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FILM INDEPENDENT PRESENTS "WHO BACKS MOVIES AND WHY" AT THE AMERICAN FILM MARKET
by Susan Royal

This year the American Film Market (AFM) is hosting 13 sessions of its Finance Conference and Seminar series at the JW Marriott Le Merigot Hotel (located next door to the AFM headquarters at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica).

A number of the seminars have been programmed by major Hollywood guilds and organizations. Film Independent (FIND) was chosen to program "Who Backs Movies and Why," held on November 5.

The session was moderated by entertainment attorney Michael Donaldson, who authored Negotiating For Dummies. The panelists included Holly Becker (Senior VP of Production at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment), Diane Weyerman (Exec VP of Documentary Production at Participant Productions), Bo Hyde (CEO of Cherry Road Films) and Cassian Elwes (co-head of William Morris Independent).

The moderator asked each panelist for a brief company profile and a description of films they finance, including the budget range.

Holly Becker said that after her boss, Sidney Kimmel, had made his mark in the apparel industry (he is CEO of Jones Apparel Group, maker of Jones NY) he became interested in the film business. He did very well with one of the first films he financed -- Nine and ½ Weeks – and stayed in the game. They recently financed United 93 and are currently shooting the adaptation of the book The Kite Runner in China. They now make six movies a year in the $8 - 20 million range and have "no specific mandate. We just want to make quality films," says Becker.

The current SKE slate shows great diversity: a British farce (Death at a Funeral), a teen satire starring Robert Downey (Charlie Bartlett), a true story of a Black activist starring Don Cheadle (Talk To Me), and a Ryan Gosling film in which he falls in love with a sex doll (Lars and the Real Girl).

Diane Weyerman explained that Participant's founder and chairman, Jeff Skoll (one of the founders of E-Bay) was "always interested in the power of storytelling to affect change. Whether documentary or narrative, he wants to make compelling entertainment about conditions in society that will affect social change." At Participant they actually have a "Department of Social Change" to launch campaigns of education and/or advocacy along with certain films. In the case of their film An Inconvenient Truth, which grossed over $35 million worldwide, they are funding a "train the trainer" program which brings people from across the country to train with Al Gore.

Participant makes six documentaries and six narrative films a year. Weyerman said they are "looking for strong stories that will change people's perceptions." Some of their past films include Syriana, North Country and Good Night, and Good Luck.

Participant will come on board a project as early as the development stage or as late as film completion, as they did on the documentary Murderball. Their preferred budget range is from under $1 million to four or five million for documentaries and from $1 – 20 million for narrative films (if no partners) or $20 – 40 million (if they partner with another company). They are currently making The Visitor – the latest film from Tim McCarthy (The Station Agent).

Bo Hyde comes from an investment banking background and is still involved in business ventures outside of the movie industry. He founded Cherry Road Films in 2001 to produce and finance films and his company has a first look deal with Warner Independent Pictures, with eight films in development and pre-production.

Hyde said he has been able to attract venture capital to invest in slates of films, which is far more attractive than a one-off deal. He believes an 8-15% return is possible on a slate of six to ten films. Their budget range is from $2-3 million up to $20 million, with WIP needing to be involved with the high end pictures. Hyde said he has around six passive investors – all located on the East Coast. "We prefer to put the final 10 – 15% in to make sure the picture gets made," said Hyde.

Cassian Elwes, one of the top agents in the independent filmmaking world, said that William Morris Independent likes to be involved in prestigious films, citing their latest film, Bobby. He has worked on films as diverse as Sling Blade and The English Patient, and said he packaged 27 pictures last year. "There's just so much money floating around now."

Elwes commented that the hardest money has always been the last money – the last 20 to 25 %, but now groups are "running to Hollywood with this money." But a film $5 million or under is still the hardest to finance. They don't want to "do all that work for very little reward."

The next topic discussed was the issue of control.

Bo Hyde said Cherry Road likes to retain final cut because "if a director won't listen to what the test audiences have to say, it's a real problem. We like to give him or her as much freedom as possible to make the film, but at the end of the day, they need to hear what the test audience says."

Cassian Elwes added that even if you are lucky enough to have final cut, the studios won't put the support behind your film if they are unhappy with it. He also believes too much is made of who owns the copyright to any one film. "It's far more important who is controlling the distribution. If you own the copyright, but have turned over the distribution rights, it's far more important how the distributor will pay you than the fact that you own the copyright."

How and when to approach these people with your project?

Bo Hyde said, "The farther along you are and the more elements attached the better. We option novels but if you're trying to get us to finance the screenplay, we're going to take over the process. We have read scripts that don't come via an agent or lawyer, but they don't seem as professional as if an agent or lawyer submitted."

Diane Weyerman said, "For documentaries, the first step is to submit a treatment and budget. On the narrative side, you have to go through an agent or lawyer, but that's not a cumbersome process. If I like a project I will take it to the social change department, the marketing department and business affairs department. Then the execs meet at a greenlight meeting. If it passes through there, the project goes to Jeff Skoll to sign off on."

Holly Becker warned that they don't develop at SKE. "You need a completed screenplay in good shape at the minimum, a producer with experience, and /or a director. It helps to bring legitimizing people into the meeting with you."

Cassian Elwes had this list of do's and don'ts:

"Do have a plan. You're supposed to be the producer. Don't leave it up to me. Have ideas about the director, cast, budget, locations, what's the soft money going to be. I only want to work with people who are competent.

Don't give long pitches of 15 minutes. Make it really simple in five lines. Then be able to go into more detail as asked.

Do sell yourself and the project in the room.

Don't bring in a screenplay and says it's not quite right yet. You've got to believe your script is perfect.

Do be polite. Don't stop me or someone like me to pitch your film when I'm heading into the restroom.

Don't BS that you've got this director or this actor. The moment I find out you BS'd me I'm done. I know everybody and everything. And if I don't know, I can find out in 10 minutes."

For more info on the AFM seminars, go to www.americanfilmmarket.com or call 1.866.AFI.FEST.


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