Most projects face resistance in their journeys to the bigscreen. The ones that persevere are typically the pics that look best on paper. Ironically, this year’s crop of best picture Oscar nominees on paper looked questionable at best.
Several — including “The Kids Are All Right,” “Winter’s Bone,” “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan” — encountered major hurdles in raising financing. Likewise, “The Fighter” lost its studio backer at the 11th hour, leaving the filmmakers to scramble for coin. The remainder required a leap of faith due to tricky-to-market plotlines (“127 Hours,” “Inception”), box office-challenged genres (“True Grit”) and no-name stars (“The Social Network”). Even “Toy Story 3” raised doubts. After all, an 11-year gap stood between the second and final installments — an unheard of pause in the world of tentpole franchises.
For an industry that likes sure bets, it’s hard to fathom that these projects made it to theaters at all. The fact that they rose to the apex of the year’s offerings is perhaps a testament to why creative decisions can’t be reduced to an algorithm.
There’s an old adage in baseball: That’s why they play the games on the field rather than on paper. This year’s 10 best picture nominees demonstrate that the same holds true for filmmaking.
Oscar-nommed producers: Mike Medavoy, Brian Oliver and Scott Franklin
Nobody wanted to finance it,” recalls “Black Swan” producer Scott Franklin of the film set in the high-stress world of elite ballet. That was a surprising turn of events for helmer Darren Aronofsky, who was coming off the boxoffice success of “The Wrestler.”
“After ‘The Wrestler,’ I thought it would be easier,” says Aronofsky, who became interested in the subject as a youth thanks to his ballerina sister who danced well into her teens. “This time I had a bona fide star in Natalie Portman. But Fox Searchlight was only a little interested. But we went through every kind of financial institution.”
One week before lensing, the $13 million budget fell through.
“I was ready to throw in the towel,” says the director. “It was the fear of being beaten up by a 90-pound ballerina-actress in Natalie Portman, who had been training rigorously for a year, that got me to give it one more shot.”
That’s when indie production and finance company Cross Creek Pictures stepped in and motivated Searchlight to pony up half of the film’s budget.
That came as welcome news to Aronofsky and Portman, who began discussing the idea for the film a decade ago when Portman was in college. Still, the “Black Swan” team was hardly able to breathe a sigh of relief.
“The $13 million was not enough money to make this film,” says Franklin, who produced the pic along with Mike Medavoy and Brian Oliver. “We shot it in 42 days, but we could have used 50 or 55.”
The condensed schedule led to grueling days of shooting. Portman and the back-up professional dancers would sometimes do 12-13 takes in a row. The actress suffered a dislocated rib while filming, and co-star Mila Kunis endured a separated shoulder.
“The physicality of the film was very difficult, but it helped Darren really get into the psyche of the characters,” Franklin says.
Oscar-nommed producers: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and Mark Wahlberg
The seeds for “The Fighter” were planted during an encounter between an unknown teen Mark Wahlberg and Boston boxing icon Micky Ward. For the next two decades, Wahlberg contrived to bring the pugilist’s tale to the bigscreen.
“I tried to get his life rights for years, but I couldn’t,” says Wahlberg, who produced “The Fighter” alongside David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman. “Micky was someone I always idolized. I saw this as a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream.”
In 2007, Wahlberg and fellow Bostonian Matt Damon became attached to star in a version for Paramount, with Wahlberg playing the former world lightweight champ and Damon taking on Ward’s half-brother and trainer, Dicky Eklund. Six weeks later, Darren Aronofsky was onboard to direct. Despite Wahlberg and Par’s enthusiasm for the project, it continued to take its share of knocks. First, Damon dropped out, though he was quickly replaced by Brad Pitt. Then, Aronofsky lost interest and bowed out, leaving Pitt’s involvement in doubt.
“It was a blow,” recalls Wahlberg, who trained in the ring for nearly four years. “We had a filmmaker that we certainly liked a lot. It was frustrating for sure.”
The studio, which was intent on making the film with a big-name cast, kicked around a number of possibilities. Daniel Craig flirted with the Eklund part, while Meryl Streep’s name was bandied about to play Micky and Dicky’s mother (a role eventually filled by Melissa Leo). A pre-Oscar Kathryn Bigelow was even pursued. When Par couldn’t assemble the type of team it wanted, the studio divested itself from the project, paving the way for white knight Ryan Kavanaugh to fully finance the $25 million pic through his fledgling single-picture company, Relativity Media. He quickly struck deals with Christian Bale, with whom he worked on “3:10 to Yuma” and helmer David O. Russell. The film was in production within months.
