BETTING ON FILMMAKING
Raleigh’s Burke Koonce savors success of first film
by Liza Roberts
When the documentary Betting on Zero hits Netflix next month, Raleigh’s Burke Koonce, an executive producer of the film, will be celebrating.
With its 100-million-plus subscribers, Netflix is “the brass ring for independent filmmaking,” says Koonce, who also owns Helicon Research, an equity research firm that serves hedge funds and other institutional clients. Koonce and his Betting on Zero partners are hoping that the streaming service will bring their film – which follows hedge fund mogul Bill Ackman as he aims to prove his allegation that the nutrition company Herbalife is a massive pyramid scheme, shorts the company’s stock for $1 billion, feuds with Wall Street titan Carl Icahn, and pressures the federal government to investigate – to an even broader audience.
The film, directed by Ted Braun, has already reaped major buzz, becoming the No. 1 documentary on iTunes for three weeks running, and hitting No. 1 on iTunes for independent films. Herbalife has fought back with a public relations offensive, calling the film “a misleading infomercial.” But the documentary has had positive reviews from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among many others. The film is “filled with colorful characters easily rivaling those in The Big Short or Showtime’s Billions,” said The Hollywood Reporter.
When he screened the film for a Raleigh audience at The Rialto Theatre in Five Points April 25, Koonce said the film represented more than four years of work. Together with his longtime friend and workmate, John Fichthorn (co-founder of Dialectic Capital Management), Koonce began laying the groundwork for a film production company, Biltmore Films, in 2012. Inspired by the idea that stories about the companies the two research “can be fascinating and compelling,” the partners brought Wall Street knowledge, research savvy, a nose for a story, and capital to the effort, but they had no experience in filmmaking. They found producers and directors who did, and learned as they went. “It’s been a pretty amazing journey,” Koonce says, comparing the last several years to earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in film school.
Bolstered by Betting on Zero’s success, Koonce and Fichthorn hope Biltmore Films will continue to “bring business and financial stories to life.” They have several dozen they’re exploring, including one about the complicity of business in the nationwide opioid epidemic. “We’ve got momentum,” Koonce says. “Next time, I would love to take more creative responsibility. Going forward, hopefully we won’t be in a position to let everyone else have all the fun.”