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BSS 2014: Show me the money

Matthew Metcalfe presented on the art of financing and the importance of lining up the ducks before expecting someone to be interested in writing a cheque.

Matthew Metcalfe

Matthew Metcalfe

Metcalfe opened by acknowledging there were other ways to skin the financing cat. He talked about the way General Film Company did it, although he admitted the method wasn’t perfect and that he’d seen his share of films fall over.

Fellow producer Chelsea Winstanley played wrangler for the session, occasionally prodding Metcalfe to clarify or expand on points he was offering.

Over recent years Metcalfe has been developing strong working relationships with Toa Fraser and Leanne Pooley. Metcalfe has produced Fraser’s Dean Spanley, Giselle and The Dead Lands; he’s also produced Pooley’s Beyond the Edge and in-production WWI centenary title 25 April. Good relationships were a key component in Metcalfe’s strategy.

Metcalfe runs a broad slate and, a couple of hours after his presentation ended, his GFC Fightertown was named one of three production companies to be supported by the NZFC’s Business Development Scheme. Long a supporter of co-productions, Metcalfe produced Nemesis Game, NZ’s first three way co-production between NZ, Canada and the UK, and multi-season German-language TV show Emilie Richards

“Financing,” began Metcalfe, “isn’t about money. It is about doing other things well, from which financing results.”

In Toronto last month with The Dead Lands, Metcalfe had seen The Dark Horse, and likened financing to that film’s subject matter: chess. Both were games of strategy. “You’re aiming for checkmate within the rules and resources you’ve got available. Different elements can do different things but you have to play them well and in the right order to win.”

First up, Metcalfe’s approach had nothing to do with any specific project. “Surround yourself with great people. Work with the best if you want to be the best.”

Narrowing it down a little, he mentioned, “We love working with artists who have a voice.”

Also, he claimed, “You’ve got to back your own vision. You’re supposed to be the person with the highest standards, who’s the most demanding. If you don’t maintain the highest standards, how can you expect others to observe those standards?”

Having addressed some of the basics of how he likes to approach business, Metcalfe got more project-specific.

“Keep it in-house for as long as possible in development,” he suggested. “It’s hard and expensive, but as soon as you invite someone else in, they want to contribute.”

The benefits from keeping others out included preserving the purity of the vision until the project is sufficiently robust to withstand scrutiny, but mostly it means you’re doing what you want to do. And, if you do it right, you’ll be taking something to potential financiers that’s got a clear vision and voice and makes it easy for them to understand.

Metcalfe also reminded the audience, “If you make a film, 90% of your audience won’t see it in a cinema, which means they can switch it off. You’ve got to have them in five minutes.”

Showing a clip from Jesse Warn’s 2003 Nemesis Game, Metcalfe called it an “elevated thriller”. Elevated genre, he said, was something that buyers look for. And, although Nemesis Game might not be well known in NZ, it sold to every territory in the world and made millions.

Metcalfe also recommended working with material that was “A list festival selectable”. (Nemesis Game premiered at Cannes.) Elevated genre offered a fresh and original take on something and was, therefore, something buyers could easily place as part of a package.

Winstanley produced Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, which Metcalfe also described as elevated.

It was something GFC spent a lot of time talking about in early development. Why will people buy it? Why will people want to see it?

What bout pitching? asked Winstanley.

“I try very hard not to pitch,” said Metcalfe. “I go to markets to listen, listen, listen to market intelligence – and then to think about it.

“You’re not making a film for an audience, you’re making it for buyers,” he explained. “It’s important to know the buyers and to understand them because they know what they want and how they will get it to connect with an audience.”

Brand is also important, said Metcalfe, introducing a clip from Toa Fraser’s Giselle.

“It has a clear genre and audience. It’s a ballet film. Leon Narbey and Toa Fraser are a sellable team,” Metcalfe reckoned. Just as importantly, “Giselle is the second best-known ballet in the world. In two weeks it goes out on 200 screens in France.”

Brand could come from other aspects of the production than the subject matter, Metcalfe acknowledged. Both The Dark Horse and What We Do in the Shadows had brands as their leads: Cliff Curtis, Waititi and Jemaine Clement were all saleable commodities.

To recap, Metcalfe said that at this point he had some pieces on the board – an elevated genre piece, an artistic project, a brand. Whatever the project was, he had at no point spoken to anyone outside the team about it.

“Now,” he said, introducing the trailer for Dean Spanley, “we package.”

Although no-one involved could have known it at the time, Dean Spanley turned out to be Peter O’Toole’s last major film role.

“We took Dean Spanley to market after six years of development,” Metcalfe said, recapping some of the story he and Fraser have both told previously about working with the powerhouse that was Alan Sharp.

“If a project gets more than three rejections (from actors) it starts to get stale,” Metcalfe said. They decided to take a punt on Peter O’Toole first. The rationale: at over 70, he probably wasn’t getting many offers, wasn’t that interested in the money any more, might be more interested in something interesting.

“We went to Hubbards, who do Peter Jackson’s UK casting. I was in Syria, filming a doco for NHK in Japan, when I got a message to call O’Toole’s agent.”

They negotiated but Metcalfe didn’t have the money. He made a strategic decision to take “a several hundred thousand dollar risk”, and said yes. “You have to believe in yourself. If you don’t, how are you going to convince people to part with literally millions of dollars.”

With O’Toole attached, the rest wasn’t necessarily easy but it was easier. “I knew Bryan Brown from meeting him at a festival. I also knew his agent. From Bryan we went to Sam Neill because they’re best mates.

“It was building blocks and it was one at a time.”

Up until that point it was all still an in-house project. “We didn’t go to the NZFC until we had O’Toole on board.”

Having spoken of successes, Metcalfe tuirned to a failure (although he didn’t use that term). Showing a teaser trailer for Cities, to be directed by Roger Donaldson and starring Clive Owen, Metcalfe explained that in the mid-2000s he’d taken it to Berlin and Cannes and done $6.5 million of pre-sales. But it never got made. Its moment in time passed, and it fell by the wayside, taking six figures of GFC’s development support with it.

Cities hurt,” Metcalfe said.

“I’m an intellectual property developer,” Metcalfe said. “We knew we had to convince people they hadn’t seen The Dead Lands before. The previz showed that. We were committed to doing it in te reo Maori, which was what helped make it stand out, what helped make it elevated. Reo was part of our arsenal not an obstacle to overcome.”

It was a te reo action thriller, so it ticked the elevated genre box. It brought Narbey and Fraser back together, so ticked both the artistic voice and brand boxes.

It did a local presale, to Transmission, then went to a sales agent with the package and pre-sale in place. Sales agents knew there was already confidence in the project. Returning to the point about listening, Metcalfe explained he heard about the US distributor XYZ Films at Cannes. (XYZ is well-known for The Raid, so has a clear understanding of marketing a culturally-specific non-English language martial arts feature.)

In answer to a question about doing business internationally, Metcalfe argues it was essential to get on a plane. Metcalfe is presently making his fourth trip to London this year. “Nothing tops a handshake and looking someone in the eye,” he said. “Skype and phone calls are what you do once the relationship is in place.”

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