Rooney Mara, Nicholas Hoult To Topline Sci-Fi Romance 'The Discovery'
October 27, 2015
The writer-director duo behind The One I Love are re-teaming for the science fiction romance The Discovery, with Rooney Mara and Nicholas Hoult set to star. Directed by Charlie McDowell from a script he co-wrote with Justin Lader, the film is a love story set one year after the existence of the afterlife is scientifically verified. Hoult will play the son of the scientist who made the discovery, with Mara playing a woman whose life is tinged by a tragic past, with whom Hoult's character falls in love.
Verisimilitude's Alex Orlovsky will produce, along with James D. Stern of Endgame Entertainment. Orlovsky previously produced The Place Beyond The Pines, Blue Valentine, the Wolfpack and Half Nelson. Stern and Endgame's previous credits include Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects, Rian Johnson's Looper, Lone Scherfig's An Education, and Freeheld. The film will be financed jointly by Endgame Entertainment and Protagonist Pictures, and ICM Partners is handling the domestic rights. Julie Goldstein and Lucas Smith will oversee for Endgame, while Mike Goodridge, Dimitra Tsingou and Eddie Vaisman will do so for Protagonist.
The Discovery is the second feature film from McDowell and Lader, following The One I love. They're both repped by ICM Partners and MGMT Entertainment. Nicholas Hoult was last seen in Mad Max: Fury Road, will soon reprise the role of Henry McCoy AKA Beast in X-Men: Apocalypse, and will also be seen in Equals, and as JD Salinger in The Rye. He's currently in production on Fernando Coimbra's Sandcastle, and is repped by UTA and 42. Rooney Mara has Todd Haynes Cannes film Carol coming soon, and will be seen next year in The Secret Scripture, in Lion, and Blackbird, and she recently wrapped on the Terrence Malick's upcoming, still-untitled film. She s repped by WME and Management 360.
In ‘Freeheld,’ a Real-Life Fight for Civil Rights in New Jersey
September 23, 2015
“It’s a love story and a civil-rights story,” Julianne Moore says of her new film, “Freeheld,” whose dual elements go well beyond that. Fiction mingles with fact in the drama, based on an Oscar-winning short documentary also called “Freeheld.” Ms. Moore plays Laurel Hester, a veteran police detective in New Jersey. In 2005, when same-sex marriage was still on the horizon, she fought Ocean County officials for the right to make her legal domestic partner, Stacie Andree (played by Ellen Page), the beneficiary of her pension.
“It’s the ultimate moment when the personal becomes political,” Ms. Moore says. That Ms. Hester had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer creates a double-wallop on screen, as Ms. Moore’s character fights for equality even while she is dying.
In a coincidence of timing, “Freeheld” (opening Oct. 2) arrives in a social landscape altered by the Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality, a situation the filmmakers could not have foreseen. It is one in a cluster of movies with gay or transgender themes. The coming months will bring: “The Danish Girl,” with Eddie Redmayne as a transgender character; “Stonewall,” about the beginning of the gay-rights movement, and “Carol,” with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as a 1950s lesbian couple. “About Ray,” with Elle Fanning as a transgender teenager, will open next year. The films will play to audiences more conscious of those issues because of the Supreme Court ruling and Caitlyn Jenner’s visibility.
The feature version of “Freeheld” began with the 2007 documentary by Cynthia Wade, who filmed Ms. Hester in the last weeks of her life. Because New Jersey law left decisions about pensions up to the county, Ms. Hester and her supporters had to try to convince the officials, called freeholders, to change their position.
Ms. Page came onto the project early, as a producer and to play Ms. Andree, a mechanic nearly two decades younger than her partner. The film was especially personal because in 2014, not long before making the movie, Ms. Page came out as gay.
The screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, also wrote “Philadelphia,” which similarly puts tear-inducing emotions at the center of a plot about social equality. In both films, a terminally ill gay character (Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia”) fights for legal rights, supported by a faithful lover, family and friends. “My challenge as a dramatist was to tell a bigger story about their lives and love affair,” beyond the political fight captured in the documentary, Mr. Nyswaner says of his main characters. “They were funny together, and there were serious obstacles —the age difference, their different attitudes toward being out or not out.”
Director Peter Sollett says his goal was to get the audience to connect with the two main characters, even if they didn’t immediately recognize themselves in Laurel and Stacie. The film begins with Laurel on assignment with her police partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) and moves on to her meeting and romance with Stacie. With Laurel still closeted at work, they buy a house together and register as domestic partners shortly before Laurel is diagnosed with cancer. Steve Carell arrives later as another real-life character, Steven Goldstein, a boisterous but witty activist who wears a purple yarmulke with the name of his group, “Garden State Equality” written on it. Ms. Moore did extensive research for “Freeheld,” as she did for her Academy-Award-winning role as a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice” last year. “Laurel was so honorable, she believed in the justice system. I owe her as exact a representation as possible,” Ms. Moore says. She relied not only on the documentary but on conversations with people who knew Ms. Hester. “Stacie opened her home to me. I went down to Ocean County and sat in her living room, and she pulled out boxes of photographs and letters that Laurel had written. Dane took me through his whole history on the police force with her. So much of who Laurel was, was in her language. I loved her police lingo, that she used male and female instead of man and woman.”
Mr. Nyswaner says, “I had a ton of transcripts from the documentary, hours of interviews with Laurel and Dane and Stacie and Steven Goldstein. Where I could use their actual words I used them.” He took some dramatic license. In life, Mr. Wells left the police department years before Ms. Hester’s death, but on screen they are still partners.
Mr. Wells and others in Ms. Hester’s life were consulted on the production and can even be spotted in the movie. In a scene in which activists disrupt a meeting, “the real Steven Goldstein is seated behind Steve Carell, chanting and making a ruckus,” Mr. Sollett says.
“None of us could have predicted what happened this summer” on the Supreme Court, Mr. Nyswaner says. “I don’t think the gay rights struggle is over,” but the film may be perceived differently as a result of that change, he says. “Now it’s a little bit less of an issue movie and more of a love story.”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt Talks Meeting Edward Snowden: "He Believed it Was the Right Thing to Do"
September 18, 2015
Oliver Stone’s Edward Snowden biopic may have been pushed back to next year and subsequently out of this year's Oscar race but that hasn’t stopped star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Snowden, from talking about meeting the whistleblower.
"Certainly there was that note, that he very much would like to come home," Gordon-Levitt adds. "He doesn’t want to live in Russia at all."
Gordon-Levitt, who's also starring in Robert Zemeckis' The Walk, had a four-hour long conversation with the former government contractor for his research, a conversation that Snowden’s lawyers didn’t at first want the actor to admit had taken place. He was even advised not to record the meeting.
"I left knowing without a doubt that what [Snowden] did, he did because he believed it was the right thing to do, that he believed it would help the country he loves," Gordon-Levitt tells The Guardian.
"Now, as he would say, it’s not for him to say whether it was right or wrong. That’s really for people to decide on their own, and I would encourage anybody to decide that on their own," the actor adds. "I don’t want to be the actor guy who’s like, 'You should listen to me! What he did was right!' I don’t think that’s my place. Even though that is what I believe — that what he did was right."
Toronto Film Review: 'Freeheld'
September 14, 2015
It may be a sign of the sweeping changes that have occurred in the gay-rights arena that “Freeheld” — a fact-based drama about two New Jersey women who fought for due recognition of their domestic partnership in the mid-2000s — at times plays like a period piece, populated by cardboard bigots, flamboyant gay crusaders and other hoary relics of a less enlightened past. That may be cause for celebration, but it’s hardly a compliment. Despite a credible and moving love story driven by strong performances from Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, director Peter Sollett’s film is an oppressively worthy and self-satisfied inspirational vehicle that views its story primarily as a series of teachable moments, all but congratulating viewers for their moral and ideological superiority to roughly half the people onscreen. The Supreme Court’s recent landmark ruling in favor of marriage equality will lend the Oct. 2 Summit Entertainment some topical traction, and the film’s undeniably stirring moments will likely overwhelm lukewarm critical response where word of mouth is concerned.
