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January 12 at 2:06pm

Filmonomics: Thinking in Money

By Colin Brown

Hollywood has always fallen hard for films about scam artists and their clever schemes. Even before American Hustle and The Wolf Of Wall Street, there was Catch Me If You CanHouse of GamesThe Spanish PrisonerThe GriftersThe Sting, Paper Moon and seductive confidence artists stretching all the way back to The Lady Eve in 1941. The cons vary but the tricks remain much the same: victims are fooled into trusting in a stranger’s good faith through greed, vanity, opportunism, desire, compassion, desperation and any other basic urge you can name. It is easy to see the greenlight appeal of such stories. Not so much because of Hollywood’s own history with charismatic charlatans, or even because their conniving tales can provide such giddy entertainment, but because filmmaking itself so often involves elaborate self-deception and blind trust. The human lust for storytelling, and the constant craving for money required to feed that, is such that some of the strangest bedfellows are thrown together in the name of cinema.

suitcase_leo

For a taste of just how surreal some of those couplings can be look at the duo behind Envision Entertainment, the financing outfit that burst on the Hollywood scene a couple of years ago. The two men writing the checks at that company, Remington Chase and Stefan Martirosian, are as colorful as many invented movie characters, at least judging by this article in L.A. Weekly that has become the astonished talk of the town. And yet here they are right in the thick of Oscar contention as the backers of the pedigree war drama Lone Survivor starring Mark Wahlberg. Chase, according to that article, admits to being an FBI informant; for his part, Martirosian acknowledges altering the spelling of both his first and last name in film credits so as to avoid a contested 1993 cocaine trafficking conviction showing up in online searches – the kind of details that make their involvement in such upcoming projects as The Girl Who Conned The Ivy League so much more tantalizing. [...]


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December 20 at 3:46pm

Filmonomics: Thinking in Teams

By Colin Brown
It has been ten years since the publication of Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game and still the quest goes on to find those hidden signals and data points that might do for the film industry what Billy Beane and his bean-counters did for professional baseball – namely, unlock the secrets of success in a business distorted by old wisdoms. There is much to be gained from such a statistical treasure trove. In film entertainment, as in sports, the scouting establishment has shown a habit of undervaluing those most often responsible for winning results. A costly obsession with conventional star performers has blinded both industries to what really makes teams tick. To borrow both baseball and cinema parlance, it all comes down to finding those players who can truly “produce”.

 moneyball

For those who haven’t read Michael Lewis’ book, or seen the subsequent film adaptation Moneyball in which he was portrayed by Brad Pitt, Beane was the irrepressible general manager of the Oakland A’s who defied the traditional benchmarks that had long been used to gauge baseball players. Instead of relying on stolen basesruns batted in and batting averages as the surefire measures of offensive success, Beane’s front office came to realize that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were more meaningful indicators – overlooked qualities that were hence cheaper to acquire on the open market than those based around speed and contact. That insight allowed him to assemble a team of basement-bargain players that was able to compete successfully against far richer competitors in Major League Baseball, or at least until those giants caught on and started mirroring Beane’s strategies.

In the collective wisdom of the movie business, the stars of the game have historically been both the actors and the auteurs that coach them. Much of the value system for independent movies is still predicated on the need to attract a recognizable calibre of acting and directing talent in order to unlock the necessary finance, specifically foreign pre-sales and a distribution deal in the US. This is no economic accident. Ever since the days of the star system, film audiences have been media-conditioned to idolize celebrities from their bleachers. And much as we all know that filmmaking is an elaborate act of collaboration, we instinctively see cinema as a personal expression of a director’s creative vision. European law goes so far as to enshrine this godly status by designating the film director as the movie’s “author”. Attend any film festival and you’ll fall soon enough under the spell of directors’ names and actors’ faces. They are what excite audiences and move markets.

