What if foreign funders turned off the tap?

WHILE HOLLYWOOD has been obsessing about a strike by writers and actors, another shutdown looms that could pose an equally grave threat. The culprit in this case consists of overseas financing partners. Writers and actors may create the work, but the fat cats abroad have been writing the checks.

Trouble is, they’ve begun to stare at their balance sheets, and that’s bad news for Hollywood. Consider the following doomsday scenario:

SEPT. 1, 2001: The decision by several leading German players to stop co-financing U.S. films has triggered a chain reaction among foreign money men.

One company after another around Europe and Asia has served notice to studios that the free ride is over.

“How did it become law that Americans no longer finance American pictures?” demanded a prominent German banker. “It’s one thing to spread the risk, but they’re spreading the losses.”

European losses on American product have escalated now that they’re expected to put up as much as 70% of the budget compared with a cozy 50-50 split only a few years ago.

Their pullbacks have sent Hollywood into shock. Studios are chopping budgets and canceling productions. Producer Joe Roth says he’s reducing his 2002 slate from 16 movies to four and will no longer back any film that he doesn’t personally direct.

Even Vivendi has entered into “a reassessment” after being turned down by several financing partners that formerly backed the old Universal slate. “Why should we help the French become cultural imperialists?” asked a Spanish TV baron who did not want to be identified. “They taught us to hate cultural imperialists.”

The German love affair with movies disintegrated once investors turned their back on the ailing Neuer Markt. Money men always assumed they’d have to find a new source of funding — after all, the Japanese and Arabs had once been eager participants — but so far they’ve come up empty.

“It’s like a poker game that has run out of players,” observed a veteran British banker.

THE DEALS THEMSELVES are part of the problem. American filmmakers have launched huge movies like “Gangs of New York” and “Ali” by shifting most of the risk overseas. Though “Traffic” is a critical success, the U.S. distributor, USA Films, apparently put up a mere $10 million of the $65 million budget.

One reason these deals found takers is that European “end users” were eager to line up star-laden films for their TV networks. Then there was all that stock market money to be moved around.

That was great news for the studios, who were led by Paramount’s Jonathan Dolgen into a brave new world of risk-averse moviemaking. According to the Dolgen Doctrine, it’s OK to accept a lid on your upside if you zealously limit your downside.

Other studios embraced the Dolgen Doctrine — even Sony, which once scorned co-financing. Indeed, the hierarchs atop AOL TW, Viacom, Disney, News Corp. and the like used it as an opportunity to radically chop their film spending. Disney alone reduced movie spending by some $500 million over the past two years.

LIKE MOST ECONOMIC theories, however, this one applied only to bountiful times. No one stopped to ask, “What happens if the money dries up?”

Guess what: It dried up, and that has sent the Serious Thinkers into emergency mode. Studios are canceling special effects extravaganzas. Sony’s long-anticipated “Men in Black II,” whose budget soared past $175 million — with the studio parting with 65% of the gross receipts to talent — was put on hold.

Indeed, the only mega-picture moving forward seems to be “Mission: Impossible III,” despite its formidable budget of $225 million. The dauntless Dolgen has been seen with Tom Cruise on the Paramount lot escorting groups of Native Americans representing the Mashantucket-Pequots, Senacas, and other tribes that have made billions in the casino business.

Though Dolgen is secretive about his apparent new investors, one associate quotes him as saying, “If Americans won’t support Hollywood movies, at least Native Americans will.”

Put less politely, why shouldn’t money made from gambling be put into the ultimate gamble? Hollywood may yet be saved.

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