Category Archives: Independent Film

The Bail Out

No matter our behavior, the economy fluctuates from boom to bust on a fairly predicable basis. However, the severity of a bust is based in part on group (read: global market) psychology and bad, unregulated choices (don’t get me started on so-called “free market” thinking!).

Right now, the group think is pretty pessimistic and we’re in dire need of the equivalent of a global prescription for Prozac. A downturn is not a question at this point; only the extent of the damage and the timing of the recovery remain up for grabs.

The bail out measure before Congress will by no means prove to be a panacea. I keep hoping they will find a better way since the legislation – despite all the money – will not alter the landscape of losses or willingness to lend. However, it will remove a barrier to lending and mitigate some of the negative thinking. So, the sooner Congress works it out, the better for all of us.

I was recently assured by an elder statesman in the business that the industry will continue to flourish as it has in prior recessions and during the Great Depression since people continue to spend on entertainment as an escape from bad news. Peter Bart smugly approved in his column in Monday’s Variety:

Compared to the turmoil on Wall Street, Hollywood seems like an object lesson in prudent management. That’s why billions keep flowing into the movie business even when other industries are starved for capital.

OK, I know that’s really not the reason. Sucker money traditionally flows to Hollywood because investors want to meet girls, attend parties with movie stars and say they’re business partners with Steven Spielberg. Nonetheless, it’s still surprising to count the big bucks involved in the DreamWorks deal or in Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media or in Media Rights Capital’s portfolio at a time when the rest of the economy is locked in a liquidity crisis.

Suddenly, Hollywood’s managers seem downright austere compared with the crazies at Lehman Brothers. And movie-star salaries are pathetic relative to Wall Street payouts.

I’m not sure I agree since the entertainment business – like most businesses – requires access to credit to run. MGM is already struggling to service its existing debt and like the banks and other financial businesses, may be unrecognizable from its present form down the road.

Even before the current market crisis, Dave McNary wrote in last week’s Variety :

Start with plenty of labor unrest, add in the global credit crunch along with the consequences of too many movies in the market, and combine that with foreign distributors getting cold feet for anything but blockbuster Hollywood product.

“Any one of these factors would depress the business, so having all of them at once was something of a perfect storm,” notes Charles Heaphy, senior VP at City National Bank’s entertainment division. “This is like being in a rowboat while there’s a hurricane going on.”

With respect to startups, Jason Calacanis wrote:

It’s my believe [sic] that the economic downturn will be much worse than it is today, and that 50-80% of the venture-backed startups currently operating will shut down or go on life-support (i.e. 3-4 folks working on them) within the next 18 months.

Make a list of every Web 2.0 startup to raise an A or B round and cross 80% of them off the list, because they will not make it to their next round of funding or profitability.

Tough times like these will require media and entertainment companies as well as startups to rethink their strategies for investment and growth for the foreseeable future.

It all sounds really, really bad.

It’s not enough that it’s hard to finance movies or a good idea; contend with getting distribution or vacillating VC’s; now you’ll have to work that much harder to even find potential investment let alone actual investors.

But the news may not be all bad. Money abhors a vacuum. There’s a lot of money out there sitting on the sidelines and plenty of people looking for places to put it; some of it from the most unlikely of places.

I’ve spoken to personal money managers whose sole duty is to make at least 20% on client money in good times and bad. Some of this money previously invested in oil, gas and securities but with these markets in turmoil, these investors are now looking for new investment opportunities. If bank financing dries up, private equity (e.g., hedge funds) – already a big player in motion picture financing – will likely replace it. Moreover, I recently had several discussions at the Toronto Film Festival and elsewhere with several emerging market financiers who all viewed the current US economic situation as a unique investment opportunity.

Let’s hope their optimism is contagious.

Required Reading

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As part of my daily online read, I culled the following from the past week or so. Usually I post these links and any editorial to facebook. I am going to start posting the most significant ones – those that I think are required reading for reps (and our respective clients) – on a regular basis to dealfatigue. Please let me know what you think.

