Show me the money
In Hollywood, the deal is king. Deals are how scripts get optioned, how stars and directors get signed up, how films make it to production. A good one can mean financial security and a name above the title. A bad one can be as dispiriting, gruelling and financially ruinous as building your dream house on unmarked floodland. And in the current financial climate it’s getting tougher to make the right deal.
In these straitened times, George Clooney is allegedly settling for upfront fees of a paltry $2-million, whereas Megan Fox has walked away from Transformers 3 because her salary demands “cannot be met”. The most dramatic illustration of the difficulties Hollywood faces, though, comes in the plight of MGM—reportedly $3,7-billion in debt—which has postponed production of the 23rd Bond film, despite it being part of the second most successful franchise of all time, after Harry Potter. MGM’s much-anticipated co-production (with New Line) of The Hobbit is in similar disarray, with director Guillermo del Toro leaving the project last month because his contract had only been for three years and he didn’t fancy stretching it to infinity.
It isn’t all doom and gloom for big-time deal-makers, though—the Potter films come to an end later this year, after generating fortunes for all concerned. And it’s probable that the likes of James Cameron and Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan—who got $170-million to enjoy relative artistic control on the Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster Inception—aren’t feeling the chill wind either.
The trickiest deals for producers to hammer out are generally in the so-called “mid-price” market—lower-end Hollywood movies and aspirational indies seeking finance and distribution agreements. Ricky Gervais, who became his own producer with 2009’s The Invention of Lying, says: “The more you need to court different people to get their money, the more they try to interfere.”
The story behind Mike Figgis’s 1993 movie Mr Jones remains a salutary tale for aspirant deal-makers. Figgis still seethes at his treatment by producer Ray Stark: he says he was banned from the editing room and discovered people he thought were allies were also working for Stark. “Finally I read my contract myself and discovered that what Ray Stark had told me—that he had the final cut—was not true,” he says. When, in a meeting, he accused Stark (“Fuck you, Ray, you don’t have final cut!”), it transpired that the head of the studio, who did have the rights, had delegated them—to Stark.
Andrew Eaton, the producer behind A Mighty Heart and 24 Hour Party People, says the most exasperating element of deal-making in Hollywood is the prevailing culture of obstruction. “A lot of people in business affairs think the last bit of power they have is to stop something happening. They take up time going over these ridiculous what-ifs—what if the ceiling collapses, what if there’s a flood? It’s just willy waving.
“Similarly, agents don’t like it if you speak directly to talent. I remember a producer friend of mine had an agent come up to him and say, ‘You’ve shat in my mouth’. He meant the producer had talked to the client before he talked to the agent.”
Certainly, there are numerous stories of agents punishing producers for leaving the marked path. Stephen Woolley says he pitched the storyline of his 1986 thriller, Mona Lisa, to Sean Connery as they descended 28 floors in a lift. Connery loved the idea and told Woolley he wanted to do it.
“So I called his agent, CAA, one of the biggest agencies in the world, and the assistant said: ‘What do you mean Sean’s read it? You mean you didn’t come through us?’ The agent himself refused to take my calls. That was it—doomed.”
Even if you do get the star you want, reaching agreement on his or her dizzying array of demands can be wearisome. Apart from negotiating “back-end” top-ups on stars’ fees (anything from gross profit participation and image rights payments to awards bonuses), studios and producers have promised all sort of things to “quirky” actors, such as unlimited Montecristo cigars (Roger Moore), round-the-clock chauffeurs (Eddie Murphy) and a mysterious clause that Andrew Eaton was forced to offer—a guarantee to one actor that “no orifices” would be shown on screen.
Of course, no matter who you are, a deal can go wrong, as John Travolta found out when he took half his usual $20-million fee for 2000’s Battlefield Earth, in favour of a $15-million bonus if it took over $55-million. It didn’t.
But if you’re a wannabe producer whose hope has not entirely deserted, there are a few pointers that might come in handy.
One, tell the studio your script is “life-affirming”. Apparently DreamWorks supremo Jeffrey Katzenberg begins pitch meetings by asking: “How is this movie life-affirming?” (Meaning, Basic Instinct writer Joe Eszterhas has said, “How will this movie make $100-million?”). Two, don’t fall out with a powerful lawyer (some say it’s equally crucial not to upset any powerful Scientologists). Three, don’t leave a deal before it’s finished.
According to Woolley, whose $63-million grossing The Crying Game aided Miramax’s ascent to super-indie powerhouse status in the 1990s: “It’s all about timing, knowing the point when you’ve gone as far as you can with a distributor, where they are still in the contract zone and you can close the deal. You don’t want them to sleep on it.
“My ex-partner Nik Powell would go to people’s hotels and sleep outside their rooms until they came out for breakfast. That’s how you close a deal.”
For Gervais, the secret is simply to care more about your film than about the money. When he was preparing The Invention of Lying, he says: “I went into every meeting with one great strength—I was always ready to walk away. I don’t care if they say no and that makes me bulletproof. They don’t know what to say when I say I don’t care about the money. The room literally goes quiet.”
It’s all worked rather well so far for Gervais, who secured final edit on The Invention of Lying and had the film in the black before it was released, having kept the budget down and sold 50% of the film’s equity (retaining the other half for himself) to a studio for more than it cost to make.
But the new climate of filmmaking is hugely challenging for the mid-range filmmaker working with a budget between $5-million and $50-million. Pre-sales—the industry practice of selling distribution rights before a film is actually made—are drying up and the studios, fearful of the democratising properties of digital media, are pouring their energies into 3D, a process still beyond the financial realities of most non-studio filmmakers.
According to Colin Vaines, a former executive vice-president in the European arm of Miramax and now a producer, it’s increasingly important for a mid-budget film looking for finance to have an X factor—a newsworthy headline-generator putting your film above the movie-fan parapet.
For Vaines, currently producing Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut, Coriolanus, this comes in the shape of gossip-magnet Gerard Butler. For Eaton, it’s Liam Gallagher, with whom he is working on the Beatles biopic The Longest Cocktail Party.
Vaines’s next project? A time-spliced love story, directed by Madonna. Harvey Weinstein sure taught him a few things.—