Ron Howard’s ‘Rush’ for Independent Film Financing

With major studios obsessed with revving up only potential franchises, even established filmmakers race to seek independent coin to fuel their risky, midrange vehicles

Ron Howard Rush Illustration

Rush,” the high-octane car racing film about the public rivalry between legendary Formula One drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt during the 1970s, has all the markings of tinseltown’s latest flashy biopic, with Ron Howard at the wheel, Chris Hemsworth as its star, and Universal Pictures releasing the film Sept. 27. But that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.

“It is going to be easy for people to think this is a Hollywood movie, and it just is not,” says the upcoming film’s British screenwriter, Peter Morgan, who penned “Frost/Nixon,” also directed by Howard. “It is a British independent film directed by a Hollywood director.”

As the majors focus more on putting their money behind mega-budgeted projects with built-in brand awareness — sequels, reboots, films based on toys, videogames and comicbooks — filmmakers are finding Hollywood’s studio system rapidly shifting under their feet.

“Because studios are less interested in the midbudget area, there is a massive opportunity for independents to step into that (area) at the moment,” says “Rush” producer Andrew Eaton of London-based Revolution Films.

Indeed, it’s getting harder to set up a midbudget range original project at a studio, even for veteran filmmakers like Howard and his producing partner Brian Grazer, whose Imagine Entertainment has had an overall deal at Universal for 27 years (the longest standing deal U has had in its 100-year history with a production company). That’s forced directors to look elsewhere to tackle the kinds of films now considered too risky to make or the ones that won’t fill retail shelves with merchandise.

Another Hollywood vet, producer Marc Platt, who’s had a production deal at Universal since 1998 after stepping down as its production head, similarly had to find indie financing for his film “2 Guns” after Universal said it would not bankroll the picture but simply distribute it.

With “Rush,” Howard found himself in an entirely new role as the director of a $50 million film that was his first to be independently financed — through a series of bonds, contingencies and pre-sales. He also was a director for hire, replacing Paul Greengrass, who was originally set to bring the showy personalities of Hunt (Hemsworth), a British playboy; and the more serious Austrian champion Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) to the big screen.

“We must champion the fact that this is basically 80% a British film in terms of the people who worked on it, the way it was structured and the way we ran it,” says Eaton. The exec, who was behind such indie films as “24 Hour Party People” and the “Red Riding” series, is modest, and like most Brits politely shies away from the spotlight, tending not to grab credit even when its due.

But he believes “Rush” shows off Blighty’s mettle.

“These are the kinds of films we should be making in the U.K. because we can do it, and we can do it for better value of money,” he says.

Morgan began writing the story of Lauda, a friend of his wife’s, on spec some years ago, intrigued by the driver’s courageous comeback just 40 days after a devastating crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix that severely burned his face and saw him lapse into a coma, and how that might play against Hunt’s notorious womanizing and party lifestyle that gained him rock-star status.

Eager to work with Eaton again after Fernando Meirelles’ “360,” Morgan showed the producer the first draft of “Rush,” and Eaton was hooked.

“Andrew was always going to be a great fit for this project,” Morgan says. “If (the) responsibility was to make this at a price, Andrew could do this. He could make a $50 million film feel like a $150 million film.”

With Greengrass, another Brit, attached to direct, Morgan showed the script to close friend Eric Fellner at his Universal-owned British production outfit Working Title. Fellner, who had worked with him on “Frost/Nixon,” loved the new script and offered it to Universal for funding.

But the studio passed, considering it risky subject matter, given the biopic elements and low profile of F1 racing in the U.S. Universal also didn’t believe the film could be made for the right price. Still Fellner stayed onboard, and his contacts in the F1 arena proved invaluable. His relationships with Ferrari and McLaren thanks to his work on documentary “Senna” enabled “Rush” to enlist the brands in the pic without losing editorial control.

“Ron (Howard) jokes that my major contribution was engine noise,” Fellner says. “Maybe I can take credit for a bit of that.”

Soon after Universal passed, Cross Creek Pictures topper Brian Oliver reached out to Eaton to finance the project — so eager that he offered to put up $2 million before he even signed the deal so that Eaton could order replicas of the 1970s cars to be ready in time for the shoot. He also was instrumental in steering Hemsworth toward the project.

“Typically we don’t spend that kind of money without knowing the movie is going and the budget is done,” Oliver says. “But I was passionate about the script, and I really thought it was a film with a lot of heart, not just a race car movie.”

Cross Creek, also behind “The Ides of March” and “Black Swan,” has quickly become one of Hollywood’s biggest and more unusual financiers of risky films, with coin coming mostly from oil and real estate investments in Texas.

“He’s an unusual maverick in Hollywood because he really fought to get the budget to the highest level he could,” says Eaton of Oliver. “There’s no bullshit with him — he gets stuff done.” Adds Fellner: “Without Brian, the film wouldn’t have gotten off of the ground. He put his money where his mouth is.”

Shortly after funding started coming together, Greengrass dropped off the project due, ironically, to his issues with the budget. Within 24 hours, Morgan and Fellner enticed Howard to come onboard. The financing arrangement intrigued him, but what really attracted Howard was the ability to re-create the world of Formula One in the 1970s “when sex was safe and driving was dangerous,” as he has said in past interviews.

