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Around the World in One Movie: Film Financing’s Global Future

The German craftsmen on Stage 15 in the Babelsberg studio here in Potsdam, were hard at work on a recent afternoon building a dystopian Korean slum, the thud of a nail gun and a whiff of sawdust in the air. Next door, Andy and Lana Wachowski, the American-born team behind the “Matrix” movies, were filming black-clad storm troopers from an imagined future for their latest feature,“Cloud Atlas.”

Tony Scott | Director
Photo: Murray Close | Getty Images
Tony Scott | Director

From its truly global parentage to its time-bending story told by three directors using two separate production crews, the movie is unabashedly strange. The narrative, which starts near New Zealand and circles the globe, is bewildering in its complexity, featuring characters in six eras who might share a soul migrating through time. And the project’s primary backers are from China, Korea and Singapore.

But “Cloud Atlas,” in all its glorious confusion, also serves as a guidepost to the future of the film business. Increasingly, sophisticated filmmakers who once relied on American studios for backing are turning to a globe-straddling independent finance system for their most expensive projects.

“Cloud Atlas,” with its $100 million budget and high-wattage cast, including the Academy Award winners Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, was an epic independent film too complicated, too expensive and perhaps too risky for any conventional studio to have backed.

To move forward, the project broke free of national boundaries. The investors from Asia and beyond contributed roughly $35 million, without which the film could not have been made. German subsidies account for $18 million more. In the United States, “Cloud Atlas” will be distributed, probably next fall, by Warner Brothers , which has made only a modest investment to date.

In many ways, the producers are drawing a blueprint for a new era of genuinely international filmmaking.

“We were just looking for a way to get it done,” said Grant Hill, one of the “Cloud Atlas” producers, “but I think there’s the basis for a model there.” He called the final push for financing an “exotic mixture” of deals, adding, “What a studio would have had to pay would have made it impossible.”

The change has been coming for several years. In 2010, the international box office was up 30 percent over five years, twice the growth in domestic sales. And foreign sales accounted for roughly 70 percent of total receipts, both for the industry at large and for some of the biggest American studio productions like “Avatar.”

Meanwhile, the Oscar for best picture, for three consecutive years, has gone to films — “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Hurt Locker” and “The King’s Speech” — that used globe-spanning financial networks to create stories aimed at global audiences. Movies like these will simply make a stop on American theater screens as they travel around the world.

A peek at the back lot for “Cloud Atlas” testifies to the need for a budget that defies the term “indie.” Behind the yellow shipping containers that are part of the futuristic Korean set is a fine 19th-century sitting room with a rose-lined garden path outside the front door. The interior of an old tall ship shares the soundstage with the exterior of a space-age hovercraft and Styrofoam boulders.

The performers, meanwhile, shift between jarringly different roles. “The biggest change for me as an actor is to have two different film units and two different film crews and to go between the two from one day to the next,” Ms. Berry said in a phone conversation.

She described playing “a Jewish woman in the 1930s” for the third director, Tom Tykwer, then becoming “an old tribal woman” for the Wachowski siblings the next day, and losing track of fellow cast members amid the layers of makeup and costumes.

“Some days I go into the trailer, I’ll be having a conversation — I won’t even know it’s with Hugh Grant until five minutes in,” Ms. Berry said.

The gestation of “Cloud Atlas” is a winding tale of emerging markets and perseverance that breathed life into an unlikely project, which, if successful, will probably provoke more change in the business of filmmaking.

In 2005, while on the London set of “V for Vendetta,” the actress Natalie Portman gave a copy of “Cloud Atlas” to Lana Wachowski (formerly Larry), who became intrigued with the novel’s six obliquely connected stories.

A year later, Lana and her brother Andy surfaced with a screenplay. Mr. Tykwer, a friend of the Wachowskis — the directors declined interview requests — joined in writing the numerous drafts of the script, which were shared with the book’s author, David Mitchell.

“After two years of hard work, we were still about 30 percent short” of the necessary money, Mr. Hill said. “At that point you go home unless you can come up with something new, not part of the traditional model.”

Rather than giving up, the producers translated the screenplay into more than half a dozen Asian languages and found that the film’s treatment of reincarnation resonated with potential investors in the East.

“The theme of the story is rebirth, and it comes straight from the basic ideal of Buddhism,” said Michelle Park, chief executive of the Bloomage Company, a Korean film distributor. Ms. Park describes her company’s investment as “unusually high” by Korean standards.

Money came from the Singapore container ship magnate Tony Teo; the Hong Kong film distributor the Media Asia Group, which made what its chief executive, John Chong, called the company’s “largest ever investment in a Western production”; and Dreams of the Dragon, a Beijing film company that had not previously invested in a major film. One of its owners, Wilson Qiu, in an e-mail, cited his “fascination with the source material.”

Others also claim pride of authorship. “From our perspective, ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a German film,” said Christine Berg, project manager for the German Federal Film Fund. Not only are the country’s subsidies substantial, but Mr. Tykwer, who achieved fame with his Berlin film, “Run Lola Run,” is in charge of the second crew.

One advantage of having disparate financing, said Peter J. Dekom, a veteran entertainment lawyer, is that it gives filmmakers greater creative freedom. “The more investors you have, the less control you feel from any one investor,” he said.

The idea of shooting on parallel tracks, with the Wachowskis directing one unit and Mr. Tykwer the other, grew from a realization that the stars were more likely to work for a steep discount if the shoot could be finished in half the time. Actors also play different roles in different time periods, keeping them busy and, on certain days, turning stars into extras.

“It’s sort of like guerrilla filmmaking in a way,” Ms. Berry said. “Even though there seems like there’s a lot of money, it’s not opulent. All the money’s going into the screen.”

Still, such an unusual project presents hurdles in capturing a mainstream audience.

The Wachowskis brought in about $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office for Warner Brothers with the Matrix series. But their “Speed Racer,” also for Warner, was a high-budget flop in 2008. This time, Warner agreed to distribute the film in the United States but was not a large contributor to its production budget.

“To have taken the whole movie, given the expense, would have been a very risky proposition for us,” said Warner’s top film executive, Jeff Robinov. Whether it was smart business to jump in only part way, Mr. Robinov said, “I can’t tell you until we’ve seen more.”

The Wachowskis are notorious for their secrecy, but they showed six minutes of footage at the American Film Market in Santa Monica last month.

“It looks phantasmagorical,” said Victor Loewy, a seasoned international film distributor who bid on the United Kingdom rights after watching the clip. “It’s so unlike anything I’ve seen in 40 years in this business.”

Nicholas Kulish reported from Potsdam and Michael Cieply from Los Angeles.

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