In America, The Weinstein Co has received most of the PR bonanza for backing Oscar-touted The King’s Speech. But it’s really a British film financing company aptly named Prescience that first recognized the film’s potential. With an office in Beaconsfield, a quaint market town 20 miles outside of London, the Prescience only set up in business 5 years ago — which underscores how far this boutique film financier has come. Prescience has backed 25 films to date with a total production value of $400 million. It’s run by managing director Tim Smith and his co-director Paul Brett who’ve both worked in the movie industry for more than 20 years at British outposts of Hollywood studios. Smith used to work for Fox, while Brett has worked for Miramax, Pathé and Paramount. Both come from a marketing background, which is what they say they’re bringing to the party. Brett tells me: “In Hollywood a film gets greenlit when they have a release date and know how it’s going to be marketed. Here a film is greenlit when the money’s available.”
The Weinstein Company and Prescience were the first financiers in after UK distributor Momentum. Iain Canning, co-producer of The King’s Speech, had decided to keep the project independent, turning down an offer from Fox Searchlight to fully fund the movie. Instead, The Weinstein Company took North American rights plus a clutch of several other territories including France and Germany. Prescience’s job was to fund the production, lending against pre-sales, tax money, and territories which sales agent FilmNation had yet to sell. The UK Film Council and UK post-production company Molinare rounded out the $12 million budget with some equity. But co-producer Gareth Unwin tells me: “Prescience were a key element of our finance plan. Without their commitment, the film would not have happened.”
So, what was it about The King’s Speech that made Prescience want to get on board a period English drama? “It was easily the best script I’ve ever read,” says Brett, who reads between 300 to 400 screenplays a year, about David Seidler’s original screenplay.
Now Prescience has aligned itself with The King’s Speech filmmakers again on another project written by Seidler. Producer Gareth Unwin is pitching The Lady Who Went Too Far based on a biography of Lady Hester Stanhope and set during the Napoleonic Wars. Director and cast have yet to be attached. “Tim and Paul have been fierce advocates of The Lady Who Went Too Far to date,” Unwin tells me.
And Prescience continuing to work with the rest of The King’s Speech team as well. It has co-financed My Week With Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh, which is currently in post at The Weinstein Company. And Momentum is due to release Prescience-backed romantic comedy Chalet Girl, starring Gossip Girl‘s Ed Westwick, Brooke Shields and Bill Nighy, on 350 to 400 prints – the same number as The King’s Speech – on March 18th. U.S. distribution is in advanced negotiation.
The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, is opening at this Sundance Film Festival and was financed through Aegis, Prescience’s loan fund. Aegis will have raised $80 million through private investors by March. So far investors have been getting an average return of 13.4%. Prescience is expanding fast. It is launching 2 new film funds that aim to raise $72 million between them through London City investors. After all, it’s bonus time in the financial district and those bankers have to park their cash somewhere. Metropolis Film Fund hopes to raise around $32 million in its first year, financing 6 to 10 films. Hindsight Capital aims to raise a minimum of $40 million. Both funds expect to give investors a return of 15%-20% per annum. Martin Churchill, a financial adviser who scrutinises film investments, tells me: “They’ve got a strong set of products and a track record behind them. Having seen their results so far, they look interesting.”
And Prescience is going to start producing its own movies. The plan is to make 2 features each year. It already owns sales agent Metropolis, run by industry veteran Ralph Kamp, so moving into production is the next logical step. Apart from The Lady Who Went Too Far, it is developing 2 romantic comedies. First up is The Perfect Margarita, about a New York marriage counsellor who falls for his best friend, which hopes to begin shooting in September. Ex-UK Film Council fund head Robert Jones is producing. Next is Bondi Blond.
It’s also moving into bigger Hollywood productions. In addition to its relationship with The Weinstein Company, it’s co-financing the U.S. remake of Belgian thriller Loft – the most successful Flemish film of all time – with LA-based Anonymous Content. Filming begins April 11 in the US. And it’s boarded Occupant Films’ Better Living Through Chemistry, starring Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Garner, which aims to start filming June/July.
Prescience started out 5 years ago financing small British movies such as Terry Gilliam’s Tideland and horror flick The Ferryman before moving up to bigger UK projects such as Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold and Harry Brown. Back then it was using a succession of clever tax funds that had to keep reinventing themselves to keep up with the twists-and-turns of tax law. HMRC, the British equivalent of the IRS, was determined to stamp out what it saw as some financiers abusing the system. But as soon as the tax authority outlawed one scheme, another would pop up — like Whack-A-Mole. Prescience has now dropped most tax schemes as being too exhausting to maintain – although it still runs one tried-and-tested simple tax fund. “Legally you can still do it but life’s too short,” Smith tells me. “We want to run a business that’s basically a boutique media bank.”
Not that it’s easy. Pippa Cross, producer of Chalet Girl, tells me that despite Prescience’s enthusiasm closing the finance on the film was still a nightmare. The $9 million teen comedy was only fully funded once filming had begun on location in the Austrian Alps. “That transaction occupies a starry position in the top 10 of most difficult films to close,” Cross says. Smith notes that only the best indie projects are getting financed — the ones which the market wants. “We’re focused on what we believe are the best independent films in the marketplace.”
One of the problems facing financiers such as Prescience is figuring out how much unsold territories are worth. Only then can it figure out how much it’s safe to lend. It used to be that North America was worth around 40% of the budget. These days it could be worth anything between hundreds of thousands of dollars – or nothing. “We never factor in a North America sale with most of the films we look at,” says Smith. “And we wouldn’t finance a film over $14 million if it didn’t have a U.S. pre-sale. It’s a totally different world compared to a couple of years ago.”
Xavier Marchand, managing director of Momentum Pictures, tells me: “They’ve got a good feel for what’s marketable. And they’re proactive about giving notes. Unlike a lot of the other investment funds, these guys have got a track record for picking the right movies.”