×

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:

More Film

  • SAG-AFTRA HQ

    SAG-AFTRA Leaders Approve Proposal for New Film-TV Contract

    The SAG-AFTRA national board has approved proposals for a successor deal to its master contract covering feature film and primetime television — a key step in the upcoming negotiations cycle with companies. The board approved the package Saturday with the performers union declining to reveal any specifics — its usual policy. The board established the wages [...]

  • Cameron Crowe, David Crosby, A.J. Eaton.

    Cameron Crowe on Why He Loved Leaving David Crosby Doc on a CSNY Question Mark

    David Crosby may or may not have stuck a joint in Cameron Crowe’s mouth the first time he ever met the future filmmaker, when Crosby was peaking with Crosby Stills Nash & Young and his interviewer was a precocious 15-year-old Rolling Stone correspondent. As Crowe said to Jimmy Kimmel the other night, “I remember it [...]

  • Mokalik

    Nigeria’s Kunle Afolayan: African Audiences Shouldn’t Be ‘Second-Class’

    DURBAN–A young boy from a middle-class home gets an unconventional schooling in the ways of the world when he’s forced to apprentice at a mechanic’s workshop in a rough-and-tumble section of Lagos. “Mokalik” is the latest feature from Kunle Afolayan, a leading figure in the wave of filmmakers revitalizing the Nigerian film industry. The film [...]

  • Alicia Rodis photographed by Alicia Rodis

    SAG-AFTRA Moves to Standardize Guidelines for Intimacy Coordinators

    SAG-AFTRA is moving to standardize guidelines for intimacy coordinators as part of an effort to establish policies for union members when their work involves nudity and simulated sex. “Our goal is to normalize and promote the use of intimacy coordinators within our industry,” said SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris. “Intimacy coordinators provide an important safety net for [...]

  • The Lion King

    Box Office: 'The Lion King' Roars Overseas With Mighty $269 Million

    Disney’s “The Lion King” certainly felt the love this weekend, generating $269 million at the international box office. Director Jon Favreau’s remake of the classic Disney cartoon now holds the eighth-biggest debut of all time overseas, and that’s not including the film’s early opening in China last weekend. Combined with a stellar $185 million start [...]

  • Scarlett JohanssonMarvel Studios panel, Comic-Con International,

    Scarlett Johansson Reveals What We'll Learn About Black Widow in Stand-Alone Movie

    Scarlett Johansson can finally talk about her upcoming “Black Widow” movie. While she can’t divulge spoilers, she let out a big sigh of relief after the film was officially announced on Saturday during the Marvel Studios presentation at Comic-Con. “I feel like a weight has been lifted,” the Oscar nominee told Variety. “Black Widow” is [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content