Laurel Hester had spent 23 years as a detective with the Ocean County Police Department when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, at which point she formally requested that her pension benefits be extended to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree. A panel of five Republican county legislators, or freeholders, rejected her bid, but the couple fought back, their case made national headlines, and eventually the freeholders reversed their decision in January 2006 and set a crucial precedent in the same-sex marriage debate — all less than a month before Hester’s death at the age of 49. (The events were covered in Cynthia Wade’s Oscar-winning 2007 short documentary of the same title.) Coming off her Oscar-winning turn as an Alzheimer’s patient in “Still Alice,” Moore gets to waste away even more vividly onscreen as Laurel; the character’s final moments, which she performs with her head completely shaved, her face hidden by a hospital mask and her voice an unintelligible rasp, are genuinely stark and unsettling to behold.
All the more so, perhaps, because the screenplay by Ron Nyswaner (who ventured into similar territory with 1993’s “Philadelphia”) has already introduced us to an earlier, much healthier version of Laurel circa 2002 — a smart, tenacious and unswervingly loyal detective who’s often risked life and limb to get murderers and drug dealers off the streets of Jersey. Tough as she is, though, Laurel has never revealed her sexual orientation to her longtime partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), or indeed to any of the other officers on the force; she’s well aware how hard it already will be for her as a woman, let alone as an out lesbian, to realize her goal of making lieutenant. The need to maintain secrecy and exercise strict control over her personal life makes for some initially awkward dates with Stacie (Page), the cute and free-spirited 27-year old (19 years Laurel’s junior) whom she meets at a women’s volleyball game.
The attraction between Laurel and Stacie is immediate and sustained, and roughly a year later, the two have a dog, a new house and a registered domestic partnership. And so when Laurel receives her fateful diagnosis, she immediately files a request that, in the likely event of her imminent death, her pension will go to Stacie — not just as a gift to the woman she loves, but also because Stacie doesn’t earn enough as an auto mechanic (as we learn in one amusing sequence, she’s the fastest tire rotater in New Jersey) to cover their mortgage once Laurel is gone. But the freeholders, who pride themselves on their traditionalism and the irrefutable rightness of their decisions, refuse to grant Laurel’s request, unaware that their actions are about to make them a crucial focal point amid the growing tide of support for LGBT rights nationwide.
As she insists repeatedly throughout, Laurel simply wants the same courtesy that would be accorded a heterosexual colleague; she has no stake in the gay-marriage debate (“Equality, not marriage” is her mantra), and she certainly doesn’t consider herself an activist. But an activist is exactly what she is, says Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the founder of a group called Garden State Equality, who takes an interest in her case and knows exactly how to amplify it in the media — which he does by staging protests at freeholder meetings and turning the entire affair into a noisy piece of political theater. Proving himself to be an even more loyal and unexpected champion is Dane, who, though startled and initially hurt to learn that Laurel will never return his romantic interest, swiftly comes around to her side once the battle gets under way.
For its first hour or so, “Freeheld” engages well enough as a nicely observed and played romantic drama, marred only by a somewhat overly correct, on-the-nose approach that gets promptly exploded whenever Carell’s Goldstein steps into frame. A self-described “middle-class Jewish homosexual from New York,” he calls everyone “honey,” projects tons of diva-like attitude and carries on a one-way flirtation with Shannon’s very straight, very uncomfortable Dane. It’s a broad, over-the-top and, in the end, hopelessly misjudged performance that Carell unfortunately throws himself into completely.
