Investor Plows Short-Sale Riches Into Film on One-Armed Surfer
The Dallas-based investor is executive producer and said he provided two-thirds of the $15 million budget for “Soul Surfer,” a film based on Hawaiian surfing champion Bethany Hamilton, who returned to competition three months after losing her left arm in a shark attack in 2003.
“I’m not much of a venture capitalist,” said Tice, 56, who sold his two Prudent Bear short-selling funds to Federated Investors Inc. in 2008 for as much as $143 million. “I’ve always thought that anything that is cool enough to talk about at a cocktail party is a bad investment.”
Tice’s outlay “is a lot of money for anyone to invest, especially a fund manager who is used to handling other people’s money,” said Bill Mechanic, former chairman and chief executive officer of Fox Filmed Entertainment and now head of Pandemonium Films. “The question is whether anyone is going to want to see a pretty girl who gets her arm chewed off by a shark.”
The film is scheduled for release on April 8 by Sony Corp. (6758)’s TriStar Pictures. AnnaSophia Robb, 17, who starred in Walt Disney Co. (DIS)’s “Race to Witch Mountain,” plays Hamilton and is joined by Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid as the girl’s parents.
Carrie Underwood, the Grammy-winning country music singer, makes her big-screen debut in the film, playing Sarah Hill, Hamilton’s influential youth group leader.
Tice said in an interview he invested in “Soul Surfer” because its story of a young girl who overcomes physical and emotional odds “was so inspirational, so uplifting that I decided it could help others.”
‘Blind Side’ Revisited
“I love for my daughters to watch feel-good movies, like ‘Rudy,’ ‘Rocky,’ ‘October Sky,’” Tice said. He compares “Soul Surfer” to the Sandra Bullock football film “The Blind Side.”
The film opens in theaters ahead of the studios’ summer tent-pole pictures and will be up against three new releases including the comedies “Arthur,” from Time Warner Inc. (TWX)’s Warner Bros., and “Your Highness,” from Comcast Corp. (CMCSA)’s Universal Pictures.
U.S. box-office attendance is down 21 percent this year, according to industry tracker Hollywood.com.
Tice said he decided to invest in movies while at the Sundance Film Festival during a ski trip for his girlfriend’s birthday. At a cocktail party, he met a friend of Doug Schwartz, producer of the “Baywatch” TV series. Schwartz was seeking investors for an Imax film based on the Body Worlds exhibit.
“It seemed like a special opportunity,” said Tice, now a consultant to Pittsburgh-based Federated. “An investor isn’t smart enough to put money into a film like ’Sleepless in Seattle’ where you have to judge the script and the actors.”
Schwartz had approached Hamilton six months after the shark attack, after she had resumed competitive surfing. When Body Worlds failed to materialize, he recruited Tice to invest in “Soul Surfer.”
Tice said he “had a lower budget in mind.” When Sony signed on to release the film, the studio pushed for bigger name stars, said Steve Bersch, president of Sony Pictures World Acquisitions. Their salaries increased the budget, and the shooting time lengthened to fit their schedules, Tice said.
To improve the surfing scenes, the production moved for a short time to Tahiti from the north shores of Oahu and Kauai.
“I think that David got his master’s degree in movie making,” Bersch said in an interview. “I’ve seen a lot of independent financiers, but I’ve rarely seen one as good as him at balancing his own views with the important decisions you have to make to produce a successful film.”
FilmDistrict, Sony’s marketing partner on “Soul Surfer,” screened the film for faith-based groups, Bersch said. The picture is also being marketed through traditional ads and on the talk-show circuit with the stars and Hamilton, now 21, who won her first national title in 2005.
“If we can appeal to the faith-based market, we will do well,” Tice said from Los Angeles, where he attended a premiere for the film a week before its release. “And we will do better because we think the uplifting nature of this film will appeal to people who are down on their luck and are looking for something good in life.”
Tice is looking for his next film investment, and has set up his own company, Enticing Entertainment. He said he has projects in development that he won’t discuss.
“I will be very judicious and I probably won’t ever take as big of a chance as I did with this one,” he said. “But I’ll have a better feel for that on Friday.”
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