The independent film business is still a viable option for high net worth individuals and equity players; several newer shingles have emerged, with lessons learned from the heady days before the turn of the last century. Lower budgets, higher-quality scripts that attract stars who will work for a lower quote, and savvy project-picking mark the new money’s more sophisticated take on making movies.
American Film Co.
Founded by Ameritrade billionaire Joe Ricketts, the American Film Co. aims to recreate stories from America’s past, staying as faithful as possible to the historical record.
The company made a splash in Toronto with its first production, Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator,” a courtroom drama based on the events around President Lincoln’s assassination, which sold to Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.
Guided by veteran production executives Robert and Webster Stone (“Gone in 60 Seconds,” “The Negotiator”) and Brian Falk, Ricketts and his team will focus on projects with budgets under $20 million, keeping in line with each project’s “own commercial merits,” according to COO Alfred Levitt.
While the company has a few films in development, they’re currently working with renowned historian David Hackett Fischer on “Midnight Riders,” which follows Paul Revere and the actions that sparked the American Revolution.
Ricketts’ goals appear to be as much about fostering historical knowledge as establishing a recognizable brand.
“When I was a boy and I saw that Disney logo, I knew it was a movie for me,” says Ricketts. “Now, as an adult, the movies I enjoy most are real stories rooted in American history. I want to build a brand for people who share my belief that true stories are the most exciting to watch.”
Originally working in the Los Angeles nightclub industry and based in the backroom of Hollywood hotspot Shelter, Giovanni Agnelli and Scott Bloom attracted their celebrity clientele to a number of projects. But ultimately nothing came of such dealings until Argonaut’s third partner, Bebe stores tycoon Manny Mashouf, suggested setting up their own private-equity fund.
With a $100 million line of credit, Argonaut quickly boarded Appian Way’s “Twilight Zone” reboot in 2008, set up at Warner Bros. But then they spent a year looking for the right project to greenlight.
“It was important for us to start with something that defined our company,” says Bloom. Eventually, that became Jake Scott’s indie drama “Welcome to the Rileys,” which was released Oct 29 via Samuel Goldwyn Films/Sony Pictures Worldwide Aquisitions Group.
According to Bloom, they have a number of other projects in the pipeline that are filmmaker-driven, with budgets under $10 million.
“We thought we were going to do very large films,” says Agnelli, “but after a good experience on the ‘Rileys,’ we’ve changed our slate quite a bit to incorporate more films like that. Maybe there is a way not to do just big fun movies but find that right balance, where can you make a quality artistic film that has commercial appeal.”
Agnelli and Bloom acknowledge the challenges of finding the “little ‘Junos’ that could,” but they’re up for the quest.
As Agnelli says, explaining the company’s name, “(The myth) about a band of warriors on the quest for the golden fleece seemed to mirror what we are were attempting to do as filmmakers.”
When former Geffen Records president Jordan Schur teamed up with longtime friend and investment banker David J. Mimran, the duo opened Mimran Schur, a new company devoted to producing films with a mid-range budget.
The firm’s first two productions, “Stone” and “Henry’s Crime,” premiered at Toronto and more than satisfied the company’s goals (“Stone” was released by Overture; and as of press time, “Crime” was in final negotiations with a domestic distrib and a sizable MG — “We’re recouping our costs and more,” says Schur). With the studios leaving the space, Schur says they saw an opportunity to make cost-effective films with high-caliber talent. “And to reduce our budgets, we’re giving them a sizable back-end that they wouldn’t otherwise find,” says Schur.
While the company’s first two productions were budgeted between $15 million-$20 million, Schur isn’t going to be pigeonholed.
“I’m not trying to make decisions on some formulaic business plan,” he says. “I’m trying to make decisions based on content.”
With the long-term goals of building a library, the company is already on track with two new projects that Schur believes have greater commercial potential: one smaller (“Pawn Shop Chronicles,” directed by Fred Durst, the Limp Bizkit frontman who was discovered by Schur in the 1990s) and a larger film budgeted at $30 million-$35 million (Alex Litvak’s scripted Mexican-set action-thriller “Five Against the Bullet”).
“We’re going to be honest with ourselves,” adds Schur. “We want to make great films, but we’re not trying to make ‘adult dramas.’ They need to be movies that people want to see.”
Ten years ago, while sitting on the board of the New York Stage and Film Co., Delta Power energy magnate Dean Vanech told producer Leslie Urdang that he wanted to work on a project together — but he was too busy.
Fast forward several years: Vanech sold a big chunk of his business to Bear Sterns and “got to focus on what I really wanted to do,” he says, and what he really wanted to do became Olympus Prods.
The film and theater business, which he founded with Urdang, had a banner year, recently selling pics “Rabbit Hole” to Lionsgate and “Beginners” to Focus, and winning a Tony for its revival of “La Cage Aux Folles.”
Targeting projects with budgets of $3 million-$15 million, Olympus plans to back approximately three films a year, functioning always as producers or equal co-producers with its partners.
“We’re not just financiers,” says Urdang.
At AFM, FilmNation will be preselling the company’s latest, “Entourage” director Julian Farino’s “The Oranges,” an ensemble dramedy that stars Catherine Keener and Adam Brody. Olympus is also on track with two additional projects.
The nascent company — officially founded in 2007 — has survived the specialized sector shakeout, making movies inexpensively and attracting enough name talent to justify strong presales.
“What also sets us apart,” adds Vanech, “is we have really good business skills and we have capital, and we’re truly self-sufficient, which gives us the ability to be very methodical and very picky.”
Financed by a group of private investors, lead by Dallas-based dairy mogul Alan Bernon, Rick Schwartz’s Overnight Prods. has rested little since awakening in 2008. The company has already backed a series of mid-range pictures, with name directors, recognizable casts and budgets ranging from $15 million-$30 million — “movies that the studios were making a few years ago,” notes Schwartz, “but don’t make anymore because it’s not worth their time.”
Each film marks a different level of investment for Overnight: they put $1 million-$2 million of private equity into Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” produced and funded Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete,” co-financed by Hyde Park, and took on much of the creative producing duties for the Georgian thriller remake “13.” With money devoted explicitly to development, Schwartz says, “I’m not interested in just writing a check for a film. We’re a full-on production company.”
Currently in the pipeline from Overnight is “Goree Girls,” with Jennifer Aniston; “Fit Model,” a “Devil Wears Prada” set in the modeling world; and “Spectra,” with Nicole Kidman, “a smart genre movie” that Schwartz likens to his last collaboration with Kidman “The Others.” (“I need to find some guy movies,” he jokes).
Moving forward, Schwartz says his only criteria for a project is “that it’s one that can play in a theater next to ‘Alice in Wonderland.’
“I don’t look at $3 million festival movies,” he adds. “I only work in commercial genres.”