Perhaps it was assumed there would be room for some ghastly comic relief in a movie that otherwise treats its LGBT characters with somber respect, including Staci, Laurel and another cop (Luke Grimes) keeping his sexuality under wraps. But Goldstein isn’t the only character here whose representation tilts toward stereotype. With the exception of Bryan Kelder (a sympathetic Josh Charles), the one principled dissenter on the board, the freeholders are dismissed as a fusty and clueless bunch; beyond a few cheap shots at their religious convictions, no effort is made to understand the precise nature of their opposition. But then, according to the simplistic formulations of “Freeheld,” opposition is something that routinely crumbles on cue: Hardly the least of the miracles on display here is the process by which Laurel’s fellow officers suddenly transform from a squad of sniggering homophobes into a dedicated 11th-hour support group. It’s all the more reason to appreciate the integrity of Shannon’s potent performance as a detective whose unswerving loyalty turns him into an improbable but highly effective LGBT ally.
That Hester had to fight from her deathbed explains why she sometimes feels like a secondary figure in her own story, creating a partial dramatic void that may explain why “Freeheld” seems to be toggling among three different and largely incongruous modes, from tacky culture-clash comedy to noisy community-room drama (shades of Nyswaner’s “Philadelphia” script) to grim terminal-illness weepie. It’s the latter register in which the movie feels most intimate and resonant, which can be chalked up entirely to its skillfully underplayed leads. Laurel and Stacie both hope to avoid the public spotlight and, quite unlike the film itself, never become strident in their demands, and the actresses embody them with the understanding that their quiet dignity confers more authority than a raised voice ever could.
Page, whose own coming-out story has served as one of the film’s primary talking/selling points, gives a sweetly assured, firmly grounded turn as the much younger but in some ways wiser and more experienced of the two lovers. Moore movingly presents a woman of great but not inhuman courage, someone whose very feminine beauty (“She’s so not like a lesbian,” a colleague remarks) has served to deflect any suspicions of what she’s had to struggle with. The actresses’ moving final scenes together provide a quietly chastening reminder that even a groundbreaking legal victory pales in comparison with a loved one’s untimely loss.
Moving firmly into grown-up prestige-drama territory following two appealingly youth-centric pictures (2008’s “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and 2005’s terrific “Raising Victor Vargas”), Sollett oversees an array of outstanding technical contributions including Maryse Alberti’s well-framed compositions; Jane Musky’s realistically lived-in sets (especially for Laurel and Stacie’s house); and a gentle, unobtrusive score by Hans Zimmer and Johnny Marr. Still, if “Freeheld” paints a pretty picture, it’s also an insufficiently ambiguous and faintly condescending one, projecting the sort of complacency that too often accompanies movies peering back at recent history from a more evolved perspective. It takes a hard-won milestone and makes it feel, dramatically speaking, like a foregone conclusion.
TIFF: 'Freeheld,' Adaptation of Oscar-Winning Doc Short, Sets Off Waterworks at Fest
September 14, 2015
In my nine visits to the Toronto International Film Festival, I can't remember seeing a movie with an audience as emotional as the one at Sunday night's Roy Thomson Hall world premiere of Freeheld, a drama based on the true story of a lesbian couple who, a decade ago, wound up at the center of a fight for equal rights when one of the women, a veteran cop, was diagnosed with terminal cancer but prevented from transferring her pension to her partner. (Their story was previously chronicled in a 2007 documentary short that won an Oscar.)
Even before the opening credits of the film — which was directed by Peter Sollett, stars Oscar winner Julianne Moore and Oscar nominee Ellen Page, and will be released by Summit on Oct. 2 — crying was audible throughout the venue; it never let up, and culminated in an enthusiastic ovation at the end of the film, not only for the movie and those who made it, but also some of the real people depicted in it who were in attendance.
This is not to say the film, which was written by Ron Nyswaner (an Oscar nominee for writing 1993'sPhiladelphia), is without its issues. It plays, at some points, like an episode of Law & Order, and at others like a Lifetime movie. Moreover, the 26-year age gap between Moore and Page makes it a little difficult to believe the two of them as a couple, even if there was a 19-year gap between their real-life counterparts. (The same issue has also been noted with Carol and, frankly, just about every movie Woody Allen has ever made.)
