It’s now a fairly common mantra that you’d be a fool to put up all of your own personal money into a feature film. By all means invest, but share the risk, or throw a few quid at Kickstarter.
Paying for the bulk of the negative/hard drive yourself, and leaving your own assets exposed? Utter lunacy.
Not that anyone told this lot…
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
Paid for by: Mel Gibson
For some time, Mel Gibson had, alongside his acting roles, been heavily invested in his production company, Icon. As such, he had two significant ways to earn money, and he needed both of them when it came to making The Passion Of The Christ.
This is the kind of film that studios run a mile from. All the dialogue was in old languages, and thus the film would be subtitled. Gibson would direct, and not star (remember this being a point when he was one of the biggest film stars on the planet). Plus it was to be a brutal, unflinching story of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s life, and an extremely violent telling of the story.
Gibson shot the film in Italy, but it still cost $30m to make, on top of around $15m to market. Gibson funded this, partly through Icon, and partly through his own money. It was a substantial investment in a seemingly uncommercial venture.
Even when it came to distribution, Gibson didn’t have a studio involved, in the US hooking up with the small Newmarket Films to put the movie out. But then The Passion Of The Christ became a US box office phenomenon. It took $370m in the US, adding $241m overseas, and that was before home markets kicked in. Gibson became an extremely rich man.
He continued to self fund films to a degree too, stumping up the funds for his next directorial venture, the underappreciated Apocalypto. Furthermore, he put money into Kill The Gringo/How I Spent My Summer Vacation to get the film made.
MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN
Paid for by: George Harrison and Denis O’Brien
Now this one’s a story and a half. Originally, EMI – at the time the biggest investor in British cinema – was set to pay the $2m production budget of Monty Python’s now classic Life Of Brian. Despite originally saying it would cover the costs, the company got cold feet at the last minute, when them EMI boss Bernard Delfont finally read the script. He pulled the plug with the Pythons on the eve of production, and Brian faced a bleak future.
As Robert Sellers’ excellent book on the company Handmade Films charts, the Pythons then furiously scrambled to try and raise the money, and it was Eric Idle who struck gold. Recalling an earlier conversation he’d had with former Beatle George Harrison, he got back in touch with him in the States, and Harrison promptly agreed to pay for the whole film.
As Sellers notes, Harrison was gleefully naive about film production, bringing in Denis O’Brien to help sort the financing out. And this wasn’t just a rich person digging into their bank account. Harrison took out loans to raise the money. Life Of Brian‘s director Terry Jones subsequently admitted that he had no idea that Harrison had risked so much to make the film, and the shoot would have been far more fraught had he had that knowledge at the back of his mind.
Thanks to savvy marketing, and a clever roll-out, Life Of Brian would go on to be a huge hit, and make Harrison and O’Brien an awful lot of money. As such, the company they set up to channel Life Of Brian through – Handmade Films – would go on to, for a short time, be a firebrand for the British film industry.
EMI, incidentally, would profit through its cinema chain. But when one of the Life Of Brian team shared a flight with Bernard Delfont, they just happened to be reading a trade report of how successful Life Of Brian had been. The point was duly made, although Delfont has said that he never regretted the decision.
IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER
Paid for by: Kenneth Branagh
After the meteoric rise of Kenneth Branagh’s directorial film career (snagging an Oscar nomination for his debut feature, Henry V), it hit something of a bump with the commercial disappointment that was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Expecting to build on the success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Branagh was picked by Francis Ford Coppola to steer Frankenstein back to the big screen, with the mooted idea at the time being for a series of classic horror adaptations.
Branagh thus decided to go back to basics for his next film, the hugely underappreciated comedy In The Bleak Midwinter (released as A Midwinter’s Tale in the US). We wrote about the film in more detail here.
This was a project funded out of Branagh’s own pocket, written for and starring his close circle of acting friends. Richard Briers gives arguably his best big screen comedy performance in the movie.
As Branagh told us in an interview earlier in the year, “It was very personal. Personal to the point of having paid for it, and it was one of life’s great pleasures to sell it for a bit more than you paid. And at the cast and crew screening, as everybody came out, giving everybody a cheque”. He added that, “You’ve never seen a more surprised woman than Joan Collins, walking out of the back of one of the smaller cinemas in Leicester Square, and we were sitting there like people with banknotes in a brown envelope”.
Branagh also said that “I would like to make that kind of film again, and I suspect I will”. Hope so.
Paid for by: Kevin Smith
There are many stories of now-successful filmmakers who put themselves pretty much entirely on the line to get a film made, and Kevin Smith’s is one of the most endearing. Having watched Richard Linklater’s Slacker, a young Smith realised that he wanted a stab at filmmaking too. With the script for Clerks in place, he just needed to find a way to pay for it all.
In short, he gambled everything. To cover the $27,500 budget, Smith took out a bunch of credit cards, and maxed out their respective limits. He sold a large chunk of his comic book collection. He used some leftover insurance money, dipped into his college education fund, and basically gathered up every coin that had dropped down the back of the metaphorical sofa.
That bought him three weeks of night shooting in black and white, in which time he’d work in the Quick Stop convenience store during the day, and then film at night. Sleep was not high on Smith’s agenda, and even now, he tends to edit his films into the night after a day of shooting (at the wrap party for Red State, he was able to show the cast an assembled cut of the completed movie, with end credits).
