Making money in Tinseltown is easy: Just pick the right people

Annabel Denham
Follow Annabel

Annabel Palmer talks Twilight with Nicola Horlick, the former City Superwoman who is trying her hand at Hollywood

FORMER fund manager Nicola Horlick is in Santa Monica, California. The fabled City Superwoman – a moniker she despises – is working on her newest venture: Derby Street Films. It’s a film development business, currently made up of three investment vehicles, that provides capital for new projects and turns scripts into commercially viable film proposals. She wanted to be an actress before a place at Oxford led her to the City, so perhaps Tinseltown had always been her calling.

Horlick was one of the youngest women to run a multi-billion dollar fund management firm. Over the course of a career spanning three decades, she established SG Asset Management for the French Bank Societe Generale, founded Bramdean Asset Management (later sold to rival fund manager Aberdeen Asset Management for £5m), and is chairman of Rockpool – a boutique investment management company.

And last year, she opened a restaurant in Barnes – Georgina’s. It is a venture close to her heart, named after her eldest daughter, who tragically died of leukaemia aged 12. Horlick is remarkably candid throughout our interview. She tells me of her outrage at the notion that she Has It All (she was so irritated by the term that in 1997 she wrote the book Can You Have It All?). “First, that’s an incredibly materialistic outlook. Second, I should be judged on my achievements as a person, not as a woman. And third, I don’t have it all. The one thing I want, I can never have.”

Her former career success hinged on her ability to manage portfolio strategies while mitigating risk. Derby Street III, her new venture’s third vehicle, is currently looking to raise £25m. Is film a risky investment? “It’s like anything,” she says. “You’ve got to back the right people – work with the right writers, directors, and get a good quality cast. We will make money, because we’re working with the best people.” Such a bullish outlook is perhaps unsurprising, coming from the woman who in 1997 famously marched on Frankfurt with 40 journalists in her wake, to confront former employers Deutsche Morgan Grenfell.

Like any good entrepreneur, Horlick saw an opportunity and seized it. Traditionally, hedge funds had enabled money to flow freely through Hollywood, but it dried up the moment Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. “Generally I much prefer recessions to booms, because there are far more opportunities.” Today, a cash-strapped Tinseltown relies heavily on niche specialist houses to get films made. Hollywood studios have resorted to churning out “tent poles – the Spidermans, the Supermans,” leaving independent filmmakers to produce everything else. Around 80 per cent of films are now made by companies like Horlick’s, and later distributed by those larger studios.

Fund management to filmdom is a big leap. But Horlick’s latest venture is backed by some experience. In 2008, she set up the Resonant Music Fund, which acquired the rights to original film music scores – generating a revenue stream from the music being used in television screenings, for commercial purposes, and on soundtracks. In 2010, the company picked the “right people” by investing in the music for the King’s Speech, one of the most successful British films of all time.

Having dipped her toes in the Hollywood waters, Horlick launched her first film development fund, Derby Street I, in 2011. She took the knowledge she had acquired from two decades of fund management – building and diversifying portfolios – and applied it in Hollywood. “I didn’t just throw money at it. I’m a typical girl, I did a lot of research into the industry to understand exactly how it worked.” Now, Derby Street aims to be a sizeable production company, as well as to continue with film development.

And it is well on its way. It has 20 films in the pipeline (of which it is producing ten), ranging in budget from $7m to its largest project – Arabian Nights – at $65m. It has targeted Hollywood big-hitters, like Catherine Hardwicke, the director behind the first Twilight film.

Horlick’s one piece of advice for budding entrepreneurs is that “no one will blame you if you try and you fail. But if you try and you succeed, it’s incredibly rewarding.” It may not be a multi-billion dollar asset management firm, but Horlick is reaping rewards behind the big screen.

Company name: Rockpool Investments

Founded: (Started in 2012)

Number of staff: 16

Job title: Chairman

Age: 52

Born: Nottingham

Lives: London

Studied: Law at Balliol College, Oxford

Drinking: Fizzy water

Eating: Fish

Reading: May we be forgiven, by A.M. Homes

Favourite business book: I don’t really read business books but I do like Malcolm Gladwell’s books (Blink is great)

Motto: “Always treat people properly”

First ambition: To be a professional actress

Heroes: The Queen

Talents: Acting was what I was known for in my youth!