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‘Swingers’ a Hit for Makers Before It Opens

The movie-making team behind “Swingers,” which opens today in Los Angeles and New York, is in the rare, enviable position of seeing a huge profit on their independently financed movie before it’s even been seen and judged by the public.

Sure, the first-time filmmakers are nervous about audience reaction and how the movie will fare at the box office. But even if it flops, they can cry all the way to the bank.

After the movie was made for $250,000, Disney-owned Miramax came in and paid $5 million for the worldwide rights--a further example of how much money distributors are now willing to dish out for edgy, independent products they hope will have the wide audience appeal that “Pulp Fiction” and “The Crying Game” had.

“Swingers” is the latest big-money deal for a low-budget movie. Earlier this year, Fine Line Features, a division of New Line, paid $2.5 million for North American distribution rights to the upcoming “Shine”; and Castle Rock Entertainment ponied up a staggering $10 million for “The Spitfire Grill,” which has grossed a little more than $12 million and at best will be a break-even effort for the company.

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Like most young filmmakers, the producers of “Swingers” had a tough time getting investors interested in backing their project, despite its ultra-low budget.

Director Doug Liman and producing partners Victor Simpkins and Nicole LaLoggia, who collaborated on a 1993 video film called “Getting In,” approached eight potential investors before finding someone to bankroll actor-writer Jon Favreau’s buddy comedy about five twentysomething wannabe actors club-hopping in Hollywood, looking for “babies.”

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Favreau, 29, hooked up with the producers--whom he had met a year earlier when he auditioned for but didn’t get the part in “Getting In"--at a wrap party last year and asked LaLoggia to read his script. The story is based on Favreau’s own experiences as an actor-comedian struggling to get over a relationship left behind in New York when he moved to Hollywood.

LaLoggia, 26, said that as soon as she read the script, she told Simpkins, 41, “Let’s make the movie.” With a proposed budget of close to $1 million, Favreau’s agents at United Talent Agency staged some readings and tried unsuccessfully to package the movie with some of its clients, including Jason Patric.

“They were setting meetings with smaller studio-type places and it was always the same tap dance,” said LaLoggia. “ ‘Who can we get to play in this movie who will have foreign value?’ ”

At one point early last year, it looked like the filmmakers had their investor.

“We had Finance 101 in UTA’s conference room for an investor who had never made a movie before,” said Simpkins. “He was a high-net-worth individual willing to back the whole thing.” But after four or five meetings, the producers said everything fell apart after the investor told them he had to get the blessing of his uncle to make the deal.

Meanwhile, Liman, who was LaLoggia’s housemate, decided that since he had been giving Favreau some “arbitrary” technical advice on his script, he should finally read the thing.

“I fell in love with the script,” said Liman, 30, suggesting that the movie should be made even more cheaply than the producers were planning. “I told them, ‘You don’t need all that stuff. . . . Let’s just make it and do it cheap.’ ” LaLoggia drew up a new budget of $189,000.

Liman said that since he had made Super-8 student films “all my life, I was really looking for an opportunity to do a feature. . . . I wanted to shoot it myself and do it guerrilla-style.”

That meant that instead of lugging around the usual 200-pound camera, he wanted to go with a compact documentary-style camera usually used by second-unit crews to film action sequences.

Liman said that after he made “Getting In,” a number of people told him they’d be happy to back him if he ever wanted to make a theatrical feature. So Liman thought it would be “a slam-dunk” to get financing for “Swingers.”

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Wrong. None of them were willing to bankroll a movie with Favreau as the lead and four of his friends as the co-stars.

“They said, ‘Give us a real movie,’ and I said, ‘This is it,’ ” Liman said. “I can’t believe how hard it was to find someone to finance this when we were making it for so cheap--$250,000.” The filmmakers even considered making the film on their credit cards.

But after striking out with that group, Liman finally found someone to fork over $200,000 to get the production going. After the shoot, two more investors came forth with a combined $75,000 in completion money.

While he refused to reveal the names of the investors, Liman said his father--powerhouse New York attorney Arthur Liman--was not among them.

“He did not give a cent. The only support he gave was [to] help me draft the limited partnership agreement to raise the money,” said Liman, adding, “My dad’s been my personal advisor through this entire production.”

The filmmakers wound up making their movie for $250,000, shooting in various Los Angeles locations, including such hip nightspots as the Derby, a retro swing club; the Dresden Room; and the Three of Clubs (using customers as unpaid extras), as well as in Las Vegas.

They wrapped production in September 1995, trying to meet the deadline for submission to the Sundance Film Festival. Rejected by the festival, they held their own distributors screening in Los Angeles in February. Miramax, in its usual aggressive manner, “was the first one there,” said LaLoggia.

Executives from the New York-based distributor took the filmmakers out to dinner the next night, as the print was being shipped overnight to Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein. “Harvey called all of us early Saturday morning and said, ‘I really want this movie.’ ”

By the end of the week, Weinstein and Cary Woods, who has a production deal with Miramax and had given Favreau his first starring role in “Rudy,” had Creative Artists Agency’s John Ptak working two phones during his Monday night dinner at Morton’s trying to cinch a deal with Liman and Simpkins. Over the course of two hours--with phone calls back and forth that also included Liman’s agent, Adam Kanter--the agreement was worked out.

The $5-million deal enabled the filmmakers to pay deferred salaries to cast and crew and cover the cost of the soundtrack mix, music clearances and other post-production expenses, bringing the movie’s total price tag to just under $1 million.

As much as $1 million was paid in commissions to CAA and the company that manages Liman; fees to Woods, who took an executive producer credit; and attorney Alan Grodin.

“At the end of the day, it appears they [Favreau and the filmmakers] would have made as much as $3 million,” says a source involved in the Miramax deal. If the film does well at the box office, they and the investors could make millions more.

Miramax executives refused to comment on the actual financial aspects of the agreement, as did the director and producers. “I don’t know if it’s millions of dollars, but we certainly turned a nice profit we can all be proud of,” said LaLoggia.


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