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.
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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!’”
The drama of the story in “Arbitrage” may be universal, but when it comes to success during awards season, the focus inevitably must become more personal. Which is why having Gere as the lead provides Roadside with an enviable hook.
“What I see them doing that they didn’t with ‘Margin Call’ is they’re leading with their leading man, using Gere to lift the film more than they did with ‘Margin’ and its brilliant cast,” says one veteran awards consultant. “On ‘Margin Call,’ they led more with topic and timeliness.”
The implication is that hitting the zeitgeist bullseye may put a smaller film in more viewers’ queues, but it’s the personal connection to the talent that often pushes a good film over into awards territory. “Winter’s Bone,” another Roadside release, rode the discovery of Jennifer Lawrence into Oscar nods not just for her but also for John Hawkes, the adapted screenplay and the film in 2010 (plus seven Spirit noms).
For as long as he’s been working, Gere has never been nominated by the Academy, while the foreign press has attempted to reward him every 10 years or so — they put him up for best performance by an actor in 1982 (“An Officer and a Gentleman”), 1990 (“Pretty Woman”) and 2002 (“Chicago”), when he finally won. Since it’s now 2012, he’s come due again. (Gere was part of the ensemble cast that earned the Spirits’ Robert Altman Award in 2007 for “I’m Not There.”) He’s a natural fit as a (mostly) undecorated veteran who has earned the respect of the industry for his career as a whole, though unlike Al Pacino and Paul Newman he doesn’t have a string of nominations, from the Academy at least, that he’s building on. But recognition for Gere shines a bright light on other aspects of the film.
So there was Gere receiving a career achievement award at the Hollywood Film Awards a few weeks ago, and he’s already been part of several event Q&As with his co-stars and Jarecki, with more guild events to come. The filmmakers have been promoting the film internationally, as well, in Abu Dhabi, Zurich and Spain, for instance, which should please the foreign press. But this is a part of the process that Jarecki, for one, tries not to dwell on.
“I really try to stay somewhat divorced from the ‘strategy,’” says Jarecki. “It’s not good to campaign against your fellow artists for what you hope is a piece of art. It’s not good for the soul. But everybody can get caught up. These films are like our children, we want them to do well, we want people to see them. You work years and years on these things, I guess this is the moment to have some parties. I try for sanity purposes not to scheme too much, and rather to enjoy the convivial party atmosphere. Whether it’s manufactured or not, it’s still a great opportunity to celebrate filmmaking.”
As it happens, Jarecki could be sharing stage space with older brother Eugene, whose drug-war documentary “The House I Live In” has been drawing strong notices and key celebrity support (third brother Andrew directed “All Good Things” and the Oscar-nominated 2003 doc “Capturing the Friedmans”). Either way, Jarecki, who claims that “Arbitrage” is already profitable, knows that any kind of attention that the dog-and-pony show can bring to an independent film is extremely valuable.
“Audiences now are very tough because there’s so much distraction,” he says. “It’s important to get as much help as you can in focusing attention on the movie. These things do matter – the Independent Spirit Awards, Sundance, the Academy, Globes. We’re not dying without it. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a great extra push for a film that really started as a little film and stayed an independent film 100% and is a really nice showcase for a lot of talent old and young.”
“It’s a great time to be a filmmaker,” he adds. “I want to keep doing these types of films that are independent in spirit. We’re in a unique time where, if you have a well-known cast that is willing to work at a discount — not even a huge discount, but a discount — you can go and, without a studio, cobble a film together.”