But at its core, this is an important story about a dark chapter in American history — and it has some very fine acting. Moore, who previously played a lesbian very memorably in 2010's The Kids Are All Right, has the meatiest scenes and gives one of the most devastatingly authentic portraits of a cancer patient I've ever seen. (I wouldn't rule her out as a possible best actress nominee for the second consecutive year.) Meanwhile, Page — who came out as a lesbian in 2014 and has since become an increasingly public advocate for the LGBT community — also pulls her weight (in what could be seen as a supporting role), while Michael Shannon and Steve Carell make the most of every scene in which they appear (in roles that are categorically supporting).
One can't help but wonder if the film would have packed a greater punch had it been released prior to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage across America back in June. Regardless, while same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, there are also still plenty of people like Kim Davis who would like — and will fight — to see things return to the way they used to be. And as long as there are people like that, there is a need for films like this.
Lesbian Love Blossoms in New Screen Dramas
September 11, 2015
TORONTO — Loud and proud, “Freeheld” wears its politics on its working-class sleeve. Subtle and sophisticated, “Carol” wraps its message in meticulous period costumes and clouds of cigarette smoke.
Two radically different films.
Yet both dramas, centering on older-younger lesbian romances, converge on points that are remarkably similar: Be true to yourself, and demand your place at the table.
The films — “Carol” pairs Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara; “Freeheld” stars Julianne Moore and Ellen Page — also try to take a cinematic step forward by depicting female same-sex relationships as fulfilling, romantic and, above all, natural.
“We haven’t had our ‘Brokeback Mountain’ moment yet, and these films could really give that to us,” said Trish Bendix, editor in chief ofAfterEllen.com, a lesbian-focused pop culture site. “These are unabashed love stories at their center, and we really haven’t seen that before, at least not in mainstream movies.”
In other words, “Freeheld” and “Carol” are much less outré than “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the French same-sex romance that received an NC-17 rating in 2013, and they exhibit none of the dysfunction on display in “The Kids Are All Right,” Lisa Cholodenko’s 2010 lesbian dramedy. “Freeheld” will have its premiere on Sunday here at theToronto International Film Festival.
Both movies are vying for Oscar attention just a few months after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. The Weinstein Company, which will release “Carol” on Nov. 20, believes it has a serious best picture contender. “Freeheld” may have an easier time in the acting races, but its producers are conceding nothing in an awards season that will have no shortage of L.G.B.T. hopefuls.
Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall,” which will debut in Toronto on Friday, dramatizes the beginnings of the gay rights movement. Eddie Redmayne plays the title role in “The Danish Girl,” about an artist who undergoes sex reassignment surgery, while Elle Fanning stars in “About Ray” as a transgender teenager. (“About Ray,” with Susan Sarandon playing a lesbian grandmother, will also debut here on Saturday.)
Meanwhile, supporters of Lily Tomlin, who plays an acerbic lesbian in “Grandma,” are already pushing her as an Oscar candidate. A short film, “She Knows,” about a love affair between two black women, has also generated chatter among tastemakers.
The confluence of lesbian-themed films does not appear to be entirely happenstance.
“There’s an element of ‘wait a second, these stories aren’t getting told,’ ” said Christine Vachon, a “Carol” producer. “The cultural pendulum also swings around, and, for whatever reason, certain movies seem more makable than they were.”
Mr. Emmerich and Roadside Attractions, which will release “Stonewall” in theaters on Sept. 25, have already stumbled over politics; they released a poorly received trailer that put a fictionalized man — young, good-looking and white — at the center of the 1969 riot at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, a multiracial event that had transgender activists at its core. In a Facebook post, Mr. Emmerich promised that the full film would be more inclusive; Roadside subsequently released a clip of a black transgender character.
So far, “Freeheld” and “Carol” have arrived with steadier footing.
