Fox Lorber: Foreign appeal critical to coproductions

In time for the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-19), RealScreen turns its attention to the big screen......
September 1, 1998

In time for the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-19), RealScreen turns its attention to the big screen…

Even in an era wherein doc producers bemoan the lack of theatrical opportunities, New York-based Fox Lorber Associates is still in the business. The 18 year-old company finances, co-finances and distributes documentaries and acquires foreign language films. They also recently launched a home video label and have, according to them, ‘one of the most prestigious and prolific libraries of foreign films for home video.’

A division of New York’s WinStar New Media, Fox Lorber splits its time between home video and theatrical releasing. As Johanna Samuel, VP of international sales and coproductions, explains: ‘We are very aggressive in TV for documentaries and series. As for feature films, we are buying films that are finished, or classic films that are foreign language or that are going to appeal very strongly to the foreign language market.’

Samuel, formerly an exec specializing in theatrical acquisitions and coproductions at Warner Bros. International, says Fox Lorber covers the whole spectrum when it comes to the projects they finance and co-finance. ‘We do a lot of social issue docs,’ she says. ‘We’re distributors of Classified X, which has won a lot of awards and is directed by Melvin Van Peebles. We’re also working with Arnie Gelbart [president of Montreal's Galafilm] doing a doc series which is pretty much strictly science but it’s got a morality tale involved in it, called After Darwin.’

Examples of recent projects that have been either wholly or partially financed by Fox Lorber include: Amazons (produced by Toronto-based Pyewackitt Films and the BBC), Treacherous Places (produced by New York’s David Adler of Humble Productions for The Learning Channel), and a boxing version of Hoop Dreams called On the Ropes (produced by New York-based Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgan for Discovery U.S.)

The degree of financing that Fox Lorber invests in any picture depends on the film and its merits, according to Samuel. ‘The financing really depends on what is already in place and if nothing’s in place, but it’s something very promising, then we’ll try to put that financing in place through pre-sales and then we’ll deficit finance the project.’ Samuel stresses that there is a ‘psychological limit’ in terms of how much money Fox Lorber is prepared to spend, with forty to sixty thousand dollars an easy deficit to carry. Fox Lorber does, however, pick up the cost of 35mm prints for projects released theatrically and it pays for the marketing of all projects.

According to Samuel, a film must possess definite criteria for Fox Lorber to become a coproducer. ‘[The film's] got to be fluent worldwide – something that isn’t just going to appeal to five people,’ she says. ‘It’s got to be a topical issue or historical enough that it hasn’t been beaten to death. And it should have a home broadcaster attached. It would also be great if there were some small pre-sales attached so that there would be some indication of credibility and interest.’

Pre-sales are a crucial component to the package. ‘They are done based on a treatment or a demo or some footage, with the help of a producer selling it, with a budget, with a schedule, with proof of the determination to finish a project and to give a sense of what it is.’ Completed films – even those with no previous distribution – are welcomed by the company.

Home video falls into the same category as theatrical releases, in terms of when Fox Lorber is likely to show interest. ‘Every single project that’s brought in is analyzed by the video department from the early stages on. The video life to a project is very crucial, especially when we’re going out and risking money on something that we’ve fallen in love with. It really does help if there is a potential for video,’ says Samuel. It also helps if the film is a coproduction with a broadcaster involved, not a straight acquisition. ‘If a broadcaster comes in as a coproducer, then from an earlier stage of the project there’s more of a shared equation of talent,’ she explains.

Currently in coproduction partnership with the likes of the BBC, Channel 4, Telpool Germany and France’s ARTE, Samuel says, ‘We’re a quiet company that’s doing a lot.’

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