Overture begins on right note with 'Mad Money'

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Overture opening: All movie studios have one thing in common in that no matter who they are they all start out by releasing their very first film.

In the case of Overture Films, the new production-distribution studio that's a subsidiary of Liberty Media Corp., its first release is the comedy "Mad Money," opening Friday at about 2,470 theaters. Directed by Callie Khouri (an Oscar and Golden Globe winner for writing "Thelma & Louise"), it was written by Glenn Gers ("Fracture") and produced by Jay Cohen, Frank DeMartini and James Acheson.

"Money" was executive produced by Avi Lerner, Boaz Davidson, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Robert Green and Wendy Kram. Starring are Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes and Ted Danson, Stephen Root, Christopher McDonald, Adam Rothenberg and Roger Cross.

Having enjoyed some good laughs seeing "Money" at its premiere last week, I was happy to be able to catch up with Overture CEO Chris McGurk to ask how the film became Overture's opening release and to focus with him on Overture's upcoming slate of product and plans for the future. McGurk was vice chairman of MGM prior to its sale in 2004 to a consortium led by Sony Corp. of America and several equity partners. Among McGurk's MGM colleagues at the time were Danny Rosett, who was president of the United Artists division and is now Overture's chief operating officer, and Peter Adee, who was MGM's marketing president and is now Overture's president of worldwide marketing, distribution and new media.

"It was sort of serendipity," McGurk replied when I asked how "Money" came to Overture, "because this was a project that we developed while we were at MGM with Callie Khouri and with Diane Keaton and Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes were attached. We were trying to put the movie together back in 2004 at MGM and what happened is we sold the company. We weren't green lighting anything at that point so the movie kind of got caught up unfortunately in the sale of the company (and then) we all left.

"We were in the very early stages of forming Overture last February and we had just announced what we were doing. There were five or six of us at the company. I was at an Academy Awards party -- I think it was the Vanity Fair party -- and I was walking along and I heard somebody say, 'Hey, Chris!' It was Callie Khouri with her boyfriend T-Bone Burnett (a two-time Grammy winner and an Oscar nominee for best original song for 'Cold Mountain'). She called me over and she said, 'Hey, remember that movie 'Mad Money?' Well, we've set it up now with the producer Avi Lerner at Nu Image and we're looking for a domestic distributor. Why don't you talk to Avi?' and I said, 'You know what? We know the material. We certainly know the cast. We know you, Callie. I'm going to call him tomorrow.' And in very short order we did a deal to take the domestic rights on the picture and release it here in the U.S. and Canada. We knew the material well so we were very confident that in Callie's hands she could take that material and turn it into a very fun and entertaining movie."

Last October, he added, "we went to our first research screening down in Orange County for 'Mad Money.' We put it in front of an audience and we were surprised in an extremely positive way. We knew the movie, if it was good, was going to play very, very well to a female audience, but when we played it in Orange County we found that not only did women love it -- it was over the charts for women and scored higher than 'Legally Blonde' -- but, also, males were well, well above average. Both an ethnic audience and a Caucasian audience loved the movie. The appeal of the movie was broad and pretty much across the board. The audience was cheering and the movie was still in pretty rough form. I hadn't seen anything like (that reaction) since maybe 'Barbershop' years ago and the test scores bore it out.

"We said, 'Hey, we've got something on our hands. We've got a movie that we know plays very, very well and audiences like it across the board.' Immediately we began saying, 'Hey, maybe we should release this movie?' We had three movies that were ready for release by the end of the year. We had 'Mad Money' and we had two smaller movies -- 'Sleepwalking,' which is our Charlize Theron specialty film (marking the directorial debut for visual effects supervisor/second unit director William Maher) that we had bought based on footage at Sundance last year, and 'The Visitor,' Tom McCarthy's movie (McCarthy directed the critically acclaimed 2003 drama 'The Station Agent' and won the BAFTA for writing its original screenplay) that we picked up at Toronto."

How did they choose what to go with first from those three very different projects? "We had a debate about what we had to do," McGurk continued. "We finally settled on releasing 'Mad Money' for a couple of reasons. We felt that if we could successfully launch a movie on more than 2,000 screens -- a commercial movie with broad appeal that we knew audiences loved -- that would send a statement to the exhibition community about what we were capable of in a way that releasing a small art film wouldn't right off the bat.

