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Bergstein's ThinkFilm Faces Uncertain Future

by Anne Thompson
June 26, 2008 7:25 AM
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Gibney150lThinkFilm faces an uncertain future. While David Bergstein, the embattled financeer also behind Capco, Capitol Films in London and foreign sales company ThinkFilm International, has been expecting to close a bridge loan with Britain’s Aramid Entertainment Fund, ThinkFilm prexy Mark Urman is weathering a storm of negative PR from angry vendors and filmmakers who have not been paid and have gone public with lawsuits.

Filmmaker Alex Gibney (above), in particular, while he managed to get ThinkFilm to pay certain minimums and a $50,000 Oscar bonus for his film Taxi to the Dark Side, is now using the courts to try to win $1 million and distribution rights to his Oscar-winning torture doc. “Having won the Oscar we were perfectly positioned to make a national impact with a post-theatrical release,” Gibney wrote me in an e-mail. "But ThinkFilm utterly failed to capitalize on its success. We have since learned that Think didn’t have the financial resources to properly exploit the film.”

By all accounts, while library-builder Bergstein has long held a reputation for poorly managing “distressed” enterprises, ThinkFilm was “funky,” as one employee put it, ever since its formation seven years ago. When Bergstein bought it in October 2006 for $18 million plus $5 million in debt, the specialty distrib only got fudgier. When the Toronto office was shut down recently, four years of unpaid minimum guarantees on several straight-to-video films were revealed.

Bergstein has too many fingers in too many pies. He has plowed tens of millions of dollars that could have been used to pay ThinkFilm’s bills into such pictures as The Wendell Baker Story, which flopped, the Jennifer Lopez film Bordertown, which went straight to video, the genre film Bad Meat, Taylor Hackford’s Love Ranch, and David O. Russell’s Nailed, the film production from hell, which has been shut down four times for not meeting its payroll. “Millions of dollars go into the bank from The Devil Knows You’re Dead,” says one ThinkFilm exec. “Then it evaporates and we can’t pay our bills. All our money went to David O. Russell. The walls keep moving, the writing changing. We owe so many people so much money.”

Aramid or no Aramid, no matter how many times deal-junkie Bergstein has pulled money out of thin air, bankrupcy looms over the house of cards that Bergstein built.

What ThinkFilm has experienced—more money going out for minimum guarantees and prints and ads than comes back in—is typical of the indie sector, where you must wait years for ancillary revenues to trickle back. Frenchman Philippe Martinez came to Hollywood with an ambitious plan to release such films as David Ayer’s Harsh Times, but he crashed and burned. Businessman Sidney Kimmel has made some terrific movies, from Lars and the Real Girl to Synecdoche, New York, but he has reduced his production company by half, and made an unfortunate distribution deal with MGM, which is not equipped to handle delicate speciialty fare. Real estate mogul Bob Yari, who financed the sleeper hits Crash and The Illusionist but has been under financial duress since starting his own distribution company, is also expected to leave the film business. Whether he will pay all his bills is unclear.

That this state of affairs is allowed to exist in the indie world is astonishing. Vendors wait months if not years to get paid, knowing they will probably have to sue for their livelihood. One ThinkFilm vendor who hasn't been paid since last August is owed in the six figures. Gibney is outraged, trying to fight a broken system and win back rights to his film before it enters financial limbo.

On the other hand, it isn't every day that an indie company does everything right and wins an Oscar. ThinkFilm has done it several times. And it is highly unlikely that Taxi to the Dark Side would be able to earn much more than it did under the current dark moon hovering over the indie sector.

UPDATE: Gibney and other sources say there were plans to do a proper post-Oscar release, utilizing orgs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which would have enhanced the movie's video value. The movie ended up with a drastically curtailed brief booking in one theater, and ThinkFilm lost the film's website.

See also stories in New York Times and Indiewire. UPDATE: ThinkFilm is dropping out of distributing Momma's Man.

What ThinkFilm has experienced—more money going out for minimum guarantees and prints and ads than comes back in—is typical of the indie sector, where you must wait years for ancillary revenues to trickle back. Frenchman Philippe Martinez came to Hollywood with an ambitious plan to release such films as David Ayer’s Harsh Times, but he crashed and burned. Businessman Sidney Kimmel has made some terrific movies, from Lars and the Real Girl to Synecdoche, New York, but he has reduced his production company by half, and made an unfortunate distribution deal with MGM, which is not equipped to handle delicate speciialty fare. Real estate mogul Bob Yari, who financed the sleeper hits Crash and The Illusionist but has been under financial duress since starting his own distribution company, is also expected to leave the film business. Whether he will pay all his bills is unclear.

That this state of affairs is allowed to exist in the indie world is astonishing. Vendors wait months if not years to get paid, knowing they will probably have to sue for their livelihood. One ThinkFilm vendor who hasn't been paid since last August is owed in the six figures. Gibney is outraged, trying to fight a broken system and win back rights to his film before it enters financial limbo.

On the other hand, it isn't every day that an indie company does everything right and wins an Oscar. ThinkFilm has done it several times. And it is highly unlikely that Taxi to the Dark Side would be able to earn much more than it did under the current dark moon hovering over the indie sector.

UPDATE: Gibney and other sources say there were plans to do a proper post-Oscar release, utilizing orgs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which would have enhanced the movie's video value. The movie ended up with a drastically curtailed brief booking in one theater, and ThinkFilm lost the film's website.

See also stories in New York Times and Indiewire. UPDATE: ThinkFilm is dropping out of distributing Momma's Man.

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