How Topic Studios’ Big Bet on Cannes-Winner ‘The Climb’ is Paying Off Despite the Pandemic
Eighteen months after “The Climb” debuted at Cannes, the film’s director, writer and star Michael Angelo Covino saw his film in a movie theater. It’s been a long and winding road for the film to ultimately land in theaters, but even amid a pandemic, it’s a big moment for Covino and his filmmaking partner and co-star Kyle Marvin.
“I’m gonna probably head up to Westchester or Connecticut to sit in a 25% full theater by myself and just sort of take it in,” Covino told Variety on the eve of the film’s release. “[I’ll] buy my own ticket and just have that experience, because that only happens once in a lifetime, getting to buy a ticket to your first movie.”
“It’s been amazing to still have the ability to come out with the film right now,” he added. “Obviously the world has sort of stopped in a lot of ways. And I think we just we were really lucky that Sony Pictures Classics was so committed to releasing the film this way and not just being pressured to get it out there on digital platforms.”
The film — which follows two friends whose (somewhat toxic) relationship is challenged over the years — was released Friday in 408 theaters, eight months after its initial release date in March. Of the pandemic-produced delay, Covino said: “I guess I could chalk it up as this is a nice little memento of my first film. You look at the box office numbers for America and March 20 is the only week that there’s just no box office in the last however many years, or ever.”
“The Climb” earned $103.5K in its opening weekend, with a $254 per-theater-average, marking a financial win for the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures Classic, and the project’s backer, Topic Studios.
“We’re very happy with it,” SPC’s co-president Michael Barker says of the film’s opening. “I also think the word of mouth is so strong on the picture. The thing about Sony Classics movies, especially movies like this one, it’s like the tortoise and the hare, where slow and steady wins the race. I think during the pandemic, and towards the coming down of the pandemic, the ‘slow and steady wins the race’ [mantra] is going to be real, but it’s going to be slower.”
The wait for “The Climb” has been a lesson in patience. After initially taking off like a rocket after Cannes, it has been a slow climb for the film. But through it all, Covino and Marvin have been able to count on Topic Studios, which has been along for the ride since the filmmakers pitched the team on producing a feature-length version of their hit Sundance short in 2018.
“We actually had the premiere party for the movie on Tuesday, the week that theaters closed by law on Friday,” Topic Studios’ executive vice president Maria Zuckerman recalls. ”I can’t imagine a bigger emotional roller coaster for filmmakers than that. And I think they’re pinching themselves that it’s actually finally happening, and we’re just on the journey with them. We feel the same way.”
And though it’s been a uniquely challenging journey, the experience of shepherding “The Climb” to a theatrical release has been one that fully embraces a big part of Topic Studios’ mission. This is true in terms of “taking the full bet” on filmmakers in-house to produce a film like “The Climb” in the first place, and in finding the right distribution partners for the films they co-finance or co-distribute (like the studio has done with movies like “Luce” and Pablo Larrain’s upcoming Princess Diana film “Spencer” with Neon, “Dream Horse” with Bleecker Street and “The Fight” with Magnolia Pictures).
“[“The Climb”] does exemplify what we’re trying to do, which is really show our belief in voices that are either newer voices that really has something to say and haven’t had the platform yet, or more established voices and to take some swings and support them and their creative ideas that we believe in as well,” Zuckerman says. “But the main thing is that filmmakers know that we support them, believe in them, want to build lasting relationships with them and do the right thing for the film. When we bring it to market, [this] really helps them find the right home, wherever that is, at that right moment.”
For Covino’s part, he was familiar with the company’s films (including “Spotlight” and “Leave No Trace”) and friendly with its executives, like Ryan Heller (SVP, films and acquisitions) and Talia Cohen after years of working as an independent producer. But when the future of “The Climb” came up in conversation between Cohen and Covino at a restaurant during Sundance in 2018, he wasn’t expecting to partner on the project.
“I was joking around to her about how we were pitching the feature and she [said], ‘Well, why aren’t you pitching it to us?’” he recalls. “I was like, ‘I didn’t think you guys were in the market for these type of films — this risky, first-time filmmaker, no big-name actors kind of thing,’ just a really high bar to clear [because] it’s all execution-dependent. And to her credit, she said, ‘Let me hear the pitch; let me decide.’ And we loosely pitched it to her at a restaurant.”
