Friday, February 19, 2010

Springtime in Europe, China Calling


Walking the dogs by the beach this morning, we strolled by a mini-European village being set up: streetlights, sidewalk cafes, French flags flying and a fleet of classic European cars. It’s always refreshing and inspiring to see movies shooting on location. So much seems to happen in a short space of time – they’re usually set up in the morning and gone by evening – and yet you see mostly a lot of inaction, with bunches of crew hanging around the mess wagons. But although it’s mostly a lot of waiting around for the right light or combination of director, crew and talent getting things exactly right, scenes get shot and movies get made.

We recently worked on the financing package for a movie shooting on location in New Mexico, where most of the drama occurred in the month or so before the shoot. We were arranging for the final gap finance to drop into place before the production could begin, and the producers had their two major stars on hold in a window that was closing fast. The financing deal for the final $1.5 million was set to close but the producers weren’t able to get comfortable with the terms. Although the money was to be delivered via an escrow account at a law firm, somehow it wasn’t working for them. To complicate matters the producers’ hands were tied by the presence of a couple of dominant private equity investors in their movie who were looking out for an opportunity to play a more active role, which the producers were trying to avoid. As in any business it’s good to get your investors’ money but it can become a pain in the neck when the investors want to start looking over your shoulder. In our case, when the deadline arrived the producers had to bite the bullet and get over their discomfort, but they got their movie made.

It’s been Chinese New Year around the world this week, with much of Asia just drifting back to work now. So we were pleasantly surprised to receive a call yesterday from the Chinese partner on our prospective new China film fund. It’s a great opportunity to break in at ground level in the domestic film business in China which has been so far impossible even for the Studios to do. Hollywood and all other international movies are limited to 20 titles a year in the fastest-growing country in the world, and although China is obliged by the WTO to open up its markets over time to foreign movies, domestic Chinese film producers are currently being given all sorts of incentives to step up and make more and better movies that will compete with the expected influx. However, with Chinese consumers preferring to watch homegrown movies and the sheer numbers involved, we believe the opportunity in China is boundless for many years to come.

The idea of a film fund as an investment opportunity is unprecedented in China, and from the producers’ point of view commercial third-party finance is also fairly novel, with most of the regional production groups being government-owned up to this point. So we’ll be seeing many new doors open and our keystone is solid investment from a few market leaders. We have commitments from a couple of institutions which we believe will create a snowball effect and the fund will take wings when these are tied up. So it’s all go for now as we complete our initial preparation work and get agreements in place.

It’s quite an adventure and on the phone this morning one of our dearest friends said “ I do wish I could go back to live in Asia again, that’s where it’s all happening in the world now”. The future is Asia.

The Out Of Obscurity team.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Happy New Year

Chinese New Year fell on February 14th this year, so Valentine’s Day was a double celebration across much of Asia. Most of this week will be quiet in Asia as families enjoy their major holiday of the year, so Gong Xi Fa Cai to anyone celebrating.

Asia’s looming large at the moment, both in our own little world and in the bigger picture of where the movie business is heading. We noticed that the Singapore MDA has just financed its first picture in a recent co-production deal with Australia, a shark thriller to be filmed in 3D. With the success of Avatar it seems that all of the studios’ tentpole properties are going to get the 3D treatment: Spider-Man, Twilight et al are all being re-booted for 3D, and not just because it seems like a fad, but because 3D commands a higher price at the box office, at least for now.

They’re building new movie screens all over China now and we’re hoping to participate in the boom. For a while now we’ve been in discussion with a Chinese investment group planning to launch a new domestic film fund in the next six months. Even putting a timeframe on the project has been a challenge, and we’re well aware that in China things take time. Our partners have a few other investment funds in the market and were seeking Hollywood knowledge and film fund expertise to complement their base. With investment commited from one of the state-run film bodies the opportunity augurs well, but there’s a long way to go. Ideally, it kicks off with seed capital in place and an audience eager to take part in the magic of the movies. Chinese movies will dominate theatres and audience appetite for the foreseeable future and the pipeline of projects is locked in. We’re bound to face a few hurdles along the way but we’re optimistic right now.

This weekend’s Presidents Day holiday in the US brought yet another revenue record at the box office, with theatres generating the highest-grossing Presidents Day on record, and the movie Valentine’s Day having the biggest opening of any movie in this weekend, even after adjusting for ticket price inflation. So the trend of rising movie revenues is very definitely continuing, and with a shift to 3D production profitability will increase further. Just another pointer towards movie investment as a compelling alternative asset strategy, one that we never tire of highlighting.

In addition to the rapid expansion in 3D screens and movie production other shifts in movie economics are taking place, as exemplified by last week’s announcement that Tom Cruise will return to his role in Mission: Impossible IV. This time he is producing again, as he did last time out, but he’s no longer getting 22.5% of gross revenue: - yes, 22.5%, really. It’s no wonder that Paramount was miffed after its big hit movie Mission: Impossible III was left barely breaking even, with Cruise taking home at least $80 million for his efforts. This time out he’ll still earn $25 million, $20m of that up-front, but he won’t participate so generously in profit. The studios these days are much less inclined to pay top-dollar for stars’ basic salaries, preferring to structure profit deals where they limit basic costs and share some of the potential profits. This is undoubtedly good business sense and also cleans up the table for investors like ourselves. As a co-financier on a major project, the last thing you want to see is the bulk of the revenue being swept away by first-dollar participants before any costs are paid. Much better to cover costs and share profits at a reasonable level, with all stakeholders sharing the benefit, including investors and talent. That’s becoming a much more common model and is most welcome at the investor level.

