Cannes: 42’s Josh Varney and Ben Pugh on U.S.-U.K. Production Relations and the Writers Strike – Hollywood Reporter

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The U.K.-born production-management company is at the Cannes market with Steve Coogan starrer ‘Penguin Lessons.’
By Mia Galuppo
Film Writer
Five years ago, 42, the British management and production company that counts Nicolas Hoult and Ralph Fiennes among its clients, made its way across the pond. Modeled on U.S. outfits like Entertainment 360 and Anonymous Content, 42 jumped into the crowded territory of American producer-managers, with a Beverly Hills-based office headed by co-founder and manager Josh Varney and producer Ben Pugh.
Early adopters of Netflix, 42’s slate has included streaming features like the highly viewed vampire movie Night Teeth and the sci-fi flick Outside the Wire, starring Damson Idris and Anthony Mackie. Theatrically, there has been the Cuban Missile Crisis drama The Courier, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and Focus Features’ The Silent Twins, which premiered at Cannes in 2022. On the M&A front, in 2020, 42 sold a minority stake to Lionsgate, and earlier this year, the company acquired OB, a music video and commercials outfit.

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This year, 42 is at the Cannes market with an adaptation of the Tom Michell book The Penguin Lessons starring Steve Coogan. Ahead of touching down in the Riviera, Varney and Pugh talked to THR about U.S.-U.K. production relations, the WGA strike and what’s next for 42.
What was the thinking behind launching an L.A. outpost?
VARNEY The intention was always to build in two of the key markets that our clients operate in. We established the sales in London 10 years ago — Ben as a producer of commercials and music videos and then in film — and I as an agent at ICM in London and Independent Talent Group. We’d always admired the management and production company model and that representatives and producers can peacefully co-exist. We set this business up really with that as a core goal: to build a global footprint — although it makes me laugh when I say “global” because it’s really just London and Los Angeles. We’d admired companies like Anonymous Content and 3 Arts and Management 360, so we set up our version of that in London first. It’s become a really competitive environment — management production — in a way that it wasn’t when we first started. As the agencies have consolidated, it’s given us a lot of opportunity to bring in brilliant people.
PUGH From a production perspective, at the time when I moved here, we started out with production and laterally built out the management side. We wanted to be in the U.S. marketplace in both film and television, as well as retain our foothold in the international marketplace. Now, those two marketplaces have become more interlinked than ever. Even though the buyers are separate, often they’re the same buyers in different markets. For the people that we are producing for or that we represent, the understanding of what one of those buyers might be doing in the domestic marketplace as opposed to what they might be doing in the U.K. marketplace or the pan-European market is really exciting to be able to offer. The management-production space is incredibly crowded.

What was your pitch to Hollywood when you came out and set up shop?
VARNEY I never had the ethos of the way that the U.K. has historically thought, which is, “I don’t trust the American system.” I’d always been a very different representative as I’d always wanted to be collaborative with my American colleagues. It’s definitely changed. When I was an assistant at ICM in London, it was definitely pre-internet, pre-email, and there was an hour in any day where you could get on the phone with your American colleagues. What I saw as a young person coming up through the business was a kind of distrust. I never quite understood it. Now, there are much more trusting relationships across the pond. I think that’s a generational shift, actually. This generation really wants to work globally because they only know globally.
PUGH When I moved to Los Angeles, we started with production first. We weren’t offering management at that point. In the beginning, it was understanding how to produce in North America with everything that goes along with union production and studio production. There were partner-managed hybrid projects that were coming out of the streamers at the time. We had a core base in London to then go to all those European and incentive-led territories, as well as selling to those buyers and shooting in North America, as needed. That led to us getting our first Netflix deal at the time. Netflix is a major studio now, but at the time people were still holding out the hope that they would be making all their movies with theatrical studios.

That was five years ago that we started the office here and it shifted so fast. What did it look like working with Netflix in its earlier days?
PUGH I remember being in our office in the U.K. before I’d moved and someone telling us about one of the deals that had been made at Netflix. Then moving here and knowing Matt Brodley [former Netflix director of original film] and getting insight from him. I mentioned to somebody, a colleague of ours not at 42, “It would be great if we could get a deal with Netflix.” That person said, “No one will want to do that because movies aren’t theatrical.” And I was like, well, we want to do that. Within months, that mindset had shifted because the pace of change was so high. In them buying Sand Castle [the 2017 British war drama starring Hoult and Henry Cavill], that was a good example of the fact that they needed content at that time. By the time they greenlit Outside the Wire, we were working with brilliant Netflix executives, who had a relatively light touch. The lobby of the building was completely abuzz. You would go there and see like 45 people just waiting.
What makes a 42 project?
PUGH We’ve done a lot of discussion about this and a lot of thinking around it because we have a lot of different producers in the business. Just absolute quality and the fact that they’re commercial in one way or another. That doesn’t need to mean that they’re broadly commercial, but they always need to know what their audience is and know what they’re doing for the financier or the buyer that is giving us the opportunity to make them.

How will the WGA strike affect the Cannes market?
VARNEY It still feels so early, doesn’t it? I’m in the middle of lots of conversations, with everyone still trying to figure out what the impact is. I think that the WGA was really clear in its guidance, but alongside that, there’s always going to be a gray area around things that exist — what can be sold, what can’t be sold. I know all the agencies and management companies are in the middle of all of those conversations. How do we make sure we don’t accidentally step into an environment that is going to trip up a project? We completely support the writers and are in full support of the strike action.
Studios and distributors seem to change strategy with every quarterly earnings report. Is this something you are thinking about when you are packaging or selling a project?
PUGH The only way to think about that is to work with the great talent that you really believe in. And secondly, really understand who the audience is for the film. And hope that the partners that you’re working with can also adjust to whatever the shifted marketplace looks like. I don’t think you can try and guess how those shifts might happen in any other way, you just have to prepare by making something that people want to come to, whether it be at the cinema or on a streamer.
In what space do you want 42 to grow?
VARNEY I think if you ever get out of a space where you feel like you’re in startup mode, you’re in trouble in this business. You have to stay constantly inquisitive and hungry. The business is changing so quickly. Who knows where AI is going to lead us in the next three days, let alone the next three years? Even after the business has been around for the last 10 years — we’re 10 years old this year — we still feel a huge amount of excitement for the future.

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