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When an independent movie reaches the screen, it is often thanks to a host of people whose names never appear in the credits, but whose particular expertise is critical in bringing the project to fruition. What follows is a look at a handful of power players around the world who wield enormous influence behind the scenes.
The Insomniac: David Bergstein
Los Angeles-based entrepreneur David Bergstein goes to bed at 3 a.m. and typically sleeps only three hours a night. It’s easy to understand why. In the five years since Bergstein first got involved with the entertainment industry — lending $14 million to Elie Samaha’s Franchise Pictures — he has become one of the busiest moneymen to enter the industry.
First he gobbled up British sales company Capitol Films. Then he snapped up ThinkFilm and Image Entertainment. Now he’s using the three companies as the basis for a global business entirely oriented around the distribution of all forms of entertainment content, which he believes ultimately will be handled digitally. “If we look forward, our belief is that content will be delivered to users in an on-demand fashion,” he says. “Today that is not a workable business plan, but in 10 years it will be.”
For the time being, though, Bergstein says he is happy to distribute product any way he can, and he is willing to shell out significant sums of money to do it to the best of his ability. Through their firm, CT1, which acts as the parent company to the other assets, Bergstein and his silent partner, construction magnate Ron Tudor, will spend $400 million on making and acquiring movies this year with budgets ranging from $1 million-$70 million. “We are also buying libraries with any kind of content — from audio to TV to movies,” he says. “Currently, we own about 100,000 songs. We have a library in excess of 2,000 titles, and we are aggressively acquiring libraries all the time.”
The Translator: Ron Halpern
Paris-based executive Ron Halpern might well be the most prominent American expatriate in the French film business today, even if his cumbersome title — executive vp international production and remake development for Studio Canal — doesn’t exactly make that fact readily apparent. Working closely with Studio Canal vice chairman Frederic Sichler, Halpern oversees the French production and distribution company’s involvement in a slew of deals, including ongoing production pacts with British powerhouse Working Title and Joel Silver’s Dark Castle Entertainment.
A 10-year veteran of Studio Canal, Halpern is the man most responsible for the 10-12 non-French-language movies that the company acquires or co-produces annually, including such 2006 releases as “The Good Shepherd” and “Babel.” At the same time, Halpern travels to Hollywood as often as four times a year, drumming up interest in remake rights to Studio Canal’s 5,000-title international library.
Among the remakes he has set up with American companies are the planned 2009 New Line release “Escape From New York,” produced by Neil Moritz; the planned 2008 Universal release “Dambusters,” produced by Peter Jackson; and a new version of the classic Nicolas Roeg chiller “Don’t Look Now” that Paramount is developing. “Europeans have been burned by Hollywood, and there is a wariness of it,” Halpern admits. But, he says, that reticence has allowed him to function as a mediator, bridging the gap between the French and American industries. “I understand who the person on the other side of the phone is, and Studio Canal understands that putting an American in my job is helpful in dealing with Americans,” he says.
The Rock Climber: Francois Ivernel
London-based executive Francois Ivernel is a master rock climber, and he says his hobby has taught him “how to manage risk” — an invaluable tool for someone serving as executive vp for leading French production-distribution-exhibition entity Pathe. He’s risked money on some of the most interesting pictures to come out of Europe in recent years, helping make 2006’s “The Queen” a reality and funding 2004’s tiny French charmer “Les Choristes,” which was nominated for two Academy Awards.
At the same time, Ivernel, a graduate of France’s leading business school, Hautes Etudes Commerciales, has acquired high-profile movies for release in France and the United Kingdom, including 2005’s Oscar-winning “Crash” and several films directed by veteran Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar. “We produce eight to 12 films a year, budgeted from $10 million-$90 million,” he says, noting that Pathe helps defray its risk through a combination of presales and equity partnerships. In addition, the company makes eight to 10 acquisitions per year, among them, Fernando Meirelles’ upcoming drama “Blindness,” which it has bought for France and the U.K.
Ivernel supervises Pathe’s activities in both France and England, and he spends much of his time shuttling between his homes in Paris and in London. But he says he is unconcerned about Britain’s recent moves to cut back on tax breaks for foreign production — noting that he does not expect the new restrictions to significantly impact Pathe’s business. “It is a big (opportunity) for us,” he says. “There is a growing appetite in Europe for non-Hollywood films.”
