Toronto: Closer Media’s Zhang Xin and William Horberg on Landing Three Films at TIFF, Upcoming Elon Musk Doc

Zhang Xin, the renowned Chinese entrepreneur who used her love of architecture and brilliant business acumen to reshape Beijing and Shanghai’s skyline, has turned her attention to a new challenge: film producer. In September 2022, the billionaire businesswoman — who spent her teenage years working in Hong Kong garment and electronics factories — resigned as CEO of SOHO China, one of the world’s preeminent real estate companies she built with her husband, and took up permanent residence in New York City.

Zhang will celebrate the one-year anniversary of leaving SOHO at the 2023 Toronto Film Festival, where the Manhattan-based Closer Media, the startup indie production and financing venture she runs with veteran indie producer William Horberg, has no fewer than three films screening. Horberg’s numerous credits include The Queen’s Gambit and The Kite Runner.

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Their Toronto lineup includes the Tony Goldwyn-directed Ezra, a dramedy about an autistic 11-year-old who embarks on a road trip with his father. Newcomer William Fitzgerald, who himself is autistic, stars in the titular role opposite Bobby Cannavale, Robert De Niro, Rose Byrne, Vera Farmiga and Whoopi Goldberg. Then there’s The Monk and the Gun from Oscar-nominated Bhutanese writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji. His new film — which sparked immediate awards buzz upon screening at the Telluride Film Festival ahead of Toronto — charts the Kingdom of Bhutan’s transition to democracy in the early 2000s in a parable about embracing modernity without disregarding the past. Zhang and Horberg are also investing heavily in documentaries. Their third Toronto entry is Alex Gibney’s In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon.

Closer is also among the backers of Gibney’s highly anticipated Elon Musk documentary Musk alongside Anonymous Content and Black Bear (HBO won a bidding war for North American rights). And the Gibney connection doesn’t end there. Closer has a stake in acclaimed Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s upcoming feature-length doc Orwell, which will be distributed in North America by Neon. Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions is among the producers of Peck’s film about the legendary George Orwell. (Peck’s 2016 film I Am Not Your Negro earned an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature).

Horberg and Zhang, who work out of Midtown Manhattan office space, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on the eve of Toronto about meeting for the first time and how they are looking to take part in the content revolution by working with established and emerging filmmakers from around the world.

Xin, when you stepped down from SOHO, it was reported that you wanted to pursue being a patron of the arts. Are you also looking for a business return from your investment in Closer Media?

Zhang I’ve always wanted both, just like when I was a developer. I love art, I love architecture. I always believed you can bring the highest quality of architecture to any building you build. I worked with really the most avant-garde architects, like Zaha Hadid. I of course also wanted to make money. A film can be the same. It’s a business, but I also want to make the highest-quality movies. If there’s one film that does both, it will be a dream come true, right?

Horberg I’ve been doing this for many decades. When I was introduced to Xin, my clear takeaway after spending a couple of hours with her — I’ve worked with many other high-net-worth individuals — was that this person is a producer at heart. The process of going from a concept to a fully executed plan is very analogous to being a film producer. The reason we were able to quickly join forces is because we spoke the same language. Working with the best architects in the world is not unlike working with the best filmmakers. You’re managing egos and artists and trying to bring out the best, but get them to play within a certain sandbox.

How do you think the strike is going to impact the fall film festivals?

Horberg I think people are going to turn out because they’re movie lovers, and I think there’s going to be a lot of energy and a lot of excitement around the premiere of all these films. There’s many directors-actors who are attending TIFF, including Tony [Goldwyn]. Our young lead actor in Ezra is a 12-year-old boy with autism, and he and his parents are going to attend, but he is not going to do anything public-facing. It is such a special event for him and his family, and we didn’t want them to miss it.

Does Tony Goldwyn have personal experience with autism?

Horberg Yes. Tony is a lifelong best friend of Tony Spiridakis, the screenwriter. This is a very semi-autobiographical script. Tony [Spiridakis] is the father of two boys who are on the spectrum. They’re both in their late 20s now, and Tony has known them since birth. All of us were drawn to the authenticity of the script and its honesty and rawness. Tony can’t do press because of the WGA strike, but he will certainly be in Toronto.

Zhang We’re very proud to have made this movie. The film’s purpose is to tell a story the world needs to know.

Ezra was originally titled Inappropriate Behavior. Why the change?

Horberg It had a double meaning, which is always good. You meet this boy who’s in crisis in his school and at home. And so, your immediate perception is that it’s a kid who’s behaving inappropriately. But over the course of the movie your consciousness is raised, and by the end of it, you come to see that he’s the truth teller in the story, and it’s the adults who really need to wake up to their own inappropriate behaviors. But “inappropriate behavior” has #MeToo connotations. We ultimately felt, why carry that baggage? The movie has nothing to do with that. We all agreed to change the title and it was Bob De Niro — God bless him — who said, “Why don’t you just call the movie Ezra? The kid is so great.” Bob is a savant. He doesn’t say that much, but when he speaks, you really pay attention.

How hard was it to get Paul Simon to sign up for Alex Gibney’s documentary?

Horberg Alex Gibney’s the master, but it even took the master a year. But once that happened, Paul was all in. The film goes all the way back to him at 10 years old meeting Art Garfunkel in Queens.

Considering the world you’ve inhabited, Xin, what do you think of Elon Musk?

Zhang He’s a fascinating character. He’s clearly someone who has incredible talent to have created and built Tesla. That’s not a small feat. But he’s also someone who has, at the same time, created a cult following. It’s very important for a filmmaker like Alex Gibney, who is a clear-minded and investigative journalist, to take an objective look at Elon Musk. I met Alex about two years go and really like his work, so he started bringing things to me. Elon Musk is someone he and I talked about.

What are among the secrets to your early success?

Zhang I think our company will be defined by being very international.

Horberg Our director, Pawo Choyning Dorji, was nominated for an Oscar for best international feature for his previous movie, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. He’s the first Bhutanese filmmaker ever recognized for his work in that way.

Zhang Another thing we did deliberately was to build relationships within the indie film community by reaching out to production and sales companies about doing projects together. CAA is selling Ezra, while UTA, along with Altitude, is selling the Paul Simon film. A wonderful European sales agent, Films Boutique, is behind our Bhutanese film. And we have two movies with Anonymous Content [In Restless Dreams, Orwell], and we also have films with Black Bear Pictures [Musk] and Wayfarer [Ezra]. Who else am I missing?

Horberg We’re also doing stuff with Film4 and Participant.

What was it like learning that all three films were accepted into Toronto?

Horberg We’re thrilled. I’ve been going to Toronto for 25 or 30 years, and it’s the best audience anywhere. I made the film Heaven with Tom Tykwer, the German director, that starred Cate Blanchett. It was screening on a Sunday morning, and Tom and I were running over to get to the theater, and there was a line of 900 people. I thought, “God, this is like a cinema heaven.”

Zhang I did not know how big of a deal it was until Bill said, “This is 100 percent hit rate. You should be very happy with this.” It just made me feel so proud as someone who went to TIFF for the first time last year to just watch films. Now we have three films playing there.

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