Money men mint magic

Oscar loves independents. Not a single wholly studio-backed project captured a top prize at last year’s Academy Awards. Big winners “Million Dollar Baby,” “The Aviator” and “Ray” all were co-financed from sources outside of the studio system. Sure, filmmakers can thank Universal or Warner Bros. for providing the infrastructure to complete and distribute their films, but it’s guys like Tom RosenbergGraham King and Philip Anschutz who made their movies a reality.

If the 78th Academy Awards don’t shut out the studios once again, independently financed pics will at least give the big boys a run for their money. Major contenders like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Capote” and “Crash” all were made with the significant help of non-studio coin.

While Hollywood blockbusters may dominate the box office year-round, at Oscar time, according to Jean Prewitt, exec director of the Independent Film & Television Alliance, “They have lower than a 50% share of the actual awards.” As franchise pictures and comedies fill out the studio’s full-funded slates, argues Prewitt, the majors have few resources left to offer to prestige pictures.

“If you are sitting at the top of a studio,” agrees Mark Gill, prexy of Warner Independent Pictures, “you’ve got your tentpoles that you want to wholly finance, you’ve got romantic comedy and horror films, and then all of the character-based dramas are riskier. If you’re thinking about where to put your money, you think, ‘I’d like to share the risk on those.’ “

Even at WIP, Gill notes the proliferation of co-financing arrangements. “Whether it’s foreign sales, tax deals, equity or all three put together, that’s just where the business is going for films that are risky,” he says, “and that’s what independent films are by definition.”

Michael Ohoven, CEO of Infinity Media, who produced “Capote” with Infinity partner William Vince and Caroline Baron, says he’s seeing more negative pickups from the studios, of which “Capote” is one example. “The studios don’t want the production risk on those types of movies,” he says.

“The reality is that most expensive independent movies often get financed through multiple sources,” explains David Linde, co-prexy of Focus Features, which is touting “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Constant Gardener” and “Pride & Prejudice” for awards attention.

“There are different reasons for this,” he says. “In our case, it’s often to leverage risk somewhat while maintaining worldwide distribution rights and upside; or in the case of ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ it’s about building a relationship with someone who you’re going to work with on multiple movies.”

For “Brokeback Mountain,” Focus partnered with River Road Prods.’ Bill Pohlad. “Bill’s investment was largely made against international rights and we have an equitable split between the domestic and foreign allocations,” explains Linde.

Pohlad is one of a handful of new financier-producers getting involved with the studios and their subsidiaries in a more integral way, making pics that are as much about quality as getting a return on their investment.

“It’s not about doing a film just because it’s a good deal,” says Pohlad. “I want to do something different and groundbreaking.”

Along with Pohlad, other Oscar contender enablers include Participant Prods.’ Jeff Skoll (“Syriana,” “North Country”), 2929 Entertainment‘s Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), Endgame’s Jim Stern (“Proof”) and Stratus Film Co.’s Bob Yari (“Crash”).

“Any time you’re doing a film that’s outside of the box, it’s a more complicated investment decision,” says Stern. “And as the studios have a more tentpole philosophy today, that allows for people like myself or Jeff Skoll or Bob Yari to participate in films, and I think that can be a very good business, and good for cultural dialogue.”

And like Stern, Participant prexy Ricky Strauss notes, “Talented filmmakers are drawn to these kinds of movies, and it’s always a good idea to be in business with really talented filmmakers.”

The studios are starting to take the hint. Warner Bros., for example, is a majority investor in “Syriana” and “North Country,” though it received sizable help from Participant. “We like to consider ourselves facilitators for these socially relevant movies,” says Strauss. “We make it easier for those decisions to be made on films that are considered risky.”

Other studio pics in the Oscar race — “Walk the Line,” “Munich” and “Memoirs of a Geisha” (a Sony co-prod with Spyglass and DreamWorks) — indicate Hollywood coffers aren’t completely empty for quality dramatic fare. As Strauss says, “Diversity is key. Hollywood has always had many different types of films in a given year. And in a world where the appetite for audiences is getting more defined, it’s important to find stories that are original, compelling, fresh and well-told.”

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