The gamble paid off. Miramax snapped the film up, put Smith on the road to sell the film, and it had made a profit by the time it left cinemas. On DVD, and subsequently Blu-ray, Clerks found a sizeable audience, eventually leading to a sequel with a very good donkey joke in it. Clerks III is currently on the drawing board, and, after a dabbling with film studios, Smith is back to independently seeking finance for his movies.
Paid for by: Christopher Nolan
Here’s another tale of a filmmaker willing to gamble everything to finance their first picture. The history of cinema will be forever grateful he did.
Christopher Nolan wrote and directed Following, a London-set drama that was deliberately put together to be as economical as possible. In fact, so frugal was Nolan that the finished feature would cost just $6,000 for the negative. Featuring a non-linear narrative approach that he would deploy again in his major breakthrough movie, Memento, the only problem with Following was that Nolan still needed to find that $6,000 in the first place.
The solution? He paid for it himself. Nolan was directing corporate videos at the time, and he would take the money he earned from those, and spend his weekends putting Following together. The physical film stock would go on to be the production’s major outlay.
Following went on to win several awards, and paved the way for Nolan not to have to make corporate videos anymore.
Paid for by: Stanley Kubrick’s rich-ish uncle
Stanley Kubrick’s second movie as director, Killer’s Kiss, rarely gets much of a mention, and in truth, the-then 26-year-old was still finding his feet. Having been unhappy with his debut feature, Fear And Desire, Kubrick managed to get the funding to make his second thanks to the benevolence of a family member. Kubrick’s uncle happened to own a New York drug store, and evidently one that was doing rather well. As such, Kubrick borrowed the $40,000 needed to make Killer’s Kiss from his uncle.
Once completed, United Artists insisted on a different ending before it would put the movie out. As Greg Merritt notes in his book Celluloid Mavericks, UA paid $100,000 for the rights to the movie, recutting the ending of the film against Kubrick’s wishes. However, United Artists also stumped up, as part of the deal, $100,000 for Kubrick to make his next feature, The Killing.
DEAD MAN RUNNING
Paid for by: Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole
British gangster movie Dead Man Running didn’t make too much of a splash when it was released in 2009, opening to stinky reviews, and the box office whimper you’d generally expect from a Danny Dyer movie. That said, there wasn’t just Dyer in the cast. 50 Cent, Brenda Blethyn and the mighty Alan Ford were also on board. Furthermore, audience reaction was more pleasant than the critical response.
The film reportedly cost a few million pounds to make, and a sizeable chunk of that investment came from footballers Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole, who both served as executive producers on the picture. Ferdinand reportedly got involved with the condition that a dozen recruits from his own Live The Dream Foundation were given jobs on the movie. Thus, a dozen youngsters, in their late teens or early 20s, served as runners. You have to say that’s one fine gesture, and much to Ferdinand’s credit.
The box office receipts weren’t great, however, with the film earning just over £400,000 at the UK box office, and not breaking even. To date, it’s the last film venture that either footballer has invested in.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
Paid for by: George Lucas
When Star Wars hit big, George Lucas finally got to experience the kind of independence that long-time friend Francis Ford Coppola had been fighting for through his American Zoetrope production company. However, Lucas had the benefit of a huge hit on his hands when he took the road to outright independence, wisely negotiating and getting the merchandising rights to the Star Wars empire.
As such, when it came time to make The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas no longer was beholden to a movie studio. And he made the bold choice to fund the entire production fee himself. The cost of the film was a cool $33m. Now, that’d feel closer to $100m.
This went against no shortage of advice, and also, Lucas didn’t actually have that kind of cash lying around. Whilst he was making a lot of money from A New Hope, actually having it available in liquid form to spend was another matter altogether.
As such, to pay for The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas very much put his future on the line. He took some of his Star Wars earnings, and then took out loans to cover the rest.
History would prove this a wise investment of course, but it’s still often overlooked just what Lucas was gambling on here, at a time when sequels were nowhere near as prevalent or fondly regarded. As it would turn out, he made his money back in a matter of months, and the profits continue to pour in. Thus, as much as Lucas has been chastised in recent times for maximising his earnings from Star Wars, at one stage, he was staring down the barrel of losing everything.
Lucas has since invested heavily in movie production through his businesses, for a long time making him arguably the biggest independent investor in major films. For instance, Red Tails wouldn’t have been made had he not put nearly $100m into filming and marketing it.
PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE
Paid for by: Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness
The posters for Lee Daniels’ multi-Oscar nominated adaptation of Push proudly boasted the names of executive producers Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey. But the two who put the money in to make it happen were actually Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness. They stumped up $8m of their own cash – the lion’s share of the film’s budget – to get it made.
As Siegel-Magness told CNN at the time, “It’s hardly ever that a producer puts their money where their mouth is. Usually they will take a project for a fee”. CNN asked her “given the subject matter of this film – a morbidly obese, abused young black woman who dreams of a better life – how risky was it to make this movie?”. Her response? “Out of one to ten, with ten being the most risky, it was a ten”.
Siegel-Magness and Magness channelled the project through their Smokewood Entertainment banner, and continue to produce movies. The eventual profits from Precious can’t have hurt there.
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