AFM-bound investors bet smart on mid-range commercial pics

Sampling of pics that has AFM buzzing

As the six Hollywood majors chant the tentpoles-and-franchises mantra, coin has been flowing toward the indie sector to fund mid-range films.

On the eve of the American Film Market (Oct. 31-Nov. 7), the indies see smart money chasing smart product, noting that several investors debuted in the past couple of months, such as Merced Media Partners and Union Entertainment Group, while capital continues to flow toward companies like Emmett/Furla Films — one of the most prolific producers of indie fare — and Envision Entertainment, which announced three months ago that it had raised an additional $275 million in equity for its year-old fund with the aim of maintaining its aggressive pace of financing films.

“If you’re an investor with a lot of money, the film industry has a potentially high rate of return,” says Marc Schipper, chief operating officer at fast-growing Exclusive Media. “Investing in films gives them a bit of diversification in their portfolio.”

Schipper says besides Emmett/Furla and Exclusive, there are now about a dozen major players willing to finance indie films of up to $70 million, such as Christopher Woodrow at Worldview Entertainment and Brian Oliver at Cross Creek.

Schipper closed a deal at Cannes with Oliver for Exclusive Media and Cross Creek to launch a three-year deal to co-finance, co-produce and co-develop at least two features per year with budgets up to $65 million.

First project from the partnership is the long-in-development thriller “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” starring Liam Neeson and directed by Scott Frank. Based on Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books, “Tombstones” will be produced by Double Feature Films partners Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher with Danny DeVito and his Jersey Films.

One of the newer players in the sector is Demarest Films, launched in April with backing from Lambert Media Group’s Michael Lambert and Sam Englebardt in partnership with investor William D. Johnson, son of Franklin Templeton Investments founder Charles B. Johnson.

Demarest backed Neil Jordan’s Toronto player “Byzantium”; David Rosenthal’s “A Single Shot”; thriller “Penthouse North”; Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel McAdams; and Max Nichols’ “Two Night Stand,” which just started shooting in New York City with Miles Teller, Analeigh Tipton and Jessica Szohr. Demarest will be selling markets for “Two Night Stand,” in which a couple is trapped in a snowstorm after a one-night stand, at AFM.

“There have only been good surprises so far,” Englebardt says. “We’re planning on financing about five films a year because it’s a real opportunity for us at this particular moment as studios move away from the sector.”

The film investments have gone so well that Demarest will expand into TV financing next year.

Los Angeles-based Solar Pictures has kept a low profile since its March launch by Jared Underwood, who headed Comerica’s film-lending operation for the past 18 years, and billionaire Romanian industrialist and film producer Bobby Paunescu. Solar plans to finance and produce four or five films a year for the international commercial marketplace with budgets up to $30 million.

Indie sales vet Bill Block has been active since Cannes, when Media Content Capital took a substantial stake in his shingle QED Intl., setting the stage for expansion of Block’s 6-year-old production, finance and international sales company.

The Media Content investment is being used to grow QED’s development, production sales and financing operations — and enable QED to produce or finance four to seven features annually.

The slate is diverse, and includes David Ayer’s “Ten,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger; John Turturro’s project starring Woody Allen; the thriller “Haunt”; and the comedy “Are We Officially Dating.”

“We are taking a filmmaker-driven approach,” he adds. “The key is finding projects with a clear audience target.”

QED is financing and producing Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium,” starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, for Columbia; and has “Alex Cross,” co-financed with Emmett/Furla, in theaters. Even before “Alex Cross” opened Oct. 19, QED had started negotiations to finance an adaptation of another Alex Cross title, James Patterson’s “Double Cross.”

The consensus that emerged during the Toronto festival was cautious bullishness, as dealmakers sealed a strong number of sales absent an eye-popping number for the top sale at the fest — Focus’ $3 million for Derek Cianfrance’s cop thriller “The Place Beyond the Pines.” That was less than the $5 million CBS Films had paid for “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” the biggest deal at the previous TIFF.

Sierra/Affinity topper Nick Meyer, who sold “Pines,” says the indie business is taking advantage of the hole in the market left by the Hollywood majors. That means that the indies are assuming an expanded role in delivering mass-appeal films at a reasonable price.

“People want to be in business with us,” he adds. “The response on ‘Pines’ was gratifying because it’s led to the expectation from distributors that we are going to deliver.”

A few days after Toronto ended, the indie world saw another major player emerge with serious funding. Minneapolis-based private investment firm EBF & Associates and PalmStar Media Capital launched Merced Media Partners with the aim of investing in 15 films annually.

Its first three films are Amy Berg’s “Every Secret Thing,” starring Diane Lane and Elizabeth Banks; Elizabeth Allen’s “Careful What You Wish For”; and Ryan Phillippe’s “Chained.”

Myles Nestel, who launched the Solution as a financing-sales-production entity at Berlin, admits he was impressed at Merced coming on board.

“There were a lot of new financiers at Toronto,” he says. “They would rather partner with a sales company with the infrastructure rather than a producer.”

The Solution sold Josh Boone’s “Writers” at Toronto to Millennium and announced Oct. 18 that Diane Kruger and Anton Yelchin had been signed to star in the romantic comedy “5 to 7,” written and directed by Victor Levin. Nestel and co-founder and partner Lisa Wilson are on board as co-exec producers with the company also handling international distribution rights. The Solution will introduce the project to AFM buyers.

Union Entertainment Group, which bowed at Toronto, was able to sell Ramaa Mosley’s satire “The Brass Teapot” to Magnolia following its premiere. Union announced it was ramping up to finance and produce a slate of five to seven films annually with budgets ranging from $2 million to $10 million.

Union Entertainment Group co-financed, co-produced and supplied post-production services on “Teapot.” It began shooting survival thriller “The Shallows,” directed by Brit helmer Rupert Smith, in November in Florida.

“It’s been insanity in its best form since Toronto,” says Union Entertainment Group founder Noah C. Haeussner.

It has also come on board to produce and co-finance “The McKennas” with Anil Baral, Gary Lennon and Haeussner producing. Penned by Lennon, the story centers on the aftermath of a father dying, leaving a mother and two sons to pick up the pieces while trying to keep their crime business from falling apart.

“What the sale of ‘Brass Teapot’ did was to solidify us within the indie community and show we have legs to stand on,” Haussner says. “And it showed we’re not doing a specific type of film.”

Investors are still attracted by the prospect of returns in the mid-teens for supplying mezzanine financing, Nestel says. “There are always going to be high-net worth individuals looking for equity investments, looking for smart, sophisticated partners with a track record. They are not fools rushing in.”

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