After Covino and Marvin approached the full Topic Studios team, the partnership was a done deal. “I don’t know that it was part of the mandate of what they were looking for,” Covino says. “But I think that’s the beauty of working with a company like that — they understood that Kyle and I had a vision for what we were trying to make. And they took a gamble on that, believed in that and that was everything to us.”
Pre-production on the film began that summer, which Covino describes as “a very collaborative process” and a somewhat rare experience for a first-time director. “I never felt pressured like someone was going to take the cut away from me, or like I was gonna not necessarily get what I want, or being forced to make decisions that I didn’t want to make.”
“This is just a very unusual, special film from beginning to end,” Zuckerman says of Topic Studios’ decision to take on the ambitious project. “’The Climb’ is very particular because it was first-time filmmakers who also wrote it, who are also starring in it. It was truly a bet on them and they were not established yet, and so we really tried to keep the budget at a responsible number. It was a big bet because you don’t know how things are going to go, but it actually was a responsible bet because we just loved it.”
Adds Zuckerman: “They had a track record as producers, they had spent many years together running a production company where they made commercials and films, so we knew that they knew how to pull off this movie that was actually very ambitions. Doing those long takes on a low budget with not a ton of rehearsal time is extremely ambitious, and with a great editor and crew, technically they pulled it off and they made us believe that they could do that.”
Zuckmeran joined the Topic Studios team on the eve of the film’s Cannes moment in 2019, where the film went on to win the Jury Coup de Coeur prize in the un certain regard category. “We were just happy to be in Cannes,” she recalls. “And then it really became a discovery at the festival, and we had a multi-party bidding war with streamers, and with specialty for theatrical.”
After Sony Pictures Classic won the rights to the feature, the film went on to screen at Toronto, Telluride and Sundance. The only time the train stopped churning was due to the global shutdowns as a result of the pandemic, which saw the film’s release date moved from March to summer, before landing in November.
“We really had a great run with this [film], I think it’s more of just a sobering moment, like ‘Okay, our film is out there in the world for audiences to see,’” Covino admits. “We can in a lot of ways close this chapter and move on to the next thing. Because the real complicated thing is, we had the success of the premiere of this film, but we were waiting for the release of it and it sort of puts the rest of your life on hold in a strange way.”
He continues: “Because it’s your baby, you want to be there for it and you want to promote it, but we also want to move on and make our next film and grow and close this chapter and put it behind us. Just because it’s too stressful to be on a nationwide press tour, and then have a pandemic shut down your movie three days before.”
But thanks to SPC’s dedication to a theatrical release plan, the film is now in theaters. “What we’ve done since the pandemic started is look at each film differently and release being very flexible about the best way to release films,” Barker says, explaining the release strategy. “We’ve worked very closely on a weekly basis on this, with Topic Studios, Mike and Kyle, trying to be a flexible as possible to get to the widest audience as possible.”
Zuckerman describes the partnership between Sony Pictures Classics, the filmmakers and Topic Studios as “a great marriage.” She says, “With the history that they have supporting filmmakers and kind of making them feel like they’re part of this tradition and the way that they work with filmmakers, it just felt like they would be the right home, that they really got it.”
But the other big win for the studio is the first-look deal Topic Studios signed with the filmmakers. “I remember standing in the pouring rain at our celebratory dinner under the awning of the restaurant, with our [First Look] CEO Michael Bloom and Ryan, saying to Mike and Kyle that we wanted to do this deal with them and be their home for the next film and more,” Zuckerman recalls.
Explaining why he and Marvin were so keen to continue working with Topic Studios, Covino explains, “As filmmakers, you don’t go out and go, ‘Hey, I want to do a movie with a different company each time.’ Because every time you do that, there’s the unknown — the people you’re working with might end up being a nightmare, or they might turn into vampires, or all of a sudden you’re [thinking,] ‘Wait, what just happened? What did I sign up for?’”
It’s a rare thing “to find partners like Topic Studios who are, really in a strange way, in it for the long run,” Covino adds. “It’s very cutthroat in independent film, only by the nature of the fact that there’s not a lot of money to make these films, you’re trying to do everything on a shoestring budget. You’re trying to make a million dollar film and sell it for ten. it’s this pipe dream that, once every six years, happens.”
“I think the fact that [Topic Studios] had confidence in us and decided that they want to be a business with us to tell stories — not just for us, but also for other filmmakers that we are close with — that is really the dream,” he continues. “I think we’ve just been really lucky in finding a really great partnership with them that hopefully will continue as long as we don’t start making really bad movies.”
“The Climb” is now playing in theaters nationwide.