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Spirit of independence

Cloud Atlas is a $100m epic spanning centuries and continents; and no matter your review of the final film, you have to admire the project’s ambitions.

The film was directed by three high-profile directors who have box-office hits behind them (including the Wachowskis’ billion-dollar-plus Matrix franchise) and it stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.

Yet it was made outside the studio system. To be fair, there was support for Cloud Atlas from Warner Bros (the studio was on board for a reported $25m deal for North America, plus other key territories), but the project was pulled together independently.

More and more, studios are focusing on their bigger and bigger tentpoles, so the more modestly budgeted $20m-$100m projects are moving into the independent space, which offers a good opportunity for the rest of the film world.

Among the growing number of big, commercial films being made outside the studio system there are a lot of thrillers but also intelligent adult dramas. The studios may be concentrating on those $200m and $300m juggernauts but they still have release slots to fill for lower-budgeted films, which provides a great opportunity for the independent sector to sell on those films.

This point was made succinctly last year by Stephen Cornwell, who has written films such as Unknown and also set up UK production outfit Ink Factory to work on films in the $20m-$30m range (some based on adaptations of his father John le Carré’s books). “There is an increasing appetite for intelligent, mid-level movies… and the studios realised they didn’t have the capacity to make what they needed. But they want to distribute them,” he said.

Cloud Atlas — which drew much of its finance from Germany — isn’t the only project to tap into non US-finance for large-scale global films. For example, StudioCanal and Working Title made Tinker Tailor Soldier Spyoutside of Working Title’s Universal deal, and StudioCanal and Silver Pictures are now preparing Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop, re-teaming him with Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra.

There are examples far and wide: Ron Howard is making his first independent film, Formula 1 story Rush, with Working Title, Revolution and Imagine. Red Granite led the way for Martin Scorsese’s drama The Wolf Of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

If and when these films hit, it means a broader spectrum of companies — independent producers, sales companies and distributors among them — reaping financial rewards. Rather than a studio’s small film being a modest hit and pumping cash into the studio’s next franchise.

It also makes the market much more exciting as these kinds of projects are fair game for buyers at both studio level and big independent level. Yes, it might have been easier — in the best cases — to have a studio write one giant check for a greenlight, but there’s a lot of upside working the independent way.

True Thrills

Seeing the shortlist of 15 films for the best documentary Oscar, I was reminded these aren’t just some of the greatest documentary films of the year, they are some of the greatest films of the year, period.

Following CPH:DOX and IDFA, it’s a good time to remember just how the documentary format can introduce innovative forms of storytelling.

One example this year is Bart Layton’s The Imposter, which was one of the most exciting thrillers of the year. In the mesmerising UK trailer for the film, it wasn’t quite clear whether it was fact or fiction. And you know what, it didn’t matter.

After last year’s shameful omission of Senna on the Oscar shortlist, this year’s list looks pretty solid. There will be gripes about a few snubs; but on the flip side it also includes deserving riskier choices such as How To Survive A Plague.

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