It looks safe to go back in film finance waters
Just when financing films was looking too scary, it may be safe to go back into Hollywood. During the boom years of 2004-07, hedge fund managers, private equity barons and bankers splashed out some $15 billion on movies, only to leave mostly scarred for the experience. But it also has left studio executives in a weaker bargaining position, and shifted the industry’s dynamics in a way to make an investment a bit more attractive.
Wall Streeters were not the first to get star-struck. Fund managers trying to lock-in management fees followed earlier generations of Germans seeking tax shelters and Japanese trying to extract profits by uniting movies with electronics. All the hype — along with a string of expensive duds, a steep downturn in DVD sales and skewed economics — mostly led to yet another expensive lesson for well-heeled Tinseltown interlopers.
These days, negotiations may favor those willing to write a check. Studios skim a generous fee for distributing movies before any investor gets paid. This cut had increased to 15 percent of a film’s revenue. But parent companies such as Time Warner need fresh content to build libraries and feed multiple distribution outlets, so they could be willing to accept a fee closer to 10 percent and focus instead on other strategic corporate returns derived from the films.
A-list stars are being squeezed too. Handsome 20-20 packages — $20 million in advance against 20 percent of a film’s gross profit — are harder to come by. Jim Carrey took an equity stake in “Yes Man” in exchange for surrendering his upfront pay. And Steve Carell accepted a deal to be paid part of the gross only after financing costs were recouped for “Dinner for Schmucks.”
Reduced output also could help an investor’s chances to make money. Studios are on pace to release a third fewer films this year than the peak 631 in 2007. That means lower film-print and advertising costs and less weekend competition at the multiplex. Yet movie-going has proved its recession-resistance. At $7.2 billion through Aug. 19, according to Box Office Mojo, ticket sales in the United States are 10 percent higher than at this time in 2008.
Bankrolling blockbusters still isn’t for the squeamish. But investors in film equity, who typically expect at least a 20 percent return, may find their chances have improved for a Hollywood ending.