As the major studios focus on big-budget FX and brand-name tentpoles, and micro-indies spread like kudzu, the middle ranks of movies are being funded and produced outside the studio system. This is good and bad.
On the positive side you get movies like the ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell's sprawling multi-period "Cloud Atlas," which was unaffordable at $170 million when Warner Bros. budgeted it–and passed. But the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer raised money overseas and shot it for $101 million with a discounted Tom Hanks (who even gave up his usual back end). The studio bought all North American rights for about $20 million, and the movie got made the way the Wachowskis and Tykwer wanted it on foreign pre-sales. And the finished 2 hours and 44-minute movie, which Warners' Jeff Robinov has approved even though it exceeded the contractual two and half hours, screened Tuesday at Cannes for four remaining territories, including the U.K., France, Japan and Spain.
Producer Grant Hill told me at the DDA party that Warners plans to open the movie stateside December 6 (although the date could move) and will screen it at Berlin. That makes it Oscar eligible.
Also screening early for Cannes buyers, in advance of its Festival unveiling Saturday May 26, was Jeff Nichols' "Mud," which stars Matthew McConnaughey and yielded mixed response from North American buyers. Some liked it, some didn't. If seller FilmNation had wanted critics to see it, they would have allowed them into the screening. Many media will leave before the fest press screening. FilmNation and others are also screening completed films for buyers including "Looper" and "Judge Dredd."
On the other end of the foreign financing spectrum are the constant stream of genre actioners starring macho movie icons of varying quality. Freedom Films, for one, closed a substantial domestic P&A financing arrangement for the CG 3-D action thriller “Thunder Run,” starring Gerard Butler, Sam Worthington and Matthew McConaughey. Freedom Films and CEO Fred Malmburg’s company, Paradox Entertainment will co-finance the film. Ashok Amritraj’s Hyde Park International will handle sales at Cannes.
VFX production has started, with principal photography set to begin this summer. Simon West directs the film based on the nonfiction book, “Thunder Run – The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent David Zucchino. Robert Port ("Twin Towers") and Ken Nolan (“Black Hawk Down") will adapt the book.
"Thunder Run" details the dangerous and bloody capture of Baghdad by American Forces at the onset of the Iraq War.
On the one hand, this foreign sales system allows for innovation and ambition. On the other–it depends on who is at the tiller. Will "Thunder Road" be formula action fare or something better? It's hard to tell.