You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Smart Art Films Thrive at the Right Price

Certain helmers can attract financing, but balancing a bare-bones budget with auteur integrity can be tricky

In the movie business, the label “art film” isn’t always a deal-breaker.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at Cannes, where films that might seem obscure to your average Hollywood studio executive rack up worldwide presales and receive the kind of attention devoted to Brad Pitt strolling down the Croissette.

Consider some of the filmmakers in this year’s lineup: Sofia Coppola, James Gray, Alexander Payne, Roman Polanski, James Toback. They’re not exactly synonymous with blockbusters, but in the realm of global film financing, their names attract coin — at the right budget and with key cast attached.

Producers and financiers say the principal ingredients to getting these movies made are much the same as they were in the past: packages that yield foreign presales, securing locations that provide soft money and tax incentives, and foraging around for ways to cover the risk against the lack of domestic distribution.

For better or worse, we’re still playing the same numbers game we were 10 years ago,” says Anthony Bregman, a producer on Bennett Miller’s John Du Pont project, “Foxcatcher,” which sold internationally at last year’s Cannes Market.

A crucial part of auteur-pic financing strategy, according to Greg Shapiro, producer of James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” is to make the movies “for the absolute lowest price possible without compromising the integrity of the fi lm. Seems a natural and obvious thing to do, but it is usually very difficult in practice. Budgets naturally go up, not down.”

With “The Immigrant,” Gray was fortunate to have a relationship with foreign sales shop Wild Bunch, which took on a fair amount of risk for the foreign rights. That still left a sizable gap in financing that “nobody wanted to fill,” says Shapiro, “until we happened upon Worldview Entertainment.”

Worldview, which provided backing for three films in this year’s official selection (“The Immigrant,” “Blood Ties” and “All Is Lost”), is one of several relatively new financing entities, along with Everest Entertainment (last year’s “Mud”) and Black Bear Pictures (which also backed “All Is Lost”), that have been bullish about the high-end indie space. Another is Annapurna Pictures, which has backed such pics as “Lawless” and “Killing Them Softly,” which competed at Cannes last year, as well as “The Master,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and upcoming “The Grandmaster.”

“We’ve been able to structure these (pics) so they make sense financially,” says Worldview CEO Christopher Woodrow. “But if you’re not partnering with a studio and you’re planning to sell domestically, you need to make it for a price where the domestic gap is achievable.”

Many insiders suggest that equity financing is on the rise, with high-networth individuals looking for areas to invest outside the stock market. Woodrow also suggests there’s some indication that hedge funds and investment banks are coming back. “But it all comes down to the quality of the product,” he says.

FilmNation’s Glen Basner agrees. “In the specialty film world, you can still do healthy presales,” he says. “There just has to be a compelling case to a distributor, and that could be a filmmaker, an actor, a subject matter or a producer with a great track record.”

Basner cites Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” as an example. “Sofia has existing relationships with Pathe and the Japanese distributor Tohokushinsha, so we came onboard, and bought a chunk of the world, and the film was put together in true independent fashion,” he says.

Similarly, Danish maverick Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, “Only God Forgives,” was also forged as a result of the fi lmmaker’s track record, even before his 2011 pic “Drive,” says Cecile Gaget, head of Gaumont Intl., which financed the film along with Wild Bunch and Swedish fund Film i Vast.

“We had a director with really faithful distributors, a high concept and a very reasonable budget,” says Gaget. “And that’s exactly what the market wants.”

While U.S. majors have largely abandoned the auteur-driven pic, producers say there are plenty of new domestic companies — A24 (which bought “The Bling Ring”), CBS Films (the Coen brothers’ Cannes entry “Inside Llewyn Davis”), the Weinstein Co.’s Radius division (Refn’s “Only God Forgives”) and even HBO (Steven Soderbergh’s Cannes pic “Behind the Candelabra”) — to keep auteurs and their producers in business.

