One of the pleasant surprises of the 2011 awards season was the box office and critical success of “Margin Call,” newcomer J.C. Chandor’s look at a Wall Street firm crumbling under its own mendacity. Benefiting from a high-profile ensemble cast, a noteworthy release plan and a timely premise, the film scored a surprising Oscar nomination for Chandor’s original screenplay plus a handful of Independent Spirit noms and a win for best first feature.
Now comes first-time writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, whose financial thriller “Arbitrage” has been following a similarly stealth course. With a cast that includes Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling and Tim Roth, the movie builds a moral quandary around Gere's old-style Master of the Universe, who is equal parts duplicity and charm in his professional and personal lives.
Following a pattern similar to that of “Margin Call,” Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate acquired “Arbitrage” after its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival (for about $2 million) and teed it up for a fall theatrical release. Chandor’s film, released in October 2011, prompted several news reports (including a few written by me) about its successful theatrical-VOD hybrid release, which resulted in $5 million-plus in U.S. theaters, $10 million-plus overseas and another $6 million or so from VOD.
While it hasn’t appeared to attain as high a profile, “Arbitrage” has already surpassed this at the box office. With a budget of $13 million, including some of Jarecki’s own money from a screenplay sale, the film has grossed more than $7 million domestically and $10 million-plus overseas, with it yet to open in some 65% of the major global markets since its Sept. 14 release. Then there are the VOD numbers, which Roadside has not made public but which could easily match the film's U.S. take ("Arbitrage" sat atop the iTunes chart for more than a week).
“I literally thought we were making a movie that was going to play at the old Sunset 5 in a one-week qualifying run,” says the 33-year-old Jarecki, who admits that the original goal was to make “Arbitrage” for $250,000 until Gere became attached. “So the idea that 5 or 10 million people would watch it is very surprising to me.”
Jarecki had seen the film made from his previous script, an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' “The Informers,” get dumped in 2009, so he turned his attention to an original screenplay set in an environment he knew well: the world of Wall Street finance, where both his parents had worked as commodities traders. “They say, ‘Write what you know,’” says Jarecki. “Some of my earliest memories, at six years old, would be going to see my mom in the World Trade Center where she had her office, and she was telling me what a swap was. That was in the blood.”
Later, he raised venture capital to start his own computer company, and he recognized the inherent drama of the milieu. “It’s like a Shakespearean stage: you have hubris, big money, big egos — it’s all happening,” he says. “And then also, with what we saw with the financial crisis, where trillions of dollars in value was lost overnight, it seemed like something to get into.”
So Gere’s Robert Miller became an amalgam of some of the dastardly hedge fund managers blighting the news throughout 2009 and 2010, though Jarecki admits that Gere brought a whole lot of seductive charm to a character that was “more black-box, non-personable, math genius” on the page. That viewers associate Miller with Bernie Madoff and Jamie Simons is natural, but Jarecki sees the character’s life and dilemma as more universal.
“Rich or poor, no matter what you’re doing, everybody’s facing some type of ethical dilemma constantly — every time you fill out your tax return, every time you tell your boyfriend or girlfriend your whereabouts. We’re put in questionable moral positions from time to time, and it’s up to us to decide how we want to play it, and what we’ll live with and what we won’t. We all can get carried away with ourselves. I can even see it in myself now. A year ago no one would talk to me in this business. Now, I get an offer a week to do something. You could easily lose your mind and be like, ‘It’s because I’m so great—what a film genius!’”