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Roland Emmerich Just Made a $100 Million Indie Film. Will It Work?

Roland Emmerich has made some of the biggest movies in history. He blew up the White House in “Independence Day,” blanketed New York in ice in “The Day After Tomorrow” and had mega-tsunamis wipe out most of humanity in “2012.” In the process, his films have grossed $1.2 billion globally, making hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for the studios that greenlit them. 

And yet, Emmerich found himself hustling to get his latest action epic, “Midway,” to the screen. The World War II drama, which Lionsgate will release in the U.S. on Nov. 8, boasts a $100 million budget, but one that was pulled together outside the studio system, making it one of the costliest independent films in history. It’s a sign that even A-list directors like Emmerich are facing an uphill climb to get movies made in a Hollywood that’s become obsessed with comic book movies and resurrected franchises. 

“We shopped the movie around, and at that time we thought it would cost $125 million,” Emmerich recalls. “That was too much money for the studios.” 

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Rather than call it quits, CAA Film Finance and Sales Group head Roeg Sutherland suggested that they go, well, rogue. Emmerich had every intention of making a studio picture. All of his films go up for auction among the majors, he tells Variety from a leather armchair in his Los Angeles compound. But he was surprised when the pitch for “Midway” landed with a thud. Popular hiking destination Runyon Canyon is visible in the distance from a window behind him, not far from where he once sent on-screen super tornadoes to dismantle the Hollywood sign.

“We had first dabbled with some other producers, but at the end we realized we had to do this ourselves,” he says. “It was the first time my company, Centropolis, was single-handedly responsible for a movie like this.” 

The process pushed the director out of every comfort zone he’d ever known. He was forced to cut back on the number of shooting days and account for every dollar spent on the production. He also had to temper some of his ambitions for the battle sequences in order to strip $25 million from the budget.

“It was only $76 million in cash and the rest in equity,” Emmerich says with raised eyebrows. The production received close to $24 million from Chinese investors including Starlight Group, which funds Centropolis. The remainder was raised in foreign presales, with CAA and the international sales force AGC Studios, run by Stuart Ford, piecing together buyers. (The movie is also scheduled for release in China on Nov. 8.)

“A film of this scale, to be financed this way, hasn’t happened for a long, long time,” says Ford. 

There are few contemporary financial models for “Midway.” At a time when movies about wartime heroics are being replaced by superpowered “Avengers” spinoffs, Ford and Sutherland reassured skittish buyers by pointing to the success of Mel Gibson’s 2016 Oscar winner “Hacksaw Ridge.” Despite dealing with a bloody, true story, that film raised $40 million in foreign presales and went on to gross $175 million worldwide, a huge windfall for its investors. 

“He has a track record of success and a way of making films that are appealing to a wide audience, which provides him a lot of freedom as a director,” Sutherland says of Emmerich. “These days, when filmmakers go to a film market with a project, it’s important that they are involved in the process. Roland showed up and sat with every buyer, from Cannes to Beijing.” 

The Battle of Midway is largely viewed by historians as the most effective and debilitating operation in the history of naval warfare, one that saw the U.S. score a decisive victory against Japan just six months after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor left the U.S. armada in ruins. 

Emmerich first tried to re-create the battle on film in the ’90s, when he was engaged in an exclusive deal with the Sony-owned label Columbia-TriStar. The studio head at the time, the late John Calley, was interested in his pitch and arranged a meeting for Emmerich and screenwriter William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All the President’s Men”). Emmerich and Calley reached an impasse when the director said the film would cost well over $100 million to make (ironically, the indie budget of “Midway”). Calley could not get sign-off from Sony brass in Japan, says Emmerich, who moved on to direct Gibson in “The Patriot,” a Revolutionary War drama that made money but divided critics. 

Emmerich was heartened by the amount of support he received in finally mounting “Midway.” His friend Woody Harrelson, who worked with the director on the film “2012,” was the first actor to sign on, playing real-life Admiral Chester Nimitz (“The perfect Texan,” Emmerich says). Harrelson became a magnet for other talent, including eventual co-stars Patrick Wilson, Ed Skrein, Luke Evans, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas and Mandy Moore. On the post-production side, Emmerich relied on two friends who each run visual effects houses out of Germany, Pixomondo and Scanline VFX. They provided weeks of additional work at cost to bring to life hundreds of visceral war scenes set in the air and on water.

He also made sacrifices. The “Midway” shooting schedule was pared down to 65 days, as opposed to the 90-plus days he originally hoped to have. Long shoots — Emmerich’s standard 13- to 15-hour workdays usually put actors and crew into overtime — were also shortened in the interest of frugality.  “Everything has to come together at one point, so it was an experience of ‘If this doesn’t come together, what do you do — kill yourself?’ Every indie producer can tell you a story like that,” he says.

The director has built-in brand recognition and a penchant for making box office winners, but he says that’s not enough these days. He still prefers to make movies based on original concepts, and that’s forced him to get creative. Other peers, discouraged by studios’ risk aversion, are taking the streaming route, inking deals with digital players like Netflix. 

“I am a fan of cinemas, and a fan of traditional moviemaking,” Emmerich says plainly. “I think the streamers help raise the quality of TV, but HBO has been doing that forever. I don’t like their [financial] model so much: They pay everybody a premium, but you lose all rights on your movie.”  

The independent spirit will linger in Emmerich, whose next film is rapidly coming together using the “Midway” model.

Titled “Moonfall” and set to shoot in April, the project is about to close $150 million in presales and equity financing. It imagines the revelation that the moon has fallen out of orbit and is set to collide with Earth — and, Emmerich says, “the moon is perhaps not what we’ve always thought it was.”

Speaking for perhaps the first time not about an alien planet but about the changing landscape for film distribution, he concludes, “There is a whole other world out there.” 

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