But it doesn’t take particularly rigorous statistical analysis to see the flaws in this starry-eyed system. As an industry, we place inordinate financial stock on a handful of top performers. Isolate the film names on Forbes most recent list of highest paid entertainers and compare them with, say, The Numbers’ own assessments for how much industry players contribute in value to an average non-franchise film and you will see remarkably little correlation in their top tens. They share just one filmmaker – Steven Spielberg, who tops both film lists – and also the name of Robert Downey Jr. [...]


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November 9 at 12:17pm

Filmonomics: Thinking in Casts Part 2

By Colin Brown

I lost money for the first time ever in my career over the last two years,” beamed Matthew McConaughey in his signature drawl as he picked up this year’s actor trophy at the recent Hollywood Film Awards. “But I did have a helluva lot of fun.” McConaughey’s conscious decision to”recalibrate” his shirtless rom-com persona into something edgier has since led him to a succession of eye-catching performances in director-driven, lower-budget films – MAGIC MIKE, KILLER JOE, THE PAPERBOY, MUD – and now to the brink of Oscar recognition with DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. It’s the kind of Travolta-style career revival, a McConnaissance if you will, that should give fresh hope to indie filmmakers still hitting heads against talent agents’ doors in their casting quests. At a time when Hollywood slate-pruning has seen the studios essentially abandon mid-budget dramas, pretty much all actors are open to stimulating roles that may require them to sacrifice their customary compensations. Besides wanting to work, actors know there’s always a chance that their fun will laugh all the way to the bank.

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In McConaughey’s case, that financial pay-off will come soon enough. Next month, he will be seen playing right opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s $85 million-plus THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. And this time next year, he will surface again as the top-billed male star in Christopher Nolan’s even pricier space-travel spectacular INTERSTELLAR, headlining a cast that also includes Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon. [...]


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November 1 at 7:11pm

Filmonomics: Thinking in Casts Part I

By Colin Brown

More than 90% of directing a picture is the right casting,” suggests Martin Scorsese in the revelatory documentary CASTING BY. Producers might well reach a similar assessment for financing a picture as well since actors remain by far the most enticing lures to potential investors. But settling on just who might be “right” for that picture is another matter entirely – and a source of constant tension as filmmakers struggle to reconcile the urgent needs of the story with the erratic tastes of the global marketplace and its appointed gatekeepers.

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Casting is rarely a sequential, yes-or-no decision-making process that involves working your way down a long list of actors who have been somehow calibrated according to their creative merits and box office bankability. That would be too easy. Unless your director’s name happens to be Scorsese, more than 90% of the time will be spent casting out again and again into an ocean of uncertainty and inconsistency not knowing which way the winds will blow. You need good hooks as well as good fortune to fish in those waters, the tenacity to keep going, an unwavering hand and eye to thread that needle, and the improvisational skills to react to what’s constantly changing around you. Not unlike acting itself. [...]


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October 18 at 6:58pm

Filmonomics: Thinking in Budgets

By Colin Brown

Politicians go medieval on them, romantic couples break up over them and artistic types tend to run as far and fast as they can from them. And yet budgets, if drawn up sensibly in a spirit of mutual trust rather than defensive hostility, can actually go a long way towards avoiding such heartaches and fistfights. Cinema is certainly no exception here. No matter whether you view filmmaking as primarily a left-brain or a right-brain undertaking, as an expression of exquisite method or inspired madness, there is still no getting round the need for a proper fiscal reckoning. Persuading people to put money behind a particular film idea is, after all, an exercise in quantifying delight. Sooner or later, even with the most munificent of patrons and the most sublime of screenplay propositions, budget numbers still have to be part of that pitch. Get those projections askew and that dream project is a brawl-in-waiting. Get them horribly wrong and it’s a complete non-starter.

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Realism over Optimism

While all this might seem like decrees from the department of the bleeding obvious, it is still a lesson in financial realism that seems lost on too many filmmaking novices. Judging by a number of crowd-donation campaigns, there are those who firmly believe they should make their movie with whatever funds they can raise. And they do so without even a basic understanding about who will come to see their finished film – and why – other than those few thousands who volunteer their ten bucks online.

