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Screen Forever 2016: the true story about financing The Dressmaker

Andrew Einspruch

Behind the Dressmaker success, producer Sue Maslin remembers 'thousands and thousands of decisions, both micro and macro, that get made over the seven years leading up to this first week.'
Screen Forever 2016: the true story about financing The Dressmaker

The hard graft behind the whirlwind of production. Image: The Dressmaker production still.  

Sue Maslin did something you don't see very often. At her session 'Unstitching the Dressmaker' at the Screen Forever conference, she shared actual numbers and development documents from her 2015 feature film success, The Dressmaker (which won this year’s Screen Producers' Award for feature film). It wasn’t just the usual publicly available information like box office receipts, but the numbers, marketing, and financial details she used to gather finance for the project. 

The session was generous, informative, and incredibly useful. 

'The results of the The Dressmaker surprised everyone, me included,' said Maslin. 'But it didn't just happen by magic, and it wasn't just pure good luck. There actually was a game plan behind all this.'

'You only get one The Dressmaker in your career,' said Maslin. 'A story that is so compelling, so visual, is so improbable, is based on a bestselling novel, those couture costumes together with that landscape, the comedy, the tragedy, and the fact that it was really loved by its readers is what appealed to me.'

Like all films,The Dressmaker was a multi-year labour of love. Maslin waited five years just to get the rights (someone else had them originally), and it was another seven years before Kate Winslet and all those fancy frocks appeared in front of audiences. Maslin showed her opening week box office report, saying, 'This is the sort of result you dream of, that is, to actually be on 384 screens and to have a screen average that's sitting around $12,000/screen. It was incredible. But it is the result of thousands and thousands of decisions, both micro and macro, that get made over the seven years leading up to this first week. And you can't possibly know what that picture is going to look like until the first day that the box office opens.'

For example, one of the crucial decisions was that date the film went out. Its Week 1 box office was $5 million. 'That result could not have been achieved if it had been released one week earlier or later, such is the precision of the dating,' said Maslin. Universal had announced a year before that the film would have an October 1st release. But three weeks before release, they found out that The Martian and The intern were both scheduled for the same day, and they knew they'd get swamped. So they moved to October 29th, two weeks before the Bond film Spectre and three weeks before the Hunger Games film Mockingjay.

It was all very strategic, and had to do with trying to maintain a high enough per screen average to retain screens. Normally, a film’s first week gives its highest screen average, and it drops in subsequent weeks. 'If we had not had a strong enough screen average to compete against the juggernaut of James Bond followed by the Hunger Games, we would have been obliterated,' said Maslin. Those two films released on 1,224 screens — almost half of all screens in Australia. If The Dressmaker had gone out a week earlier, their screen average would have dropped too far, and they would have lost screens. If they’d gone out a week later, they would have been competing head-to-head with those films, and lost. 'The dating gave us two weeks to get the oxygen, to get the space to create some traction,' Maslin said. 'I learned pretty quickly that it was war out there.'

That was one decision out of the thousands that had a huge effect on the end result. Other choices were things like getting Jocelyn Moorhouse to both write the screenplay and direct the film. Maslin wanted her on the strength of her debut film Proof, which was also deeply ironic and paired comedy and tragedy.

During the session, Maslin read out her original marketing plan from August 2008, written just after she optioned the book, and it clearly shows the vision that provided a framework for the film's development and the many decisions that went into it. 

'This film marks the return of Jocelyn Moorhouse to Australia, to write and direct what promises to become an Australian classic. Based on a bestselling novel by Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker will be a high concept film that combines fabulous ensemble performances with stunning costumes, and deliver an original story set in a small country town in the golden wheat belt of Victoria. The film will feel like an emotional roller coaster. Audiences won't know whether to laugh or to cry, and it will appeal to a female-skewed audience, but it should be enjoyed by women and men alike.'

It is fascinating to see how that carried through to the final product.

