It hardly seems like the ideal time to launch an independent movie studio. If the kings of the business, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, are struggling, can anyone make it?
Two industry veterans think they can, and they've persuaded several well-known producers, including Ted Hope and Anne Carey, and filmmaker brothers Ridley and Tony Scott to bet on them.
Mary Dickinson and Charlene Fisher, financial consultants with a background in entertainment and sports, have partnered to form New York-based DF Indie Studios. At a time when the independent film business is suffering from its deepest downturn in memory, Dickinson and Fisher say they have raised more than $50 million from investors and secured an additional $150 million in "output" deals. They expect to raise $100 million by this fall and aim to make and distribute 10 to 12 small-budget films a year.
"We are going old school and creating a company based on equity," said Dickinson, DF's chief executive. The start-up's strategy has been to tap money from individual investors, usually about $5 million each, rather than from a bank.
The last couple of years have been rough on the niche specialty film business. After too many films flooded the market, the sector underwent a contraction, with Warner Bros. shutting down Warner Independent Pictures and compacting New Line Cinema, Paramount folding Paramount Vantage into its bigger sister studio and Fox closing the genre label Fox Atomic.
Although movies used to be considered a risky investment, the recession has some investors reevaluating their options, said Fisher, DF's president and chief operating officer.
"A lot of our investors used to be focused on hedge funds and are now looking for something that will give them a larger return," she said.
DF has a heavyweight advisory board that includes Ben Silverman, NBC Entertainment co-chairman; David Wiederecht, president of investment strategies for GE Asset Management; and David Spieler, global head of Duff Phelps Technology and Entertainment Practices. Also on the board and consulting for DF is Ira Deutchman, a veteran distribution and marketing executive, and John Hadity, who spent 12 years as executive vice president of production for Miramax and is currently chairman of Producers Guild of America East.
The company has a staff of 20 and expects to double it over the next several months. Amy Slotnick, a former Miramax production executive, will serve as executive vice president of production, and Rita Chiappetta-Thibault, a former New Line executive, will be DF's chief financial officer.
Producers Hope and Carey -- whose This Is That Productions was behind the critical successes "In the Bedroom," "The Ice Storm" and "The Savages" -- said there was a shortage of places to go to make movies in the $10-million-budget range. "It's not rocket science, but it is an effort that has been neglected, so it ends up being truly innovative by default," Hope said.
Other producers who have committed to bring projects to DF include Jennifer Fox, a producer of "Michael Clayton," and RedBone Films, whose co-founder Samara Koffler headed Harrison Ford's production company for several years.
DF probably couldn't have picked a tougher time to try to launch a studio for independent films. Just last week the Weinstein Co. hired financial advisor Miller Buckfire & Co. to restructure its debt and raise money to cover its costs.
Dickinson and Fisher are undaunted, though, and anticipate starting production on their first films in September. Said Fisher: "A home run for us is a $20-million [box office] film. We're even happy at $10 million."