A major shift is occurring in the way people watch films and television shows, not to mention the way that they are produced and financed. Sigma Phi Epsilon member Nate Bolotin, California-Santa Barbara, is on the cusp of these changes with his film production and sales company, XYZ Films.
Since co-founding the company a decade ago, Bolotin has helped to finance, produce and license over 250 films. The magazine Variety recently listed him and his two co-founders as part of its “Hollywood’s New Leaders” list.
“I always loved movies growing up, but I never thought I would make it my career,” explained Bolotin. “It wasn’t until I took a few college film classes — really nothing to do with actual film production, but rather focused on film history and philosophy — that I began to realize my passion.”
This passion led Bolotin to his next step: completing his MFA at UCLA’s prestigious Producers Program. Shortly afterward, he found himself working as an executive at The Collective, a Beverly Hills-based management production company, where he focused on structuring film finance agreements and sales.
“I was looking for ideas to develop as film projects. At the time, my future XYZ co-founder Nick Spicer shared a Sports Illustrated article that he read about former Ultimate Fighting Championship competitor Lee Murray. He had this incredible story where, following his fighting career, he masterminded one of the largest cash robberies in history.”
Bolotin, Spicer and another UCLA film graduate, Aram Tertzakian, worked to raise money to win the rights to the story. This eventually led to an exclusive one-year partnership with Time Inc. to not only develop articles from Sports Illustrated into film projects, but also those from the media company’s other publications, including Time, Fortune, People and Life.
“The development partnership with Time Inc. was the impetus to form XYZ Films,” said Bolotin, who officially established the company with Spicer and Tertzakian in 2008. The trio continued to raise money for new projects, and they eventually built a seven-figure development fund. The fund allowed them to option magazine articles with potential for movie development, bring in screenwriters and attach big-name actors to film production packages that could then be pitched to studios and key financial backers.
Bolotin and his co-founders were only 25 years old at the time. “It was a major risk for us, particularly as we were taking on a lot of personal debt at such a young age,” he said. “But we felt we had a good strategy to start off strong in the industry — concentrating our time on development in the idea stage, acquiring rights to stories, and developing them into finished screenplays.
“We really had to grind as we were starting out. We had a strong ‘startup culture’ via a lot of couch surfing and living on ramen noodles.”
The strategy and hard work paid off as XYZ connected with up-and-coming Welsh director Gareth Evans, developing his action film “The Raid: Redemption,” which featured the traditional Indonesian martial artform Pencak Silat.
“‘The Raid’ became a cult hit and helped put us on the map,” said Bolotin. Combined with other early XYZ successes, “The Raid” allowed Bolotin and his co-founders to take steps such as acquiring film review website TwitchFilm.com (now ScreenAnarchy.com) to identify emerging talent and films.
“We are always searching for filmmakers with a unique perspective. More often than not we are stumbling across brilliant new voices in hidden corners around the world in places that have spawned film fans from childhood via access to global cinema,” he said.
In recent years, XYZ has become proficient at arranging financing for film projects that are yet to be made, as well as representing completed films as they search for worldwide sales and distribution deals. Bolotin is concentrating on international distribution and sales while his co-founders focus on development, content and financing from their Culver City, California, offices.
Some of XYZ’s recent hits include “Brawl in Cell Block 99” starring Vince Vaughn, Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner and Netflix original “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” with Elijah Wood, and an adaptation of the graphic novel “I Kill Giants” with Zoe Saldana. Meanwhile, “Mandy” starring Nicolas Cage had a strong premiere at Sundance in January and will also play as part of the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
“We have always worked hard to provide our filmmakers and partners every possible tool to make movies the way they want to make them,” said Bolotin. “And we love to work with rising directors who we feel make movies with global appeal.”
An international focus has become critical for XYZ’s many productions. “Shooting internationally has enabled us to work with talent we wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” Bolotin shared. “We’ve also been able to access new sources of financial support, including government support, that give us the ability to reduce costs and ensure better financial models for investor recoupment.
“On the other hand, film licensing and sales abroad is usually pretty inefficient. Different countries have different rules and regulations around distribution agreements, market collections, viewing platforms, piracy risk and enforcement — all of these are constant issues.”
Bolotin and his team have become skilled at navigating these unique challenges as well as more common ones. They’ve learned to remain equally focused on the creative and business elements of every project.
“Moneywise, it is always a tricky balance between supporting a filmmaker’s vision and working towards financial profitability,” Bolotin said. “We have to find that equilibrium that ensures that the film’s essence isn’t compromised strictly to yield ROI. The difference between filming one big scene or even a few more days of production could be the difference between investor loss or gain, so we have a really challenging role to manage both sides of the creative-business equation.”
As XYZ has expanded, Bolotin and his team have kept a sharp eye on content delivery platforms such as Netflix.
“The industry is changing so rapidly. We have always tried to remain a few steps ahead for the sole purpose of ensuring that our business model is meeting the changing times,” he explained.
“Aligning with services like Netflix has been pretty organic as it was clear that they had a big vision for the future of content. We wanted to be a part of it, to experiment at the very least.” XYZ has produced seven Netflix original films in recent years, including reuniting with Gareth Evans for his upcoming thriller “Apostle” starring Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen and Lucy Boynton.
“We’re hopeful that global streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and other emerging platforms will be able to help break down international borders and create a more globally accessible delivery system,” Bolotin reflected.
The work of staying balanced
Bolotin joined SigEp after applying for the California-Santa Barbara chapter’s Balanced Man Scholarship. Chapter brothers interviewed Bolotin over breakfast in his hometown of Las Vegas, and he ended up winning second place.
“My chapter experience helped me to learn to balance my studies, work and social life all at the same time. It also helped me to realize that I really enjoyed ‘the arts.’ Brothers would help me put together my film productions and attended our local premieres,” he said. “Plus I’ve had the privilege of working professionally with other SigEps, particularly attorneys Scott Carr (California-Santa Barbara ’86) and Aaron Lavine (California-Santa Barbara ’05), both of whom have been instrumental in supporting XYZ.”
In addition to relationships, Bolotin has also carried SigEp values like the Balanced Man Ideal into his career, and he works hard at managing his stress levels. “In the film industry, one day you are on a project, the next day you are not,” he explained. “Since I travel nearly six months a year, I try to stick to a consistent weekly workout schedule. And most importantly, I make sleep a priority during the week. I’ve learned from my Spanish clients and friends to take a short siesta after lunch — even though I have to lock my door and close my blinds so my colleagues don’t interrupt me!”
“Staying balanced helps in a huge way.”
“When people say passion makes movies happen, they really mean commitment. Passion ebbs and flows. Making movies is arduous, and you need commitment to go the distance. Staying balanced helps in a huge way,” concluded Bolotin.