City banker Julian Bird set up Lorton Entertainment to show that investing in films could be profitable, and documentaries on Diego Maradona, Oasis and Wayne Rooney have proven him spectacularly right.
“I’m not really a massive film fan,” says City banker-turned-unlikely movie mogul Julian Bird.
It’s perhaps a surprising statement from someone who has been behind some of the most successful and popular documentaries of the last decade, including Maradona, Oasis biopic Supersonic, Rooney, and Bros: After the Screaming Stops.
But then Bird is not the person in the director’s chair or operating the camera but the one raising the funding and, increasingly, showing that investing in films can be profitable after all.
It started, he says, as a hunch. “The film industry had – and probably still has – such a terrible reputation for private investors. But I thought to myself: there must be an investable asset, you just have to find it.”
Bird took up evening classes in film, began making contacts in the business and, in 2014, quit his job with a boutique bank in the Square Mile to set up Lorton Entertainment.
“I thought that if I could build a reputation for earning returns in a market which generally lost people money then we would be quite unique.”
Maradona, Supersonic, Wagatha and Newcastle: How documentaries have paid off for Lorton
He “fell into” documentaries after meeting Senna and Amy director Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees, who would later create the paradigm-shifting Formula 1 series Drive To Survive.
Bird says it proved an inspired move, since docs cost far less to make than scripted films – between £500,000 and £2.5m – but can generate similar returns.
Lorton’s first project was Supersonic in 2016, produced by Kapadia and executive produced by Gay-Rees. “As soon as I saw how that performed at the cinema alone, I thought ‘wow, this is amazing’,” Bird adds.
Shortly afterwards, Lorton backed Oscar winner Kapadia to make Maradona, which received worldwide critical acclaim.
Lorton has now finished 17 independent films, mostly documentaries about sport or music, and has another eight or nine currently in production, including a four-part series behind the scenes at Newcastle United and a film on the Wagatha Christie affair.
The company has gone from simply raising money for individual films to launching multi-film funds and now also co-produces, sells and distributes the product in order to control costs.
It appears to be working: Lorton’s first fund is paying out 18 months early at a profit of around 50 per cent and Bird is in the process of launching a second fund.
Recent releases include Boom! Boom!: The World vs Boris Becker, a two-part film snapped up by Apple, and Stable, about the McGuigan boxing dynasty.
Documentaries about iconic figures perform well because their fanbases provide a ready-made audience, says Bird. “But there has got to be a proper story there otherwise the viewer will turn off.”
He adds: “I want to be surprised and see something different, which is why we did Bros and [a forthcoming film on] James Blunt. We don’t want salacious stuff; we want people being honest. I hate watching docs where I feel I haven’t got the whole story and they are holding back for whatever reason.”
Why the ‘City will be there’ if Lorton decides to float
Lorton’s fly-on-the-wall look at Newcastle’s revival this season will put the spotlight on how the club operates in the boardroom as well as on the field.
“I’m a Liverpool fan and I’d love to know how Liverpool operate as a business – even just the transfers are fascinating to any football fan. I thought: let’s get that on camera. There’s so much more to football than what happens on the pitch – Welcome to Wrexham has shown that.”
Securing access is “about trust. You can’t go – bang – and set the cameras up. For the first three to four weeks we just got to know them.”
But how long can the party last? The sports doc craze of the last decade, fuelled by the rise of streaming services, has surely left few stories untold.
“There is always going to be demand for the new icons coming through, the [Erling] Haalands of this world. There are so many great stories and there is a thirst for content.”
In the search for untapped material, Lorton has looked across the Atlantic and has two films centred on US sports teams in the works.
Having proven that his initial hunch about the industry’s potential was right, Bird envisages creating a permanent capital vehicle which could then be floated – once Lorton’s second fund closes to new investors, that is.
“Equity in films is not a dirty word. It’s how it is managed,” he says. “If we can build enough product and supply, the City will be there for a permanent capital vehicle, which would be big.”
Bird does like film and TV, he wants to make clear, just not as obsessively as some. “There are people who study it. I’m a finance guy and don’t profess to be this creative person – I wish I was,” he adds. “
The creative side of the industry is fantastic. Producers, directors, writers – this country is full of amazing people. It just needed the businesspeople, I think.”