Maslin also showed one of the film's iconic stills (above). She explained that this is not actually a scene from the film (the dress is a nighttime outfit), but that images like this should be planned along with the marketing team to encapsulate what the film is about. Said Maslin, 'You storyboard it, you set up the photo shoot, and you get the money shot.'

Part of what appealed to Maslin about the project was the success of the underlying material. The novel sold had 46,000 copies in Australia, did well in France and Germany, was voted the State Library of Victoria's second most popular novel, was on the VCE Literature Curriculum from 2002-2006, and was the #4 on the AGE fiction bestseller list from January 2011. So it came with a readymade audience.

Maslin also described how she did an initial costing for the film, going through Moorhouse's script scene by scene. There were plenty of expensive elements, including the couture costumes, the ensemble cast, the locations, and the fact that a town has to burn down (read: CGI). Her initial pass at the budget came in at $17.3 million.

Ambitious for an Australian film.

Maslin called the figure 'horrendous' and 'madness,' flying against the wisdom of the day that Australian films could not be more $13 million. She said she looked at ways of trying to get that budget down, doing 15 budgets and 34 finance plans over the next years. But to deliver the vision of Moorhouse's script, the film needed that kind of money. 

So, how to find $17 million (which, despite any number of revisions, is what the final budget came in at)?

Maslin said she found inspiration in three articles on The King's Speech from 2011, including one called 'Who Gets the ‘King’s' Ransom? '[The article] posed a dilemma that was facing the producers at that time,' she said. 'Here they had a high concept film. The studios were really interested. In fact, Fox Searchlight offered them a studio picture deal to get that film made. And they could have gotten it made very quickly, fully financed by the studio. But would it make more sense if they could keep control of the project themselves and take the riskier, but potentially more rewarding route of going independent? Going independent meant stitching together the finance plan themselves, through market source, international, local, gap financing, etc.'

The articles had lots of numbers through them, which Maslin pulled into a rough finance plan for The King's Speech, and she was able to model hers on that. 'What I found was they really only had two minor equity investors — the UK Film Council and a post house, adding up to about 15% of their budget. They had managed to get a good local distribution guarantee. And they got a massive presale from Weinstein — $6 million. So their key problem, having secured a really solid market attachment, was cashflowing it. And they did that by taking out loans amounting to 65% of the budget, which I, personally, would have found terrifying. But, for them, it meant that they retained close to 85% equity in their film. That became meaningful, because this film too over $300 million at the worldwide box office.'

It made an impression.

Maslin showed the session her first finance plan from February 2012, which included figures she knew were unrealistic, but were what she needed. The plan included money from a local distributor, Showtime, and government agencies, and left her needing to find 30% of the budget (around $5 million). That meant she needed a 'serious sales agent' to get money from presales. Scariest was a $2 million gap that would have to come from private investment. She had no idea how to find that.

First stop was a local distributor. She pitched 'the usual suspects' in 2011, and while the script was great, she was told that a female-skewing movie was marginal, arthouse, would get a limited release, and there was no way she'd make back the money she'd need for that kind of finance plan. They certainly weren't going to plunk down $750,000 for a local distribution guarantee. The best offer she could get was $400,000, nowhere close to the target 5% she needed. 

It wasn't until she spoke with Mike Baard of Universal that she was able to finally have a serious conversation about women as a commercial demographic. Universal knew that women go to movies. Bridesmaids anyone?

Ultimately, Universal gave her a letter of interest. And more interestingly, they sent her a list of comps, that is, comparable films. 'This is what distributors use to determine how much they're going to expect to come back from the box office, how much they're going to spend on prints and advertising, and how much they can reasonably put up as a distribution guarantee up front. It was really depressing,' said Maslin. These films clustered into low, medium, high, and 'blue sky' receipts. Low was less than $3 million, which account for most Australian films. Medium was around $5 million. And high was $6 million. Blue sky, those rare breakouts, was around $8 million. 

Sobering.