“Ron was incredibly gracious in trusting us to deliver,” Eaton says. “He was very smart about knowing we needed to make this film in a different way. He’d never made a film with a bond before, and never made a film with a contingency before, but he rolled up his sleeves and was ready to learn.” Some of that indie spirit has already rubbed off on Howard, who is now sticking with a mostly British crew on his next project, “In the Heart of the Sea,” including “Rush” cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and costume designer Julian Day. “Heart” lenses in London.

Exclusive Media came in as the final partner on “Rush,” brought in by Oliver under his deal with Exclusive to jointly finance two projects per year.

Cross Creek split the cost of the pic with Exclusive, with the former putting its own cash in to the pic and the latter financing through a bank loan made against pre-sales generated in 2011 at the AFM, where Howard helped shop the project to buyers. The move proved a success, as Exclusive secured $33 million in foreign pre-sales.

Additionally, Oliver and Eaton structured the project as a U.K.-German co-production, enabling them to secure about $12 million in soft money.

As a result, U.K. rights ended up going to Studiocanal. Universal agreed to distribute “Rush” in the U.S. through its output deal with Cross Creek.

Eaton pressed to put all of the money raised on the screen. “Rush” became the highest-budget film he had ever worked with after 2000’s “The Claim,” which cost $18 million to produce.

“(‘Rush’) was financed in exactly the same way we finance every independent film, and we approached shooting in the same way as we do everything — you try to put as much money as you can onscreen,” Eaton says. “It’s about not wasting money on things you don’t need, like private jets and extravagances.”

Hollywood has tried to bring to life the world of Formula One before.

Sylvester Stallone directed “Driven,” which originally was set in the world of F1, before he changed course and based it on rival CART racing, instead.

The reason? To gain access to F1, filmmakers must first get the greenlight from the often polarizing Bernie Ecclestone, the 82-year-old billionaire who holds a tight grip on the racing league that has long counted the elite as fans, including Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, and celebs including Michael Fassbender, Patrick Dempsey, Gordon Ramsey, George Lucas, and Cirque de Soleil founder Guy Laliberte.

Although Stallone tried to gain Ecclestone’s approval, “I apologize to fans of Formula 1, but there is a certain individual there who runs the sport that has his own agenda,” Stallone said in 2000. “F1 is very formal, and it’s very hard to get to know people.”

David Cronenberg also planned to direct a tentpole around F1 for Paramount, in 1986, with the director scouting the project by attending Grand Prix races in Australia and Mexico. The film, “Red Cars,” would have revolved around American driver Phil Hill winning the world championship for Ferrari in 1961. Plans were shelved when Ecclestone decided not to support the project. Instead, Cronenberg published a limited edition art book based on the screenplay in 2005.

One of the few cinematic standouts so far is Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Senna,” about the charismatic Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, killed in a race in 1994 that’s show in the docu. “Senna” went on to earn $8.2 million, and helped educate viewers of the sport by focusing not on the races but Senna’s iconic presence and his impact on pop culture.

“Rush” is looking to put a spotlight on the personalities behind the wheel and the often riveting rivalries between drivers — what many consider the real draw to the sport. Bruhl has compared them to “modern knights constantly facing death.”

As the film races toward its September release — it will be shown at the Toronto Film Festival out of competition — Howard has screened it for not only racing fans but Formula One, itself.

He recently showed the film to a group of F1 drivers (including Lauda, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Felipe Massa) at Germany’s Grand Prix, calling that audience the toughest test so far, and comparing the experience to screening “Apollo 13” to NASA’s astronauts and mission controllers in 1995.

In his efforts to promote the film, Howard has called the Hunt-Lauda rivalry one of the greatest in all of sports. “Their story is so remarkable, you (could) only do it if it was true, because people wouldn’t quite believe it. They were willing to risk their lives to attain this elite status. They paid a price for it, but they defined themselves.”

Morgan also has been doing his part to reassure F1 fans that the film is authentic, stressing that it’s about the people in the cars, and not the sport itself.

Any way the wheel’s spun, it’s clear the film’s overall success will largely be driven by how it plays overseas. “Rush” will need to appeal to an international audience that’s more familiar with F1 — a sport second in popularity only to soccer — than to those in the U.S.

But Howard needs to hook moviegoers closer to home — making the American director’s job a much tougher sell.

It’s not really that surprising that there’s nothing all that American about “Rush.”

Formula One is still struggling to find an audience in the U.S. It’s looking to change that through a new $3 million broadcasting deal with NBC Sports that airs 13 races on the cable channel, two on CNBC, and four on NBC. The Monaco Grand Prix was the first of four F1 races to air live on NBC this year, with the final race taking place Nov. 24 from Brazil.

Ratings have averaged a 0.3 rating, although the Monaco race was watched by 1.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched Formula One race on U.S. television in six years, and up 40% over last year’s race when it aired on Speed TV, Nielsen said.

Promos have emphasized the speed of F1’s jetfighter cars, its international appeal and Olympics-like profiles of the drivers.

Formula One also is looking to rev up new fans in the U.S. through the opening of its first permanent track in Austin, Texas, last year, known as the Circuit of the Americas. Howard attended its first race, where Lauda also roamed the track’s garages.

What’s ironic is that Howard isn’t a very good driver. He proved that recently racing around the track of BBC’s hit show “Top Gear” to promote “Rush,” ending up in second to last place on the series’ celebrity leader board — behind Genesis’ Mike Rutherford.

Host Jeremy Clarkson was quick to mock him, saying “We finally found something you can’t do. Good at directing, brilliant in ‘Happy Days,’ a charming human being — but utterly crap at driving.”