The Moneyman: Wade Layton
New York-based financier Wade Layton tosses off terms like “mezzanine,” “senior debt” and “equity” the same way most people can recite their morning Starbucks order. That’s because Layton, managing director of CIT Group’s communication media entertainment practice, is the go-to guy when it comes to raising money for a slew of Hollywood ventures — from Joel Silver’s Dark Castle Entertainment to the new mini-major Overture Films. “Our primary business is lending money and arranging financing,” says Layton, whose publicly funded company has a balance sheet in excess of $80 billion.
To date, Layton has avoided the kinds of slate deals with the major Hollywood studios that other hedge funds and banks have favored, preferring instead to back individual producers he believes in. “What we like are deals that are relationship-driven,” he says. “You are not just showing up and giving somebody money. You are banking on track records.”
Layton gave Silver, who boasts one of the best track records in the business, a whopping $225 million to cover the negative costs of 15 pictures that Warner Bros. Pictures will release domestically. And he partnered with JPMorgan’s John Miller on the Overture Films deal to raise $225 million in senior debt — a form of loan that is repaid more quickly than an equity investment. Layton also has been involved with a host of other companies and reckons CIT has more than 15 major Hollywood “customers,” including MGM and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. “We’ve committed over $1 billion in the past 18 months alone,” he says.
The Evaluator: Steve Mangel
When an independent film gets made, it needs insurance in the form of a completion bond, which effectively guarantees that the movie’s budget and schedule are workable. International Film Guarantors Inc., headed up by Los Angeles-based president and COO Steve Mangel, has become a leader in the field since Mangel joined the company in 1998. Since then, he has issued guarantees for more than 250 movies, with budgets totaling some $5.5 billion. “A bank looks to the completion guarantor to provide safeguards,” he says. “We, in turn, look at the producer’s elements — the script, the production schedule, the individuals who are making the film, cash flow — and we make a determination: Are they all adequate, and can the producer make the film on that budget and schedule?
“We have to monitor the process until the film is completed and delivered,” he adds. “If things go wrong, IFG is responsible for the overages.”
To make sure things don’t go wrong, Mangel — a former lawyer and senior executive at Live Entertainment — works with a team of almost 20 experienced legal and physical production executives in Los Angeles and London. “They really have to know how producers go about making films,” he says, pointing out that a particular scene could cost $25,000 or $250,000 depending on how it’s shot and that his executives must understand, going in, what the filmmaker’s intention is.
The company typically works on 50-60 features per year, including the Weinstein Co.’s upcoming Woody Allen film, “Cassandra’s Dream,” and New Line’s upcoming drama “Love in the Time of Cholera.” “Anything can go wrong,” Mangel says. “Our job is to be aware of it.”
The Dealmaker: Harro von Have
United Artists’ planned 2008 World War II thriller, “Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise, might not be shooting on location in Germany right now if not for the efforts of attorney Harro von Have. One of that nation’s most influential lawyers, von Have helped orchestrate some of the financing for the film — which is only one of an array of feature projects he’s been involved with in the 16 years since he launched his entertainment law practice based in Hamburg.
Fluent in English and an expert on the various subsidies and tax breaks that have become critical to European and independent filmmaking, von Have today is among the best regarded of some 200 entertainment lawyers working in Germany. “When I started, there was no real entertainment law existing in Germany,” he says. “Since I had working experience in London and New York and knew about the famous entertainment lawyers and law firms there, I thought it would be a good idea to start this in Germany as well.”
In addition to representing major German talent like director Wim Wenders and actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, von Have handles the German interests of such U.S. companies as Warner Bros. He recently put together a deal that allowed Warners to collect €10 million (almost $14 million) in subsidies for filming the studio’s planned 2008 release “Speed Racer” there, before he orchestrated the local paperwork for “Valkyrie.” “We’ve gone back to putting deals together the way we did before,” he says, referring to the patchwork of contracts through which so many international pictures are financed. “It’s just given us more work to do.”
MORE INDEPENDENT PRODUCER COVERAGE:
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ROUNDTABLE: Indie producers discuss the issues they face.
SPOTLIGHT: Julian Schnabel explores mortality in ‘Diving Bell and the Butterfly’
COMMERCE CHAMBER: THR’s annual indie distributor report cards
BIG SCREENS: Landmark targets the art-house movie crowd
DISTRIBUTION: A new program is getting kudos from filmmakers
LOCATIONS: New facilities worldwide will rival the old guard.
FINANCE: Prominent dealmakers who find the funds
POWER PLAYERS: Influential executives impacting modern moviemaking
FILM 500: Studio boxoffice reports for 2006
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