The boardroom at Legendary Pictures’ offices on the Warner Brothers studio lot in Burbank, California, is much like any other corporate meeting space but for one key difference: the sword and battered shield mounted behind glass near the door.
The props are from Legendary’s recent remake of Clash of the Titans, one of a string of blockbuster films produced in the six years since the company was founded by Thomas Tull. A self-confessed “fanboy” – a term usually reserved for comic book obsessives – the 40-year-old grew up watching science fiction films like Star Wars. Now he produces movies himself.
“This is not the widget business,” he says. “When you sit with directors and writers you have to have passion for what they do.”
That love of comic books has enabled him to spot opportunities that competitors have missed. When other studios were passing on the chance to turn 300, a graphic novel by comic artist Frank Miller, into a swords-and-sandals epic, Mr Tull, a fan of the book, jumped at the chance. The result was a film with worldwide box office revenues of $457m.
Mr Tull was an accomplished sportsman in his youth, playing baseball to a high standard and winning an American football scholarship to university – he still has the stocky physique needed for the game. While he has his photograph taken, I wander around the Legendary offices. The walls are covered with framed prints of some of the company’s most recent successes, including The Dark Knight, which broke the box office record for an opening weekend performance, Watchmen and The Hangover.
After the shoot we sit in a room next to his office where the shelves are packed with model figures from the Star Wars and Terminator films. There is a signed Pittsburgh Steelers helmet in a glass case (Mr Tull, a childhood fan, became a part-owner of the American football team in 2009) and paintings of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones by the band’s guitarist Ronnie Wood.
He explains the philosophy that underpins Legendary, which in a short time has become one of Hollywood’s most powerful players. “We want to make films which are commercial but elevated,” he says, in a nod to thought-provoking hits such as Inception and The Town.
It is a strategy that has served Legendary and Warner Bros well: Legendary gets access to Warner Bros’ distribution system and its network of talent relationships, while Warner Bros has a partner willing to share the financial risk of production.
“What we like about Thomas is his judgment,” says Jeff Bewkes, chief executive of Time Warner, the media conglomerate that owns Warner Bros. “We’re taking some fairly large risks and needed someone to partner with us who had a strong stomach for risk and who could look to the long term. Thomas is a long-term thinker.”
Warner Bros and Legendary struck a five-year deal covering 25 movies in 2004, when Mr Tull raised about $500m from private equity investors to finance his company. “I was coming out to LA on business a lot and was starting to get to know more and more people [in Hollywood],” he says. “I started putting together a plan that would take the business of private equity and a creative sensibility to make a new kind of production company with a focus on the kind of movies that I wanted to make.”
After he secured a credit line from JPMorgan, raising the money took another year and was “the hardest thing I have ever done”, he says. It required him to draw on his network of private equity contacts and devise a convincing business model that laid out the potential returns.
Some of the meetings were short, with sceptical investors querying his willingness to put money into the notoriously risky business of film production – some even asked if he planned to buy cinemas, rather than make movies. Some investors were deterred, but Mr Tull was convinced good returns could be generated – provided his company produced the right kind of films. “I wrote a substantial cheque myself . . . I almost bet my career on it,” he says.
“The data and financial information that we compiled gave me confidence,” he continues. “It’s like a pilot looking at his instruments and trying to land the plane in fog . . . you have to trust what’s in front of you.”
With the money Mr Tull raised, Legendary was able to strike its deal with Warner Bros.
Not all of the films produced by the two companies have been successes. After a winning start with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, two flops followed – The Ant Bully and Lady in the Water – but the company was soon back on track with 300.
He declines to comment on Legendary’s financial performance, but people familiar with the company’s accounts say that the business has a valuation of $1.5bn-$2bn. This makes it smaller than Hollywood’s fully fledged studios but larger than most of the industry’s independent production companies.
Unsurprisingly, its growth has been underpinned by its relationship with Warner Bros – last year the two companies extended their co-production deal to cover another 35 movies. Legendary has the right to invest alongside Warner Bros, and vice versa, on a 50-50 basis.
“Our nickel sits next to their nickel,” says Mr Tull. “We didn’t just want to invest in a slate of movies and we didn’t want to be passive investors . . . we wanted to become a real production company that could cultivate our own relationships and our own [intellectual] property.”
Mr Tull’s journey to Hollywood could itself be the subject of a movie. He was raised by a single mother who held down multiple jobs in Binghamton, New York, and the family struggled for money. He took jobs himself “out of necessity, whether it was mowing lawns or snow removal. We were poor . . . I had to do something.”
After graduating from college he abandoned plans to become a lawyer and instead went into business, starting a chain of launderettes. “After working and putting together a little money you could start a business pretty cheaply where I grew up,” he says.
He then bought – and sold – several tax and accounting offices, before realising that he could build a career based on the passions of his youth: movies and comics.
Mr Tull’s knack for building creative relationships with writers and directors has resulted in associations with some of the industry’s biggest talents. He is about to make his third film with Mr Nolan and is working on another film with Bryan Singer, the director of The Usual Suspects and Legendary’s Superman Returns.
“He has a film-maker centric-view, which puts you at ease as a director,” says Mr Singer. “We grew up in the same time period [the late 1970s and early 1980s] and are fans of the same films. Trying to capture the energy and ambition of those films is a mutual goal.”
Legendary is branching out beyond movies and recently launched a comic publishing division. Mr Tull also has an eye on international growth and two months ago sold a small stake in Legendary to Orange Sky Golden Harvest Entertainment, a Hong Kong film studio, with the aim of exploring opportunities in China.
The ownership structure at Legendary has also changed. Mr Tull recently became its largest shareholder when some of Legendary’s original private equity investors sold their stakes. Mr Tull also brought in new partners, with Fidelity Investments and Fortress Investment Group buying stakes.
Hollywood outsiders rarely prosper – the film industry has, over the years, become expert at parting well-intentioned financiers from their money. Mr Tull seems to have bucked the trend but although he is running one of the industry’s most prolific production companies he remains content to be an outsider: he shuns the Hollywood party circuit and lives outside Los Angeles rather than in a more glamorous spot, such as Beverly Hills of Malibu.
It is all part of his philosophy, which goes back to his childhood passions for comics and film. “All we care about is making movies,” he says. “Not getting a better table at Spago or anything like that.”