When it comes to Hollywood financing, the sky does not fall so much as it just changes color.
When the movie factory needed cash in the 1980s, it tapped individual investors through brokerage firms. That strategy ran its course, and in the 1990s German tax credits became the next sales pitch: Funnel money to our movies via a legislative loophole, Mr. Berlin Financier, and you can take immediate tax deductions.
More recently, the likes of Goldman Sachs, along with giant hedge funds, poured billions of dollars into groups of movies called slates. The idea was that investing in a dozen or more movies at once, with the return calculated in aggregate after all had been released, was a sure-fire way to invest wisely. In many cases, though, it was not.
Now that the economic crisis has washed away much of that money, a new pickup line is starting to waft through the air in deal-making hot spots like the Sundance Film Festival. The new argument is this: Wall Street, real estate, the art market - all of those other supposedly stable investment areas - are now such a mess that Hollywood is one of the safer places you can park money. Although the movie business has been hurt along with nearly every other industry, it is proving far more resilient to recession than most.
"I can legitimately say: 'Hey, wait a minute. My company is outperforming almost everything,"' said Jana Edelbaum, co-founder of an independent financing and production company called iDeal Partners Film Fund. "I think that's a pretty strong selling point."
Edelbaum has been pressing a lot of palms lately in preparation for the premieres of two iDeal movies last week at the Sundance Film. Festival. One of them, "Motherhood," is a day-in-the-life comedy starring Uma Thurman, Minnie Driver and Anthony Edwards. The other, "Arlen Faber," is a romantic comedy starring Jeff Daniels and Lauren Graham (of "Gilmore Girls" fame). Each cost less than $12 million to make and has multiple distribution offers.
Now three years old, iDeal operates out of New York and has financing to make about eight movies. It manages risk to investors through a variety of routes: preselling its films to foreign distributors, casting commercially tested actors, taking advantage of state tax incentives for filming. With that approach, Edelbaum at the outset was able to promise her investors a risk floor of 70 percent on the chance that none of iDeal's films succeeded.
But as iDeal rounds the home stretch on its first batch of movies, Edelbaum is projecting at least a 15 percent return for her investors and - if something big happens with "Motherhood" or "Arlen Faber" - as much as 40 percent.
"Obviously, I want to make as much money as I possibly can," she said. "But I am being dreadfully realistic and conservative given the current environment. It's the non-Madoff approach."
Edelbaum is far from the only independent producer promoting herself to investors with a calmer-waters pitch. The Exodus Film Group, a production and financing company in Venice Beach, California, focuses on animated films and has had a slow start, with sluggish ticket sales for its recent release of "Igor." Coming Exodus entries like the animated "Bunyan & Babe," featuring John Goodman as the voice of Paul Bunyan, are more promising. But John Eraklis, the company's founder and chief executive, says investors are not waiting to find out.
"We have witnessed a surge of existing investors interested in upping their commitment as other opportunities have become less compelling," Eraklis said. "I recently had an investor tell me that we no longer occupy the high-risk portion of his portfolio."
Anybody making the Hollywood-is-safer argument just six months ago would have been laughed out of town. Complex accounting methods, tremendous competition, soaring costs - it was not exactly a safe part of the woods, even for the most sophisticated investor.
All of that terrain is still intact, of course, but compare it with imploding investment banks, plunging real estate prices, a whipsawing stock market, Warhols sitting unsold and Bernard Madoff. At least in the worst instance of Hollywood investing, you will probably catch a glimpse of Angelina Jolie and eat some really good shrimp.
"Is investing in movies more attractive now because of what is happening elsewhere in the economy? Yes," said Daniel Black, a partner at Greenberg Traurig, the large entertainment law firm. "Does that mean all the risk is gone? Absolutely not."
The big studios probably will not be able to rely much on this pitch. Their upfront needs are too big - Universal's last round of private financing, which closed in September, totaled about $3 billion - and Wall Street and the real estate market may sort themselves out before their current slate deals expire.
The biggest players in the investment world have also soured on entertainment because they have been burned badly before, said Amir Malin, a partner at Qualia Capital, a media-focused investment firm.
But for independent producers, especially ones that operate in a transparent manner, the strategy could offer a lifeline. They are in a particularly tough spot because they have almost no hope of tapping the debt markets, there is a dwindling number of buyers - with outfits like New Line folding - and costs are soaring. (Marketing an independent movie now costs more than $25 million, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.)
What do investors have to say? Daniel Crown, the former chief executive of Crown Theaters, his family's movie theater chain in the Northeast United States, said he recently put money into iDeal - but not because he had cinema in his blood.
"If you can find the right film executives, people who consider themselves fiduciaries more than producers, it's one of the best bets you can make right now," Crown said.
"Just remember that it's over when you start taking yourself so seriously that the project stops becoming a commercial movie," he continued, "and starts becoming an art project."