Troy Lum has been tagged ‘the golden boy of the film festival circuit’ and, at 34, he is already one of the world’s most powerful film executives.
For a man who has spent more than a decade working in film, Troy Lum looks particularly uncomfortable with a spotlight and camera directed at him. Dressed in jeans and a baggy black sweater, he rolls his feet, sliding his sneakers across the floor.
As co-founder and Managing Director of independent distribution company Hopscotch Films, he has recently returned from Cannes and Berlin and is off to LA in a month. “Do I get sick of travelling?” he asks. “Sometimes, but I kind of like leaving as a general concept.”
Listed as one of the Top 50 Young Film Executives In The World by The Hollywood Reporter, the business graduate had a rather fortuitous start in film.
“When I left UTS in 1994, I travelled for two years and lived in Paris, London and a little island off the coast of Thailand for way too long. I came back to Sydney and decided I wanted to be a writer,” he says.
Lum tried out this new career for around a year but admits he “struggled to survive”. He turned to several publishing houses to inquire about work and was rewarded with a stream of “really nice rejection letters”. So, he thought, what else could I do?
“I decided to approach independent cinema. I knew about Dendy – it was the place where I went to see all these great films when I was a kid. So I wrote them a letter.”
At 22, he was hired as PA to the Managing Director, Lyn McCarthy. He worked in various roles within the company and, a credit to his quiet determination and passion for film, was promoted to Head of Sales a mere two years later. His first film purchase was Waking Ned Divine.
“It did really well, so that year Dendy took me off to Cannes.” It was 1997 and Lum was about to enter film-buying legend. Equipped with scant experience, he successfully bid for three films: The Blair Witch Project, All About My Mother and Buena Vista Social Club.
The then little-known Blair Witch Project went on to smash box office records to became the biggest independent film of all time: it grossed more than $100 million in the United States and went on to make an impressive $10 million at the Australian box office.
“Even to this day, that was some of the best buying I’ve ever done. I became the golden boy of the festival circuit.” He went on to buy 60 films for Dendy and, by the age of 24, was at the helm of the company.
“The last film I released for Dendy was Amélie, which I’d bought from script,” says Lum. Actress Audrey Tautou was yet to be cast, and the gamble paid off.
“It did massive business for Dendy. At that stage, I was approached by Frank Cox to start Hopscotch.”
A driving force behind one of Australia’s most successful independent distributors, NewVision Film Distributors, and co-founder of Melbourne’s Kino Dendy Cinemas, Frank Cox saw something special in Lum: a steely determination and superior networking skills.
Lum left Dendy in 2002 and Hopscotch Films was born. Cox and Lum’s first purchase was Bowling For Columbine, paying a huge $70,000 to distribute the documentary.
“It was an incredible figure, unusually high to pay for a documentary,” Cox told AFTRS Media last year. It went on to become the highest grossing documentary in Australian history – taking $5 million at the box office – and established a strong financial base for Hopscotch.
The company has since flourished, branching out into DVD distribution in 2005 with Hopscotch Entertainment and movie production last year with Hopscotch Features, a collaboration with writer John Collee (Happy Feet, Master and Commander, Danny Deckchair) and producer Andrew Mason (The Matrix Revolutions).
Most recently, Troy Lum was Executive Producer of Mao’s Last Dancer. Confidence in the producer Jane Scott (who also produced Shine) led Hopscotch to invest in the project whilst the script was still in draft form and a director was yet to be signed. They stuck with the film for five years until its release in October last year.
“It was very risky for a distributor because there was no guarantee that the film was ever going to be made,” says Lum. Once again, the gamble paid off with Mao’s Last Dancer becoming the biggest grossing Australian film of 2009.
This success, while sweet, can be fickle in an industry where several poor film choices – and poor box office returns – can sink a company. As two creative forces with varying tastes in film, Cox and Lum’s purchasing decisions often involve intense deliberation and discussion.
“That’s the beauty of having a partner like Troy,” says Cox. “Even if you don’t believe in the same movie, one side convinces the other that’s the way to go, then both partners do their best to end up with the film… He’s quite aggressive in his acquisitions.”
It’s hard to imagine this aggression: Lum’s easy walk blends in with the ebb and flow of students in the UTS Tower building and he appears relaxed and calm. It must take some force, though, to win scripts over the hundreds of other film buyers in the Australian market.
“I’m good with people and people like working with me. If it comes down to me and somebody else [in bidding], I can usually get the film out of a relationship. Chances are I have worked with the person before, done a good job, reported properly and kept in contact,” says Lum. “I think that itself is much more of a gift than some actual perception about a film – I think that’s overstated.”
The future of the Australian film industry, he says, is looking healthy despite the threat of illegal downloads and distribution. “I still believe that people want to go to the cinema. It is too much a part of our social fabric. It’s a great dating thing because you don’t have to talk to the person you’re with, and it’s great for people in relationships because they don’t have to talk to each other.
“I just think that the way we interact with material is going to be different… It means that on the opening day of a film – like Harry Potter 25 – you will be able to watch that film whichever way you want to, in any format.
“You can’t stop people these days getting what they want, when they want it.” So how did a middle child from Carlingford grow up to become one of world’s most powerful film executives?
“My parents own a restaurant in Balmain [the wellrespected Satasia] – they’ve had it for 30 years. As a kid in the mid-eighties, Balmain was a very artistic hub and my parents had a lot of writers and artists who came in. My sisters and I used to go around to the tables and chat with people,” says Lum.
As he got older, Lum worked in the restaurant, still maintaining one shift a week when he was head of Dendy. “It’s quite a humbling thing to serve people.”
Success, he says, comes from achieving balance in your life. “I try not to spend a lot of time socially with people from the film business. The people I interact with come from all different walks of life. For me, I think that gives you balance, that gives you perspective.”
Words: Chrissa Favaloro
Photo of Troy: Matthew Duchesne / Milk & Honey