Directed by Todd Haynes, “Carol” followed its rapturous response at theCannes Film Festival in the spring with a solid showing at the recent Telluride Film Festival. Both Ms. Mara and Ms. Blanchett have been tipped for Oscar nominations, as has the film’s meticulous 1950s costuming by Sandy Powell.
Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from “The Price of Salt,” a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith, “Carol” is about a wealthy woman (Ms. Blanchett) who falls head over heels for a young clerk (Ms. Mara) at a Manhattan department store. But when Ms. Blanchett’s Carol tries to divorce her husband, he attempts to use her sexuality — in a carefully cloaked way — to force her to stay in the marriage.
“Morality clause, for God’s sake!” Carol shouts, as she fights for custody of her daughter, Rindy. “There’s nothing moral about keeping Rindy from me.”
Ms. Vachon, noting that “Carol” had been in the works in different forms for more than a decade, said that Ms. Nagy’s version stood out as “something freeing and radical” in part because the two women at its center do not treat their attraction to each other as shameful or even particularly remarkable.
While “Carol,” reflecting its intolerant era, mostly takes place in shadows — or at least behind closed doors — “Freeheld,” set in 2005 and based on a true story, finds its characters arguing their politics on television and at community meetings.
Stacie Andree, a young auto mechanic played by Ms. Page, romantically pursues Laurel Hester (Ms. Moore), a tough New Jersey detective. After Laurel learns she has cancer, the women, prodded by a flamboyant gay activist (Steve Carell), fight for rights afforded them under a state domestic partnership law but denied by bigoted small-town politicians.
Speaking during an appearance in Toronto on Friday, Ms. Moore said the film represented political and legal triumphs of the last year. “I feel like the film is a celebration of how far we’ve come,” she said.
“Freeheld” got its start as a documentary short, which won an Academy Award in 2008. The story caught the attention of Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, then a producing team with a bent for issues-oriented films like “Erin Brockovich.”
They persuaded James Stern to finance the development of a script by Ron Nyswaner, whose screenplay for “Philadelphia,” a gay-themed plea for social justice, was nominated for an Oscar in 1994. Ms. Page, whose publicist and manager, Kelly Bush Novak, is also a producer, had already committed to playing Stacie.
“I had tears in my eyes,” Mr. Stern said of his reaction to the documentary.
He said he was hooked by the movie’s potential as a tool in what was then a building fight for gay marriage rights. “I am from a political environment,” he said. “This stuff is very important to me.”
Lionsgate, Mr. Stern acknowledged, is more inclined to position “Freeheld” as an audience-friendly tear-jerker. Lesbian dramas like “The Kids Are All Right” have not been particularly strong box office performers in the past. (Some lesbians had problems with “The Kids Are All Right,” Ms. Bendix noted, because one character — coincidentally played by Ms. Moore — has an affair with a man.)
But Mr. Stern said he is at one with any effort by Ms. Page and others to use the movie in a fight for hearts and minds.
“When you can do something to increase consciousness, and increase the conversation, and make people aware, you’ve hit the mother lode,” he said. “I’m all for that.”
In the Market for Change
September 8, 2015
When the Jennifer Aniston-toplined comedy “She’s Funny That Way” had a private Toronto buyers screening last fall, there was cause for celebration: Clarius Entertainment snapped up U.S. rights for a reported $4.5 million and a $20 million P&A commitment. The new distrib did pay a sizable guarantee, according to a source close to the deal. But as two follow-up deadlines passed without further payments, the film jumped to yet another new name in the game, Lionsgate’s shingle Lionsgate Premiere. The film’s Aug. 21 day-and-date bow grossed $51,000 in 27 theaters on opening weekend, and its VOD revenue — as is all too often the case — was not released.
This screwball comedy’s screwball journey to theaters is yet another reminder of the shaky state of the indie film acquisition biz as this year’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival begins. While a few 2014 buys like “Love and Mercy” yielded good returns, several of the past year’s highest-priced fest pickups — “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Dope” and “The D Train,” to name a few — are among this year’s B.O. underperformers.
