EXCLUSIVE: Utopia has finalized its North American deal for Cannes Competition pic Holy Spider, the noir thriller from Danish-Iranian filmmaker Ali Abbasi. We told you the deal was all but there a couple of days ago.
Based on a horrific true story, the film follows female journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) who travels to the Iranian holy city of Mashhad to investigate a serial killer (Mehdi Bajestani) who believes he is doing the work of God, cleansing the streets of sinners by murdering sex workers. As the body count mounts, and Rahimi draws closer to exposing his crimes, the opportunity for justice grows harder to attain as the ‘Spider Killer’ is embraced by many as a hero.
The Persian-language movie has been one of the surprises of Cannes. Not just for its shock value, but also due to its North American buyer: New York indie sales and distribution firm Utopia. The acquisition marks the company’s biggest and most eye catching acquisition to date.
The deal was negotiated by Danielle DiGiacomo on behalf of Utopia, CAA Media Finance and Eva Diederix on behalf of Wild Bunch International.
Sales and distribution firm Utopia was launched three years ago by filmmaker and musician Robert Schwartzman, son of Talia Shire and nephew of Francis Ford Coppola. There has been chatter for a little while that that the company could one day become a Neon type. Even during this deal, it was said to us that the company has “Neon-like potential.”
The company’s Head Of Content DiGiacomo, who is flying back to the U.S. today, took time during her layover in London to tell us about how the company grabbed the Cannes buzz title.
“Holy Spider was near the top of my list coming into the festival,” the New York native told us. “I loved Border [Abbasi’s previous film] and I loved that this film sounded dark. I thought there would be more to it than your average genre film or true crime procedural. When I was watching it at the first market screening last week I kept thinking about Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver in terms of the male character. Then you have this female protagonist who you’re really rooting for, who comes up against so much sexism. It really deserves multiple viewings because of the multiple twists. As soon as we saw it, we were riveted. No one walked out of the buyers’ screening, which is very unusual, even at the graphic moments.”
DiGiacomo put in an offer soon after seeing it last week. “I came in strong”, she admits. It was the company’s biggest financial outlay to date. “I knew it would be a challenge to get it. We knew some big players were interested, but we were aggressive on it. Our whole team loved it. We felt like we should go all in on this particular film at this market. It wasn’t just about the money, we were already thinking about creative ways to release this and its awards potential.”
The buyer and her team met with the filmmakers, sellers and “obsessively chased it until we closed”. “That’s my MO. I don’t really wait until the reviews come out before chasing,” she told us.
The film, which features graphic sex and violence, drew visceral reactions from critics. “I understand that,” she says. “I don’t mind polarizing reactions: that’s the purpose of filmmaking. I appreciate films that are divisive and create a cultural conversation.”
The film is expected to be Utopia’s widest release to date, despite an anticipated R-rating. “We want to bring it to the widest audience possible and assure it is the film that everyone is talking about this year, and for years to come,” she says.
How wide could it go? “It’s hard to put a number on it now but it means we’ll go all in on a PR campaign with our regular marketing collaborator Ryan Werner. It means crafting a festival and awards campaign and digging into the marketing materials and that we’ll be very collaborative with the filmmaker. It’s something we’ll platform out in a traditional theatrical way. In our mind this is a Parasite level film.”
Abbasi, whose last film Border won the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes in 2018 en route to two Oscar nominations, said about collaborating with the company: “I am really looking forward to working with the great team at Utopia, a company who are passionate about cinema that takes risks and doesn’t compromise.”
Utopia has recently had private investment, which is allowing it to take some bigger swings, DiGiacomo tells us.
“There is more investment coming into the company. Private investors are helping us to take bigger swings on the acquisition front and give us some P & A spending commitment.”
Releases to date have included Spirit Award winner Shiva Baby by Emma Seligman; Dasha Nekrasova’s Berlinale premiere The Scary Of Sixty-First; Cannes and NYFF selection Vortex by Gaspar Noé; and Lena Dunham’s follow-up to Tiny Furniture, Sharp Stick.
“We’ve had a fast growth, despite much of that taking place during Covid. Picking up Gaspar Noe’s film Vortex last Cannes was a great next step for us. The film is on release now and we’re seeing that the core of the audience coming for the movie are in their 20s. We’re excited by edgy, innovative films, that will get people into theaters. There are many films that need to be seen on the big screen. We’ll put Holy Spider on the big screen and through streaming but this is a film that a lot of people will benefit from seeing on the big screen.”
In terms of the Neon comparisons, the former Orchard exec adds: “It’s flattering to hear and we feel honoured to be talked about in that way. We’re ambitious about creating a cultural conversation, about tapping into younger audiences and showcasing women directors, too. There’s space for us to grow into. We’ve launched our Originals strand and we’re really diversifying the business by getting into production.”
Upcoming projects for Utopia Originals include a partnership with Norman Reedus’ bigbaldhead Productions and Shout! Studios for a Sorority House Massacre TV series, based on the cult movie of the same name.
The company is circling a couple of “very different titles” in the Un Certain Regard strand.
Holy Spider is produced by Sol Bondy (The Tale) and Jacob Jarek (Speak No Evil). Production companies are Profile Pictures and One Two Films, and co-producers are Nordisk Film Production, Wild Bunch International, Film i Väst, Why Not Productions, ZDF/ARTE, and ARTE France Cinéma.