Moolah for Morris

Agency engineers 10-pic co-funding pact with Yari

While all top five Hollywood agencies have been working to forge relationships with foreign distributors, banks, bond companies and rich investors, William Morris is first to actually unveil such a deal.

On Friday, the agency said it’s gotten involved in film financing. William Morris Independent, the tenpercentery’s indie film arm headed by Cassian Elwes and Rena Ronson, has formed an alliance with financier-producer Bob Yari to launch El Camino Pictures. The alliance will fund at least 10 pics with a combined budget of over $100 million.

El Camino is a film financing company to be owned and backed by Yari. Pics will be funded by a combination of private equity, U.S. regional and state tax incentives and bank-backed gap financing.

Partnership is focused on, but not exclusive to, William Morris Agency clients. The agency will be consulted in the choice of films, but will have no role in producing or distributing the pics, and will spend no money on the projects.

An agency spokesman said, “We’re providing services from which we’re sharing in certain proceeds from our partners, but we don’t have interest in the films and it’s been structured taking into account the Guild guidelines.”

The Screen Actors Guild has been at the center of heated debate about whether such deals cross the shadow line between being an agency and a producing entity, but the SAG agreement has expired.

The new venture reflects changes in the international marketplace and the desire to augment traditional financing entities with the rapid emergence of tax and incentive-based funds both overseas and in the U.S.

It is unclear how much coin Yari has invested. Yari, who made his fortune in real estate, is also partnered with producers Mark Gill and Mark Gordon in Stratus Film Co. and with Mark Curcio, Tom Nunan and Cathy Schulman in Bulls Eye Entertainment.

First pic under the El Camino banner will be “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” starring John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson. Shainee Gabel will direct $10 million budgeted pic from her script developed at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

Sony’s Screen Gems has picked up North American distribution on pic and is in talks to pick up some other territories. WMA Independent has also inked a deal with veteran sales agent Kathy Morgan Intl. to handle international sales on pic.

Yari is producing the pic, which is expected to start shooting July 21 and will utilize some state funding through the Louisiana Film Fund.

WMA Independent is expected to announce further pics through the new entity in the upcoming weeks and has already identified a potential eight pictures to finance through El Camino.

“In an increasingly unpredictable economy, we are continually looking for innovative ways to finance independent films,” Ronson says. “Rather than searching for financing on a project by project basis, through the alliance with Bob Yari, William Morris Independent can now access funds for an entire slate of films with one consistent equity partner.”

Ronson adds the venture may ink overall output deals in key international territories including continental Europe, Japan and Latin America though no such deals are in place yet.

Says Elwes: “Most of our clients want to make independent films, and as the marketplace for film financing contracted, we decided that we had to be pro-active in creating a financing vehicle for them.”

Adds Yari: “I am proud to be associated with the experience and vision that (WMA president-CEO) Jim Wiatt, Cassian Elwes and Rena Ronson have in the indie filmmaking world. The agency’s clients are exceptionally talented and that will ultimately result in high-quality movies that are commercially appealing on a global level.”

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