“Many times, the movies that went for the most money at festivals have had the least success,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Tom Bernard, who made a reported low-seven-figure acquisition at last year’s fest of “Still Alice,” which won Julianne Moore an Oscar. “Then again, people spent lots of money for different reasons — some to draw people to their venue, like Netflix, and some to prove they have a lot of money to spend.”
While new players in the feature film space like Netflix, DirecTV, Starz and Amazon will likely be driving up bidding wars alongside newer distribs like Broad Green, Alchemy, A24, the Orchard, Bleecker Street and Saban Films, many wonder if there’s enough gold at the end of the rainbow to support it all.
“(Ancillary) revenues have not thus far been sufficient to offset declining DVD revenues,” says Sue Bruce Smith, who oversees financing and distribution for U.K.-based Film4 Prods. Even last year’s biggest TIFF deal — Paramount’s $12.5 million worldwide buy of Chris Rock’s “Top Five” (which grossed $25.5 million globally and $1.4 million on domestic DVD/Blu-ray) — calls the economics of the marketplace into question with the studio’s reported $20 million P&A commitment.
“SVOD license fees for producers and distributors are around 15%-40% less than what they were even three years ago, because more content is available, more companies like Cinedigm are launching their own SVOD/OTT channels, and carriers like Netflix and Amazon are producing their own content,” says one entertainment attorney. “Carriers no longer have to entice independent distributors with higher output deals like they did when the market was emerging.”
Still, outfits like EuropaCorp (which an insider says won’t be affected by its joint U.S. distribution venture with Relativity, RED, that is not part of the latter’s bankruptcy filings) will be there in force. “While our primary focus is original content, we continue to look for films we are passionate about to augment our Europa slate, and festivals are a natural place to do that,” says EuropaCorp CEO Christophe Lambert.
Yet many distribs are still offering pre-theatrical VOD, compressed windows or even bypassing theaters altogether, but after some initial cautious optimism, sellers are becoming more selective with these options. “There will be a shift in the number of films sold for day-and-date release, as we’ve seen an excessive number of films coming out on VOD having a hard time reaching audiences,” says UTA Independent Film Group head Rena Ronson. “What we notice, however, is that films catering to the older audiences with established stars seem to stand out in this crowded marketplace.”
Producers face a confusing array of questions: Sell a feature outright to Netflix? License it to Amazon for North America and get a release through a partner theatrical distributor? Bring a traditional cable outlet into the deal? Try their luck licensing it to a new multiplatform film outfit like the Orchard?
One of the major studios is even partnering —discreetly — with indie distrib Vertical Entertainment on several day-and-date releases a year. “If we do the VOD and theatrical, and 30 days later they do the DVD (and other ancillary), we’re able to maximize the marketing dollars,” says Vertical prexy Rich Goldberg.
It’s just one example of how distribs are experimenting with heretofore-unseen alliances. Saban Films and IFC are among the companies that have teamed with DirecTV on feature distribution deals. Senior director of digital and emerging markets Hanny Patel says they’ve just closed a deal with another studio, and that their pre-theatrical VOD deal with A24 will continue. “We’re adding another window in front of the theatrical, while giving our 20 million customers who may not have access to these films exclusive access,” she says. “The films have been performing, and it’s a nice bump for us on the business side.” But as with most VOD outlets, no revenue figures have been released, and while one of the success stories she cites — A24’s Jake Gyllenhaal-toplined “Enemy” — did a respectable $1 million in theaters, two of its recent big-name pickups — the Charlize Theron-toplined “Dark Places” (acquired for a reported $3 million) and the Michael Fassbender-led “Slow West” — have struggled to pass the $200,000 mark at the box office this year.
