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The Fighter's Success Has Many Fathers

by Anne Thompson
December 14, 2010 4:18 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

Careful what you wish for.

Relativity chief Ryan Kavanaugh got some good news and bad news Golden Globes nominations morning. The movie he acquired in turnaround from Paramount two years ago (with Mark Wahlberg attached), The Fighter, scored six nominations including best drama, director, actor, supporting actor and two for supporting actress.

The bad news: now Kavanaugh has to pay for a costly awards campaign. "It's been a long, hard, exciting road," says Kavanaugh. "On the one hand it's my baby, so I'm saying, 'yes!' On the other side, 'shit!' I'm arguing with myself about how much we can invest in it and still make money."

Thompson on Hollywood

The story of how The Fighter got made is revealing of the new economies of scale in Hollywood. Indie Kavanaugh overhauled the script from top to bottom, he says, to make it more of a "feel-good family movie and love story," hired David O. Russell and brought in a new cast, including Christian Bale; raised foreign coin from 110 countries, and shot the boxing drama in 33 days with only three set aside for the fight scenes (he did finance some reshoots in the end).

If Paramount had paid full freight (with stars such as Matt Damon or Brad Pitt), the $25 million movie would have easily cost more than twice that, some $60 or 70 million. At that price, the studio was wise to let it go, but given its enthusiasm for the material, right to hang on to the right of first refusal. And still, after seeing an early cut the studio passed, according to a KCRW interview with producer David Hoberman. Relativity nabbed offers from three other studios before Paramount insisted on seeing the locked cut and then exercised its domestic theatrical and homevideo distribution rights. Kavanaugh held on to TV rights, which should pay off nicely.

Old Hollywood truisms hold firm on movies like this that are now heading into Oscar contention. Many players want to take credit for the film's success, from Kavanaugh, the man who saved and financed the film, to Paramount, which developed and refused to finance but eventually marketed and released the film, to producers like Hoberman.

Fact is, the studios can't afford to make these dramas at studio rates. Only the indies can. There's no way Bale would have worked for $250,000 and a bad back end on a studio film; in this case, he was willing to take a bet that he would come out ahead. With an Oscar win in his sights, he clearly made the right call. What's money against a long and stellar career with better choices going forward? More agents should be as canny as WME partner Patrick Whitesell, who has also been making some smart long-term moves on Ben Affleck's behalf (The Town grabbed a Globe supporting nom for Jeremy Renner).

But Paramount was well-fixed to release The Fighter domestically. While other studios have let their specialty divisions go, Paramount wisely held on to some of the marketers from Vantage who can still hand-hold special movies when necessary. And Kavanaugh's Relativity, going ahead, is taking on the role of distributor as well. Just financing and producing films wasn't enough for him, he says, when the distributors weren't as invested in his films' success as their own. Kavanaugh is bullish on his Netflix deal, which pays him more for the pay-TV window for The Fighter than HBO or Showtime pay the studios, while leaving him with less restrictions on electronic sell-through and pay-per-view.

Is Relativity the new economic model for a streamlined Hollywood? Or Graham King's FilmDistrict? Perhaps---if they can manage to balance commercial quality and costs with smart release plans. Many an independent has fallen down by taking on more than they can handle.

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