For a production company just four years old, Cuba Pictures has an enviable track record. Its first film “Boy A” won five BAFTAs, while its second film “Broken”, with a UK release in April, has already won Best British Film at the British Independent Film Awards. What is perhaps unusual is that Cuba Pictures is part of Curtis Brown, one of the oldest literary agencies in the world.
The unit was set up by Nick Marston, chairman of CB’s media division, as a way of using the literary insight of Curtis Brown to develop film projects attractive to broadcasters. The move was in part a reaction to market forces. The more traditional approach for agents, optioning off film rights to studios for large sums, was beginning to feel like less fertile ground. “That business is not what it once was,” says Marston, “you can still get big option deals, but that market over the past decade has collapsed. Those deals just aren’t around so much any more.”
Cuba provides a different route. “What Curtis Brown had was a huge fund of material. What I’ve done is develop relationships with screenwriters and the film world, and there was a logic in bringing this all together. What you are then getting are committed people with an understanding of the book.” And, he adds: “We can cut better deals for our clients, as well as giving them more input into the creative process.”
Its first two films are good examples. Boy A (Serpent’s Tail) was a 2007 novel written by Jonathan Trigell. Marston brought in screenwriter Mark O’Rowe (also represented by Curtis Brown), and gained financing from Channel 4. Marston then found a first novel by Daniel Clay called Broken (Harper), and, after enlisting the help of “Boy A” director Rufus Norris, got backing from Everton FC owner Bill Kenwright—whose eponymous theatre and TV production company is of one of UK’s largest indies—to make a feature film that will be released by Studio Canal in April.
“People thought we would try and snaffle the hot titles, but both books we’ve done were undiscovered gems, slightly neglected before. If we hadn’t put in the development work and, to be frank, brought in the screenwriter Mark O’Rowe, then I doubt the world would have had those films.”
Cuba’s latest project trod a slightly different path. Susanna Clarke’s epic novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury) had previously been optioned by New Line, but when the option lapsed Marston jumped in. “There was a certain amount of interest [from other producers] but Cuba came up with the idea of doing it as a television series.”
Having established the modus operandi, Cuba is now expanding. It will operate as a standalone unit under the Curtis Brown umbrella, and pitch for books handled by other agencies. “We are now gearing up on the production side to handle it ourselves. I don’t think anyone has done this before; brought in bespoke producers under the agency umbrella. I think there will be a lot more of it in this area.”
Tally Garner is to return, from maternity leave, as a full-time producer and Dixie Linder, a producer with no agency background at all, has joined as co-head of Film and Television. The move means Marston can build “Chinese walls” between the role of producer and that of agent. “If you are going down the Cuba route, you have to be very clear that you are not also acting as an agent,” he says.
This is an allusion to the temptation for an agent selling film rights to include themselves as a producer. In the US literary agents do not also act as producers, but management companies do. “We have very clear guidelines. Cuba is a separate entity, I oversee it, but we have now brought in dedicated producers. You have to be extremely clear on what basis you are acting, and you learn this from experience.”
Marston warns others not to underestimate the amount of effort. “It’s a lot of work and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly; you need to have a personal vision.” Cuba, he says, is an “investment” by Curtis Brown, and will remain so even after 'Jonathan Strange'. “There are higher risks certainly. You’d hope for higher rewards for the agency and the client, but at the moment it’s an investment.
"Doing 'Jonathan Strange' shows how expensive it is to run a production company, and how quickly you need to convert development into production to make it work. That’s probably one good reason why others haven’t done it.”