"And the other thing was that we looked at the marketplace for specialty films and art films in the fall. With 20-20 hindsight, we made the right decision. But at the time we were saying, 'Boy, it's a crowded market for all these serious films. They're stacking up on top of each other. Let's play it safe and release 'Mad Money' first right after the first of the year. And we thought (the holiday honoring) Martin Luther King was a great weekend. And (then) we'll take the other two movies to Sundance and take them out in the spring -- 'Sleepwalking' in March and 'The Visitor' in April -- in what we thought was a less-crowded marketplace for specialty films. We're very hopeful that when April rolls around we'll be able to say to the community and to exhibitors, 'Hey, look, we successfully launched a wide-release movie in 'Mad Money' and we also successfully handled a couple of small platform releases.' We will have demonstrated our capability across a broad spectrum. So that was our thinking."

With its broad playability, the film seems a particularly good choice for release over the MLK holiday weekend. "With Queen Latifah in our movie and Finesse Mitchell and Roger Cross, we know we've got talent in the movie that's very appealing to an urban audience," McGurk noted, "and we know the movie plays very, very well to an urban audience. So we felt that Martin Luther King weekend was the perfect date to release the movie. It's a competitive weekend. We've got 'Cloverfield' in the market (from Paramount) and then Fox pushed back the release of '27 Dresses' onto our date. At a very late date they moved it onto our date. Obviously, that movie is (purely a) young female movie. We're very hopeful that there's enough audience to go 'round on the weekend. We feel that we are much more of a couples movie, a family movie and a date movie than maybe the other movies are."

It also helps that Overture doesn't have a big financial exposure in "Money:" "We did a deal on the movie where our investment is well under $10 million for domestic rights on the picture. You know, we carefully constructed our company in a way that we've got a lot of downside protection because we've got complete distribution in all media on a worldwide basis and we've got a pay deal with our parent company. That's very important these days."

Liberty Media, Overture's parent company, McGurk explained, owns "the Starz-Encore channels so we have a long-term pay output deal with the Starz- Encore channels. Many of the independents out there right now don't have pay deals. It's formulaic based on boxoffice performance and that gives you a real source of income that really helps improve your financial model to a huge degree. Our video distribution is through Anchor Bay Entertainment, which is also owned 100% by Liberty Media. They're the best independent video distributor in the U.S.

"We've been very gratified that since we announced Overture we've worked with Anchor Bay to staff the company with a lot of very, very strong executives from a sales and marketing standpoint, many of whom worked with (McGurk in the past) at MGM, Disney and Universal. We're a hundred percent confident that they've got a great team of people in place who can handle our product in video. We think that for our category of film, which is movies with budgets under $30 million, Anchor Bay is going to do as good a job if not a better job than the majors would do for that category of product."

Asked why making films with budgets under $30 million is a good game plan, McGurk replied, "From an economic standpoint it makes a lot of sense because when you do movies for $20 million or $25 million and you've got quality domestic theatrical distribution, video and a pay deal, we can show you by looking at groups of movies that people have done in that category that the financial returns are much more predictable and it's almost impossible to get hurt on any one film. If you stick to that discipline, you're going to make money. It's just a matter of how much money. And the fact that you've got kind of a safe economic model in that range, more importantly enables you from a creative standpoint to do what we're attempting to do. By operating in that budget range we truly can set up a company where we'll say to a filmmaker, 'If you agree to the economic parameters of the movie (being made for) under $30 million and we love your material and we love the way you packaged it, because there is very little downside to us if the movie doesn't work, go ahead and make your movie. We'll let you make your movie.'

"That sounds very simple, but it's sort of in stark contrast to what's happening now at most of the major studios. A filmmaker first has got to get his movie made in an environment where he's competing against tens of other production deals on the lot and thousands of script submissions. So once they say yes to the movie it's still very difficult for a filmmaker to get the movie made the way he wants to make (it) because they've got scores of executives that they throw at each one of these projects to make sure the filmmaker is making something that looks like something that worked elsewhere because of the risk of the high budget film business that they're involved in."

In Overture's view, he pointed out, "at the end of the day that's the kind of process that leads to very formulaic filmmaking and is very frustrating to filmmakers. So we tried to set up our whole company from a distribution standpoint, financing standpoint and the economic model we operated in with the overall objective (being) to be able to create an environment where we could let filmmakers make their movies. A year ago we were only four people in an office in Century City and now we've got 70 people, two offices and eight pictures that are either done or in postproduction or are ready for 2008. We believe that model I just described is working in the marketplace and has attracted really quality filmmakers, talent and projects that we're really excited about. So we feel very good about where we are right now."

Overture's approach is to both make and acquire films: "The goal is to do eight to 12 pictures a year and probably when it all sorts out it'll be an even mix of productions and acquisitions. Of the seven films that we're talking about now -- we're going to go forward with another one that I can't mention (right now) -- three of them are pure productions that we're financing 100% -- 'Traitor' with Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce, 'Last Chance Harvey' with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson and 'Humboldt Park' with John Leguizamo. All three of those we're producing. On the other end of the spectrum were two pure art film acquisitions in 'Sleepwalking' that Charlize Theron produced (and stars in) with Dennis Hopper, and 'The Visitor,' which we bought at Toronto.

