Independent movie making is not about low budgets, according to Tom Rothman, worldwide production president of the Samuel Goldwyn Co.
“The key issue with us is not cost,” Rothman says. “People make the mistake of thinking it’s about budgets. It’s not. It’s risk. They are two very different things.”
The Goldwyn Company releases, on average, 12 pictures a year. Half of those, typically, are acquisitions and the other half are in-house productions.
But even those may have complicated deal structures. Goldwyn’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” the Kenneth Brannagh Shakespeare film, is one of the more straightforward arrangements.
For example, Goldwyn sold domestic theatrical rights to the upcoming “Mr. Wonderful”–a romantic comedy starring Matt Dillon and William Hurt — to Warner Bros., and another fall release –David Ward’s “The Program,” a look at big-time college athletics, starring James Caan — is a full co-production with The Walt Disney Co.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is the second of a two-picture deal with Brannagh’s Renaissance Films. Goldwyn had picked up Brannagh’s first film, “Henry V,” for domestic U.S. distribution, and that picture’s success led to “Peter’s Friends” and “Much Ado,” which were both Goldwyn productions. The company also produced Brannagh’s Oscar-nominated short, “The Swan Song.”
“‘Henry V’ was a great challenge and everyone said it couldn’t be done,” says Rothman. “It was Shakespeare, and Olivier had already filmed it. Every company in the business was frightened by it, except us.”
“Henry V” cost from $ 8 million to $ 10 million to make and made more than $ 13 million at the box office. It has also been very successful in homevideo, Rothman says.
Brannagh made “Dead Again” for Paramount, and then his first full Goldwyn production, “Peter’s Friends,” which was made for about $ 5 million. That film was not a hit in the United States, but it did very well internationally, and Rothman says Goldwyn will make a handsome profit.
“‘Much Ado’ was always going to be a more expensive picture,” says Rothman. “Ken had wanted to make it before ‘Henry V,’ but he knew he needed to achieve a certain level of success before he was able to do it.”
Brannagh had a vision of the setting and the feel of “Much Ado” and refused to compromise on locations and stars.
“It had to be made on location,” says Rothman. “And that inherently makes it more expensive, although far less than what a Hollywood movie would take to make.”
Rothman will not divulge accurate budget figures, but “Much Ado” cost more than $ 10 million and less than $ 15 million.
“This movie gets made at a major studio and it’s easily a $ 35 million movie, ” says Rothman.
Goldwyn put up the lion’s share of the cost of the film through an arrangement with a bank in England.
“We’re a public company, and we also have a bank line of credit. The principal line is through Bank of America,” says Rothman. “We do some off-balance-sheet financing, the way everybody does. We do some financing through independent banks. This transaction was actually banked through Coutts Bank in England. One way or another, it’s all our money.”
Renaissance Films took theatrical rights in Great Britain and contributed a portion of the financing against those rights. American Playhouse Theatrical Films came in on a combination license/equity deal that gives PBS the premiere television window for the film. And Goldwyn sold homevideo rights to Columbia/TriStar. Goldwyn has domestic rights and is selling the picture worldwide.
Released at the beginning of May in the U.S., “Much Ado About Nothing” has already passed “Henry V” in box office revenues, and it will continue to play on about 500 screens until next year’s Oscars.
Rothman expects the film will return “at least” about $ 30 million. “We do $ 1 million a week here. It’s been a giant hit in France and that bodes well for the remaining international openings that begin in the fall.”
One or two overseas sales were made before the film was made, and the remaining territories are now in place. “We have the entire world,” Rothman says. “The picture is sold by us territory-by-territory. Some deals were made ahead of time, some after. It depends on the price. We set very, very high prices and the picture sold fantastically. I could have sold it around the world four times over.”
“Much Ado” was filmed in and around the 14th century Villa Vignamaggio, overlooking the town of Greve in the Chianti wine region of Italy. The location itself, which Brannagh felt was required to make the story timeless and accessible to a contemporary audience, ate up much of the budget.
The international big-name cast (including Brannagh, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves) were all paid equally.
“They worked on a most-favored-nations situation where everybody got the same , including Ken,” says Rothman. “They obviously didn’t get the same amount of money that they’d get to make a giant studio movie but it wasn’t scale, and they are all back-end revenue participants.”
Rothman believes that arrangement is essential in confronting the key word in independent filmmaking: risk.
“You’re making it for a fraction of what a big studio spends, and you can’t do that without the help of your creative partners,” he says.
“To do that, you must make them a partner in your success, which they are. That’s the way it works. They help you guard on the downside, and you share the success on the upside.”
Renaissance Films has already made a tidy sum. “Ken’s company took many millions of dollars out of the United States,” Rothman says. “They had production costs to pay back, but they netted millions of dollars.”
Goldwyn released “Much Ado” in the spring, knowing that kids were about to be out of school, but the company was confident that it would have the opportunity of a major push when the school year resumed in the fall.
Goldwyn plans to launch a nation-wide educational tie-in in October, which will involve the Shakespeare play being on school curricula.
“Younger audiences love this movie,” Rothman says. “We’ve had research screenings for 13- and 14-year-old kids, and the love it. They get it and they love it. Which is, again, a tribute to Ken and his ability to make it accessible. It all comes back to that. It’s why the picture could be affordable at that level, it’s why he could have international stars.”
Financing the film was not a breeze.
“Never a breeze. No such thing as a breeze,” Rothman says. “It had its difficulties, mostly because in some ways it was riskier than other things. It’s a 400-year-old subject matter, and this is the first Shakespearean comedy that’s ever been successful. The tragedies and romances, yes. But comedies, no.
“People were skittish, in terms of when you look at what the financing took. We had to know what we were getting into in terms of ancillary deals in the beginning. Once the picture all came together, you saw the cast, the quality of the work — in retrospect it looks easy.”
Goldwyn cherishes its reputation of producing quality films and one of the ways the company assesses its financial risk is by looking at a film’s long-lasting potential.
“This is very much a library-asset-based company,” Rothman explains,. “all the films of Sam’s father, the Korda films. It makes a nice pair when you put ‘Wuthering Heights’ next to ‘Henry V.’ ”
There’s no question that ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ will be solidly profitable in its first cycle, but more than that, you cannot imagine the long-term library value of a picture like that. Probably, ‘Henry V’ — in library terms — is more valuable today than it was when we first had it.”
Not that Goldwyn loses sight of that first cycle. “We’re in the risk-management business,” Rothman says. “We can’t afford to take a blow on any one picture.”
Which is why, in calculating the risk-factor of financing a picture, Goldwyn always considers the benefits of world-wide distribution. “The financial structure of any two movie deals are rarely alike. We have very eclectic arrangements,” says Rothman.
“That is the key to our success. We have to have flexibility, and we have to be quicker and smarter. We have to make our pictures for less and market them harder.”
On “Much Ado About Nothing,” Goldwyn was responsible for the overwhelming majority of the financing and so it retains an overwhelming majority of the upside.
“It doesn’t always work this way,” agrees Rothman. “But the good news about taking the lion’s share of the financing risk is that we have all revenue streams throughout the world to look to.”