Sundance 2013: 'Like Crazy' Producer Jonathan Schwartz on How to Master the Indie Game
This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Although indie filmmaking might be one of the least lucrative endeavors in showbiz, producers continue to search for a way to beat the odds by assembling features with the potential to turn a profit.
Jonathan Schwartz is one producer who has cracked the code, creating a business model that marries art house sensibility with profitability. The former ICM lawyer who has produced eight Sundance films in eight years, beginning with 2006's Wristcutters: A Love Story, boasts an impressive financial track record.
"Ninety-nine percent of independent films lose money, so it's a tough business," explains Schwartz, 43, who runs his Santa Monica-based Super Crispy Entertainment with the help of fellow producer Andrea Sperling. "But we've basically either broke even or made money on all of our films."
Schwartz, whose latest film, Breathe In, premieres Jan. 19 at Sundance, generally keeps budgets at less than $1 million and raises financing through a few key venues, such as Minnesota Vikings owners Zygi and Audrey Wilf, who backed 2012's Sundance entry Smashed. That film featured a breakout performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a married woman trying to get sober, earning her a nomination for a Spirit Award. "Both Zygi and Audrey have been very keen to support quality-driven projects," says Schwartz of his angel investors.
Smashed was a mildly lucrative venture; produced for mid-six figures, it sold to Sony Pictures Classics for $1 million. Schwartz made a tidier profit with the $250,000 Like Crazy, which Paramount acquired for $4 million during the 2011 festival. That Anton Yelchin-Felicity Jones movie nabbed the grand jury prize and eventually grossed $3.4 million.
One key to Schwartz's success is his ability to wrangle hot talent willing to work for scale. He secured Jennifer Lawrence for Like Crazy before she starred in The Hunger Games and her Oscar-nominated turn in Silver Linings Playbook. Back in 2007, he produced the Naomi Watts starrer Funny Games, directed by Michael Haneke, both of whom are nominated for this year's Academy Awards. And Lena Dunham wrote the screenplay for 2012's Schwartz-produced drama Nobody Walks.
Given his ties to such in-demand talent, Schwartz easily could move into the deeper end of the indie swimming pool, where budgets can rise into the $10 million-to-$20 million range. But that model relies on preselling foreign territories -- a proposition Schwartz finds too risky.
"We found a nice little path in the sense that we never have to say, 'OK, we threw $18 million at this movie, and now we've gotta plug in Bradley Cooper or else it's not gonna work,' " says Schwartz, whose Super Crispy has built a library of six films. The way he figures it, if you don't pay any one star more than $100,000, then you can avoid an escalating game of "What kind of salary is my co-star getting?"
"Sometimes you may have to fight a little longer or harder [to put together a quality cast]," he says. "You might not get Cate Blanchett, but you get people who want to work with you. It's safe to say that most of these people, including every member of the crew, could probably be working on a mayonnaise commercial, making three times as much money."