CA: Ted Evanoff: Making movies in Memphis
Marie Pizano never has made a blockbuster movie, though in America’s new golden age of film, which we live in now, even divorced single moms in Memphis can dream of motion picture fame.
“I’m sitting on a gold mine of Memphis stories,” Pizano said. “I want to make movies out of them.”
Actually seated in a Downtown cafe the other day, talking about her life, Pizano offered her own storyline:
She has opened MVP3 Entertainment Group at 5100 Poplar, bought the movie rights to six local books, and this month brought aboard Hollywood insider Steven Sahlein to help produce four films.
Remember Tom Cruise?
Since the 1993 debut of “The Firm,” a motion picture that shows actor Tom Cruise outwit a mob law firm, filming has ticked up in Memphis. But nothing big has come in like the $42 million Paramount Pictures budgeted for the Cruise film.
Don’t toss the popcorn, though.
With its old brick buildings, leafy neighborhoods and photogenic slice-of-real-life street scenes, Memphis can still make it in the movies.
No, not $42 million legal thrillers, but productions smaller even than the $17 million spent here last year making “Sun Records,” a TV series about rock ‘n’ roll’s Memphis origins shown on Country Music Television’s CMT channel.
‘Hundreds of films’
Entertainment executives now hunt for films, lots of them. Amazon, Hulu and Netflix stream content, while cable TV channels like Lifetime and CMT soak up material that fits their brands, and theaters clamor for new motion pictures.
“We’re talking about a demand for hundreds of new films, if not thousands of them, and that’s just in one year,” Sahlein said.
Despite the demand, making and selling a new movie is still a dice roll.
“You’re playing the lottery,” said “Sun Records” executive producer Leslie Grief.
At least a dozen filmmakers live in the Memphis area, said Linda Sitler, executive director of the Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission.
Many sell and rent copies of their films on websites such as Vimeo. Few make much money.
“Almost anyone who wants to be one can be a filmmaker today because of the digital revolution” lowering production costs, Sitler said.
But movie making still costs money. And the bills exceed most artists’ bank accounts.
That was Pizano’s challenge, too
“She’s one of the most ambitious ladies I’ve ever met,’’ said Memphis philanthropist Rudi Scheidt, a retired cotton executive who traveled worldwide as head of Hohenberg Bros.
But more than ambition drew Sahlein to Pizano’s MVP3.
‘I’m a deal maker’
The way she tells it, she ran into movie star Morgan Freeman.
“Marie,” she remembers him saying, “take a story that is already in book form.”
If you have a good story in hand, she realized, investors would have a surer feel the movie could make money.
Until 1999, when her ex-husband’s job brought them to Memphis, she had worked for a Chicago investment firm, a middling job that revealed this: Rivers of information flow through investment houses.
She knew she needed advice. She drove to the first investment house she remembered in the Poplar Corridor, Duncan-Williams Inc., walked in, but didn’t ask for cash. She spoke of making movies.
A name came up, Memphis attorney Neal Graham, a tax expert at the Harris Shelton law firm, and that led her to Sahlein, who knew the key to making movies is making investors understand the movie can make money.
“I’m a deal maker,” Sahlein said. “What I like to do is find out what pieces are missing and what needs to be done and then do what I can to make it whole. Neal made me feel really comfortable about the deal.”
Doing the deal
Sahlein knew Graham. The tax lawyer provided advice after Sahlein settled in 2006 in Oxford, a college town near Memphis where he met his wife, Emeline, 25 years ago while he made a movie, “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag.”
Sahlein also knew Bill Luckett, the owner of a blues bar near Clarksdale who was in business with Freeman. Luckett had met Pizano when MVP3 produced “Shattered,” a low-budget thriller filmed in the Delta city. Sahlein felt comfortable with her.
“One of the things that attracted me to Marie was she’d really done her homework,” Sahlein said. “It was the way the company was structured, the fact she really wanted to get movies made and the fact there was a lot of support for her in Memphis.”
Here’s the structure: MVP3 owns the movie rights to four books. Each book will become a movie. Investors will put their money in a common pool used to make the four movies. Even if one movie flops, another could be a financial success. This makes a profit more likely than investing in only one movie.
Each movie is essentially a little company, called a limited partnership, inside a bigger company named JND Films, called a general partnership. Investors are invited to come in through what is known as a private offering. The offering hasn’t occurred yet.
Movies will cost about $5 million each to make, $20 million in total, with investors shouldering $8 million, and $12 million made up of bank loans backed by foreign sales advances, domestic advances, state filmmaking incentives and advances from distributors.
Can you really make money on $5 million movies?
“I’m going to do everything I can to make it successful,” Sahlein said
Golden film era
Setting the pace is Hollywood’s chief rival, a company named Netflix, a 3,700-employee tech outfit near San Francisco that ran up almost $9 billion in sales last year, nearly triple Paramount’s revenue in 2016.
But Netflix is choosy. Pitch a film and Netflix almost never buys. It’s spending that $5 billion largely making its own content. In an odd way, this opens an opportunity for established filmmakers like Greif and hopefuls like Pizano.
Even if Netflix and the big Hollywood studios are booming, there’s still not enough new content for the cable channels and theater owners.
So they need independents like Pizano’s MVP3.
…Hollywood studios still make about 250 films every year, although theater owners want about 400 films.
They turn to distributors such as Lionsgate Film, which supplies independent movies such as “Hell or High Water,” a 2016 thriller shot in Texas that brought in $27 million and cost $12 million to make.
Independent films usually rely on actors willing to work for $50,000 to $200,000 for a few weeks of shooting time. Of the $42 million spent on “The Firm,” $12 million was Cruise’s movie star fee.
Getting a film into 3,000 theaters throughout the country can make it a blockbuster, although Sahlein figures a $5 million thriller shown in only 500 theaters can pull in $6 million in ticket sales.
If you do the math, this means every $1 invested gets back $1.20.
For a movie maker, a 20 percent return is no nightmare at all.