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Australian executive producer Heather Ogilvie presented her latest film, Accidents Happen, at the 2009 Tribeca film festival in New York, where she found herself giving a masterclass in film financing, thanks to the effects of the Global Financial Crisis. In this exclusive report, Heather gives a deep insight into how the crisis is altering the balance of power between Australian and American producers – it’s no longer ‘us’ and ‘them’.

It’s been five years since I was in the US. For nearly two decades, I regularly travelled to Los Angeles; often three or four times a year. I was determined that the key players wouldn’t realise I lived in Sydney. In the early 90s I was there for most of a year, juggling work for The Disney Channel with a young family. It was exhausting but ultimately successful. Over time I could get the meetings I wanted and developed strong networks with agents, producers, entertainment lawyers, studio execs and a range of companies providing finance. I produced a thirteen part drama series for Warner Bros and a big budget movie-of-the-week for CBS and Hallmark.

My role in the film industry shifted and I began working with producers as a mentor and executive producer. As a result, others were doing the LA meetings while I assembled the jigsaw puzzle that is film financing from behind the scenes. The network delivered and another couple of films were produced with me as a senior member of the team.

When Accidents Happen*, one of those films, was invited to have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival I decided it was time to go back. To test how strong my network still was; to reconnect with colleagues who had become friends and with friends who had also become colleagues. And to find out how the dreaded global financial crisis was affecting the world’s biggest entertainment industry. (*Accidents Happen will be released in Australian cinemas later this year.)

"What I didn’t expect was what eventuated"

I had set up a fund to cashflow the producer offset and I knew both the fund and the offset would be of great interest. What I didn’t expect was what eventuated.

Many of my meetings were with leading agents specialising in financing and top-drawer production companies. Once the usual niceties were over, the conversation quickly turned to the battle to fund projects. Companies that have relied on studio output deals to deliver between four and six films a year are now struggling to come to terms with doing business as independents. Projects developed with an expectation of being funded from a single source are now looking at how they can reduce budgets and maximise cast while negotiating lower fees and attach a range of financing partners.

In turn, agents are desperate to place their talent on the reduced number of studio pics. The focus in the agencies is shifting - lower fees on better projects with an invested back end interest. High net worth individuals now have agents, specialists in financing who work with their colleagues to package a whole project and are actively involved in placing rights - not just on a completed film, as has been the trend, but as a crucial part of the production.

The prospect of a project that can deliver at least 30% of its budget from the offset is enticing and every meeting included multiple pitches and the promise of scripts. That few of them would qualify seemed irrelevant. The repeated message was “we can make it work, just tell us what we need to do”. In most cases the projects would fail the test of Significant Australia Content so they cannot work. A few might, but very few.

"a wonderful script with a reasonable budget"

One meeting was about a wonderful script with a reasonable budget, a highly qualified creative team and to-die-for indie cast. Half of the budget is in place but the film’s funding stalled when its private investor became a casualty of the GFC.  At another meeting, with a leading production company, I found myself delivering what was essentially a master class in independent financing. The president and heads of film and television production and marketing took notes for nearly two hours while I took them through the muddle of funding without the backing of a studio. I never mentioned what I was up to and they never asked. I’m thinking of sending an invoice but wonder if they could pay…

While the New York sector of the film industry seems not to have been as devastated by the economic turndown, local indie producers are doing it tough. With US state governments going bankrupt and unable to pay their committed rebates and no offset to provide a secure starting point, they have limited funding options. For the few that can secure finance, sales and distribution companies are offering a range of new distribution strategies - theatrical plus video-on-demand, video-on-demand with a premiere cable release, streaming with the ability to block territories so you essentially become the exhibitor and so it goes. But business is being done as long as you don’t mind that it’s a buyer’s market.

I went to LA and NY seeking market intelligence. No longer prepared to hold back scripts until they were ‘ready’, I wanted to know if the market would abandon the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality of the past and work with us to develop great projects. The answer was such a resounding yes that I can’t remember why we approached the marketplace any other way. It takes faith in your material to expose it early but I’m determined to do so. No longer a network, now partners.

On my way from LA to NY, I sat next an African American couple with a gorgeous little boy. Over the hours we got talking. As chance would have it, they were heading to NY for a private screening of his first film, Next Day Air. Produced on a very modest budget, it had been sold on completion to Summit Entertainment. An action comedy starring people I should’ve know but didn’t. Would I like to come? Absolutely.

"it made me laugh out loud"

A few nights later I went to a cinema conveniently around the corner from my apartment in Soho and watched a film with an all black audience that wasn’t made for me. Despite times when I couldn’t understand the accents so struggled to keep up with the plot, I loved it. I loved that it made me laugh out loud; it’s energy and smart performances. I loved the over the top action and the way it took me out of my comfort zone.

But most of all, I loved the way the audience embraced a film about them that wasn’t afraid to have a dig. And in four weeks the film took over US$9.5 million at the box office. Of all the things I experienced on this trip, the memory of this screening is the most enduring.

Published June 11, 2009

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Heather Ogilvie

Since establishing Nice Pictures in 2000, Heather Ogilvie has financed production worth more than A$75 million.

Heather worked in LA with The Disney Channel in 1991/92, co-produced the feature Turning April in 1995, with Alliance Communication, and Dating The Enemy in 1996, starring Guy Pearce and Claudia Karvan. . In 2006 Heather was Executive Producer on Hey Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger, a feature film starring Toni Collette and Keisha Castle-Hughes.

In 2008, Heather established Abacus Film Fund under an arrangement with the Bank of Ireland to provide Australian film and television producers with a range of financial services. She is currently working with Anthony Anderson as Executive Producer on Accidents Happen, starring Geena Davis and with Martin Brown on Last Man, to be directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Guy Pearce.

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