Magazine article Variety

Rush to the Finish Line

Magazine article Variety

Rush to the Finish Line

Article excerpt

With the major studios obsessed with revving up only potential franchises, even established filmmakers like Ron Howard are racing to find independent inancing to fuel their more risky, midrange vehicles.

"Rush," the high-octane car racing film about the public rivalry between legendary Formula One drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt during the 1970s, has all the markings of Tinseltown's latest flashy biopic, with Ron Howard at the wheel, Chris Hemsworth as its star, and Universal Pictures releasing the film Sept. 27. But that assumption couldn't be further from the truth.

"It is going to be easy for people to think this is a Hollywood movie, and it just is not," says the upcoming film's British screenwriter, Peter Morgan, who penned "Frost/Nixon," also directed by Howard. "It is a British independent film directed by a Hollywood director."

As the majors focus more on putting their money behind mega-budgeted projects with built-in brand awareness - sequels, reboots, films based on toys, videogames and comicbooks - filmmakers are finding that Hollywood's studio system is rapidly shifting under their feet.

"Because studios are less interested in the midbudget area, there is a massive opportunity for independents to step into that (area) at the moment," says "Rush" producer Andrew Eaton of London-based Revolution Films.

Indeed, it's getting harder to set up a midbudget range original project at a studio, even for veteran filmmakers like Howard and producing partner Brian Grazer, whose Imagine Entertainment has had an overall deal at Universal for 27 years (the longest standing production deal U has had in its 100-year history). That's forced directors to look elsewhere to tackle the kinds of films now considered too risky to make or the ones that won't fill retail shelves with merchandise.

Another Hollywood vet, producer Marc Piatt, who's had a production deal at Universal since 1998 after stepping down as its production head, similarly had to find indie financing for his film "2 Guns" after Universal said it would not bankroll the picture but simply distribute it.

With "Rush," Howard found himself in an entirely new role as the director of a $50 million film that was his first to be independently financed - through a series of bonds, contingencies and pre-sales. He also was a director for hire, replacing Paul Greengrass, who was originally set to bring the showy personalities of Hunt (Hemsworth), a British playboy, and the more serious Austrian champion Lauda (Daniel Brühl) to the bigscreen.

"We must champion the fact that this is basically 80% a British film in terms of the people who worked on it, the way it was structured and the way we ran it," says Eaton. The exec, who was behind such indie films as "24 Hour Party People" and the "Red Riding" series, is modest, and like most Brits politely shies away from the spotlight, tending not to grab credit even when its due.

But he believes "Rush" shows off Blighty's mettle.

"These are the kinds of films we should be making in the U.K. because we can do it, and we can do it for better value of money," he says.

Morgan began writing the story of Lauda, a friend of his wife's, on spec some years ago, intrigued by the driver's courageous comeback just 40 days after a devastating crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix that severely burned his face and saw him lapse into a coma, and how that might play against Hunt's notorious womanizing and party lifestyle that gained him rock-star status.

Eager to work with Eaton again after Fernando Meirelles' "360," Morgan showed the producer the first draft of "Rush," and Eaton was hooked.

"Andrew was always going to be a great fit for this project," Morgan says. "If (the) responsibility was to make this at a price, Andrew could do this. He could make a $50 million film feel like a $150 million film."

With Greengrass, another Brit, attached to direct, Morgan showed the script to close friend Eric Fellner at his Universal-owned British production outfit Working Title. …

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