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November 4, 2010 3:57 AM
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Toolkit Case Study: How Indie Hit "Winter's Bone" Came to Be

A scene from Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone." [Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions]

Following its premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone" has gone on to claim the title as arguably the runaway indie success of the year, earning $6 million and counting at the box office, and massive fall awards buzz for the film and its star Jennifer Lawrence. In this case study learn how Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini did it.

The following profile of "Winter's Bone" reformatted for publication on indieWIRE‘s Filmmaker Toolkit, is one of the filmmaking case studies featured in the case study book handed out to participants of this week’s Film Independent Filmmaker Forum in Los Angeles.

Director: Debra Granik
Writers: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini
(based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell)
Producer: Alix Madigan and Anne Rosellini
Budget: About $2 million
Financing: Private Equity
Production: 25 days on location in the Ozarks from February to March of 2009
Shooting Format: RED camera
Screening Format: 35mm
World Premiere: 2010 Sundance Film Festival
Awards: Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (2010 Sundance Film Festival); C.I.C.A.E. Award (2010 Berlin International Film Festival)

Case Study for “Winter's Bone,” with information provided by the filmmakers and courtesy of Film Independent.

Development and Financing

Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik (collaborators on "Down to the Bone") both came upon the manuscript for "Winter’s Bone" in May of 2005 through their management company Anonymous Content. They both loved the novel, set in the poverty-stricken hills of the Ozarks, that tells of a teenage girl’s desperate search for her deadbeat father in order to save her family’s home from repossession. The book’s author Daniel Woodrell had already had a previous novel adapted for the screen: Ang Lee’s "Ride With the Devil."

The filmmakers ended up optioning the manuscript for a cost in the high-four to low-five figures.

In the summer of 2006, Rosellini and Granik delivered the first draft of the screenplay for "Winter’s Bone" to Alix Madigan, a producer at Anonymous Content. “It was a perfect draft. It was a beautiful script right off the bat,” said Madigan.

Despite the success of Granik’s "Down to the Bone," which had put actress Vera Farmiga on the map, the filmmakers still had a great deal of difficulty financing "Winter’s Bone." They had budgeted the film at $4 million, but the financiers they approached all said a version of the same thing: cast the movie and then we’ll talk. Madigan said that they initially tried to package the project in a version of the independent film model, attempting to attach name actors that would attract investors. Unfortunately, they could not attract a name actor at that point who would bring their project to that place.

During the financing process, Rosellini and Granik performed meticulous research into the Ozark Mountain community, where the story was set. They visited the Ozarks along with their Director of Photography Michael McDonough who took hundreds of photographs, and assembled an album of stills that captured the spirit of the region, so that investors and other potential crew were able to review them and clearly understand the story Rosellini and Granik wanted to tell. Rosellini said, “It was a very effective tool in getting people interested in the project.”

After getting passes from more than 25 potential financiers, the filmmakers finally were at an advanced level with one interested backer. While the relationship was extremely positive, the individual ended up pulling out and the filmmakers were once again left without financing. However, an equity financier through a contact of Rosellini’s and Granik’s stepped in and agreed to put up half of the film’s proposed budget, and give the filmmakers total creative control.

The investor saw the project as a mainstream film that could cross over—to him it was not just a dark indie, but featured a rich world that people would want to see.

At this point the filmmakers realized they were in a strong position and made the choice to slash the budget in half, and make the film for $2 million, with the single private equity investor. It was standard deal: once the investor recoups 100% of his investment, plus an agreed upon premium, the profits are then split 50:50 between him and the filmmakers.

The filmmakers felt strongly about casting an actress as close to the protagonist’s age (16) as possible, and “didn’t want to go into the Ozarks with the baggage of a known actress,” said Rosellini. During their early months of research into the Ozarks region they held casting calls for their lead actress. In fact they wanted as many of the cast as possible to be locals who were familiar with the culture and dialect of the Ozarks.

Casting Directors Paul Schnee and Kerry Barden were also casting the film; they ended up casting about six of the lead roles. For their lead, the filmmakers settled on an 18-year-old unknown actress, Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence had never carried a film, but she had the right tomboyish demeanor, and also had strong roots in Kentucky. She was the perfect fit.

The filmmakers cast a majority of the speaking roles (about 20 out of 26) from Christian and Taney Counties where the film was shot, about 45 minutes from Springfield, Missouri.

The film was shot over 25 days in February and March of 2009. Many of the key department heads were hired out of New York, as many of the local workforce in Missouri and Kansas were more used to working on commercials for higher rates. But many of the supporting crew members were locals.

Festival Preparation and Strategy

After production, the filmmakers returned to New York to cut the film, with the plan to submit to Sundance in the fall. In late September 2009 they submitted to Sundance a cut of the film that was pretty close to a final locked picture.

About two months later they learned that Winter’s Bone had been accepted.

In preparing for Sundance, the filmmakers hired Laura Kim as their publicist partly due to her strong relationships with key critics. She was hired for a flat, standard fee through the duration of Sundance, including the weeks leading up to the festival and the weeks after. Josh Braun of Submarine was brought on board as their producer’s rep for a standard percentage (undisclosed, but producer’s reps usually charge between 5% and 15%) with a cap on expenses and no up front fee.

On the hunt for a foreign sales agent, they were turned down seven times before Sundance and had to attend the festival without one.

Even though they had no star names to promote, "Winter’s Bone" was in competition, meaning that everyone would see the film. Laura Kim’s strategy was to keep the film under wraps and let audiences discover it themselves. Kim was hoping to garner great reviews and have the film stand out as a critics’ favorite.