In the real world of actual investment, of course, potential financiers soon lose patience with producers who don’t have a clear picture of how much they will need, and where that money is going. Nor are they impressed by optimistic finance plans based on unrealistic notions of what projects might summon in terms of either talent or contributions from soft money sources, production off-sets and distributor pre-sales.

Maybe the biggest mistake we see from first-time producers is they come in with too-high budgets. You can see a $5 million or $10 million budget for a project that should cost $1 million or lower,” observed Daniel Baur, partner and producer at the German film finance and sales outfit K5 Media Group, as part of a revealing article last year in Screen International on the keys to unlocking film finance. Battle-tested executives will tell you that nothing resonates more with financiers than the confidence to be honest about a film’s likely costs and commercial prospects – even if those budget estimates fall on the bleak side. Earn that trust and chances are that investors will work with, rather than against, producers in establishing the most comfortable financial parameters for any given story. Regardless of how small the chosen audience niche.

The Equation is not Simple Subtraction

This is essentially what packaging agents and studio executives mean when they talk about the need to make films “for a price.” As it happens, coming up with this magic figure is never quite as straightforward as slashing costs. If it was, and financiers started making projects simply because they are the cheapest on the market, then a depressingly narrow range of copycat projects would be the only ones to ever see the light. As filmmaker John Sayles has wryly noted: “The ideal low-budget movie is set in the present, with few sets, lots of interiors, only a couple speaking actors (none of them known), no major optional effects, no horses to feed. It’s no wonder so many beginning movie-makers set a bunch of not-yet-in-the-Guild teenagers loose in an old house and have some guy in a hockey mask go around and skewer them.”

The fact that Sayles was writing this back in 1987, in his seminal book “Thinking in Pictures”, only underlines how little has changed. Then, as now, there is always room for resourceful films whose stories are designed around their irresistible budgets. But just keeping making such exploitation films, to the exclusion of films whose budgets have been customized to fit their compelling stories, and the film industry will quickly lose the plot.

Budgeting, done properly, is more than just about bottom line numbers; it’s a high-wire balancing act worthy of the most creative dealmakers. As Anthony Kaufman found out when exploring the financing strategies behind the latest visions of Sofia Coppola, James Gray, Alexander Payne and Roman Polanski in his article for Variety this summer. In such auteur-driven cases, the trick is to make the movie for “the absolute lowest price possible without compromising the integrity of the film,” Greg Shapiro, producer of current festival darling THE IMMIGRANT, told him. “This seems a natural and obvious thing to do, but it is usually very difficult in practice. Budgets naturally go up, not down.”

In the end, Shapiro and his producing partners sourced the $16.5 million they needed for their own period piece from a global potpourri of backers, lenders and enablers that included Three Point CapitalJacob Pechenik’s Venture Forth, Worldview Entertainment, Paris-based Wild Bunch and Chinese billionaire Bruno Wu. Tempting as it might be to now see that $16.5 million as the going rate for all historical dramas, it is only a partial baseline for what the market will bear. Price alone is never the sole factor in greenlighting a film any more than it is in determining how much a film will end up selling for to distributors. The strength of the material and all the other packaging choices that coalesce around that story are just as crucial to those equations.

Nonetheless, every film event comes prefaced by sales agents who talk of the latest optimal budgets, preferred genres and the various financial black holes into which no self-respecting project should fall if they want to see their money back. The truth is there has never has been a one-size-fits-all budget sweet spot that is assured of success, nor even different off-the-shelf budgets that are best suited for different genres. While basic data analysis from the last several years of box office returns might suggest that $20 million productions fall in the profitability hot-zone, more rigorous attempts at regression analysis has also gone some way to confirming that no single production budget confers an advantage over any other.