“We wanted to make it as authentic and real as possible and with the best people,” says Wahlberg. “There were times that I would have made it with the people (Paramount) wanted to make it with. But we ended up making the best possible version of the movie that we could have made.”
Still, Wahlberg harbors no hard feelings toward Paramount, which remained involved with the pic as its distributor.
“They did an amazing job marketing it,” he says of the film’s box office performance. “By that point, we would have been happy opening in just two or three theaters.”
Oscar-nommed producers:In the wake of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” becoming the top-grossing film of 2008, Warner Bros. was eager to keep writer-director-producer inhouse for his next project. So when Nolan’s original screenplay “Inception” was ready to hit the marketplace, Warners quickly plunked down seven figures for the project.
But unlike the Batman pic, Nolan’s follow-up was a sci-fi mind-bender that couldn’t be reduced to a simple logline or support tie-in merchandising. Further compounding Warners’ headache, the U.K. native insisted on making the film in total secrecy.
Leave it to Nolan’s CAA agent Dan Aloni to negotiate a deal that gave the final-cut filmmaker and his longtime producer Emma Thomas unprecedented control over the $160 million project. Studio execs could only read the screenplay in Nolan’s office, while the film’s thesps received pages that contained just their scenes. Even frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer was forced to score the film without actually seeing it.
“You get pretty insecure after six months of working under such conditions,” quips Zimmer, who nabbed an Oscar nomination for the film’s original score. “You’re not sure if you’re working on most expensive arthouse film ever.”
“The King’s Speech”
Oscar-nommed producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Gareth Unwin
Armed with a David Seidler screenplay that they adored, producers Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Gareth Unwin set out in 2008 to raise the $15 million budget for “The King’s Speech.” Unfortunately, their quest took place amid one of the worst economic downturns in decades.
“Any film would have been difficult to raise financing for at that time,” Canning says. “But trying to raise money for a drama, ne
ver mind a period drama, did not exactly make us the catch of the day.”
Still, the story of Britain’s speech-impaired King George VI and his unconventional therapist piqued the interest of several U.S.-based financiers, despite the fact that “on paper, this film appears to be a tough sell to North American audiences,” Canning notes. But the producers, who had a red-hot Tom Hooper fresh off “John Adams” onboard to direct, opted to do business with the Weinstein Co.
“We were sold on Harvey’s passion for the material,” Canning says. “He really believed in the script.”
Weinstein ponied up $7.5 million for the pic, which reteamed the Gotham-based mogul with “Shakespeare in Love” co-stars Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. The balance came from the Aegis Film Fund and the U.K. Film Council, among others. Canning then lured Helena Bonham Carter, who tried to say no many times due to her “Harry Potter” commitments.
“As a producer, I would have been happy with just one of the actors saying yes,” quips Canning. “But we got everyone (for the 39-day shoot). It was an embarrassment of riches from a British casting perspective.”
“The Kids Are All Right”
Oscar-nommed producers: Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and Celine Rattray
Despite lining up a pair of A-list thesps in Annette Bening and Julianne Moore to topline, helmer Lisa Cholodenko and producer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte couldn’t drum up any interest from backers for “The Kids Are All Right.”
Paramount Vantage, Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent and the film’s eventual Distributor Focus Features were among those that passed. Even Participant, which favors stories that compel social change, nixed the dramedy about a family headed by two lesbians.
“(Participant) said there was no overt political issue involved in the film,” says Levy-Hinte, who first teamed with Cholodenko 15 years ago on the indie breakout “High Art.” “I would differ. There are all sorts of legal barriers in place to prevent gay people from getting married, adopting, having families. I thought it would be right in the (wheelhouse) for the kind of films they make.”
Instead, the pair had to slash their budget to less than $5 million — half that of their 2002 film “Laurel Canyon — and raise the funds themselves. Enter indie world mover Celine Rattray, who brought in about 10 equity investors, as well as Cleveland Cavaliers owner and indie financier Gary Gilbert to foot the bill.