Every once in a while, “with the right director and the right price,” says Albert Berger, a producer on Alexander Payne’s Paramount-backed “Nebraska,” even a Hollywood major will finance a maverick vision. FilmNation is selling the pic internationally.

Many pieces of “Nebraska” ran contrary to the impulses of a normal studio, admits Berger, citing the film’s black-and-white cinematography, actors with no foreign sales value and shooting in non-rebate states. But Payne’s resume and script were clearly the attraction, adds Berger — along with a compromise on the film’s budget. “There’s a number that the studios have in mind, and the number we have in mind, and you come to a consensus,” he says.

Even so, Berger says such pics are never easy to fund. “A lot of these types of films don’t add up on paper,” he adds. “But they are the movies that ultimately stand out.”

AUTEUR THEORY Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” James Toback’s “Seduced and Abandoned” and Sofia Coppola’s “Bling Ring” found financing based on their names and key cast in their pics:

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • For web story

    Toronto: Sony Pictures Classics Buys 'The Burnt Orange Heresy' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Sony Pictures Classics has nabbed the rights to “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” Variety has learned. The indie label plans to release the film in 2020. The Italian-American thriller was directed by Giuseppe Capotondi and stars Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, and Donald Sutherland. Scott Smith adapted Charles Willeford’s novel of the same name, transporting [...]

  • Thomasin McKenzie and Essie Davis

    Thomasin McKenzie and Essie Davis to Star in 'Justice of Bunny King'

    Essie Davis, star of “The Babadook” and autumn festival hit “Babyteeth,” and “Jojo Rabbit” co-star Thomasin McKenzie will headline upcoming drama “The Justice of Bunny King.” The film, now shooting in New Zealand, is a triumph over adversity tale about women fighting their way back from the bottom of society. It is the debut feature [...]

  • Calm With Horses

    Nick Rowland Talks About Toronto Debut Film 'Calm With Horses'

    “Calm with Horses,” which made its world premiere in Toronto’s TIFF in the Discovery section, is the feature directorial debut of Nick Rowland (Amazon series “Ripper Street”), and stars Barry Keoghan (Marvel’s upcoming “The Eternals,” “Dunkirk”), Cosmo Jarvis (“Annihilation”), and Niamh Algar (BBC’s “The Virtues”). The script, which was adapted from Colin Barrett’s short story [...]

  • Colin Trevorrow Directs Jurassic World Short

    Colin Trevorrow Returns to Jurassic World in Short Film 'Battle at Big Rock'

    Dinosaurs are roaming the Earth again. In a new short from “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow, rogue beasts wreak havoc on a family camping trip. The eight-and-a-half minute film, titled “Battle at Big Rock,” takes place a year after the events of “Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom.” The 2018 blockbuster — starring Chris Pratt and Bryce [...]

  • Bert Kreischer The Machine

    Legendary Lands Rights to Bert Kreischer’s Viral Story 'The Machine' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Legendary has optioned the rights to develop comedian Bert Kreischer’s story “The Machine” into a feature film following its viral success, sources tell Variety. The video has generated more than 85 million views on Facebook and YouTube since hitting the social media channels in December 2016 and Legendary moved aggressively to land the rights. Kreischer [...]

  • Margot Robbie poses at the launch

    Margot Robbie in Talks to Executive Produce, Star in Comedy 'Fools Day'

    Margot Robbie is in negotiations to executive produce and star as a fourth-grade teacher in New Line’s comedy “Fools Day.” New Line has acquired Cody Blue Snider’s short film of the same name to adapt into the feature project. Snider, who co-wrote and directed the short, will direct the full-length feature from a script he [...]

  • M Night Shyamalan'Glass' film premiere, Arrivals,

    M. Night Shyamalan Sets Two New Films at Universal

    M. Night Shyamalan will write and direct two new movies at Universal Pictures, the studio announced Monday. The currently untitled thrillers will be released in theaters on Feb. 26, 2021 and Feb. 17, 2023, respectively. “M. Night Shyamalan continues to create exciting, highly original stories that keep global audiences on the edge of their seats,” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content