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Berlin: Indie Producers Find Ways to Fund Risky Projects Without Big Names

In the star-driven film business, getting presales or equity financing without stars or a name director is often next to impossible — and often for good reason.

“On ‘Whiplash,’ we did an analysis of what the sales numbers would look like based on the packageable elements, which led us to conclude that we were scorching two-thirds of our investment,” Bold Films CEO Gary Michael Walters says with a laugh. Yet even with a first-time feature director (Damien Chazelle) and two leads who’d never carried a movie (Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons), Bold’s chairman Michel Litvak ended up fully financing the $3.3 million film with no presales or tax credits.

This Oscar contender and other recent financing, presale and box office success stories are anomalies, to be sure, but they reveal a few factors that can encourage sales outfits and equity funding to jump in early and bet on very risky projects.

“Once upon a time, during the boom years of the ancillary market and global economy, films that were particularly high concept or had a big-name director could sell without cast,” says IM Global founder Stuart Ford. “These days, it’s extremely rare.”

Whiplash” has grossed $8.5 million worldwide, an encouraging sign for two upcoming projects taking even bigger risks, each raising around 10 times as much as “Whiplash’s” budget without bankable stars or a director with big hits: Stephen Hopkins’ $30 million-plus Olympian biopic “Race” and Scott Hicks’ young adult novel adaptation “Fallen,” budgeted in the upper $30 million range.

“Race” faced almost as many obstacles as its protagonist Jesse Owens, the African-American track and field athlete who earned four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the so-called Nazi Olympics. There are few black stars in Owens’ age range (22) and relatively unknown British actor John Boyega left the film for the new “Star Wars” pic after presales at last year’s Berlin. That left another relative unknown, Canadian thesp Stephan James (“Selma”), to play Owens. And while the film features Jeremy Irons and William Hurt, its hottest star (Jason Sudekis) didn’t come aboard until after most territories were sold.

Yet Mister Smith Entertainment CEO David Garrett, who repped presales, says government subsidies from the Canadian-German co-production and several equity producers got it off to a good start, and they could point buyers to recent successes like “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” in the face of African American-led projects’ iffy overseas box office history (it did $60 million foreign).

“Focus came aboard with a sizable minimum guarantee against the U.S. before principal photography began, which is very unusual, but it was a very particular project,” Garrett says. “One of the things that excited Peter (Schlessel)­ and Jeff (Shell) were all the synergies of working with their parent company NBCUniversal, the official U.S. Olympic broadcaster, teeing everything up with a release just a few months before the 2016 Olympics.”

On “Fallen,” Lotus Entertainment co-founder Bill Johnson says the book series “sold over 10 million copies worldwide, holding the promise of being a major franchise, and there was a very high concept of a love triangle revolving around fallen angels.”

This negated the need for stars, and allowed for presales to cover more than half the budget without multiple financing partners or a domestic distributor in place. (The rest was culled from Hungarian and Canadian financing, a bank loan, gap financing and a post-production investor). “If you’re casting actors in their late teens, few have even been in the industry long enough to become stars,” says Lotus co-founder Jim Seibel. “Distributors see the power of social media, and know those audiences aren’t always interested in the Robert De Niros.”

Despite these exceptions, Ford points out most successful star-free films are $2 million to $5 million genre pics. One contender is his upcoming $5 million thriller “Viral,” but it does boast “Paranormal Activity” 3 and 4 directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost and genre giant Blumhouse Prods. behind the scenes. “The question is: can you do enough presales and combine that with soft money so the equity gap needed to fund the budget of these films is manageable? If you can get that gap down to $1 million or $2 million, that’s about all it takes.”

Another way to finance projects without stars or presales: follow the studios’ model of remaking even recent films on a microbudget. Producer Cassian Elwes came up with the idea to reshoot “Cabin Fever” using the original’s 2002 script with a few minor updates. Once he got original helmer Eli Roth onboard as a fellow exec producer, securing primary equity funding from Armory Films and gap funding from Peter Fruchtman for $2 million-plus budget (just slightly more than the original) with no presales was no problem, even with an unknown cast and director (Travis Zariwny). Voltage is handling sales of the finished film in Berlin.

But when you want or need stars to fund an indie, “what agents are banking on is your track record,” Elwes says. “They also want to know that you have an equity player involved — then they know you’ll be able to get the tax credits, debt deal, get a foreign sales company to pull it all together.”

Yet, despite the possibilities of support these films have experienced, indie films without stars will have to keep reinventing ways to line up financing.

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