By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 13, 2009 at 7:51AM
Without Colorado-based producers Sarah Siegel-Magness and her husband Gary Magness, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire might never have been made.
At the Sundance Film Festival, a number of distributors pursued a deal, including Weinstein Co. and Overture, who fell behind in the bidding. But the Magnesses and director Lee Daniels went with Lionsgate for a $5.5 million minimum guarantee. The tipping point: Lionsgate put Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry on the table. Lionsgate has a close relationship with Perry; he saw the movie at the end of Sundance and eventually brought it to Winfrey. She plans to devote several shows to the movie, which are worth untold dollars at the boxoffice. "We're thankful and excited to have Oprah and Tyler Perry on our team," says Siegel-Magness. "This film is a journey. We were brought in at a certain time to take it from one place to the next. Now we have angels coming in to take it to the next level. We all added something to the project."
At the Toronto fest, press went nuts over Perry and Winfrey, who did a full day of press and attended the premiere. Perry said he left the movie feeling "inspired and it gave me hope."
When Perry showed Winfrey the movie, she told him, "'Tell me what I can do to ring the bell as loud as I can to get as many people as possible,'" said Winfrey from the stage at Roy Thomson Hall. "It struck a nerve with me." She realized that she had often overlooked girls like Precious on the El or in the street in Chicago. "Because of this movie you can't pretend that these people are invisible in front of you."
Now the Magnesses are being pushed into the background by their more stellar new exec producers. That's okay, to a point. "We had to believe that this movie was worthwhile," says Siegel-Magness. "People in the industry said 'are you crazy?' We're the only investors. 'Are you flipping nuts?' On set we knew. We had the faith."
But it does rankle a bit, because they invested millions of dollars in this movie. "Nobody knows we produced the film," says Siegel-Magness. "That's disheartening. We put our heart and soul into it. To be erased is difficult. That is reality."
But unlike financeer Bob Yari, who paid for the movie Crash, if all goes well through the running of the Oscar derby and Precious actually does win best picture, the Magnesses and Daniels will ascend the stage at the Academy Awards to collect the golden statue.
For now, the Magnesses realize that others will grab the spotlight. A recent NYT piece overplayed the fact that the Toronto Festival mistakenly left the producers off the list of who would be participating in the TIFF Precious press conference, citing "producers" Winfrey and Perry instead. Cable scion Magness was never planning to be up on the dais; a quiet hard-nosed businessman who runs numbers, he lets his wife (daughter of Celestial Seasonings co-founder Mo Siegel and inventor of So-Low panties) do the talking. But Siegel-Magness was always going to participate.
Some years ago, the two were ready to invest in Clive Custler's adventure movie Sahara, but luckily Philip Anschutz got there first. So instead their company Smokewood Entertainment came in at the last minute to finance Daniels' production of Tennessee , starring Mariah Carey. Produced by Daniels, the film flopped at the box office and has yet to go to DVD to make back some of the Magnesses' money.
But the duo were impressed by Daniels. When he approached them with Precious, which had been passed on by the other studios, they jumped in on the basis of the screenplay, adapted by Geoffrey Fletcher from the Sapphire novel Push. "We knew Lee was from that world and could tell that story," says Siegel-Magness. "Other people didn't understand it."
After Carey proved she was willing to work hard on Tennessee, Daniels brought her back for a supporting role as a social worker in Precious (Madonna and Sienna Miller were in the running) on a bare-bones deal. He also cast TV comedienne Mo'Nique (who should land a supporting actress nomination for her searing performance) and unknown Gabourey Sidibe, who was discovered after an exhaustive talent search. She had never acted before. The filmmakers had been considering her mother for a role, who recommended her daughter. "I'm thankful doing this movie just to have her in my life," says Siegel-Magness, who got her a job at the Fresh Air Fund after filming. "She dreamt of being an actress. It just happened, like winning the lottery."
During the filming, Magness stayed home with their older child who was in school, while Siegel-Magness brought her four-year-old son to the location filming in Harlem and the Bronx. "We were on the streets, with desolate buildings and no trailers," she says. "To be honest, I had never experienced that part of New York."
The Magnesses have over $10 million invested in the two films. They're managing the foreign sales on Precious. And they've just landed a much-coveted family book series, Judy Moody, which they hope to set up with a studio. Precious opens November 6. It looks like betting on Daniels was a good move, all around.
[Photo: Gabourey Sidibe in Toronto with Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness; Lee Daniels welcomes Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey on Roy Thomson Hall stage; Mariah Carey, Oprah Winfrey, and author Sapphire on Precious red carpet.]