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Note: Oscars Don’t Finance Films

by Jeff Steele

It’s kind of sad that Mark Boal & Kathryn Bigelow, The Oscar winning writing & directing masterminds behind The Oscar winning Best Picture “The Hurt Locker“, couldn’t muster up the courage to re-team with Nicolas Chartier, The Oscar winning financing and sales mastermind behind The Oscar winning Best Picture “The Hurt Locker“.

Instead, the Untitled Black-Ops picture that should be a glorious first reunion of this super-creative duo, is having to be leaked to the press to drum up financial support.  This is sad and ill-timed. The project, which is still unnamed, is being pitched around town as a Hurt Locker-esque low budget black-ops pick that they’ll be able to bang out before Paramount’s Triple Frontier (a project that is actually worthy of their reunion.)  What’s not being asked in the press is why this team who has overwhelmingly proven themselves in the military genre, is not able to slam dunk this project.  The first reason is Voltage Pictures.  The other reason is the demise of gap funds.

The key piece that’s missing from this black-ops puzzle is Chartier.  In 2007, when Hurt Locker came together, money was falling out trees.  The major studios and mini-majors were all flush with hedge fund cash that was being hauled in by the boatload.  Next came the super-gap funds.  Hundreds of millions of dollars poured out of Wall Street and into the coffers of anybody who could crank out a Monte Carlo simulation (a fancy spreadsheet used to show that if one finances enough expensive films of a certain type of genre, then the investors can’t lose.)  Naturally, these simulations are readily for sale — you only needed to be able to answer one key question: “What result are you looking for?”  Answer: “Profit.”

That said, 2007 already had a surplus of Iraq war movies, most of which were bombing. (No pun intended.)  Add to that the fact that Hurt Locker was not a conventional script.  Despite these obstacles, through passion, piss and vinegar, Chartier and his team pushed this project through to the foreign buyers, somehow got the backing of gap financier Grosvenor Park (which was backed by mega-fund Fortress Investment) and ultimately willed it into production.

The rest is history.  Hurt Locker was awesome.  It deserved all the press and accolades it received, including toppling the Avatar leviathan.  It was by all accounts the ultimate underdog success story…except financially.  While that may not be apparent to the public at large, their principal financier Grosvenor Park is still not fully recouped.  Grosvenor has gone the way of so many other gap funds that cropped up in the late 2000’s but subsequently withered away in the great financial famine of 2008.

Chartier has parlayed his success into growing out the production side of his top-tier sales company, Voltage Pictures.  Meanwhile, Bigelow and Boal have smartly parlayed their success into the big budget, star studded, studio feature Triple Frontier.  As they should.  Very good move.  But while waiting for that ship to leave the harbor in Fall 2011, they’ve apparently grown impatient and decided to go back onto the indie frontier to crank out another Hurt Locker.  Except this frontier is a dried up ol’ ghost town, and they be pitchin’ to crickets and wolves.  They don’t have a script, they don’t have a double-down from Grosvenor Park, and (most importantly) they don’t have Chartier to push this through, which means they don’t have time for foreign pre-sales, which means they don’t have collateral, which means they don’t have lenders.  {Deep Breath}

What they do have is their own creative talent, but that is being offset by the finite amount of time they have to write the script, close the financing, prep the movie, get it shot, and deliver the directors cut — all before the mandatory stop date, when they have to start working on Triple Frontier.  You can’t put 9 women in a room and make a baby in a month.  So unless somebody is going to write a check for 10 million dollars, this film is not getting off the ground and that could put a big dent in their stock value.  I can’t think of a worse way to follow up an Oscar sweep.

Just to be clear, I think Bigalow & Boal are both great filmmakers, and would gladly work with them; if they want to do a film on the fly, that’s fine too, but given their recent success, they would have been wiser to pitch it to a few financiers and then retire the idea until after Triple Frontier, instead of going to the press looking for a handout.  The moral of this tale is that if you ever find yourself catapulted into big budget, star studded, studio pictures, don’t try to parlay that ahead of time; go on vacation until it’s time to be on set, and then parlay it while you’re in post.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy Halmay permalink
    December 13, 2010

    A very interesting case and most interestingly described. Just curious; did Hurt Locker finally show a profit after getting the Oscar?

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    • Jeff Steele permalink
      December 16, 2010

      Perhaps in some foreign territories. But overall, not to my knowledge.

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  2. Mike White permalink
    December 13, 2010

    THANK YOU—Great article and advice.