Packaging is Proportionate

In the end, budgeting remains a bespoke sizing exercise that starts with identifying the cornerstone elements of your screenplay and then building a made-to-measure budget around those essential items. You work out what makes a particular project exciting and back into the budget from there using all the data points you can muster concerning prevailing market conditions and available incentives. A carefully crafted budget, as this useful legal overview on film budgeting explains, should serve as guide to prospective participants “that the pieces of the film are proportionate to one another. If each cast member receives tens of millions of dollars, then the look of the film generally should not have home-made special effects.” Remember a good initial budget is not a final accounting, but a professional-looking estimate that should investors and distributors a level of confidence and comfort about the creative allocation of funds.

If any financing rule has withstood the vagaries of the independent marketplace it is that less is more. Which is why the low-budget agreements put in place by the various talent guilds to allow pay scales to be adjusted according to different budgets play such a pivotal role in packaging decisions. In theory, at least, big talents are within financial reach of even the most modest projects. Under the SAGIndie “Modified” agreement, for example, theatrical features budgeted at less than $625,000 need only pay actors an upfront $933 a week, with a provision for one or two leads to receive approximately $65,000. Armed with such a name cast, projects in the mid-six range can become a very compelling investment proposition. More so, perhaps, than a film project in the mid seven figures. It pays therefore for filmmakers to keep an open mind about all the belt-tightening adjustments that will be inevitably asked of them. As Gersh packaging agent Jay Cohenadvised in an interview earlier this year: “don’t be married to any one version of your film… Everyone is so focused on the budget but there are always people who can give you everything you want for less money with a smart plan and the right prep.”

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Creative Efficiency

There is no end of online articles and blogs that celebrate the ingenious ways that independent films have learned to stretch their production dollars. Options include trimming shooting days, merging speaking parts, sprucing up locations, getting the most play out of any expensive set-pieces. But nothing saves money quite as effectively as the experience of seasoned line producers, unit production managers and creative producers who know the battles worth fighting, the union agreements that can be made to work, and all the corners that deserve cutting for the sake of maintaining control. Done judiciously, such alterations will go unnoticed by their intended audiences. Done creatively, they may even enhance what ends up on the screen by the mere fact of forcing an imaginative workaround.

There are enough instances of independent film successes salvaged from studios that had put them into turnaround to know that the exact same stories can be told far more cost-efficiently without any undue artistic sacrifice. It is a point driven home this week by producer Gavin Polone in his latest tell-all piece for Vulture. He got hold of the budgets for two films that looked to the average moviegoer as if they were made for a similar scale. Although tonally different, each had two star lead actors and a cast of secondary players who were well known. Both contained significant action sequences, and they were filmed in the same state under the same incentive program. But the studio film cost about $85 million and the independent film came in at $10 million.

Size doesn’t matter, efficiency does,” declares Polone who details the many ways a Hollywood budget is “polluted with items that never make it on the screen.” His proposed solution is to co-opt the lean-and-mean philosophy of the independent world, and in particular replace those hefty upfront Hollywood salaries with an open-book profit-based compensation system that would, among other benefits, incentivize producers and directors to limit shooting schedules and push for better deals on everything that goes into the creation of a film.

Investing in the Independent

Whether the independent world has itself attained such levels of enlightenment and transparency is open to question. In their zeal to make films for that “price,” film financiers are not above leading producers on until they cannot possibly afford to say no to a budget that requires those producers to make substantial deferrals of fees and overhead. Shortchanging producers this way not only jeopardizes their livelihoods, it also pushes films into production way too soon in an effort to make collect what fees are on the table. Neither side ends up benefiting in the long haul.

As producer Ted Hope noted, as part of trenchant keynote speech he delivered in London earlier this month, both creators and their benefactors need to take responsibility for changing that dynamic – and proper budgeting plays a crucial part in that re-education process. “We are trained to budget our babies and sell them at market for less than their value, not to guide them down the line so they can generate wealth to carry us into ripe old age. Filmmakers must learn how to budget, schedule, and project revenues for their work across their movies’ entire lifespans.”