"Winter’s Bone" premiered at the huge Eccles theater to a great audience response. Having received mixed reactions towards the film from producers’ reps and sales agents before Sundance, the filmmakers were relieved and pleasantly surprised to have it embraced by audiences during the festival.

Sale and Release

“Honestly, I don’t think there was a strategy regarding sales because I was told sales didn’t happen at Sundance anymore unless you had a comedy like Napoleon Dynamite,” said Rosellini. Eight months pregnant at the time, she did not attend the festival, but of course, buyers unexpectedly bid on the film.

After its premiere there was interest from distributors: some low-ball offers, and others that the filmmakers took more seriously. As the festival progressed Roadside Attractions, who came in very early with a passionate interest, was the one buyer the filmmakers took seriously.

On the second Friday, Roadside Attractions made an offer that would expire the following day at noon, a deadline that they felt was genuine. “Buyers have a certain amount of money to spend at a festival. If they’re not going to get your film, they’re going to try to buy another one,” said Madigan. “I think you have to take those things seriously.”

Already inclined towards Roadside Attractions, the filmmakers and Josh Braun negotiated with them at noon that Saturday, right before the Festival Awards show. Four hours later, another offer came in that nearly doubled Roadside’s offer. This was from a distributor that had showed mild interest before Sundance, but whose representatives had proved elusive and unwilling to meet during the festival.

Feeling conflicted, Rosellini, Granik and Madigan discussed the situation and called their investor. “Suddenly, at the last minute to get this offer when they had no time to actually meet with us… it just felt wrong to everybody,” said Rosellini. “If they can’t sit down with us face to face, what’s it going to be like to work with them?”

In the end, they went with their gut and signed with Roadside Attractions, feeling that their passion for the film was genuine and that they could have a fruitful working relationship with them in bringing the film out. For low six-figures, Roadside Attractions took all North American rights (including theatrical, VOD, and digital) for 15 years. They committed to spend $500K in P&A costs, with any expenses over this amount requiring approval from the filmmakers. Josh Braun finalized the deal with Roadside’s Howard Cohen and Eric D’Arbeloff.

Roadside Attraction’s strategy after Sundance included having the film play in about eight to 10 regional festivals in order to garner press and help with the subsequent theatrical run; these festivals included Chicago, Boston, Florida, San Francisco, and Seattle. They felt "Winter’s Bone" would benefit from an early summer release as counter-programming against the slew of summer blockbusters.

Roadside stressed the thriller theme of the film and cut a very effective trailer. “There was a great story and a universality of emotions underlying that story,” said Madigan.

The initial theatrical agreement included two cities – New York and Los Angeles – for opening weekend. Roadside promised 25 markets, opening in five and slowly expanding into smaller markets four to eight weeks into the run. However, due to the positive response from audiences and strong reviews in Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, and more, they decided to take advantage of the peaking national press buzz that they felt would never be available to them again. Within two weeks of opening in NY and LA, "Winter’s Bone" expanded to smaller markets to play on over 130 screens, often in cities that saw very few indie movies on their local theaters.

As of this writing (September 2009), the film is still going strong more than 16 weeks after its opening weekend in June, having already earned more than $6 million at the box office. It is still playing on over 100 screens.

The filmmakers feel that the success is not only due to the quality of the storytelling, but because Roadside foresaw the potential of the subject matter and its ability to reach viewers nationwide. Filmmaker Gregg Araki noted that he “hadn’t seen a world as unusual as this since the movie "Avatar."”

Roadside Attractions has also offered theatrical bonuses offered to the filmmakers once certain box office marks are met (given at $2, $4, and $6 million).

Foreign Sales

At Sundance, they also signed with Fortissimo Films as foreign sales company. The filmmakers had sent the film to Fortissimo prior to Sundance but had received no commitment from them. Every other international sales agent Rosellini and Madigan had approached had passed but Fortissimo who seemed to be waiting to see what the response was at Sundance.

In September, 2010, the film opened in the UK and did very well. Fortissimo has sold most of Europe and the filmmakers have already begun to see money back from these sales. They hope to continue to see more returns as foreign television and theatrical sales come in. "Winter’s Bone" also played at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Deauville American Film Festival.

The DVD was released on October 26, 2010 through Lionsgate.

The filmmakers are close to breaking even with the money spent on their U.S. theatrical release, partly due to the fact that they kept P&A costs down, and promoted the film through press interviews and great reviews.

Advice from the Filmmaker

“Bottom line advice: choose well whom you work with,” said Rosellini. “…You’re more conscientious about keeping things healthy and in a good space if you’re starting off there.”

Madigan added, “Anne and I went through this movie together and it was a joyful experience, but it had its moments. It’s great to be there with someone you respect and admire and have affection for.”

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1 Comment

  • Philippe Orlando | September 5, 2011 5:37 AMReply

    Basically we're missing the essential here. The two producers had contact with financiers. That's the key. If you don't have any contact with anybody who can fork out 2 million, you're going to waste your energy, to start, and your life to finish, trying to make a film that will go nowhere. I wish the case study would have been more explicit about this: Your job once you have located a script is to PERSONALLY know people with money. If you are missing this element, forget about it!
    I don't remember watching a movie in a theater near me that was made for less than that amount, 2 million. Sure once every 15 years somebody makes a movie for nothing and never make another one, by the way. But the rule is you will not succeed without money.