Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we shine a spotlight on industry players outside of the U.S. shaking up the offshore marketplace. This week we’re talking to Heretic co-founder Giorgos Karnavas about the growth of his Athens-based production and sales house he started in 2013 with Konstantinos Kontovrakis. The company played a pivotal role in co-producing Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner and Oscar contender Triangle of Sadness, its first English-language production.
Giorgos Karnavas is a little jet-lagged, but it’s been for the worthiest of causes. When Deadline sits down with the Heretic co-founder, he has just arrived back in Athens after a whirlwind trip to L.A. where he attended the Oscars for the first time with his co-production Triangle of Sadness. The Palme d’Or-winning title was up for Best Picture as well as Best Director for Ruben Östlund and, while it came away empty-handed, Karnavas says he’s got a lot to be happy about.
For him, the experience culminates the end of a long and “beautiful” journey for Östlund’s first English-language title, which saw Heretic responsible for more than half of the shoot when Covid-restrictions forced the then U.S.-UK-French-Swedish co-production out of Sweden and into Greece’s relatively Covid-free locations in September 2020.
But, as Karnavas knows too well, nothing good comes easy. The 77-day shoot would face myriad obstacles (Covid fears aside) such as issues with yachts (“We lost our first initial yacht after we had paid for it,” he says) and tough complications getting American, Filipino and South African actors past Greek borders during the height of the pandemic.
“Sometimes I don’t know how we did it,” he recalls with a smile. “It was challenging but it was such a pleasant experience because I was working with my friends, and I was working with a director who I consider to be one of the heroes of my generation. The script was so clever and so cool and the combination of all these things made us overcome the crazy difficulties we had.”
It’s Heretic’s deep knowledge of European co-productions and shrewd eye for interesting projects — such as Berlin competition title Music, Willem Dafoe starrer Inside (which Focus Features just released domestically to a $510,000 first-weekend tally), Anthony Chen’s Sundance pic Drift and Coky Giedroyc’s upcoming Take That movie Greatest Days – that has seen the company grow from strength to strength since Karnavas co-founded it with partner Konstantinos Kontovrakis 10 years ago. The company is increasingly getting involved in English-language projects but also is keeping its hand in more arthouse, European fare.
Karnavas started his career in commercials and the music business before his good friend Argyris Papadimitropoulos wanted to make a film and asked him to produce it. “I told him I didn’t know anything about how to produce a film, but he told me, ‘No, you know but you don’t know you know.’”
That film would become Karnavas’ first feature production, Wasted Youth, which was inspired by the shooting of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, one of the events that led to the 2008 Greek riots. It premiered as the opening-night film at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and would unite Karnavas with Kontrovrakis.
The duo launched Heretic in April 2013 with the initial aim to produce Greek arthouse films, but that model began to change with the evolving landscape. In order to make the business more commercially viable and while weathering the turbulent waters of the ongoing Greek financial crisis at the time, the company diversified its options and moved into the international sales arena. They hired Ioanna Stais to head up Heretic Sales and recently made the longtime exec partner in the company. She has been a key driver behind the company’s bustling film sales slate which has included Berlin Golden Bear winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn from director Radu Jude, and Omar El Zohairy’s Feathers, which won Cannes Critics’ week in 2021.
“Everything we created on the sales side was because of Ioanna’s passion and connections and knowledge of traveling the world and creating relationships,” says Karnavas. “So now that the company is in a healthy position, it’s nice to offer her the possibility to be a part of it.”
When he reflects on the early days of the company, which took place in the midst of Greece’s economic downturn, Karnavas recalls the huge number of Greek talents that were popping up in the film sector. “That’s why we wanted to move into cinema,” he says. “There was so much talent that we wanted to work with and there was a great spirit among the filmmaking community because of the lack of resources. Everybody was helping each other out, which was great. But there was also a sense that this was something that couldn’t last forever.”
He adds, “It was a bit like the music scene – things happened for a couple of years and there was a boom, but you really need to see where you’re going.”
