Zygi Kamasa, 47, is the CEO of film and TV distributor Lionsgate in the UK and Europe, with recent big hits including La La Land, The Hunger Games franchise and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
What do you do?
I oversee the 14 or 15 movies we make each year, and the people behind them. Each movie takes up to 18 months to film and complete post-production. Yesterday, for example, I was giving notes in post-production on a British movie that we’ll release at the end of this year, then I watched a cut of a current edit, before having a call with Rupert Everett, who’s directed a movie about Oscar Wilde, about re-shooting the ending. Then I worked on plans for the premiere and PR of Their Finest, which is coming out this month with Bill Nighy, Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Irons. So far, I’ve overseen the release of probably 300 films in the cinema and had 30 or 40 number one hits at the UK box office.
How did you get here?
I’ve always been entrepreneurial. I started a computer business in my last year of university, and by graduation I had 12 people working for me. But I was always trying to find a way into the movies. Growing up with four older sisters meant I saw films like The Omen and Taxi Driver and The Godfather way too young, aged 12 or 13, and I was captivated. So I sold the computer business’s assets to a bigger firm, and moved into film making. For my first two (low-budget, independent) movies, which had Simon Callow and Linda Bellingham in them, I sold investors the opportunity to appear as extras for £1000 and a tax break. A kind of early crowdfunding. They did very well, and I then co-founded a film distribution company, Redbus Film. Director Gurinder Chadha came to talk to us about a small film for the Indian community; we thought the idea was charming but didn’t expect it a big success. That was Bend it like Beckham, which became a worldwide hit and established us in the business.” [Redbus was bought by Lionsgate for $35 million in 2005 and became Lionsgate UK.]
How do you spot a hit?
So much film and TV is made today, you have to have something that’s truly original. As a one-liner, to La La Land you’d say: “no chance”: it was a contemporary musical with no well-known songs. But it was the reinvention of the musical, and the filmmaker kept talking to me about the ending. You can follow your dreams but you don’t always get what you want from life. We knew it would work.
What’s been the worst moment in your career?
For every La la Land, there are movies where you put in the same effort, love, 18 months of work, spend an awful lot of money, and they just tank. In the early days as Redbus, we lost hundreds of thousands of pounds on a movie, and I couldn’t pay the staff bills that month. We were facing bankruptcy at one point, but we carried on and eventually Bend it Like Beckham paid everything off. More recently, our biggest flop has been a movie called The Spirit. It had Samuel L Jackson and Scarlett Johanssen in it, but it absolutely died in the box office. People hated it; it was a hugely expensive mistake.
What would you tell your 18-year-old self?
Believe in your instinct. Don’t be swayed by other people’s voices. Not just in the creative arts, but as an entrepreneur too: if you believe that you can start something, do it.
How do you manage your work-life balance?
I’m married with two kids, aged 14 and 11, so I try to be flexible. I spend a lot of time working from my office at home in Radlett, Hertfordshire, so I can see my family. Then I’m often on phone to LA at 11pm. You can’t dedicate six or seven days a week to work, you have to work to live.
Be original. Don’t try to be derivative and say “I’ve got a movie that’s just like La la land.” In fact, I’ve been sent about 20 musicals scripts in the past few months — but they’re the last thing I want. We’ve done that. Invent something new, be fresh and daring.