Your Neighbor The Movie Maker


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Will Battersby has been many things: a teacher in Paris, the assistant director of a BBC show, an agent representing directors and writers, and a collaborator of billionaire Mark Cuban. But his favorite occupation seems to be what he is doing right now, producing documentaries and feature films under his own label, Reno Productions.

“I am a firm believer that people are smart,” says Battersby, a Verona resident for 17 years. “I am a firm believer that people want to be entertained. I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. And so we’re trying to sort of fill that kind of gap because it feels like a real gap to me.”

Battersby’s “gap” is what is known as “genre” films–drama, horror, crime, romance movies and the like. His documentary “Salt in My Soul,” about a young woman with cystic fibrosis, was recently screened at the Verona Public Library. (If you missed it, you can watch it through the Library’s free Kanopy service.) He did a fantasy horror film “Spine of Night” in 2021 and he’s working now on a documentary about cult horror writers.

Though his family was from New York City, Battersby grew up in England, where he got what he calls “the fancy accent.” When he eventually moved back to the United States, he worked for the talent agency International Creative Management as an assistant to its powerhouse founder Sam Cohn. ”You get over stage fright very quickly when Paul Newman’s calling to speak to your boss,” he recalls. “I was dumbstruck the first time it happened. I was like, ‘I’m sorry, who is calling?’ ”

His next opportunity was with Cuban, who had launched a digital cable and satellite TV network called HDNet. The company made many of its own films, including “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” about a massive accounting fraud at an energy company. The film was nominated for an Oscar.

But perhaps more importantly for Battersby’s future, he learned how Cuban’s company controlled the distribution of the movies that it made. While producing can give a company power over what a movie looks like, distribution rights give it control of where the movie is shown. That can make the difference between making money from it–or not.

It was a lesson Battersby learned the hard way. In 2007, he released a documentary on the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who had been barred from working in Hollywood after Congress prompted a blacklisting of people with ties to the Communist Party. After successfully showing the film for several years, Battersby’s distributor stopped doing that. He had to sue the company to get the distribution rights back. The documentary is now playing on platforms where Battersby’s company gets a share of advertising revenue.

Controlling distribution rights has become particularly important in the age of streaming video content. According to the consulting firm PwC, the streaming video content industry spent $230 billion on content globally in 2022. The video streaming market is now valued at over $500 billion and is expected to continue growing to over $1.9 trillion by 2030.

But while these numbers are big, the opportunities for movie makers like Battersby are smaller that you might think. That’s because big entertainment companies have been buying up many of the distributors. The Walt Disney Company owns the Disney Channel, but also Disney+, Hulu, FX, National Geographic and ABC, among others. “There’s an illusion of choice,” Battersby says. “But, actually, our choices are kind of shrinking.”

The choices that Battersby has made have given him more creative freedom than many filmmakers. With a keen eye on the economics of filmmaking, he picks his own projects–work that has taken him to Colorado and New Hampshire this year. Closer to home, he’s been talking to Montclair State University about filming a sitcom on the campus, a project that he says would involve some of the “super skilled” undergraduate and graduate talent there.

“I very much pride myself on being able to make the things I develop,” Battersby says. “I think it’s probably my work in documentaries that’s given me a concrete sense of how things get done and made and shot and edited. The art of producing is marrying that knowledge with the creative geniuses you work with.”

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