Frugal is new normal for find funding

Indie film lending cratered with the 2008 global credit freeze, but has regained balance at a downsized volume that seems sustainable and steady, say film finance executives.

“There’s a ‘new normal’ and that is to be very conservative,” said Christine Ball, who is senior VP/group head and senior relationship manager handling entertainment at Wells Fargo Commercial Banking. “Certainly, the banks all get this.”

Wells Fargo has a $500 million film loan portfolio.

Movie finance executives say that for single picture financing the new environment means pre-selling more territories. As a result, so-called “gap” financing for remaining unsold territories is smaller than was acceptable during the easy-money period from 2004 to 2008.

For sizing corporate credit lines, this means tilting more to bad-case scenarios for calculating the earning power of films and other assets used as collateral, rather than more-generous medium performance assumptions used a few years ago.

The trend to tighter qualifications means fewer films are financed by banks, though a silver lining is that a less congested film landscape means the movies that make the credit grade have a clearer shot at selling and generating revenue in distribution.

“There seems to be a better caliber of movie product today that very often is easier to finance,” said Lisa Wolofsky, the Montreal-based manager of gap and international financing in the entertainment unit of National Bank of Canada. “I’m seeing more projects that are viable.”

One independent segment where bank financing is plentiful is high-end movies.

“The pre-sale market is as robust as I’ve seen in maybe 15 years for films with budgets of $20 million or more,” said Jared Underwood, senior VP and group manager of entertainment lending at Comerica. “Films with major stars and directors are selling well. But the lower- to mid-level budget films with smaller stars, tend to be more difficult to pre-sell and riskier in general.”

Comerica has been a banker to the film, TV and videogame industries for over 20 years, financing over 800 movies.

Finance executives say that another effect of fewer pics being funded is lower production costs, particularly because top creative talents have lower salary demands in comparison to the boom years.

Another characteristic of the new normal is that a slew of European banks that were significant lenders to the international and Hollywood movie sector have mostly disappeared.

“European banks will be slow to return, and not any time soon, I think, given the magnitude of sovereign debt issues gripping Western Europe,” said David Molner, managing director of media finance specialist Screen Capital Intl.

Finance executives say remaining banks seem to have sufficient lending capacity for the downsized indie film sector, and if a void appears, then non-banking financing such as equity investments, soft money subsidies or insurance-backed financing can fill it.

“Given the major studios are distributing few pictures…this is good for the domestic financiers that survived,” added Dominic Ianno, CEO of film financing company Indomitable Entertainment.

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