Sunday, September 01, 2013


Have you ever heard of the film 'Heaven's Gate'?

It's known as the film that bankrupted a Hollywood studio, 'United Artists'.

What came as the biggest shock is that it was the follow up for Director Michael Cimino after he had, literally, just won an Oscar for 'The Deer Hunter'.

How could it all go so badly?

All too easily, I'm afraid.

One of the worst kept secrets about making films is that, to the people willing to invest in film, it is a high risk-high reward gamble. That is why you often hear film producers using rather unsexy language like "managing risk" and "hedging".

I know, I know, it's supposed to be about art.

But how much does paint and a canvas cost? Or a laptop to write your amazing work of literary genius?

Films are a very different animal. The people playing in this world have to drive themselves partially insane learning the quirks of financial deal making. Where else do you think Producers find $25 to $100 million to make a film?

If it seems all a bit alien to you, try this. Imagine you are in the desert with three people and one bottle of water.

Desperate, desperate, thirsty people.

In the distance is a person with a sniper rifle, watching you intently. Whoever makes a move towards the bottle of water gets a convenient new orifice in their torso.

So there you sit. Mere feet from salvation that you can see but cannot touch. The desert sands whip your face. Staring at the faces of the others. Strategising to get what you need.

This is the life of Producers looking to finance a film. They know money is out there to make their projects. They can see it. They are surrounded by others who want it. But they can't touch it without someone else's permission.

And they are so desperately thirsty.

In this kind of environment, Film Producer's often get creative in how they draw money into their films. The one I hear suggested ALL THE TIME, by beginners and experienced filmmakers alike, is product placement.

It seems so simple. Just insert a watch, a car, a sugary beverage into a scene in the film, and money will rain from the heavens onto your project.

It sounds so easy, doesn't it? Why isn't every filmmaker doing it?

Perhaps that's the point.

One of the biggest to ever try it was 'Jerry Maguire'.

Reebok, the shoe manufacturer, had a large product placement deal and cross-promotional deal with the film. The idea was that main character 'Rod Tidwell' (played perfectly by Cuba Gooding Jr) tells his manager 'Jerry Maguire' (an also wonderful Tom Cruise) that he has a long running dispute with Reebok, who ignore him despite his success as a professional American football player.

To get an idea of the tone of Tidwell's angst, his summation of the story is:

"Let me boil it down for you. F**k Reebok. All they do is ignore me! Always have! Always have."

From this low point, Reebok were expecting the film to show a happy ending where Tidwell achieves redemption as an athlete, Maguire evolves as a man, and Reebok signs a shoe promotion deal with Tidwell to end the riff.

Unfortunately, as in many films, certain elements get left on the editing room floor. In this case, Tidwell's redemption stayed in, as did Maguire's evolution. The happy ending for Reebok, however, didn't make it into the final film.

So, Reebok sued the filmmakers.

And it got increasingly nasty.

Until finally, The case was settled out of court on confidential terms, after both parties spent considerable sums in a dispute that could have been avoided.

The problem, you see, was one of assumptions. Reebok expected the happy ending to DEFINITELY stay in the film.

The filmmakers thought that they had artistic license, as all filmmakers are used to having.

And of course, the written agreement they had signed was not nearly as clear on these points as it should have been.


At least the lawyers got rich.

So, filmmakers beware. I want that bottle of water as much as you do. I applaud your ingenuity to find a solution and your passion to get your films made.


If it seems easy, it's probably because you are missing a step.

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