In 2013, Non-Blockbusters Saw Huge Success, But Who Funded Them?

This past summer, Hollywood released many high-budget blockbusters that failed. But this year, some smaller, critically acclaimed films reached the big screen and hit it big. For more on funding for movies big and small, Melissa Block talks with Los Angeles Times movie industry reporter Steve Zeitchik.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As we just heard, despite a rough summer, studios are sticking with the blockbuster model, which makes this movie season all the more remarkable. The theaters are packed with smaller critically acclaimed movies about big ideas, history and struggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: Solomon Northup is my name. I'm a free man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "AMERICAN HUSTLE")

CHRISTIAN BALE: Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad, but you had to survive.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS")

JEANINE SERRALLES: What if the music's not...

OSCAR ISAAC: What? Quit? Just exist?

SERRALLES: Exist? Is that what we do outside of show business?

BLOCK: "12 Years A Slave," "American Hustle," "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Her," and "The Wolf of Wall Street," to name a few. Well, if the blockbuster model means studios are spending less money on these smaller, edgier films, then we wondered, how are they getting made? To help us answer that question, I'm joined by Steve Zeitchik, who covers the movie industry for the Los Angeles Times. Steve, welcome back.

STEVE ZEITCHIK: Thanks for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: And it seems that we've been hearing for years that it's really hard for smaller, riskier movies to get made in Hollywood. So if you look at this year, do you agree that it really was a good year for the non-blockbuster?

ZEITCHIK: Well, I think it's always going to be hard for smaller, edgier movies to get made. I think the thing that you're seeing now and the thing that's changed a bit is that you have a number of outside players working with the studio system, very deep-pocketed players, who are willing to put up money for some of these films.

So you mentioned "Her." That's a film that is coming out through Warner Brothers, but was financed largely by a company called Annapurna Pictures, founded and run by Megan Ellison - daughter, of course, of the Silicon Valley mogul Larry Ellison. Almost all the money from that film is coming from her.

This is a very difficult movie, very challenging movie, very interesting film, directed by Spike Jones about a man who falls in love with a computer-generated voice and all that money is coming from outside the system. "Wolf of Wall Street," pretty much the same deal. Paramount releasing it, but a lot of the money coming from a company called Red Granite Pictures.

So still hard to get it made, but there are these outside players who are stepping in to save the day in a lot of cases.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk a bit more about one of those deep pockets and you mentioned her name, Megan Ellison, who heads Annapurna Pictures, who's also financed a bunch of other movies. "Zero Dark Thirty," "The Master," "American Hustle," those all have Annapurna's name in the credits. So talk a bit about her and how she's positioned herself in the industry.

ZEITCHIK: Well it's funny, Megan Ellison is one of these people who you talk to anyone in the film business who are making these kinds of movies and they'll right away bring up her name and say, she's changing filmmaking. She came into the business a couple of years ago making some of these movies you're talking about, working with these very high-end directors, "Zero Dark Thirty" directed by Kathryn Bigelow, noted director, of course, of "The Hurt Locker."

Spike Jones who directed "Her," also "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation." "The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson. So these very serious filmmakers and she's basically said, you know what, studios don't want to make your movies; thirty, forty million dollars is a lot for a serious, edgy drama, but it's not a lot for me. And so, you know, even though the profit and loss statements and the economics don't necessarily work in her favor - she certainly hopes that they do - she's coming in and saying, you know what, I want to put out these great films into the world. They're not going to get made without me. The studios, at the same time, are very happy to have someone else shoulder the risk and so, in a sense, everybody wins.

BLOCK: Are you really saying that a major studio wouldn't have made "Zero Dark Thirty" with Kathryn Bigelow?

ZEITCHIK: I think those kinds of movies are harder and harder to make. Certainly not at the budget that movie was made, I think, for about 50, 60 million, maybe even more. There's very little chance a lot of these movies would get made. In fact, all these films you're talking about at the box office, "12 Years A Slave" is another example coming from a company called River Road out of Minnesota, a guy named Bill Pohlad.

There was almost no way that movie would've gotten made, as difficult and as rigorous as it is. So no, even with the pedigree of some of these people - and that had Brad Pitt producing it - so even with those pedigrees, I do not think you would see these movies out in theaters, if not for these outside financing entities.

BLOCK: Do you think in the end, Steve, we're ending up with more interesting movies, maybe riskier, more risk-taking movies than we would've, because there are these alternates routes of financing outside the system?

ZEITCHIK: We certainly are and, again, a lot of these movies that we're seeing now that people are enjoying, I really don't believe we would see them without these outside entities. The counterargument to all this optimism is, well, the reason we need some of these outside entities is because the studios have gotten out of the game.

You know, five years ago, six years ago, even as recently as then, studios were making the movies themselves. So the fact that we need these kinds of white knights to come in and save the day is itself a sign that studios have gotten risk-averse. So that's sort of the counterargument.

BLOCK: Steve Zeitchik covers the movie industry for the Los Angeles Times. Steve, thanks so much.

ZEITCHIK: Thank you, Melissa.

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