format, allowing fans to buy a piece of your company. I was curious, what strengths do you feel that structure has over the more traditional production style?

Yeah, it’s a great question, and I think it really gets at the heart of what Legion M is about. You know, we founded this company because of changes to securities law that, for the first time, allowed for something like this. We are the first entertainment company that was built — like, literally from day one — from the ground up to be owned by fans. There’s probably two main reasons why. First of all, the fundamental premise, like, if you’ve got an entertainment company that’s owned by a large group of people — in our case, you know, we’re talking about some of the most passionate fans in the world, it gives you a huge competitive advantage when your product’s on the market. Because when our movie launches, we bring with us a group of people who are financially and emotionally invested in it. So we know they’re going to come out, they’re going to bring their friends, they’re going to talk about it on social media, they’re going to be able to create that sort of grassroots buzz that a traditional studio would kill for but frankly money can’t buy. But the other side of it that not everyone realizes at first glance is just this idea that by having so many people invested in the company and its success, we have a legion of people that can help us find new IPs, test different content, and all that sort of stuff. It’s an extremely powerful model. It’s one that was never possible until two years ago when the JOBS Act passed. We think it’s got the potential to make us one of the most influential movie companies out there.

With that in mind, on the flip side, are there any unique struggles you guys have faced with this structure? Like I know we’re in this world where we have this small but really vocal group of people trying to push LucasFilms, for instance, to remake or renounce their films. How do you balance fan ownership with fan rule?

Yeah (laughter). That’s kind of the downside of fandom. It’s a great question, and I think the biggest question about Legion M coming out of the gate was that most people recognize the value that having a legion of fans provides, but the question was, having a legion of shareholders means that you have to put in extra work. It needs care and feeding, you need to develop an infrastructure, and manage issues, and that sort of stuff. So far, though, I need to tell you, it has exceeded our wild expectations. Everyone is very supportive. We’ve worked really hard to establish the right sort of culture and let people know the ground rules even before they invest. So first of all, this isn’t the sort of thing where we’re all going to get together and go over lines, and you don’t get to give your notes to the director. If you look at companies like Amazon, there’s massive value in having data, and we think the Legion is our core strength, and the fact that we have these people that we can turn to for data. There are some projects we’re working on where we’re looking at how we can tap into that. At the end of the day, this company is owned by fans, so my job as one of the managers is to make sure that we’re doing what the fans want, but also that we’re capitalizing on the wisdom of crowds, tapping into this data that we’ve got. Ultimately, it’s still early days for us. We founded the company two years ago; we have about 40 or 50 thousand members in our Legion, we have about 10 thousand investors who have invested at least $10 to own a piece of the company. But honestly, our biggest problem as a company is we don’t have enough hands to accept all the support that the people in the Legion are available to provide.

On a similar track, how do you encourage diversity of experience and vision in the projects? More pointedly, how do you ensure that fans who have more money don’t wind up having more of a voice?

It’s a strict meritocracy as far as that goes. We look to the Legion for guidance on our projects, and sometime that can be explicit, like, “Hey, here’s a project we’re considering doing!” or “What kind of project do you think we should be looking for?” Frankly, though, Hollywood is a very complex, extremely competitive industry that, while a large group of fans are very well equipped to help us navigate and find art, and tell us what’s best, it’s not very well equipped to handle the business side of things. It’s often very nuanced, it’s confidential, and we have a strong advisory board of Hollywood insiders that have a track record of success in the industry. So for us, when we’re making a decision, it’s really a balance between those two factors. We try our best to give the Legion a voice and a say in what’s happening and to set the direction, but of course we need to balance that with — we need people to say, yes, this is a good deal, or no, don’t trust this guy, that sort of thing.

There’s of course the movie MANDY coming out featuring Nic Cage — personally someone I think of as one of our finest modern actors. What role did Legion M play in that production? It seems that you were involved with the music, but what role did you play at large?

We got a look at this relatively early. They came to us when it was just in the script stage, and we read the script. Ultimately we invested in the film, and like you said we invested partially in the film and partially in the soundtrack. The main producer of this film is Elijah Wood’s company, which is called Spectrevision, and we heard from them really early on, and they dug what we were doing, and they understood it, and they liked the idea, and we were looking for a project. They came to us with this one, and we made an investment, and now we’re working with them to promote the film. We got the official merchandising rights; we’re working with the Legion to organize meetups around the country to support it. It’s been a great trip. The movie premiered in the spring at Sundance, and we had invested before it even was accepted to Sundance. We had invested at the very early stages and had no idea how it was going to turn out. Everybody sets out to make a great movie, but by definition only a slim percentage end up achieving greatness. We saw it for the first time at Sundance, like — literally, the guy brought the reel off a plane and hand delivered it to the projectionist so that they could play it, and we saw it for the first time. And it’s a wild — it’s kind of out there.

