Uphill battles for 'Swan,' 'Speech,' 'Fighter'

A common theme ran through this season’s awards acceptance speeches: Getting “Black Swan,” “The Fighter” and “The King’s Speech” funded was like pulling teeth.

“Swan,” one of the most unlikely box office hits of 2011, almost didn’t get made at all.

“I must say, this one really went down to the wire,” Mike Medavoy, one of “Swan’s” four producers, told Variety. Medavoy first met with director Darren Aronofsky over a decade ago, back when the “All About Eve”-inspired psycho-thriller was set in the world of theater, not ballet. After rethinking the project, Aronofsky made the risky choice to change the film’s setting — a creative decision that paid off, but which made financing the film nearly impossible.

Every studio turned “Swan” down, and even when Fox Searchlight came in to co-finance with producer Brian Oliver’s Cross Creek Pictures, negotiations between the two lasted up until the last minutes before pre-production.

“I can’t remember a movie I’ve been involved with that had that kind of a response as a picture that couldn’t get done since I did ‘Rocky’ in ’76,” Medavoy said.

“Swan” was budgeted at $20 to $25 million, but Aronofsky and his team at Protozoa were able to bring the budget down to $13 million after tax incentives from New York state.

Aronofsky had also been attached to direct “The Fighter” at one point. His decision not to take on that project, ironically, was a low point for the pic’s producers.

“Once we lost Darren and Brad (Pitt) and it was Mark (Wahlberg) and Todd (Lieberman) and myself, I think we had serious questions as to whether we’d be able to make the movie,” Mandeville Films co-prexy David Hoberman, one of “The Fighter’s” producers, told Variety.

Hoberman said that from start to finish, “Fighter” took seven years. Unlike “Swan,” pic had three studio bidders, eventually landing at Paramount under the care of production prexy Brad Weston.

“They were supportive in going out to movie stars, they were supportive in every draft of the script that we had, they just … for the kinds of movies they were making, they just wanted someone who in their mind had big box-office appeal,” Hoberman said.

Without a Brad Pitt or Matt Damon — who was also reportedly attached to the project at one point — Paramount wouldn’t commit to financing. The project stalled until Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media stepped in — a deal Hoberman credits Ari Emanuel and Mark Wahlberg with negotiating — while Paramount stayed on to distribute and market the final product.

Despite a modest $13 budget, “The King’s Speech” also faced significant financing challenges. Producers Emile Sherman, Iain Canning and Gareth Unwin had to decide between independent financing or an offer from Fox Searchlight to fully fund. Ultimately, pic’s producers decided to piece together the coin they needed from pre-sales, equity and bank financing in order to retain more of the film’s potential profits.

The gamble paid off. “Speech” has already grossed more than $260 million worldwide. Assuming a conservative $300 million gross worldwide, average theatrical rentals of 40%, average distribution fees of 30% and about $40 million in global marketing costs, minus the $13 million cost of production, and that would leave about $30 million from theatrical release alone to split between the profit participants.

“Swan” and “The Fighter” have also been top grossers at the domestic and international B.O. “Fighter” has cumed more than $100 million while “Swan,” at more than $200 worldwide, has become the highest-earning release of 2010 for parent company 20th Century Fox.

“At one point, after I saw the first cut of the movie, I turned to my partner here and said, you know, this thing could really work and it ought to do $50 (million) domestic,” Medavoy said. “I was short by about $55 million.”

(Adam Dawtrey contributed to this report.)

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