Oscar-nominated films’ unusual roots

Jared Leto , left, and Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club."
(Anne Marie Fox, Focus Features)

There are many reasons investors enter the movie business. “Enticed by Charlie Sheen” isn’t usually one of them.

On a vacation to Los Angeles a few years ago, Joe Newcomb, a Texas entrepreneur who has made millions in the fertilizer business, accepted an invitation from a mutual friend for lunch at Sheen’s home. The two got to talking, and the actor said he was looking for a backer on an idea he had for a new “Major League” movie.

Though the project didn’t come off, the conversations put Newcomb in touch with several people in the movie industry. So when the financially troubled AIDS drama “Dallas Buyers Club” was looking for funding just weeks before it was set to start shooting in fall 2012, the white knight turned out to be Newcomb and his partner Joe Notargiacomo, who put up the approximately $2 million the Matthew McConaughey movie needed to get made.

“To get into a new industry is very difficult,” Newcomb, the founder and chief executive of a company called Truth Chemical, said by phone from Texas last week. “I didn’t really know independent film existed, but once I did it excited me.” (The friend who introduced him to Sheen, incidentally, was an equally unlikely figure — Chicago White Sox player Adam Dunn, a friend of Newcomb’s.)


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Outside financing is nothing new in Hollywood, and recent years have seen the advent of players like Megan Ellison — the daughter of Silicon Valley mogul Lawrence Ellison and financier of 2014 best picture nominees “Her” and “American Hustle” — who have put up millions for risky, adult-oriented projects the studios would rather avoid.

But with dollars growing increasingly hard to come by, this year’s Oscar-season favorites are funded by particularly far-flung parties. They include the stepson of the Malaysian prime minister (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), a former NBA player (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”), an heir to a banking and Minnesota Twins fortune (“12 Years a Slave”) and Newcomb’s fertilizer money in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

The largest nontraditional investor in an Oscar nominee is Red Granite Pictures, a young company founded by the previously unknown Kentucky native Joey McFarland and Riza Aziz, whose stepfather is Malaysian leader Najib Razak. Red Granite underwrote the entire $100-million budget for “Wolf,” with Paramount coming in only as a distributor on the Martin Scorsese film. The movie had trouble landing financing until a few years ago, when McFarland and Aziz said they would front money others wouldn’t put up.

McFarland and Aziz have been vague about the source of their capital, saying that it comes from Middle Eastern and Asian investors. Some critics—particularly the U.K. blogger Clare Rewcastle Brown—have questioned whether it has ties to Razak’s fortune. Red Granite, in turn, has fired back with legal threats demanding she retract her posts. (Through a spokeswoman, the company declined to be interviewed for this story.)

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Bill Pohlad, the son of the late billionaire banker and former Twins owner Carl Pohlad, is the veteran of the bunch.

Initially, Pohlad was strictly the money man on movies such as 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain.” But in recent years he became more involved creatively, including on Terrence Malick’s 2012 best picture nominee “The Tree of Life.” It was the relationship with Brad Pitt formed on that film that led to Pohlad putting money into the best picture favorite “12 Years a Slave” (Pitt is a producer and one of the costars in the movie).

These personalities fill a need, say filmmakers. “Outside money allows these movies to happen, even if it’s money that’s really outside,” said “Butler” director Lee Daniels at the time of the film’s release. During production, Daniels repeatedly had to make the rounds among deep-pocketed types, eventually securing money from such outsiders as NBA player Michael Finley and the consultancy kingpin and anti-poverty crusader Earl Stafford. “A drama that was seen as ‘only for black people’ couldn’t get any support even from traditional independent financiers,” Daniels said.

With many of these films landing Oscar nominations, their backers are eager to take their place in the award-season limelight. Aziz and McFarland were both given Producers Guild of America nominations, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ producers branch only gave McFarland a slot and left out Aziz in determining best picture nominees.

Newcomb, meanwhile, has pulled strings with “Dallas Buyers Club” creative producers to secure a ticket to the Sunday awards ceremony even though he is not a nominee. He noted that some of his friends will be flying in from Aspen, Colo., so they can join him in a “celebratory cocktail.”

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“We’ll make a night of it for sure,” said Newcomb, who also runs an oil-field services and architecture firm. (His baseball buddy Dunn, meanwhile, was contemplating a trip to Los Angeles for the weekend; Dunn wound up with a cameo in the movie.)

Smaller independent-type films such as “Dallas Buyers Club” might seem like the least likely genre for these outliers, who would otherwise be expected to invest in more commercial pictures. But because such art house movies require a smaller investment and also come with passionate A-list stars, they are attractive to newbies.

“It seems like it shouldn’t be this way, but it’s actually a much safer bet to do an art house movie than a wide release, where it’s much harder to understand the mathematics,” said Cassian Elwes, an independent producer and money-raiser who helped wrangle the funds for both “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Butler.”

Still, Elwes notes, “You have to understand what you’re doing or you’ll be out very quickly.”

Indeed, the stories of off-the-radar outsiders in Hollywood often turn into cautionary tales

Five years ago, upscale Hollywood’s go-to oddball financier was Sidney Kimmel. The billionaire apparel magnate had jumped in to bankroll difficult pictures such as “The Kite Runner” and “United 93.” But after several flops, Kimmel retreated, and now mostly concentrates on decidedly non-awards fare like the recent “I, Frankenstein” and the Jason Statham shoot’em-up “Parker.

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These partnerships can also lead to tension. On “Butler,” Elwes describes marathon conference calls on which “everybody had a different opinion.”

The convergence of far-flung finance and insider entertainment worlds can also lead to unintentionally comical moments. To announce their formation at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, Red Granite threw a splashy party featuring a private performance by Kanye West. At one point during the set, West finished a song and then shouted “Red Granite foreva,” an odd refrain given that the company had in fact yet to make a movie.

Those coming from these outside businesses, though, say they are trying to educate themselves. “They call it show business for a reason — it’s a business and many fundamentals are the same,” said Newcomb, who has formed an entertainment unit to review other scripts. “The important thing is that we have a solid business plan. It’s ‘let’s get the business out of the way so we can get to the magic.’”