While the topic of wealth inequality is a hot-button issue, the indie market place has blossomed as a new breed of producers — several are independently wealthy, all are smart, and savvy. They are making the kinds of mid-budget movies that Hollywood isn’t making anymore, self-financing their own projects and making an effort to fill the void created by the studios’ overall change in strategy to one that focuses on tentpoles.
Producers like Megan Ellison, Jeff Skoll, Gigi Pritzker and Teddy Schwarzman have lately been joined by new players like Monika Bacardi and Todd Courtney, with their own philosophy about filmmaking, as well as specific criteria about the kinds of projects they choose to develop and, ultimately, produce. Ellison is famed for working with strong filmmakers, and her track record over just the past five years includes collaborations with The Coen Brothers, Kathryn Bigelow, Spike Jonze, Wong Kar Wai, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell and Bennett Miller, and has earned three Oscar nominations for best picture.
Skoll’s Participant Media tends toward prestige movies with a message like The Help, Lincoln, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel, the upcoming Peter Berg pic Deepwater Horizon and documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth, where its message is louder. Schwarzman and his Black Bear Pictures shingle just earned its first Oscar nomination for producing The Imitation Game. His mission statement is pretty straightforward.
“Studios are primarily focused on franchises so Black Bear has been lucky enough to partner with some exceptionally talented writers and directors, making films in a streamlined, independent fashion that always puts character and story first,” he says. Pritzker believes in assembling a strong team around her Odd Lot Entertainment projects. She also puts an emphasis on character, especially those “who are often underdogs or struggling in some manner.” Characters like Maziar Bahari in Rosewood and Ender Wiggin in Ender’s Game.
“The story of Ender Wiggin was one of a boy coming of age and wrestling with his emerging sense of right and wrong in an authoritarian world,” Pritzker says. “While the character that Nicole Kidman played in (Odd Lot’s) ‘Rabbit Hole’ was struggling with her own profound sadness, she was also trying not to lose her mind after a tragedy while attempting to keep her marriage together.”
Bacardi might seem relatively new to the game, but she has already gotten involved in 16 projects, one of which, The Humbling, unspooled at Venice in 2014 and was distributed in the U.S. by Millennium Entertainment. Also on her Ambi Pictures slate is James Franco’s latest directing effort, In Dubious Battle, and Rupture, with Noomi Rapace. Bacardi looks for two main ingredients.
“I feel the script, and project as a whole, must lend itself to talented international actors who could bring the characters to life,” she says. Additionally, “I personally tend to gravitate towards scripts with strong female characters or stories that are not currently being told by Hollywood.”
Courtney is the newest player to join the game, and the fully financed Mammoth Entertainment is already firmly ensconced. Aside from being a co-financier of Beasts of No Nation, the thriller starring Idris Elba and directed by Cary Fukunaga that recently sold to Netflix for $12 million, the company has a pair of major projects in development: Phoenix Rising, an environmental thriller with Elba, and Framed with a script by Terence Winter.
“We’re very filmmaker-driven,” he says of his new company’s mission statement. “If there’s one thing we look for and value over anything else, talent included, it’s the filmmaker who is bringing the story off the page. We’re looking for great storytellers.” He also recognizes the role that he and the others are playing in the current climate, and pretty much nails it when he says, “There aren’t a lot of us doing this, making movies in the $5 million-$25 million range, so we have to do it right.”