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  3. December 13, 2010

    Hey Jeff,

    I was thinking along the same lines when I read they were trying to squeeze in another project in this climate. I can’t say I blame them for trying, but if it were me, I’d have taken the time leading up to the big budget film to develop the next few projects I wanted to line up after the big budget film wrapped. Maybe do some small projects or find some other way to productively spend my time, even it it wasn’t directly related to film.

    They just need to decide if it’s best to follow “Strike while the iron is hot.” or “Good things come to those who wait.”

    Take Care,
    Chris

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  4. December 13, 2010

    Were they never made whole even after DVD sales? With $19 million gross worldwide theatrical, and $30 million in DVD sales according to: http://www.the-numbers.com I would have to think they at least broke even on a $15 million dollar production, but I guess that depends on what percentage they saw and what was spent on marketing and such.

    That is crazy…

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    • Pierre Lapointe permalink
      December 15, 2010

      Joe,
      According to BoxofficeMojo, ww gross on Hurt locker is $48.6M, the numbers.com has it at $47.3M; domestic is $17M with US DVD sales of about $32M.

      I have absolutely no idea how the deal was structured, but if you go a very traditional way then roughly half of the theatrical gross is what the distributor gets (excluding taxes, currency exchange, possible profit participation, etc.), ballpark figure distrib gets about $24M.

      Not sure what the marketing costs were but according to bom, widest release was 535 screens. Say a very conservative $10M marketing budget including approx. $750k in prints alone (535 * $1400), then distribution fees of maybe $8M (approx. 35% of $24M), sales agency fees of about $3.6M (say 15% of $24M) and you’re left with about $2.4M (which I think is still generous and probably not even close).

      The budget was $15M, but financing required was probably closer to $20M and interest continues to accrue.

      Given this positive scenario (which again is more than unlikely), the production is still in the red for $17.6M.

      Calculate distribution fees and expenses, sales agency commission and guild residuals for the DVD sales and yes the production is still very much in the red.

      Until this distribution model changes radically, the end result will always be that the picture will never generate any “profit.”

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      • Joe Orlandino permalink
        December 15, 2010

        Great analysis.

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      • Jeff Steele permalink
        December 16, 2010

        Thanks for the detailed breakdown Pierre. The model definitely needs to change. Fortunately, change, sometimes in the form of radical, transformative shifts, is the defining characteristic of our existence.

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      • December 17, 2010

        I would be curious to know if the the other independent film Crazy Hart (I use the term loosely) which received Oscars (best actor, best song) Recouped?
        Production Budget 7M
        Worldwide Gross 47M

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      • tres miah permalink
        January 14, 2011

        Great breakdown Pierre. I was wondering you (or anyone else here) have heard of a company called B.D. Fox Independent?

        They claim to be using a new model for better [producer’s] compensation. I’d be curious to know what your thoughts are in querying them about the specifics breakdown of the films they have handled using this new model seeing that you can spot the devil in the details. Please share with Jeff.

        Jeff. Have you heard of them? And, what do you think of their new model?

        Thanks,

        Tres

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  5. December 13, 2010

    Very interesting post Jeff!

    Hmmm, why wouldn’t they just go back to Nic and let him run with it? That’s the piece I don’t get. Or did they and Nic turned it down b/c of the climate?

    Stacey*

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  6. Shawn permalink
    December 13, 2010

    This is one of my favorite articles. Thanks for sharing the inside info for all of us on what is going on. I would have never even thought about 80% of the things you brought up. I’m glad you exist. Also, I heard that the movie was not fiscally a success.

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  7. BenL permalink
    December 13, 2010

    @ Jeff – Great post. I really appreciate the context you put this issue in. GAP is critical to so many projects. What issues do you see for the near future regarding GAP funding?

    This issue reminded me of your Robert Halmi post. Do you have an update from the bankruptcy of Robert Halmi International Entertainment that took out US Bank’s entertainment division? Is JP Morgan’s entertainment division still dealing the with aftershock? How are your predictions unfolding?

    Thanks again for sharing the great insight.

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  8. Pierre Lapointe permalink
    December 15, 2010

    Great post, Jeff.

    Another reminder of the reality of the marketplace and the moral of the story as you so aptly put it is so accurate and true.

    Nice work.

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  9. December 15, 2010

    Hi Jeff, great article again. I attended a panel of producers, distributors, sales agents and theater owners in London. Apparently their new DVD sale points are supermarket stores and they get “impulse shoppers” picking up DVD’s of racks and they love movies with “Dragons”. They indulge in price acquisition in these stores like Tescos, Sainsbury. Also in the U.K. I saw they have a flat fee territory price for a film license. No overgages, no expectations. One lump sum.
    Thanks for the lovely article again.
    Best,
    Anand

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