The Rich Kids Changing Independent Film

Trust-fund babies and entrepreneurs are bankrolling auteur-minded films, with varying results—but at least they're not sequels.

Knight of Cups financier Ken Kao with the film's stars and producers at the Berlin Film Festival (Axel Schmidt/AP)

“All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t even know,” Christian Bale muses in the trailer for Knight of Cups, the latest film from director Terrence Malick. Scenes of scantily clad women dancing, Hollywood bacchanals pulsating, and Bale pondering 21st-century architecture ensue. Then: “I can’t remember the man I wanted to be.”

All in all, it's a familiar, if refreshingly modern, teaser from Terrence Malick, the reclusive director known both for cryptic films that interrogate the relationship between man and nature, and for critical receptions of those films that fall into extremes of either love or hate. But for many critics who caught the entire thing at the Berlin Film Festival last week, the consensus leaned in favor of the latter—several are calling his seventh film “a ludicrous self-parody,” a “tortured assemblage,” and “the least interesting spiritual crisis in history.”

At 72 years old, the director is retreading old ground. Yet two days before the premiere, the film was picked up for distribution by a startup—a company called Broad Green Pictures that bought Cups and his next, untitled effort in what was reported to be a $7-million deal. The purchase was celebrated by Knight of Cups' financier, Bloom, another young company founded by the Hollywood newcomer and heir to the Garmin GPS fortune Ken Kao. Bloom aims to create auteur-minded films and is bankrolling Malick’s upcoming project as well. (The reclusive director has been on an uncharacteristic tear recently: He's released three films in the past four years, a heroic effort compared to his drippy output from the late '70s to the early aughts. His documentary Voyage of Time is slated for 2016 and another untitled-yet-starry effort is also in the works.)

Malick is having a moment. But the coup in Berlin crystallizes a paradigm that extends far beyond him: A group of moneyed Hollywood reformers who would rather give old masters the opportunity to fail than new directors the chance to try.

Broad Green and Bloom aren't the only startups diversifying the current slate of superheros and sequels with works that careen to the other end of the cinematic spectrum—enigmatic, sprawling films from name-brand auteurs. The Hollywood Reporter likens Kao to Megan Ellison, the heir to the Oracle fortune who has helped finance 13 projects since she founded her company, Annapurna Pictures, in 2011. Other, more commercially-minded precedents include Gigi Pritzker from Odd Lot Entertainment, Molly Smith of Alcon, and Tyler and Timmy Thompson of Cross Creek Pictures. It’s difficult to argue against the films Ellison has supported: The Master, The Grandmaster, Her, Spring Breakers, Foxcatcher, American Hustle, Irrational Man, and That’s What I’m Talking About, among others. Her favored directors include Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Richard Linklater, and David O. Russell.

The major studios are threatened by the sheer artistic firepower that upstart companies like Annapurna—and hedge fund investors who used to help them back their own films, before a few struck out on their own—are offering. They’ve slapped nouveau-riche patrons with a bad reputation for purchasing their spot at the cool kids’ table. (Ellison, indeed, is said to have unwinded with Jessica Chastain on the set of Zero Dark Thirty with Game of Thrones and a bottle of wine, though it’s hard to fault their appreciation for such universal pleasures.)

Another argument lobbed against the ambitions of these upstarts is that they’re just trust-fund babies looking to get creative: Megan and David Ellison were both USC film-school dropouts. Kao was previously a lawyer for sports and high tech before he set out to become a “creative individual.” Although self-made, the Hammond brothers were fans who thought Hollywood wasn’t giving their directors enough creative control.* The studios' approbation is only to be expected—they were making these directors work for crumbs; these new production companies are offering directors like Malick a moveable feast.

In the case of Knight of Cups, Malick might have had a little too much creative control. But then, there’s something noble in the abandon with which these financiers believe in their auteurs and the artistic values they uphold. Ellison, for one, has reportedly lost tens of millions of dollars funding such commercially risky efforts as The Master, The Grandmasters, and Killing Them Softly. Some of her efforts—including Zero Dark Thirty and American Hustle—ended up with love at the Oscars but others, like Spring Breakers, appeared more calculated to scandalize the Academy than pander to them.

This is a far cry from the fate that awaits ambitious, idiosyncratic filmmakers in the studio system, where they’re passed over if their films don’t deliver on the accolades or box office receipts. The Wachowskis, whose space epic Jupiter Ascending is the ambitious failure du jour for Warner Bros., can hardly expect that kind of leeway. “It’s been a good run,” Andy Wachowski recently told The Wall Street Journal. Paul Thomas Anderson, too, already something of a hot potato for studios who love his name brand but hate to lose so much money, may suffer thanks to the paltry recognition the Academy has paid his stoner comedy, Inherent Vice, so far (Luckily, Ellison is a fan). If those same standards had applied to Malick, whose last film, To the Wonder, was a huge box office disappointment, audiences might have been experiencing Knight of Cups for the first time in 1080p on a dusty computer screen.

The old-guard directors win out, even if nobody else does. For all their good intentions, these financiers are making a trip to the independent cinema an even more specialized, occasionally punishing, experience than it already is. As for independent filmmakers, the only ones who truly win in this scenario are pre-established, posh brands who play well with foreign distributors, which Kao has said are his target market. The upshot is that old auteurs will be able to fail more spectacularly than ever. The new guys will continue to fight for scraps at Sundance.

Yet, overall, it’s difficult not to feel some new optimism in this era where, for the likes of Malick, anything goes. Whatever its failures or pretentions, Knight of Cups represents a deeply ambitious work set in the modern day, a subject Malick only just began exploring in To the Wonder. It’s not the Academy-pleasing period pieces of yore for him—it’s also a film that grapples with contemporary entertainment culture and its woes, however indulgent and privileged those may be. (Some scenes, indeed, may have been shot by Christian Bale on a GoPro.)

So maybe audiences should reserve a little sympathy for successful auteurs with a few masterpieces under their belt. Indulging their whims doesn't often produce works that are popular—but sometimes, they are the ones that should last. Malick is often called an Impressionist, which refers not to Monet or Renoir, but the post-WWII movement in France that arose when the country was flooded with Hollywood exports, and that produced gauzy, silent, low-budget films with the express purpose of preserving a unique culture. Amidst a glut of superhero movies and sequels, it’s hard not to think of the likes of Malick as cultural treasures that need safeguarding, too.

* This post has been updated to reflect that Gabriel and Daniel Hammond, the founders of Broad Green, are self-made.