Anybody with a video camera can make independent movies. Selling them to the U.S. and making money? Brightlight Pictures has been doing exactly that, snatching up cross border profits.
Despite his tailored suit, greying hair and the photos of his four kids on his office wall, Shawn Williamson (right) can’t help but come across like a hyperactive 12-year-old boy trapped in a 40-year-old’s body. A remote control in hand, he’s zipping through yesterday’s dailies for White Noise 2, a film he’s producing with his Brightlight Pictures partner and co-founder Stephen Hegyes, 38. Williamson shows off a scene filmed in Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre, in which a grand piano gets tossed off a balcony and lands just inches from the camera. “Boom!” he exclaims. “That’s great!” Hegyes saunters into the office, dressed in jeans, T-shirt and sweater. “Is that the piano shot?” he asks. It’s clear they’re both buzzing, and who can blame them – how often does anyone huck a Steinway off a ledge and make money doing it? Hegyes and Williamson launched their production company five years ago. While they won’t divulge revenue figures, here’s a hint: last year they did US$168 million in production (all the films they produced, as owners or co-owners, earned that amount). Their biggest hit so far was last year’s White Noise, which earned US$92 million internationally – a feat they’re hoping to repeat with next year’s sequel. As Hegyes talks about his monthly L.A. schmooze-fests and Williamson recalls how a visiting Al Pacino admired the orchids on his desk, the world they inhabit sounds truly glamorous. But this is a business. And a tough one, at that. “Have you seen Swimming with Sharks?” asks Williamson, referring to the dark satire that portrayed the industry as a world without morals or ethics – complete with violence, torture and revenge. “It’s that bad.” “But it’s an industry that works,” Hegyes is quick to add. “The biggest problem is when people go in with preconceptions of how it could be. At the end of the day, you have to understand the business.” For Brightlight Pictures, getting a strong foothold in the industry has meant actively plumbing the American market. “The markets anywhere outside America are too small to sustain a film. You have to tap into America,” says Hegyes. “And the dollars are portable,” Williamson notes. That’s something Vancouver learned the hard way when Ontario introduced a tax credit in December 2004, prompting several local companies to threaten to move jobs eastward (including Brightlight) – until the B.C. government introduced its own enhanced tax incentives a month later. So far, so good for Brightlight. The duo have produced (in addition to White Noise) flicks such as Bloodrayne, Alone in the Dark and the recently released Slither. (“Currently, horror is something that sells,” says Williamson.) While they haven’t been nominated for an Oscar yet, they’re on track to becoming the biggest production group in B.C. after Lions Gate Entertainment, which recently gained fame for Crash. They’re clearly pumped about the future when asked what lies ahead. Hegyes, eyes glowing, blurts out: “Come on! You saw the piano crash!”