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Finance Forum: Investors prefer studios

Indies, small productions better off seeking loans

Film financiers and bizzers agree on one thing nowadays: Finding money to fund projects is harder than it was in 2005, but it easier than in 2008. And the climate may well improve significantly in the future.

For now, private investors prefer studio fare. Indies and smaller productions are better off seeking loans.

These were the prevailing sentiments Wednesday on the first day of the Film Finance Forum East, presented by Winston Baker in association with Variety.

“When it comes to equity, we’re far more comfortable partnering with a studio,” Qualia Capital’s Amir Malin told the confab, held at the Park Central Hotel in midtown Manhattan. “When it comes to an independent film, we’re much more comfortable with debt.”

Christa Thomas, managing director and senior film adviser in Sun- Trust’s sports/entertainment group, echoed Malin’s caution.

“The film sector can be a very safe place to lend, but maybe a less safe place to invest,” Thomas said.

The decline in DVD sales has made it harder to determine a film’s overall value. That complicates things for lenders and investors — who are already skittish from the 2008 financial crisis and credit crunch — when figuring out what to lend against.

“Budgets are not getting any smaller, P&A is through the roof, and we’ve all witnessed the migration of DVD dollars away from the business,” Malin said. “The reality is that Netflix and (digital distribution) is not making up those dollars.”

Many of the panelists said the DVD revenue boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s gave studios the confidence to roll the dice on megabucks films. Now the majors are less likely to greenlight mid-range budget pics, favoring the bigger bets on tentpoles.

But escalating budgets are beginning to derail some recent high-profile projects. Disney is still mulling the viability of “The Lone Ranger,” budgeted at more than $200 million, while Universal put the kibosh on the ambitious “Dark Tower” franchise this summer.

Studios are also producing fewer films and some lean toward distributing projects assembled outside their gates. Panelists agreed that now is a good time for independents or outside money to bring packages to the majors.

“I think the smart money in indie film is basically outsourced money (to the studios),” said Sonenshine Partners’ Marshall Sonenshine.

And while foreign presales are touted as effective collateral for securing financing, they’re not a sure thing. Moderator Jay Cohen, who heads film financing and packaging at the Gersh Agency, had a tough time raising coin for a film, despite $2 million in foreign contracts in hand. The pic could only raise $950,000 against foreign contracts. Many sales agents and consultants won’t even consider pics that lack distribution if their budget is deemed too high.

“I’ve stopped looking at projects over $8 million dollars in the indie space without distribution,” one consultant told the audience.

But even with all the right elements, attendees agree that there are no hard and fast rules.

“Making a successful picture of any sort is like catching lightning in a bottle,” said Peter Bart, Variety VP and editorial director. “And trust me, I’ve tried to do it.”

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