Saban Films prexy Bill Bromiley says he aims for buys in the $1 million-$3 million range in a “purely acquisitions-driven” model. One way he hopes to address the market’s challenging economics is by filling 75% of his slate with premium VOD/day-and-date releases, where “the P&Aa isn’t greater than the (minimum guarantee). Sometimes we’re dealing with a financier who says, ‘Get as much money as you can upfront,’ and unfortunately the movie suffers, because we have a limited amount of money that we can spend.” With conventional releases and partnerships with other distribs, he’s open to higher P&A. That’s the case with his U.S. pickup of the Tom Hanks-toplined “A Hologram for the King”: Saban is splitting all costs evenly with Lionsgate, with Roadside Attractions handling theatrical.
The Sony Music-owned, independently run music distrib and tech outfit the Orchard recently expanded into features with the hiring of senior VP of film & TV Paul Davidson. He points out their strong ancillary connections and digital “dashboard” allowing producers instant access to “how their movie is doing in theatrical or digital, or what we’re spending against the P&A from its first day in release.” Orchard’s reported low- to mid-seven-figure Sundance buy of “The Overnight” may not have paid off in big B.O. but “it was important for us to make a statement about how aggressive we wanted to be in the acquisitions market,” he says. It also laid the groundwork for his recent seven-film deal with the Duplass brothers.
Another distrib, Millennium Entertainment, expanded and rebranded itself as Alchemy this year. Partnerships with ARC Entertainment and companies it has bought “are part of our strategy to become the one-stop shop for direct deals everywhere, and the largest independent aggregator across all platforms,” says VP of acquisitions Jeff Deutchman. In addition to several prestige Cannes pickups, Alchemy had one of this year’s biggest day-and-date successes in theaters, the quirky Kristen Wiig comedy “Welcome to Me.” The 2014 TIFF title has grossed more than $2 million in all of its first-window platforms, including a $600,000 theatrical take. “What we’ve learned from doing deals on smaller films is to negotiate splits from different types of media that let you benefit as best you can from downstream revenues,” says its Bron Studios producer Aaron L. Gilbert. He adds that the film should see a bit more revenue from Alchemy’s recent sale of the film to Netflix.
This year, a wide range of 2015 acquisition titles — from the Indian drama “Parched” and the Emma Watson-toplined suspenser “Colonia” to the J.G. Ballard adaptation “High-Rise” and the Jonas Cuaron-helmed thriller “Desierto” — face the same choices.
The future of some potential new homes for them in Toronto is still up in the air. A few producers have expressed interest in the new traditional indie distrib reportedly being formed by Tom Quinn and Jason Janego, who recently departed the Weinstein Co.’s multiplatform distribution arm Radius-TWC. Even more seem excited by the new studio STX Entertainment’s possible activity in Toronto, but according to an insider, STX is focused on producing, marketing and distributing its own growing slate.
As for Clarius, the original buyer of “She’s Funny That Way” last year in Toronto, chairman William Sadleir offered his take on their ill-fated acquisition. “We are enormous fans of Peter Bogdanovich and greatly appreciated and admired ‘She’s Funny That Way,'” he said. “But as we continued to analyze the film and marketing assets, we agreed it was preferable for the filmmakers to find another home for the movie, and we are glad they found willing partners in Lionsgate Premiere.”
The acquisition world will keep turning, and producers are looking at ways to get ahead of the game. “On some films, we are in early discussions with distributors to share in the upfront risk for a greater share of the back end,” says Film4’s Bruce Smith, who, despite her ancillary concerns, still sees big potential upsides in the market. “We’re currently talking with Amazon about possibly co-financing a film, and the list of very viable U.S. equity options such as Annapurna, Waypoint Entertainment and Black Label Media is happily increasing.”
Endgame producer Jim Stern notes distribs’ increased willingness to board projects earlier (as Lionsgate did from 12 minutes of footage on his TIFF premiere “Freeheld”). He’s also shifted his budgets from about $30 million to under $10 million. “We analyze the risks and what we call the ‘salvage value'” he says, “which is: What can you get out of the film if it doesn’t work?”