Scrabulous Facing Copyright Infringement Charges

Change in the Business Model at EA Games

In Tentative Deal, Directors Send Message To Screenwriters

Arts Council in England Taketh (and Giveth), Leaving Anger in Its Wake

Netflix lifts limits on seeing online movies Read this if you read anything today. This is where video (and TV…) are headed. Wondering if it’s possible to do a deal with Netflix and Apple directly as you can with music.

Which comes on the heels of . . .
Apple Bets on Online Movie Rentals

Oprah Winfrey getting her own TV network

TV studios cut more overall deals
Companies cite WGA strike as main cause

Steroids beyond sports
Celebrities now among those linked to drug shipments

American Library Association announces literary award winners

London Calling For Outsourced Writing

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With the WGA strike two weeks old tonight, the demand for quality writers (or near-acceptable substitutes) is getting acute.

The Guild only has jurisdiction in the US; making Canadian or UK writers a potential writing resource during the strike. In other words, Canadian and UK writers living and working in their respective countries should be able to write for the studios and networks without retribution. However, reps with writing clients overseas – myself included – are advising caution.

As far as the Guild is concerned, the less writing anywhere, in any media, the better negotiating leverage they have with the studios.The Guild’s Strike Rules threaten non-union scribes with denial of future Guild membership if they’re caught scab-writing for struck companies. The Writers Guild of Canada made it clear it would turn in any Canadian writers caught working for struck companies during the strike. Although UK resident writers could likewise write during the strike, there is mounting pressure for them to stand down as well. Could India be next?

Here in Los Angeles, rep confusion abounds. I’ve debated with several agents and lawyers over what constitutes permitted writing for Guild members and non-members during the strike. For instance, can a WGA member: work for a non-struck company? work on an Internet-based project? work in animation? go to meetings for the writer’s optioned property? Not really, it depends, maybe and probably not. Not exactly a bright line.

The WGA Strike Rules prohibit its members from working for “struck companies;” typically companies that are signatories to the now-expired Minimum Basic Agreement. The distinction between struck (signatory) companies and non struck, non-signatory companies is a fallacy since WGA members are prohibited from working for non signatory companies. Although the Guild encourages its members to contact them for clarity, anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise as the Guild has yet to return any of my clients’ calls.

In the days ahead, I suspect that reps, writers and producers will step up efforts to clarify the confusion. In the meantime, caveat scriptor.

Independent Bumps

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Recent observation: on two separate deals, different reps at different agencies asked for a $25K set up bonus if their writer-client’s projects were independently produced. A set up bonus or “studio bump” is often negotiated in a writer’s option/purchase agreement if the producer successfully sets the project up at a major studio. The bonus is often negotiated as an advance against the purchase price. Notwithstanding the ebb and flow of capital investment in independent pictures, financing projects at any budget level north of even $250K is always a test of a producer’s tenacity and access to resources. If this deal point develops into a trend, it will only be a testament to the rep’s negotiating ability; their client’s industry precedent; and the ignorance of the producer’s rep to the financing problems facing most independent producers. I rejected the reps’ requests in my negotiations for this very reason. The next time I represent a writer, things may be different.

Check out Jeff Garlin’s unusually frank interview with Elvis Mitchell on KCRW’s “The Treatment.” In addition to pushing his first picture as director, writer and star, “I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With,” Garlin speaks candidly about why it is OK to take lucrative roles on bad movies and the challenge of independent finance. On the latter, he laments the experience of meeting with a prospective investor at the Mondrian Hotel on the Sunset Strip. The investor brought along two hookers – they asked better questions than he did.

Lastly, the NY Times ran a piece by David Oshinsky about book publisher Alfred Knopf’s archive of reader’s reports (aka “coverage”) and rejection letters on such works as “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank (“a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions”) and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (it’s “impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.”). “Knopf wasn’t alone. ‘The Diary of a Young Girl,’ . . . would be rejected by 15 others before Doubleday published it in 1952. More than 30 million copies are currently in print, making it one of the best-selling books in history.” This should confirm what everyone already suspects: there’s no accounting for taste even among the taste makers. In other words, no one knows nuttin. Tenacity (see above) – not necessarily talent – over the long term is key.