The Out Of Obscurity team

Monday, February 08, 2010

Movies Making Money

Walking with the dogs today we noticed they’re beginning to set up the big tent down by the beach for the annual Independent Spirit Awards later this month. It’s always quite a raucous event with a bunch of genuine people who are really passionate about their movies. There are so many great indie movies around every year and we began to wonder just how many of them might actually make a profit for their investors.

It’s got a lot to do the intent of the producers when they go into the process, whether they’ve thought about their film making money or are they just trying to get it made. Of course most producers believe they have a compelling story that needs to be told and they’ll do whatever it takes to get their movie funded and shown to the world. But some savvy producers will develop a plan that demonstrates just how their investors will make money within a couple of different distribution strategies, and some bottom line option that gives investors a fair crack of the whip. The Section 181 tax write-off which we mentioned a few weeks back is a good place to start, as it assures your investor that he cannot lose all of his money with a 100% tax credit. Offering equity investors an early share of revenues until their capital is covered is a standard strategy and if there are any distribution deals in place up-front then investors can feel more comfortable that there is a revenue stream that will at least cover costs. Then of course, when your movie has paid for itself in whatever territories you’ve sold it, or the DVD and TV deals have kicked in and revenue comes in, the investors will be happy to share profits in some equitable manner with the producers, and everyone’s happy.

Well that’s how we’d like to think it happens but of course we all hear about the many people – producers as well as investors – who lose money on movie projects, whether it’s because of non-commercial movies that don’t get sold, skewed investment deals, bad management of the process or any number of reasons why things go wrong. Investors don’t always invest into movies simply to make money, and there’s always a host of folks who have made their money lining up to become the next big-time producers. But we like to think of this as a business in which our principal goal is to make money for our investors and partners, and in the process make a lot of movies that people will actually see. An investment fund doesn’t have the luxury of funding art for art’s sake.

We believe the movie sector is still one of best investment choices and even though we know that some movies in our slate won’t do well, we structure our positions so that we won’t lose too much on any losing picture, and stand to gain a lot on the profitable ones. Taking a portfolio approach is something that individual investors don’t always have the ability to do but it’s one of the only ways of giving yourself the best possible chance of making a lot of money in the movie business.

The Out Of Obscurity team.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Groundhog Day Again

Ever topical here at Movie Beach, we thought it worth mentioning that February 2nd is Groundhog Day, when Punxsutawney Phil – a Pennsylvania rodent - pops his head up out of the ground and forecasts the weather. This year he saw his shadow, meaning six more weeks of winter, at least in Pennsylvania. You may know the movie Groundhog Day, it’s one of our favourites as Bill Murray battles for his mental freedom while he’s trapped living the same day over and over again. Sometimes it feels like we’re waking up to the same day as yesterday but a brisk walk down by the beach with the pups usually takes care of all that.

Not on quite the same scale as Groundhog Day, we have noticed quite a number of film fund issues coming to the fore lately. We’re always interested in what’s going on around the world, and in the UAE the Imagenation group we mentioned a while back is releasing its movie My Name Is Khan as a co-production with Bollywood group Fox Star. Imagenation has co-financing deals in Hollywood, India and Singapore, among them a $250 million venture with the truly global Ashok Amritraj’s Hyde Park Entertainment, based in Singapore. Out Of Obscurity was founded in Singapore but we do most of our work internationally. However, we still consider Singapore our home base, it’s a fantastic place to work and travel from. We’re currently looking at movie and film fund opportunities in Thailand and China, as well as Europe and the US, and a spell back at the ranch may be just the ticket.

The government in Spain just announced a 5-year $800 million film fund to develop independent Spanish movies, which may cheer movie theatre owners in Catalonia, the independently-minded province dominated by Barcelona. Most of the region’s screens went blank on February 1st in a strike by owners at a directive that at least 50% of foreign movies must be dubbed into the minority Catalan language rather than Spanish. They fear a big drop in attendances if the proposed law goes into effect, and fewer movies from international distributors. We can only agree that imposing minority politics on the majority is never a good thing anywhere in the world, and movie-goers will inevitably vote with their feet.

It’s been interesting to read about the potential fate of Miramax, which was unfortunately run down and then closed down by Disney last week. Naturally, the Weinsteins would like to have their name back and potentially the library which they built up. But there are other bidders and a vigorous discussion going on about what those assets may be worth. It’s highly relevant for any film investor or fund manager like ourselves, as Disney is said to be asking $700 million for the assets which may earn anything from $50 million to $300 million annually. That’s a big range with the majority feeling it’s nearer the $50-100 million level, making it a tough payback at the asking price. The value of film libraries has declined a lot recently as the DVD sales part of the equation has stabilized. We don’t share the “doom and gloom” view of the DVD issue which some feel has spiraled down from a peak, never to return. Sure, early sales rates were astronomical but things always settle down, and sales in other channels will in time take up the slack. Movie revenues are steadily on the up and that’s good for movie investors. In our view it’s still a great time to invest into quality movie assets, and someone’s going to get a good deal on the Miramax library if they pay the right price.

The Out Of Obscurity team.
Posted by Picasa