Get that right and maybe, just maybe, we might entertain the idea of a more far-sighted budgeting mindset in Washington DC as well.

In next week’s installment on film packaging, filmonomics will look at the key considerations that surround the casting of independent film projects, followed by installments on assessing films by filmmaking teams and financing structures.

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October 11 at 8:32pm

Filmonomics: Thinking in Genres

By Colin Brown

We don’t really know how many feature films will end up being made this year – 50,000 seems to be the best global guess – but what we do know is that their genetic make-up will differ in every instance. “Each film has its own DNA,” observed WME agent Mark Ankner, speaking at a recent panel on film packaging organized by Pepperdine University as part of its certification program for film & TV finance. “No two films are alike,” echoed UTA agent Hailey Wierengo, sitting alongside him. “Each has its own unique set of hurdles.

What we also know from DNA science is that even something as complex as the human genome – the sum total of all our hereditary information – boils down to four essential building blocks arranged and packaged in a myriad ways. By mapping those arrangements, we can not only pinpoint the individual signatures of our species in all its glorious variation, but also establish some common characteristics that help in making useful working assumptions.

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And so it is with cinema: academics may argue all they like about the problems that come with labeling films according to shared storytelling elements and milieus, but genre classification is as good a starting point as any right now for determining a project’s prospects. If that project happens to be a mix-and-match of different genres, as so many are these days, then the commercial realities that come with such hybrids need to be acknowledged too.

At their most forensic, some of those commercial realities can make for uncomfortable reading. In a recent New York Times article, former statistics professor Vincent Bruzzese described how his combination of data analysis and focus groups has led to some of the following blunt conclusions: a cursed superhero never sells as well as a guardian superhero; bowling scenes tend to pop up in films that fizzle. Bruzzese, who spearheads the Worldwide Motion Picture Group, also makes this bold assertion: “Demons in horror movies can target people or be summoned. If it’s a targeting demon, you are likely to have much higher opening-weekend sales than if it’s summoned. So get rid of that Ouija Board scene.” [...]


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September 14 at 8:45pm

FILMONOMICS: The Manufacturing of Desire

By Colin Brown

Want to know why the film business is such a tough nut to crack? Then listen to Erik Feig, president of production at Lionsgate, explaining to a WGA West audience last year how even the largest independent film studio in North America has to tap dance between two polar sets of interests:

“Every single movie that we make has to be sold twice. First, on a pre-sale basis, to a bunch of independent foreign distributors who are worried about losing money. And second, to a consumer who wants to see something that they haven’t seen before. Trying to find the right project and the right package that can satisfy both of those moments in time, separated by eighteen months of hopefully good execution, is really, really hard.”

It is an in-built tension familiar to anyone who has tried to pitch a film project. Each year, the box office tells us that audiences crave what’s new. Every film festival, movie market or project forum is another reminder that the industry gatekeepers are at their most comfortable with the tried and tested. Consider this year’s Toronto International Film Festival: for all the exciting artistry on display this past week, the big-money distribution deals still lasered in on crowd-pleasing, films featuring celebrity actors. And when the American Film Market swings around again in November, it will still be broad-based action films that that galvanizes the global market – even as the media itself rhapsodizes about the ground-breaking awards contenders that are bound to thrill ticket-buyers with their inventive storytelling and fresh faces.

How one sets about resolving cinema’s conflicting impulses and inherent contradictions is at the heart of “film packaging.” The most skilled packagers are those who can turn dreams into solid investment propositions by dressing them up in just the right combination of bold new fashions and sensible clothes. While landing that irresistible A-list cast and top-notch director will go along way to propelling a particular project down the industry runway, star-names are only one part of a complex calculus involving many other moving parts. Which is just as well, since the likes of Brad Pitt can only sashay to so many projects at once.

Starting with this initial overview on packaging practices, filmonomics will attempt over the coming weeks to dissect and decipher the way that film industry professionals evaluate projects at varying budget levels and genre tropes. This is intended not so much as a check-list of essential ingredients – if reliable film financing recipes exist at all, they are subject to constant revisions and multiple interpretations – but as a guiding set of principles for generating industrial heat.

