Panel was moderated by Nigel Sinclair, CEO of White Horse Pictures, along with film-makers Ariel Vromen and Lone Scherfig.
Billionaires in the film business are given a bad rap. That was the consensus from a panel with the provocative title, Is It Real Movie Money Or Just Another Big Yacht Passing?, at the 6th Annual Winston Baker Film Finance Forum on Friday afternoon in Cannes.
A high level panel including Micah Green, Co-head Film Finance and Sales Group CAA, Mark Hutchison, Partner NKSFB and Bill Lischak, Co-President, Oddlot Entertainment, pointed to the transformative role played by “high net worth individuals” in today’s film industry.
“Within the business, there is no question there are some very prominent, very well informed billionaire financiers and companies backed by billionaire financiers who are not only very active and even central to the movie business right now, but better positioned to become part of a sustainable future infrastructure of the movie business,” suggested Green.
The CAA exec pointed to a change: a decade ago, high net worth individuals were drawn to financing films “largely” out of “personal interest and passion,” using their wealth to “help make movies that were of interest to them.” Now, these individuals are “building up proper movie businesses” with “pretty sophisticated” entrerprises and strategies for building and manitaining ongoing slates of production.
Megan Ellison at Anapurna, Sidney Kimmel at SKE, Steven Rales at Indian Paintbrush, Bill Pohlad at River Road, Teddy Schwarzman at Black Bear, Tommy Thompson at Cross Creek, Molly Smith at Black Label, Fred Smith at Alcon and Jeff Skoll at Participant were just some of the names being bandied about who’ve helped produce and finance a host of recent Oscar winners. Their filmographies encompass such films as Whiplash, 12 Years A Slave, The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, Brokeback Mountain, The Wolf Of Wall St, Black Swan and The Grand Budapest Hotel among many others.
“It is really impressive when you think that those films really wouldn’t have happened without the poeple and the companies that were involved,” stated OddLot’s Lischak. At a time when the studios have “gravitated to the tentpoles,” this new wave of financiers has moved into the space that they vacated. “And very few of them own yachts!”
“Years and years ago, it was German tax funds or UK tax funds or insurance companies,” Lischak said of where the backing for major independent filmmakers used to be found. Now, these new financiers are bringing ”rigour” and a sense of stragey to their filmmaking activities. There may still be dilettante billionaires, dipping their toes into the business, but there are also many serious new players,
Another significant change is that these financiers are tending to surround themselves with experienced management teams. They don’t just rush into the business, staffing up with friends and associates from outside the business, and making commitments to films without assessing properly their international value.
Micah Green mentioned another pothole into which the less astute new financiers sometimes fall. They will hire presidents of production or parners in their companies “who is someone we all might associate with failure. Someone who has not been successfully been putting movies together…someone who is out looking for work and meets the right individual” and then “attach themselves like a barnacle” to their patrons.
At an earlier session, View From The Director’s Cahir: Banking on Content vs Talent, The Iceman director Ariel Vromen (now in post production on Criminal starring Kevin Costner) had some intriguing insights on what has been like working with Avi Lerner, the celebrated producer and founder of Nu Image and Millennium.
As Vromen joked, Lerner loves movies…and he also loves money - “and he loves to keep it.” “Every time you ask him for more, you take it away from his pocket,” the director stated. “Avi’s a lovely guy but their mechanism of making movies is that they package film and sell it so they are already in profit.”
Vromen added that working on post production is the most “fragile” time in making a movie. “Working with a guy like Avi is a blessing but also, you need to understand who is in front of you. Some producers - all they care about is the prestige…they will go to war with you no matter what.”
Vromen told a packed audience in the Carlton Hotel that Lerner was about far more than action movies and explosions. He wrong footed the director by saying he wanted a film took audiences by the “throat” and made them “cry.”
“You’ve got to be grateful and very humble because at end of day, they give you the opportunity to be there,” Vromen reflected on the debt directors owe their producers.
“I really don’t see producers as enemies at all,” agreed Lone Scherfig, the Danish director of An Education. She added that directors should “choose their battles” and that when they work well with their producers, they will always “make each other better.”
The worst that can happen, the two directors suggested, was for a director to stop caring about a project. “This is when you lose. As a producer, make sure the director cares,” Vromen stated.