Closer Media Founders Zhang Xin, William Horberg on ‘Ezra’ and Producing Movies That Make You Feel and Think

“Ezra,” the story of a stand-up comic embarking on a road trip with his autistic son, is the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn’t make much anymore

Published Time: 04.06.2024 - 18:31:32 Modified Time: 04.06.2024 - 18:31:32

“Ezra,” the story of a stand-up comic embarking on a road trip with his autistic son, is the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn’t make much anymore. It’s not based on a toy or a comic book; instead it’s a warm-hearted, deeply human story without much in the way of special effects. But the movie, which opened last weekend in the height of summer popcorn season, is exactly what Closer Media, the new film and television company that backed the production, was founded to champion.

“We want to tell stories from all over the world that are meaningful and that can bring people closer together,” says Zhang Xin, noting that Closer’s mission statement is right there in its name. “When a project comes to us, we ask does it move our heart and does it open our eyes?”

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It’s a new challenge for Zhang, a billionaire who made her fortune as the co-founder of Soho China, the Chinese construction giant. After leaving the company in 2022, Zhang decided she wanted to break into the media business, and she partnered with William Horberg, a veteran producer whose credits include “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” to make her dream a reality. Despite the fact that Zhang was much more familiar with building sites than movie sets, Horberg believed her background prepared her for the rough and tumble of Hollywood and the headaches of trying to will something on to the screen.

“After spending a couple hours together, I quickly surmised that she was a producer,” he says during an hour-long interview with Zhang at Closer’s Manhattan headquarters, which boasts enviable views of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Think about what she does. You have a blank piece of land. You’ve got a diva architect. You’ve got only so much money and so much time. And you’re trying to tell a story or in this case, finish a building.”

But even Horberg, who has dozens of credits and decades of experience, couldn’t have foreseen the tempests upending the movie business. Battered by a pandemic that shut down production and closed theaters, the industry was then engulfed in two bruising labor disputes after the writers and then the actors went on strike for much of 2023. Horberg expresses sympathy for the artists who hit the picket lines because it was getting harder to earn a living as Hollywood moved more heavily into streaming. But he admits that the strikes put Closer months behind schedule.

“This has not been a straight road,” he says. “We’re not where we had planned to be in terms of developing our own homegrown projects, but interesting projects are coming through our door and we’ve produced movies that show we can support filmmakers and the stories they want to tell.”

The partners also got a startling reminder of just how tough the business can be when Participant Media, which produced socially-conscious movies like “Lincoln” and “Roma,” folded its operations last spring.

“It was shocking,” Zhang says. “When I was thinking about entering this space, Participant was presented to me as the gold standard for the kind of movies we wanted to make. For them to go away, is so sad.”

It’s also a reminder, Zhang notes, that there has to be a sturdy financial model for the movies and shows companies like Closer produces. “We can still tell stories that are important, but we need to do it in a way that business-wise, it make -

s sense.”

In addition to “Ezra,” which Bleecker Street released on 1,320 screenswhere it grossed $1.2 million in its first weekend, Closer has also backed Alex Gibney’s “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon,” which was released by MGM+ in March, as well as Pawo Choyning Dorji’s “The Monk and the Gun,” which was the Bhutanese entry for the best international feature Oscar. The company is also working on a documentary on George Orwell from Raoul Peck, the Oscar-nominated director of “I Am Not Your Negro” and Gibney’s upcoming look at Elon Musk, which will debut on Max. The Tesla founder and owner of X doesn’t seem like a fit with Closer’s stated mission, particularly given his right-ward lurch in recent years.

“We want to tell stories that are meaningful,” Zhang explains. “When we started this project it was before he had bought Twitter. We want to tell the whole story of Elon Musk. Along the way, he’s become so different than he was when we started out and he was seen as the Tesla guy who wanted to make the world cleaner. But that makes the film more interesting.”

Closer also has several narrative features in production and development and plans to make movies between $5 million to $30 million. At the same time, it’s launched a television arm and tapped Nate Matteson, the executive producer of “The Bear,” to run it. The company is just getting started on its series business, but the goal is to have several different types of projects from various budget levels that can be streamed, air on cable or broadcast TV or released theatrically.

“I like genre films or shows that subvert the genre, or transcend the genre, or combine genres,” says Horberg. “You know what the best genre is? It’s something new. We want to make things that don’t feel like they are something that’s been done 100 times before.”

That’s certainly the case with “Ezra,” which finds Bobby Cannavale playing a man who is struggling to connect with his young son, who is on the spectrum. It was a story that resonated personally with several members of the production — screenwriter Tony Spiridakis has neurodiverse children, as do Horberg and Robert De Niro, who co-stars in the movie. The production also included neurodiverse people in its cast and crew, most notably, William A. Fitzgerald, who plays Ezra. But finding Fitzgerald was a long process, one that involved a nationwide search. But after looking at nearly a 100 kids, director Tony Goldwyn hadn’t found the right actor to carry his movie. And then Fitzgerald’s tape crossed his desk.

“We just got super lucky because it turned out he lives in New Jersey, which is we were shooting, so he could sleep in his own bed,” says Horberg. “He has beautiful parents, who were always there and Tony was so conscientious about creating a series of protocols where he could safe and supported. It made the movie more authentic.”

(Pictured: Bleecker Street founder Andrew Karpen, left, and Closer Media’s Zhang Xin and William Horberg at the “Ezra” premiere.)

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