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Sundance Filmmakers Hedge Latest Swipes at Businesses

Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock
Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock attends the 2011 Cinema Eye Honors at the Museum of the Moving Image on Jan. 18, 2011 in the Queens borough of New York City Photographer: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Filmmakers pitching a new crop of movies targeting markets and business at the Sundance Film Festival have taken a page from their subjects’ playbooks and found ways to hedge their risks.

The movies, featured this week at the annual festival in Park City, Utah, face their own economic uncertainty: getting people still hurting from the recession to buy tickets. Some of the filmmakers have already covered their costs by lining up distributors or selling sponsorships.

Small budgets and liberal use of humor and irony may help. Studios struggle to draw Americans to serious films about current events, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the 2008 global financial crisis. News Corp.’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” and Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” may have failed to recoup their costs in theaters.

“The key from our standpoint is trying to make something exciting,” said Morgan Spurlock, who looks at how studios promote products in films and TV shows with the documentary “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” “The film doesn’t go down like medicine. You don’t feel like you’re going to a documentary.”

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” Oliver Stone’s 2010 follow-up to the Fox hit “Wall Street,” featured Michael Douglas again as the unscrupulous investor Gordon Gekko. The sequel, made for $70 million, brought in $130.6 million in theaters worldwide, according to researcher Box Office Mojo. Studios split ticket revenue with cinema operators.

Where’s The Love?

The September 2009 release “Capitalism: A Love Story” cost $20 million to produce and brought in $17.4 million in worldwide ticket sales, including $3.1 million overseas, according to Box Office Mojo, based in Sherman Oaks, California.

In addition to Spurlock’s entry, movies dealing with business and financial markets at Sundance include “Margin Call,” about the machinations inside a Wall Street investment firm as the 2008 meltdown hit, and “The Flaw,” a documentary that examines the causes of the crisis.

The films highlight problems in an economic system focused on personal gain. Bankers in “Margin Call” follow the law while dismissing broader ethical issues.

Spurlock, director of the 2004 film “Super Size Me,” has beaten the odds by covering his production costs and attracting a distributor. “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” follows Spurlock visiting with corporate executives to sell rights to have their products appear in the movie itself.

Advertisers Pitch In

The sales, to companies including juice maker PomWonderful LLC, JetBlue Airways Corp. and Hyatt Hotels Corp., financed the film, which cost $1.5 million, Spurlock said. Sony Pictures Classics plans an April release in theaters.

Marketers will help promote the “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” with giveaways and advertising as the release date nears, Spurlock said in an interview.

“Margin Call” features Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Stanley Tucci as Wall Street executives who get an early warning of the coming crash. Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. and Roadside Attractions have purchased rights to the film, which is scheduled to appear in theaters in October.

The movie was made for $3 million and investors already have made a profit through the sale, director J.C. Chandor said in an interview in Park City.

“If it was just a bunch of gobbledygook about the financial crisis, that would be a problem,” Spacey said in an interview. “But when you make it into a personal story, like we did, it becomes more attractive to the audience.”

“The Company Men,” one of Sundance’s economy-related films last year, opened last weekend with ticket sales of $648,000 in 106 theaters. The movie, featuring Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones, expands to 211 locations this weekend, according to Box-Office. The film, picked up by Weinstein Co., cost $15 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

Credit Crisis

In “The Flaw” bankers and executives discussing the 2008 financial crisis, including former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, are unable to explain exactly what went wrong.

Director David Sington, in an interview, said too many Americans over-borrowed for their homes and to maintain their standard of living. As the debt mounted, a higher percentage of personal income went to bankers.

“You are constantly siphoning spending power out of the middle class in the form of interest payments,” Sington said. “It’s like this vast machine that Hoovers up money and pumps it into bank accounts of a small number of people.”

Cold War Propaganda

Sington uses animation and cuts from Cold War propaganda films to keep the story from getting dull. He declined to disclose the cost.

New Video Group Inc. acquired the rights to distribute “The Flaw” in theaters, video-on-demand, cable television and DVD formats, the New York-based company said today in an e-mailed statement. Terms weren’t disclosed.

“It is possible to make documentaries that have a big-screen feel about topics people are interested in for not very much money, for hundreds of thousands of dollars and not millions of dollars,” Sington said. “You’ve really got to make it for less than $1 million if you are not relaxed about getting your money back.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael White in Los Angeles at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Palazzo at

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