In 2020, Greece upped its cash rebate from 35% to 40% and this, combined with the country’s prompt response to pandemic protocols after a hard lockdown, saw the European nation enjoy one of its biggest productions seasons ever, with a raft of local and international projects all taking advantage of the country’s beautiful and diverse locations. For Heretic, it was a great time to be a Greek producer and an even better time to be one with extensive knowledge of how to structure European co-productions.
“We as a company had matured so much since then and we had already worked with many countries outside of Greece and engaged with top-class talent, so it was the perfect moment for us – we had all the tools to facilitate it,” Karnavas said.
So far, he says, the Greek tax credit is working well and paying out – “there are always hiccups in all countries, but so far, so good.”
In addition to Triangle of Sadness, Heretic co-produced four films during Covid: German pic Daughters, the first European co-production to shoot in Europe after Covid; Spanish-Greek co-pro Mediterraneo; Vasilis Katsoupis’ Inside with Dafoe; and Along the Way, about two teen Afghan twins who get separated from their family on their refugee journey.
The global production boom has, in many ways, been a huge benefit to Heretic as it continues its growth trajectory but Karnavas admits that it’s important to keep momentum going and not rest on laurels. He’s hopeful that companies like his are all able to “generate what they need to generate.”
“I feel that we’re really well positioned at Heretic because the company is very well diversified – we’re producing, co-producing and acquiring and selling other films.” This business model, he says, is a fine balance between all the trajectories they work in, in that they are creators of IP and also sellers and servicers of third-party IP.
“You need to have original content that you control, and you need to set it up thinking outside of the box and this is something that, due to the very hard financial years we’ve had [in Greece] and also the sometimes very complicated European system, we have learned the hard way. So, for us to come up with new ideas on financing is actually very interesting.”
Looking to the future
Moving forward the boutique company that wants to be “as global as possible” while also staying loyal to its mandate, which is “to get involved only in projects that we like and feel passionate about while continuing to develop and finance films by global directors that can have a meaning of existence and, at the same time, market appeal.”
Karnavas says, “We don’t have the capital to make big investments, so we always go with the difficult stuff that others might be afraid to touch but are things that we find really exciting. Every time we follow this path, we’ve been extremely successful.”
Up next, Heretic has its first TV project in development, The Thread, based on the best-selling book by Victoria Hislop, which is adapted by Alexi Kaye Campbell and is currently out to a major director.
It also currently has three films in post-production (two English-speaking and one Greek): Justin Anderson’s directorial debut Swimming Home, a co-production with Brit producers Emily Morgan and Andy Starke and Brazil’s Paula Linhares and Marcos Tellechea; Film4 and BFI-backed How to Have Sex; and Greek project Kiouka.
Additionally, it’s also co-producing English-language titles such as The Return, which sees Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche’s reunite for the first time since The English Patient, as well as Fiona Shaw and Vicky Krieps starrer Hot Milk. The former is co-produced with James Clayton, Pasolini for Red Wave Films and Italy’s Picomedia while the latter is with the UK’s Christine Langan and Kate Glover.
“We like to support the people we want to be with – the people we understand. It’s only in this context of a relationship that you can be useful to people, and you can also generate value for yourself and for others. We keep it very small – up to six films a year for sales and around four for production.”
Karnavas is encouraged by how globalized the film business has become in recent years and for him, it feels like all the hard graft Heretic has put in across the years is finally paying off now that Hollywood and major production companies are looking to Europe for talent and stories.
“Clearly the interest from the global industry to work with Europe is huge because there is an exceptional quality of projects coming out of here,” he says. “It seems like Hollywood is finally coming to the realization that firstly, there is a lot of talent here and, secondly, there are people who know how to put project together and finance them with soft money. This is extremely important.”
He adds, “At the same time, our capacities as producers and initiators of significant projects have matured along with our network and knowledge during the years so now is a very organic moment for us. After years of working on the European models, our first attempts on the English-speaking content have been extremely successful to us and our understanding on how we can merge the two worlds is very clear and feels like the right way forward.”