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New risk-takers infuse film business

Upstarts underscore potential rewards in bucking conventional wisdom

The news that Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the zanies behind “South Park” and “Book of Mormon,” have raised the money to start their own studio points up two phenomena: First, there’s an abundance of money around to play with. Second, the lunatics are indeed taking over the asylum.

It also reminds us that, given the majors’ obsessive aversion to risk, there are lots of potential rewards for risk-takers in the entertainment business. It’s no accident that most of the films in play during awards season are either partially (“Lincoln”) or fully (“Zero Dark Thirty”) financed outside the studio system. The majors are hung up on tentpoles, but it’s the supposedly high-risk projects like “Argo” or “Ted” that are hitting paydirt.

The overall industry numbers are encouraging the influx of new players. B.O. results were up 6% last year, homevid revenues have stabilized, and Blu-ray sales increased nearly 10% in 2012. The majors are still crying poverty in trimming down their talent deals, but the talent no longer believes them and they’re looking for new opportunity.

Moving into the void are an intriguing range of adventurers. Megan Ellison funded “Zero Dark Thirty” and another heiress, Gigi Pritzker, put up the money for “Ender’s Game,” to be released by Lionsgate. Then there are the more established equity-backed players like Participant Media (Jeff Skoll) or Legendary Entertainment (Thomas Tull). “Moonrise Kingdom” was backed by Steven Rales, the billionaire investor whose film company is colorfully called Indian Paintbrush.

Peering at this list, surely there’s room for Parker and Stone.

“Having worked with different studios over the years, we came to realize that our favorite people in the world are ourselves,” they proclaimed in their announcement of Important Productions. Further, if George Lucas could sell his company for $4 billion, there has to be “some Russian oligarch” out there who would part with a few hundred million for their causes, they said.

Parker and Stone can point to some good returns on their projects to support their case. “The Book of Mormon” generates $1.6 million a week and has grossed some $200 million, and they’re coining millions from “South Park” T-shirts and other merchandising.

Of course, they’ve hit some bumps in the past. Paramount released “Team America: World Police,” an incoherent movie that not even the studio could comprehend (or market). Some TV capers like “That’s My Bush” didn’t exactly light up the world of pop culture.

Still, the corporate conservatism of the majors is inviting entrepreneurial competition. Adam Davidson, founder of NPR’s “Planet Money,” observed recently that the corporate contours of the digital universe would follow one of two courses: “Either companies will get smaller and more disruptive as nimble entrepreneurs take on giant corporations” or, on the other hand, “the giants will swallow everyone up by abusing their leverage.”

The war will thus be between innovation and corporate muscle.

Certainly, the corporate monoliths have the advantage in a multiplatform global marketplace. But talent is the one resource they can monetize but not monopolize. The Parkers and Stones of the world will forever prefer to be their own bosses. And there seem to be an abundance of fat cats around searching for some show business catnip.

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