Levy-Hinte says the 23-day shoot that took place in summer 2009 was “very constrained.” He adds, “We had to go back to the script and be very vigorous about how we were going to use our scarce resources.”
Ultimately, Levy-Hinte says the financial roadblocks are the price you pay for having creative and artistic ambitions.
“Part of it is there is a tremendous conservatism in what is funded,” he says. “The studios want genre films with recognizable stars. ‘The Kids Are All Right’ is a film that is emotionally demanding about
a topic that is marginal and peculiar. Or at least it was marginal and peculiar. It’s an idea that is a little more mainstream now.”
Oscar-nommed producers: Christian Colson, Danny Boyle and John Smithson
The early pitch meetings didn’t go well. “127 Hours” producers Christian Colson and Danny Boyle wanted to follow up their feel-good Bollywood fairy tale, “Slumdog Millionaire,” with a drama about real-life mountain climber Aron Ralston, who was forced to amputate his arm after becoming lodged in a canyon.
“Many people asked — quite rightly — how are we going to pull this off,” Colson says. “It’s not obvious material for adaptation. But we knew there was a great prize at the end of the rainbow.”
Even “Slumdog” scribe Simon Beaufoy was skeptical.
“I said, ‘This is impossible,’ ” recalls Beaufoy, who is an avid mountaineer. “There are a lot of amazing climbing and mountaineer stories out there. I said, ‘Of all of them, this is the one that lacks everything you need in a drama. The guy is in one place and doesn’t move.’ But if you say that to Danny, his eyes light up.”
So, Beaufoy concentrated on the aspects of the story that showed Ralston as a flawed hero rather than a man-against-wild superhero.
“I didn’t want to make it a survival story,” he says. “Then it becomes a TV movie. If you could make it a movie that everyone in the cinema could relate to in one way or another, then you could have a great story. Then you could do it.”
Perhaps only helmer Boyle, fresh off the unlikely box office success and Oscar winner “Slumdog,” could find studio backing for the $18 million budget.
“We were enjoying a lot of goodwill at the time because of ‘Slumdog,’ and we got great backing (on ‘127 Hours’) from our ‘Slumdog’ partners (Fox) Searchlight and Pathe,” Colson says. “But once we presented the script and found James (Franco), they were on board. I won’t say they didn’t raise eyebrows or need some convincing.”
“The Social Network”
How does one make a film about the birth of a website without it devolving into a montage of actors banging away on laptops and desktops? That was the challenge for “Social Network” producer Michael De Luca, who in 2008 pitched Sony prexy Doug Belgrad the Ben Mezrich book proposal “The Accidental Billionaires.”
Studio topper Amy Pascal had a creative solution: Bring in producer Scott Rudin, who could deliver scribe Aaron Sorkin. Suddenly, the Sony brass could envision a pic with nonstop witticisms and fewer keystrokes.
“In some ways, we thought it would be easier to adapt this book than (Mezrich’s) ‘Bringing Down the House’ because of the epic themes involved: those of friendship and alienation,” says De Luca of the differences between “Social Network” and “21,” which marked his first collaboration with Mezrich and fellow “Social Network” producer Dana Brunetti. “It’s a human story at center of this thing. It tackles what it is like to be a 19-year-old college student.”
Sony then did something completely foreign to the studio. For the first time, it hired a helmer with final-cut approval in David Fincher, who was coming off the success of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and brought his own producing partner Cean Chaffin into the mix. That was a hard concession for Pascal to swallow given that Rudin also enjoys final-cut status, but it was contingent on the budget staying under $40 million.
The final hurdle was for the filmmakers to persuade Sony of its cast, whose biggest name was music star Justin Timberlake, a name hardly synonymous with weighty dramas.
“The mainstream studios, they usually want a star for their films,” says De Luca of the film, which features a previously low-profile Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “It’s a credit to them that they approved of these mostly fresh faces.”
“Toy Story 3”
Oscar-nommed producer: Darla K. Anderson
Pixar could never move forward with a third installment of its beloved “Toy Story” franchise until it made peace with Disney, which distributed the first two pics.
“Michael Eisner and Disney were using a ‘Toy Story 3′ as a pawn in the negotiations,” says Pixar’s Darla K. Anderson, the film’s sole producer, of the 2004 rift between Steve Jobs’ animation house and the Eisner-led studio.