I’ve been noticing that. (laughter)

For me, it’s kind of like A Clockwork Orange meets Deliverance; it’s a true midnight movie. Panos Cosmatos, the director, is amazing. It’s only his second film. He is extremely talented. A lot of people are comparing him to Stanley Kubrick because it’s very visual, it’s very moving, it’s very powerful. The whole thing, you could go frame by frame and literally any frame you could hang up on your wall because it’s so beautiful. But it’s weird. If you were to do a word cloud, probably the biggest words would be “batshit crazy.”

Yeah, yeah. (laughter)

But it came out at Sundance, and it ended up being one of the two best reviewed films at Sundance, having a 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, then it went up at Cannes and got a four-minute standing ovation, so we’re super excited to get it out there, to showcase this emerging talent Panos Cosmatos. Nicolas Cage has, in this movie — I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know when you see it — but he has this scene in this movie that will go down in history as one of the greatest Nic Cage scenes of all time. He is amazing in this movie. It is like Nicolas Cage playing Nicolas Cage turned up to 11. (laughter)

I’m looking forward to it! Building on that, do you guys have a guiding philosophy behind what types of movies you want to support?

We went out and wanted to recruit the most passionate fans, so we started at ComicCon and film festivals, like Sundance. And it’s funny, because in some sense those represent polar opposites, you know? ComicCon represents studio, tentpole films, and Sundance is all about independent cinema. The common thread, though, if you go to both of those is that the people love movies. They’re passionate about creativity, and it’s actually remarkable. Even though the product themselves are kind of polar opposites, the DNA — the audiences that go there — are actually similar. For us, it’s really about finding something that we think is going to resonate with the Legion. So it tends to be stuff that’s more creative; it tends to be something like — you could do a panel at ComicCon about it. In this particular instance, with MANDY, it’s part of our Legion Midnight label, which we explicitly created to support emerging voices, and encourage them to explore, because at the end of the day, Nosferatu in its time was considered “out there,” the stuff we study in school are people that have innovative ideas. So that’s one of the things that we really value, which is why we thought this was such a good fit.

I actually noticed that one of the first films you put some production work on was Colossal, which is far from what I’d call a “typical movie.”

Yeah, I loved that movie, and we were so fortunate to have that as our first film because it really set the tone, it was a way for us to tell the world what we’re all about, and the sorts of movies that we want. And at the end of the day, we’re trying to have a diverse slate. At the end of the day, you can’t have movies that will please everyone, and what would the fun of that be? Honestly, if you can’t argue about movies and talk about what’s good and what’s bad, what’s the point? This is art; we’re supposed to disagree about it. We know that we’re not going to do movies that everybody loves, but our hope is that we can diversify and have a little something for everyone. That’s important for engaging our Legion and making sure that our shareholders are happy, but it’s also important from a business standpoint because Hollywood is kind of like venture capital. It’s really difficult to know in advance what’s going to be successful or not, and the way that you build a company that’s built to stand the test of time is to diversify it. So we’re diversifying across media: we’ve got virtual reality, television, film. You have MANDY on one side, and we’re looking for a holiday musical to balance it out (laughter) because we’re not looking to go too far in any one direction.

Yeah, looks like you guys did stretch all the way out to VR experiences.

We had an incredible experience with Kevin Smith and Stan Lee, and VR is a really interesting new media. There are a lot of people that believe that VR is going to do for television what television did for radio. It’s such early days, and the technology is evolving so rapidly, but we saw the opportunity with Stan Lee, one of the greatest creators of our time, he’s 95 years old now and, with VR, here’s an opportunity to spend an hour with Stan. Like, what if you could go back and spend an hour with William Shakespeare? What would that be worth? We did that with Stan, and we used two 8K cameras. The resolution we captured that with is so high there’s not actually a screen in the world that can project it today. But we know that at some point in the not so distant future you’re going to slip those VR goggles onto your eyes and it’ll be visually imperceptible from real life. And that’s what we captured Stan at, spending an hour chatting with him and Kevin Smith about the creation of Spider-Man, and running Marvel, as well as when he went out to fight in World War II. He nearly avoided going to the front lines and wound up in a propaganda unit with Dr. Seuss of all people. We asked him: “What’s the hardest day in your life, and how did you get through it?” It was absolutely amazing, what we captured there. That’s the kind of thing we expect will have value forever.

As a wrap-up question, are there any upcoming projects you can tease for our readers? Anything you can talk about?

Well, if you go to our website you can see the dozen or so projects that we’ve publicly revealed. If you join the Legion — it doesn’t cost anything, we’re actually not open for investment right now — we do this thing called the Legion M pulse, every month or so we send out a questionnaire asking what they’re watching, what projects they’d like to see, what projects we’ve been working on. So we do plan to make a big announcement at New York Comic Con and another one at Los Angeles Comic Con.

An abridged version of this interview was published in print.