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.

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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:

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