"And then kind of in the middle are two (films that) were acquisitions of domestic rights, but we bought them both before they went into production so we were able to work with the producer and the director on the script and help shape the casting of the movies. One is 'Mad Money' that we actually developed at MGM and the other is 'Righteous Kill' that Jon Avnet is directing with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, which is in post production right now. So you can see we're pretty much all across the spectrum of pure productions, pure acquisitions and then these things that are sort of in the middle."

Overture's plan, he pointed out, "was if we can build quality distribution, if we can say we're going to finance everything and then we say to a filmmaker 'We're going to let you make your movie,' we felt that those three factors if we're able to communicate them properly would lead to a higher quality of project, a higher quality of filmmaker and a higher quality of talent. And in those movies I just described, we think that's happened. We added it up the other day and on those six movies we have 39 Academy Award nominations and nine winners both in front of and behind the camera. We think that's pretty good for our first six or seven movies."

From the start, McGurk put strong production and marketing teams in place at Overture to let the creative community know what kind of studio it was going to be: "Danny Rosett, who's my kind of partner in crime here, who ran United Artists and I've known since I started at Disney back in the late '80s, is absolutely fantastic and it's great to have him on board. Having Danny here, who (headed UA when it) was kind of coming into its own as an artist friendly haven when we sold MGM, sent an amazing signal to the artistic community. We hired Peter Adee to run marketing and distribution for us, who had been with us at MGM, had been at Universal and I had met at Disney back in 1989 when I started there. To the filmmaking community, I think Peter is known as one of the most artist friendly -- if not the most artist friendly -- heads of marketing and distribution around.

"That sent another signal to the community about the kind of company that we wanted to be. Peter's a guy who is as comfortable marketing a movie like 'Lion King' or 'Die Another Day' as he is doing a movie like 'Barbershop' or 'Hotel Rwanda.' Filmmakers know that. They know that he's not the kind of head of marketing who only cares about the big blockbuster movies and that he'll give proper (attention) to every movie that he has. When we brought Peter on board, in addition to having Danny here with me, I think it really opened a lot of eyes in the creative community about (how) we were putting our money where our mouth was in terms of the type of people we had in place to shepherd and market movies the way filmmakers wanted them (to be)."

Looking back on the past year in which Overture's come together, McGurk told me, "A year ago it was just Danny Rosett and myself and some assistants in a little office in Century City and now we're ready to start releasing movies. We are really proud and we feel great about the movies we've been able to put together, but the thing that I think we're even more proud of is the management team that we've put together here. There's 70 people that we have on board.

"We feel great that we've been able to put together a collection of what we feel are not only the best people in the business in terms of experience and ability, but who are so motivated to make this company work and to give every movie that we release its proper care and feeding. More than anything, that's what we wanted to accomplish in our first year because the people are really the long term strategic advantage and asset of the company. I think that more than anything is what we're the most proud of right now."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Aug. 27, 1990's column: "As the Gulf crisis worsens and global stock markets plunge, it's an appropriate moment to assess Hollywood's chances for continued prosperity.

"Traditionally, the film business has thrived during periods of economic distress. Indeed, Hollywood is typically regarded as one of America's most recession-proof industries. That view is grounded in the belief that in tough times people need entertainment more than ever in order to relieve the pressure and forget, if only for a few hours, about their problems. While many types of amusement seem too expensive to people when war headlines are dominating the news and Wall Street is sinking, the nice thing about a trip to the movies is that it's comparatively affordable...

"The more than television news brings the Gulf conflict into American living rooms, the more people will feel a need to escape from that grim reality. Two hours in the darkness of a movie theater can help many people temporarily lose track of their troubles.

"Hollywood can also look forward to the likelihood of reduced marketing costs during a recession. As companies in other industries cut marketing expenditures in response to declining sales more media time should become available at lower prices for companies whose products are still in demand. Hollywood should be at or near the top of any such list.

"Home video and pay television are also likely to weather an economic storm well. If people are spending more time at home, they're likely to be spending more on home entertainment. Renting videos and subscribing to pay TV are relatively inexpensive forms of home entertainment that can take the place of more costly recreation. As a result, Hollywood should see a continuing appetite for films from these ancillary markets. The studios' home video divisions should do quite well during bad times.

"Of course, to make the best of these likely advantages Hollywood will have to put the right kind of escapist product in the marketplace. Comedies, fantasies, thrillers and sci-fi would seem to be the best bets. Action-adventure shoot-em-ups should have less big screen appeal if war in the Gulf is something people see too much of every day on television news."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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