But in 2006, Disney acquired Pixar for $7.4 billion, and suddenly a final outing for Woody and Buzz Lightyear was on the front burner. Pixar’s chief creative officer John Lasseter assembled a small group for an off-site retreat at the picturesque Poet’s Loft in Point Reyes, Calif.
The seven execs, who included Anderson, kicked around some ideas about how to revive the franchise.
“John pitched an idea,” recalls Anderson. “We weren’t feeling it. So, we trashed it.”
By day two of the retreat, a kernel of a story emerged that centers on a nearly grownup Andy. “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” writer-director Andrew Stanton drafted an outline that Oscar-winning scribe Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”) turned into a screenplay. Lasseter handpicked Lee Unkrich to direct and Anderson to produce.
The “Toy Story 3” team still faced a couple of big hurdles: making the film as good as the first two and enticing an audience after an 11-year hiatus.
“As a producer, my thought was, ‘I hope the world still loves these characters,’ ” says Anderson. “Eleven years is a long break. … We certainly risked a lot even trying to bring back a franchise that (had been dormant for so long).”
Still, the gamble paid off. “Toy Story 3” became the top-grossing animated film of all time and the top earner of all 2010 films. Critics were equally enamored, with the pic earning some of the best reviews of the year.
Oscar-nommed producers: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Several decades have passed since the Western’s heyday in Hollywood. In the ensuing years, the genre’s flops from “Jonah Hex” to “The Quick and the Dead” to the Billy Bob Thornton starrer “The Alamo” have left studios skittish about investing in oaters.
Still, DreamWorks principals Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg felt there was remake potential in the 1969 pic “True Grit.” The DreamWorks brain trust began developing the project, which is based on a Charles Portis novel. But the pair lost control of the project when it reverted back to Paramount as part of the divorce settlement between DreamWorks and the Melrose studio.
When a “True Grit” redo appeared all but dead, Ethan and Joel Coen sparked to the property, albeit with plans to stay true to Portis’ novel unlike the original. The brothers, who hadn’t seen the John Wayne starrer since they were kids, penned a script that kept Portis’ satirical wit and formal dialogue. Critics embraced the film, which was no surprise. But theatergoers also made “True Grit” one of the most unlikely box office hits in recent years, with a $155 million domestic haul that was more than double the tally for the Coens’ Oscar-winning pic “No Country for Old Men.”
Oscar-nommed producers: Anne Rosellini and Alix Madigan-Yorkin
After years of failed attempts to raise financing for “Winter’s Bone,” writer-producer Anne Rosellini swallowed hard when advised how to find a backer.
“I was given a list of high-profile actresses that I was told (could secure financing),” says Rossellini of the teen protag role that was eventually filled by newcomer and Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence. “We weren’t super psyched about the women people were saying we would need. And half the actresses they brought were like 27. And none of them went for it anyway.”
The project’s genesis seemed auspicious enough. In May 2005, lit agent Amy Schiffman slipped Anonymous Content’s Alix Madigan-Yorkin the unpublished manuscript of Daniel Woodrell’s coming-of-age story set in the rural Ozarks. Woodrell enjoyed some heat after Ang Lee brought his tome “Woe to Live On” to the bigscreen as the Tobey Maguire starrer “Ride With the Devil.” Madigan-Yorkin passed it to Anonymous colleague Shawn Simon’s clients Rosellini and writer-helmer Debra Granik, who sparked to the material and quickly optioned it.
In the ensuing years, Madigan-Yorkin shopped Rosellini and Granik’s screenplay around, but to no avail.
“I was told it was too dark,” says Madigan-Yorkin, who produced alongside Rossellini. “Everyone loved it, but they wanted to see it when it was done.”
In 2008, the filmmakers nearly struck a deal with an indie production and finance company with Oscar pedigree to take on the film’s $4 million budget. But the company pulled out at the last minute, leaving Rossellini with no choice but to cut the budget in half and raise the coin privately. Eventually, a group of philanthropists with no industry ties financed the $2 million project, which went on to nab the top jury prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Rossellini says there was a silver lining to the long struggle for funds.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” she says. “We pre-produced the film for so many years. That really gave us the time to make the connections down in Missouri that we needed to make, which made the shoot a lot less challenging.”