American Film Market 2011: Case Study - Stephen Frears

It’s a sign of how tough the indie market has become that “Lay the Favorite,” directed by Stephen Frears and starring Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Vince Vaughn, had to be refinanced three times during five roller-coaster weeks of pre-production.

Wild Bunch eventually climbed aboard, and shooting started on schedule in late April, with the budget cut from $19 million to $16 million.

But the fact that this A-list package endured such a white-knuckle ride illustrates how cautious buyers now are about scripts that don’t fit into a clear generic mold.

“Lay the Favorite” is adapted by D.V. DeVicentis from Beth Raymer’s memoir about a young woman who falls in with a group of seasoned Las Vegas gamblers. “It’s not a caper or a comedy in the purest sense,” says producer Paul Trijbits. “It’s not easily quantifiable.”

Focus Features developed the project under its Random House joint venture but got cold feet and pulled out abruptly in mid-February, when prep was already well under way in New York.

With producer Anthony Bregman scrambling for alternatives, Frears’ agent Jenne Casarotto placed an emergency call to Trijbits at the U.K.’s Ruby Films, which made the director’s previous “Tamara Drewe.” It was Friday evening, and Trijbits was on a train to the Alps for a skiing holiday. By Sunday, they had a plan.

“I had only met Anthony once before, but we must have spoken 47 times that weekend, mostly with me standing on a ski slope with my hand freezing off,” recalls Trijbits.

Their first act was to relocate the production from New York (doubling for Vegas) to New Orleans. That meant an instant savings of more than $1 million and a gain of another $1 million from Louisiana’s more favorable tax credit.

Bregman brought in Emmett/Furla Films, which shoots regularly in Louisiana, to invest against the U.S. rights. Trijbits lined up coin from sales company West End Films, London post house Lipsync and soundtrack outfit Cutting Edge. Pre-sales were struck with Svensk in Scandinavia, Village Roadshow in Australia and Alliance in Canada.

With Emmett/Furla bankrolling pre-production, Frears and DeVicentis set to work cutting nine days from the schedule, mostly from the pricey Vegas leg of the shoot.

But the gap proved too great for West End, which bowed out in favor of Pathe. “We went way down the line with Pathe, until at the 59th second of the 59th minute of the 11th hour, they baled,” Trijbits says.

So for the third time, and with the clock ticking even louder, he and Bregman set about knocking on more doors. Finally, Wild Bunch agreed to distribute the film in France, Benelux, Germany, Italy and Spain and to sell the rest of the world, with eOne taking U.K. rights.

It was a close call, but according to Trijbits, the project emerged creatively stronger for the experience. “Stephen says the two best things that could have happened were moving to New Orleans and cutting nine days from the schedule.” he says. “It meant that he felt freer than ever before.”

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