'It became quickly apparent that there would not be much return from the theatrical release,' said Maslin. 'The disappointing reality is that 60—65% of all box office takings go to the exhibitor before P&A, distributor commission and distributor advance come out. This leaves around 10% of every ticket sold returned to the producer. Not a great basis for a business plan by any measure. But this is the reality of the terms of trade that this industry has accepted as the norm for decades and the reason why we have an industry that is so poorly capitalised and consequently reliant on government subsidy. Those that take the highest risk in this scenario – the producer and equity investors — receive the lowest rate of return.'

So if her film took $4 million, it wouldn’t make money. If it took $8 million, the investors would still not be paid out from Australian theatrical receipts. Even if it hit her own blue sky estimate and made $15 million (something only 15 Australian films had ever done), it would still only return around $1 million from theatrical, but ancillaries (DVD, streaming, etc.) would make it worthwhile.

In pursuing her finance and business strategy, Maslin was asking everyone involved to bet on the blue sky.

That’s why a bankable star was critical. Six months after sending Kate Winslet the script, the actress said yes, which meant Universal could make a formal offer. Maslin eventually came to terms that would let her share in 'some serious returns' if the film broke out. And with Universal’s marketing clout, that seemed possible.

The session made it clear just how much of a marathon the filmmaking process is, especially at the high end. Seven months of negotiating with Universal. Half a year waiting for Winslet. Two years of convincing a private investor to pony up part of the $2 million gap, to go along with the negotiations for facilities deals and producer contribution that made up the rest of it. Five years to get rights. A year of waiting because Winslet got pregnant, which added two million to the budget and forced Maslin to have to rejig the financing (money doesn’t wait around). Seven years to get from option to screen. Working full time for years for the tiniest slivers of development money, and having to defer some of her producer fees to get the thing across the line. 

And for what? 

Maslin said that because of how the finance was structured, she 'personally did not receive a cent from the $20 million box in Australia.' Thank goodness for DVDs and digital streams. 'The film has sold over 240,000 DVDs with a further 70,000 digital streaming and downloads,' said Maslin. 'This is an extraordinary volume of sales in the current market where news of the death of DVD has been somewhat premature. And it is from these receipts that Jocelyn and I are recovering that part of our fees that were deferred and invested in the production.'

One of the interesting things that Maslin said she learned from making The Dressmaker is everything beyond the movie. 'At the beginning I thought I was producing a film,' she said. 'In retrospect, I realise I was producing not just a film, but a set of experiences for audiences and the film was just one part of the value chain.'

Other parts included social media, and gathering together the book’s fans to bring them along for the pre-production journey. Inviting fans to be extras. A virtual 'director’s chair' during production. Dressing up for The Dressmaker when seeing the movie. A costume exhibition with the National Trust. A 'making of' documentary called Behind the Seams to go on the special edition DVD. Study guides with film clips. Like Maslin said, the movie is just part of it.

'It has completely changed my approach to producing,' she said. 'Yes, I want to produce great movies, but I want to do it with a business plan that is developed around a set of audience experiences. And a business plan that works for the Producer as well as the other equity investors.'

When asked at the end of the session why she presented what is usually such closely held information, Maslin said, 'I know because I’ve been helped along the way by mentors, and I know because I studied The King’s Speech case study, that the specifics are what help you. I’ve been in the business for 30 years, and one thing I’ve learned is that it is more empowering to share information than it is to withhold it. That’s the underlying reason,' she said. 'But the reason I want to do it now is that feature films are under more pressure than ever before to get made, get finance, and get even the slightest foothold in that landscape I described. It is a really difficult time. Our narrative is that we have to make films that are lower budget — things under $3 million — and that’s the future of the Australian industry. Well, that’s one future, but that’s a very difficult road. I think that we have to dream big, be ambitious, and go after it in a strategic, businesslike way.'

To her credit, Maslin helped the producers in attendance do just that.

Note: the Special Edition DVD of 'The Dressmaker,' including the making of documentary 'Behind the Seams,' comes out Wednesday, November 23rd. See the trailer here.

Read More: Kate Winslett: an English rose...

About the author

Andrew Einspruch is a writer and producer with Wild Pure Heart Productions. You can follow him on Twitter at @einspruch.

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