Mid-budget films attract stars and sales

Buyers hit Toronto looking for action

Over the next 18 months, slick actioners from the indie world are stacked up for release like aircraft at LAX: “Two Guns” (going out through Universal), “Rush” (Universal again), “Broken City” (via Fox), “Frozen Ground” (through Grindstone with Liongate taking international), “Alex Cross” (Summit-Lionsgate) and “End of Watch” (Open Road).

In this era of studios drilling down on franchise tentpoles, the majors still want to release mid-range action films — they just want someone else to foot the tab, especially as the cost of their franchise tentpoles continues to soar past $200 million.

Foresight Unlimited’s Mark Damon, who sold foreign markets to the Mark Wahlberg-Denzel Washinton starrer “Two Guns” to Sony at Berlin, notes that the trend is energizing the sector.

“This is happening more and more because of the paucity of studio movies,” Damon says. And he noted that “Battleship” director Peter Berg is attached to “Lone Survivor,” starring Wahlberg and Eric Bana — another title that carries indie financing and a commitment for a release from Universal.

“Survivor” has a budget of under $50 million, according to Damon, and would probably cost far more if it were solely financed by a studio. “Talent still wants to do good films but we can’t afford to do $100 million films so we give talent a piece of the back end instead,” he notes.

Rena Ronson, the co-head of UTA Independent Film Group, says the indie sector is benefiting from the declining interest of the majors in financing mid-budget projects in the $50 million and under range.

“Making these kinds of films is not currently part of the big studios’ business plan, so it’s opened up the market for indies,” she says. “It’s created an enormous opportunity for the sector.” She adds that financers have been showing a growing interest in the indie sector, noting that funds are available for high-quality projects even without stars attached.

It’s not all action at Toronto. Leslie Urdang of Olympus Pictures, who has “Mr. Pip,” with Hugh Laurie as the last Englishman in a tropical village in Papua New Guinea during its civil war in the 1990s, and sex-addiction comedy “Thanks for Sharing,” with Mark Ruffalo adn Gwyneth Paltrow, screening and for sale at Toronto, says that the festival’s growing prominence is tied to the ongoing growth of the international side of the business.

“One of Toronto’s strengths is foreign sales,” she notes. “What’s showing is not high-concept studio films or Cannes films, which tend to be more auteur-driven.” Urdang also says she expects a strong sales market at Toronto following a moderate level of activity at Cannes.

“Buyers need and desire films at reasonable prices,” Ronson notes. “Good underlying material and good stories are critical elements.”

The festival itself is peppered with films looking for distribution, including star-driven dramas and drama shot through with comedy, quirky genre offerings and worthy documentaries (see sidebar below).

Production-financing shingle Emmett/Furla Films has made a big impact on the indie sector, assembling more than $500 million in a little over a year and producing the hot sellers “Broken City,” “Frozen Ground,” “Alex Cross” and “End of Watch.” The shingle’s Randall Emmett asserts that the combo of his company’s financing plus studio release commitments is creating a ripple effect.

“It’s just exciting to be making movies and controlling our own destiny,” he adds. “Now we’re seeing more fresh equity coming into the marketplace when the economy isn’t doing that well.”

Production-financing is coming from a variety of sources such as four-year-old Exclusive Media Group and three-year-old Cross Creek Pictures, which have teamed on “Ides of March” and “Rush.” The companies announced a three-year deal at Cannes to co-finance, co-produce and co-develop at least two features per year with budgets up to $65 million, starting with the thriller “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” starring Liam Neeson and directed by Scott Frank.

And Stuart Ford’s five-year-old financing-sales outfit IM Global has been a producer on “Dredd,” “Safe,” “Dead Man Down,” “Hummingbird” and Bullet to the Head” withing the past two years.

Jere Hausfater, chief operating officer of 1-year-old sales and finance company Aldamisa Intl., agrees that broad-based action films represent the sweet spot for indies.

“Good action films are at the very top of popcorn escapist movies that can work everywhere in the world — Bangkok or Barcelona,” Hausfater notes. “It’s such a tried and true area where it’s friendly in theatrical, DVD and TV. You can make it in the $25 million to $65 million range because that’s (not a budget range) that the studios are into like they used to be.”

Hausfater is coming to Toronto to sell international markets for a pair of action pics — “Machete Kills,” which just wrapped, and “Sin City 2,” which is going into production. The “Sin City” sequel already has domestic distribution from the Weinstein Co.

The official lineup at Toronto is bristling with action films, such as opening night pic “Looper,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis and financed by James Stern’s Endgame Entertainment; FilmNation handles sales on the pic about time-traveling hitmen.

The high-concept “Looper” is very much a Toronto-type film says FilmNation topper Glen Basner.

“We’ve always used Toronto to showcase new films at the script stage that can play internationally,” Basner notes. “We started selling ‘Looper’ at Toronto two years ago as a case in point. Much of our business is generated internationally and we continue to see some markets grow such as Russia, Brazil, India and China.”

Basner pointed to “The Chernobyl Diaries” as an indie genre film that generated plenty of profits — $18 million domestically and another $25 million outside the United States with some territories still to release.

Starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, “The Place Beyond the Pines” — unspooling as a Special Presentation at Toronto on Sept. 7 — is saturated in genre and generating plenty of heat. Pic follows motorcycle rider-turned-bank robber (Gosling) in a showdown with a cop-turned-politician (Cooper). Sidney Kimmel financed the project, directed by “Blue Valentine” helmer Derek Cianfrance; Nick Meyer is handling foreign sales via his Sierra/Affinity banner.

“Action films like this one — with an elevated profile that gives them a distinct feel — are consistently strong performers throughout the world,” Meyer notes.

Ben Weiss of Paradigm’s motion picture finance group — which helped finance the “Saw” franchise and “Insidious” — is coming to Toronto with the Snoop Dog documentary “Reincarnated” and James Cromwell drama “Still.” He asserts that the indie sector’s is drawing plenty of investor interest, particularly as new revenue streams from VOD and digital become available.

“We need to have more packages,” he notes. “We have more financers than projects.” What: Mid-budget action films attract stars and sales.

The takeaway: The indie sector has been energized by the fact that studios are shying away from lower-budget pics.

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