So much of packaging is attitudinal, anyway. In drawing up his own essential list of twenty tips for packaging your project successfully, producer Ted Hope talks at great length about how filmmakers should go about attracting talents and building consensus around their projects, not who or what they need in order to juice up their market appeal. From his years of experience , packaging seems to come down to a delicate balancing act between patient professionalism and urgent calls to action. The trick, he says, is in making your project feel inevitable in industry eyes.

A real-time appreciation of what the industry is looking for in terms of material, which names they consider are worth banking on, and how much they are willing to pay for those combinations, is certainly crucial. But you won’t be able to determine such sweet-spots by simply looking at past box office performance – or VOD numbers if you can find them. As this collection of stunning infographics illustrates, you can use data to capture any number of statistical correlations in endlessly vivid ways. This rear-view mirror on marketplace can help set a baseline for commercial expectations, but it won’t necessarily improve your profitability picture on the long road ahead. For one thing as Disney’s vice-president of casting Randi Hiller reminded that same WGAW packaging seminar, “the temperature on things changes very quickly.” For another, yesterday’s star attraction may have now soared beyond the financial reach of most independent producers. Here’s Hiller again, drawing on her previous background as an independent casting agent:

“It’s always been, when you are casting a small movie, about getting someone to agree with your bet. Everyone is always chasing the established person. But what are your chances of getting them? Romantic comedies are incredibly hard to attach people to because everyone wants Reese Witherspoon and she’s getting $20 million a studio film. Why is she going to work on a $1 million romantic comedy? It’s just not going to happen. The only way to get a romantic comedy of the ground is with some actor who doesn’t ever get a chance to do that and is coming up the ranks.”

Identifying those next generation actors is its own exercise in educated guesswork and inside information. At the time of that panel last summer, everyone agreed that British actor Tom Hardy was the flavor of the month based on a bravura performance in the little-seen festival film Bronson, and supporting roles in films such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Inception. His stunning breakthrough as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises had yet to be seen publicly, although it was no doubt reverberating on the industry grapevine. All this was more than enough to anoint Hardy as cinema’s hottest prospect, even though his accumulated credits would not supported that status. As Hiller observed:

“The interesting thing is that Tom Hardy hasn’t justified a budget of a movie but there is not a studio or an independent alive that wouldn’t want take him if they could have him – and that’s the weird thing, there is not a financial equation. Everybody believes he’s a star and they will take that risk.”

Of course, you might say in hindsight, being cast as the arch-villain in an upcoming Batman directed by Christopher Nolan was bound to boost any decent actor’s star quotient. Common sense suggests that – which is why WME packaging agent Graham Taylor is at pains to tell creatives to apply level-headed logic based on basic market research and future assumptions. Opening a five-star restaurant in a town of one hundred people is probably ill-advised. So too is expecting anyone other than the handful of film art-collectors to back an expensive auteur-driven would-be masterpiece. His advice to WGA screenwriters is to wear their producers’ hats:

“Like anything, we have to put an army together. If you have relationships and can get to people directly then great, do it. If you can’t, then find a smart producer to partner up with or a filmmaker. You want to keep building your army to unlock a piece of financing, be it for development or production. Look, we live in a business of anomalies. People have that perception that it would be great to find the Dumb Denis in Deluth to write the magical check and at times people like that are unlocked, but if you are sane and you have an interesting movie and you can put an adult structure to it and talk to a financier actually to get them excited and touched by the material, and actually figure out what they actually need from it from the point of view of what is the budget, what is the actual risk on the movie.”

It all boils down to finding the model and then trying to sell into it. Or as Feig so succinctly put it: “know your beast: the genre, the budget, the kind of casting and then put your studio hat on. Ask yourself what would make me say ‘yes’ to this.

It’s a multi-layered question that we will now attempt to unpackage ourselves.

 


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