Horizon, Megalopolis, and the $100m+ movie gambles

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Kevin Costner and Francis Ford Coppola have both put their money where their mouth is, to make huge films outside the studio system…

At the time of writing, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola is 85 years old. He owns a thriving vineyard business, and holds enough rights to his films to enjoy the kind of income most of us would happily content ourselves with, without him having to anything else. Contemporaries such as Brian De Palma and Peter Weir, as they’ve headed towards their eighth and ninth decades, have retired from filmmaking. Coppola, meanwhile, has gathered up all his chips and pushed them with some fervour towards the middle of the metaphorical table.

His long-cherished passion project is the gamble in question, a film by the name of Megalopolis that’s finished, and has cost, conservatively, around $100-120m to realise.

With no movie studio willing to back the film at the point of its conception, Coppola has had to raise the funds himself. He’s done this in part by selling of his wine. When I talk about selling wine, it’s shifting a few bottles I bought from the corner shop. In Coppola’s case, he’s sold a portion of his wine empire to part-fund Megalopolis, in the end the only way to get over the line a film he first started considering in the 1970s.

megalopolis cannes

Kevin Costner meanwhile was gearing up to make a passion project by the name of Horizon at first all the way back in the 1980s. Then, after finishing his frugal 2003 western Open Range – a terrific film, that served as his third feature directorial effort – he had another go at getting the project moving.

No dice. Even though Open Range turned a small profit, Costner couldn’t get Disney to plug a $5m difference between what he needed to make the film, and what the studio was willing to stump up.

It was in the mid-2010s that he revisited what would become Horizon for a third time, to try and get the film off the ground. This time though, as he sat and mapped the movie out with co-writer Jon Baird, the project expanded. No longer was it going to be one film: by the time Costner and Baird had finished scribbling, it was going to be four.

Horizon: An American Saga
Horizon: An American Saga

Bottom line: if Kevin Costner couldn’t get the film bankrolled in the 1980s when his fame was ascending, or in 2003 when Open Range had proven to be successful, his chances were slim in the late 2010s. Even the huge success of the TV show Yellowstone – which made him the highest paid TV actor in America – didn’t have financiers reaching for their chequebooks.

If Kevin Costner really wanted to make Horizon, he was going to have to pay for it himself.

As such, he mortgaged a 10-acre waterfront property site he owned, to raise the funds to get things going. Costner has put substantial money into films before, notably 2014’s Black Or White. But still: the bill for each Horizon film – and two have been shot so far – is said to be around $100m, possibly more. As much as a network of financiers and distribution rights can cover some of that, Costner’s had to put his hand in his pocket else this particular saga was never going to happen.

It’s worth taking a minute here, mind. Both Coppola and Costner are men with sizeable resources to call on. Most independent filmmakers have to call in favours just to get a crew together: this pair could liquidate assets and, even if their risks don’t pay off, they can find a good paying gig somewhere.

Still, what unifies the pair here is that they didn’t have to do this. It feels almost unprecedented to have two Oscar-winning directors each pumping at least eight figures of their own resources into projects to get them off the ground. A further unifying factor being that both projects have faced distribution challenges.

The path of getting Horizon: An American Saga to cinemas has been cleaner. Costner sold the US distribution rights to Warner Bros subsidiary New Line Cinema, which is putting parts one and two of Horizon into cinemas this summer. Scour the UK listings though and you’ll see the problem. Throughout his career, Costner has made American stories, not all of which have overseas legs. He’s made westerns, baseball movies, and tales of American politics. None of these make for instant overseas successes, even if some of the films concerned have find an audience worldwide.

The clue with Horizon might just be in what follows its colon, though. Horizon: An American Saga instantly has the potential for a US audience, certainly. Yet it’s going to be a fight and a half to get the film noticed elsewhere. I’ve buy a ticket tomorrow if there was one available, but as things stand, the overseas – as in non-US – distribution sales for the film are restricted. Open Range did well in Germany, and so it’s been picked up there. But given the price tag of the movies, Costner either can’t really afford, or isn’t inclined, to sell off distribution elsewhere on the cheap. He’s made big films, and he knows he needs big marketing muscle to sell them.

Marketing muscle if what Coppola’s been seeking too for Megalopolis, with the Adam Driver-led film reportedly requiring some $100m of support from whoever picks the movie up. It’s been reported quite widely that screenings have now taken place in the US and UK for potential distributors, yet the studios seem to be running in the other direction. The current speculation is that a boutique distributor such as Neon will acquire the film and given it a bit of welly. It’s unlikely to be near the $100m of marketing that Coppola was reportedly looking for, though.

There’s certainly curiosity from distributors to take a look, and there’s an appreciation that two powerful filmmakers have funnelled their resources into the kind of projects that otherwise wouldn’t get made to anywhere near the scale they have been, if at all. Reading some of the comments below trailer posts for Horizon: An American Saga, and there seems a really appreciation that somebody’s bothered to make a film of its ilk again. Whether that converts into people buying tickets remains to be seen, of course.

Cannes Film Festival emblem

The final factor that unifies Horizon: An American Saga and Megalopolis is that both are getting their world premieres at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. In the case of the latter, even though major distributors haven’t exactly been wooing the film, film festivals absolutely have. Coppola knows he has a film festival big ticket here, and that he could place his film in any festival in the world. That both have chosen Cannes is a major endorsement of the festival itself, and also from two American filmmakers the feeling that European audiences may be more welcoming of their risk.

Filmmakers have, of course, paid for movies themselves before. Kenneth Branagh, for instance, directed his funds from making Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into bringing to life the delightful In The Bleak Midwinter. But his gamble was nowhere near the scale of Costner and Coppola’s. Two people who, for better or worse, are so committed to the idea of their stories, and so determined to get them made, that they’re willing to put their money where their filmmaking mouth is.

The internet is awash with articles lamenting that we only seem to get the same kind of films in cinemas in recent times, and that nobody is really taking big risks. I take issue with those statements at the best of times, but still: here are two projects where maybe it’s our turn to put our money where our mouths are.

The general, and not entirely unfair, perception of a movie costing north of $100m is that it has to have a broad appeal, and that its rougher edges are likely to be sanitised. Neither Megalopolis nor Horizon: An American Saga has to play by those rules, and I hope they don’t. But most of all, I hope both gambles work: because if they do, it lights up a path that others might just be tempted to follow.

After all, if the big studios are decreasingly interested in making the riskier, more interesting films that used to fill cinemas in the 1980s and 1990s, maybe the filmmakers themselves – at least the well-resourced ones – can give it a go.

Beats retirement…

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