Handicapping 'Seabiscuit'

The Wall Street Journal

Big-time racehorses are often bankrolled by a syndicate of many investors. So why should "Seabiscuit" be any different?

The film version of Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book about a Depression-era racing champ, whose 1938 race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore reigns supreme within racing lore, arrived in theaters Friday with the logos of three major Hollywood backers affixed to it: Vivendi Universal SA's Universal Pictures; DreamWorks SKG; and Spyglass Entertainment.

In recent years, with big-budget action movies costing more than $150 million, Hollywood studios have gotten in the habit of sharing risks. Usually that means two companies splitting the costs of a venture that isn't regarded as a sure-fire hit.

In the case of "Seabiscuit," which cost about $87 million to make, according to people familiar with the matter, the risk is in the genre: high-end, adult-targeted drama. Mature adults don't go to the movies as often as teen-agers; and for every major success that's aimed at them, like "Chicago," there is an expensive failure like "Ali."

"In order to do these movies properly, there's a certain level of investment that's required," said Universal Pictures President Rick Finkelstein. "That sometimes leads to a greater risk than one would ordinarily undertake in approaching these properties. You have to be much more creative about the financing."

Dividing the cost of a film among more than two partners may be more common going forward, as studios look to wring even more risk out of major film projects.

Later this year, for example, the Russell Crowe nautical drama "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," which cost more than $120 million, will be issued with the backing of News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney Co.'s Miramax and Universal.

The trend extends to other genres; a $100 million live-action version of "Peter Pan" to be released later this year was financed by Sony Corp., Revolution Studios and Universal.

Need more acute for Miramax

The need to round up financial partners for adult-targeted movies is especially acute for a studio like Miramax, which makes a lot of films for that audience and has ambitions to do so on a grander scale. The cost of such films is a source of conflict between Miramax and its corporate parent, as Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein wants to make bigger epics after years of low-budget fare, while Disney wants the costs to be strictly limited.

Last year, Miramax cobbled together the $100 million "Gangs of New York" with help from both parent Disney and a company called Initial Entertainment Group as partners.

Also last year, Miramax hit a snag with another big production -- its coming $80 million adaptation of the Civil War-era best seller "Cold Mountain" -- when partner Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. dropped out of the project.

However, Weinstein is bullish on the film and its global box-office potential, and people familiar with the matter say he has been pushing Disney to let Miramax pay the entire budget. Even though Disney Chairman Michael Eisner has seen and liked the film, the parent company is still requiring Miramax to find outside financial support.

In general, said Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands, the studio is trying to make deals on a number of fronts with various equity partners who would agree to help pay for future Miramax projects -- either as part of a portfolio or on a single-film basis. The company hopes such an approach will give it the flexibility it desires to make bigger productions without special permission from Disney.

'Seabiscuit' hurdles

Universal was aware of potential obstacles when it set out last year to make "Seabiscuit." The studio calculated that doing the material justice would cost nearly $90 million, money that would go toward recreating the Depression-era setting; staging realistic race sequences; and hiring major movie stars like Tobey Maguire, who plays jockey Red Pollard.

The film centers around a thoroughbred dismissed as pretty much worthless until the horse's owner, Charles Howard; his trainer, Tom Smith; and its jockey, Red Pollard tapped into Seabiscuit's potential. The result was a hero of legendary stature with a classic rags-to-riches story.

Seabiscuit's showdown with Triple Crown winner War Admiral on Nov. 1, 1938, drew 40,000 people to Pimlico and millions more listening on radio. By the time the horse retired in 1940, Seabiscuit had earned $437,730 -- more money than any thoroughbred in history.

Still, Universal also recognized several factors that could limit the film's commercial potential: It's a period piece, about sports, made by director Gary Ross, whose only previous film, "Pleasantville," grossed a modest $40.6 million domestically.

And with the popularity of horse racing on the wane for years, "Seabiscuit" wasn't an automatic must-see for the under-25 audience that propels the box office.

"The audience that creates a best seller is not going to create a hit movie," said Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider.

Hollywood studios, she said, do not avoid making movies for older audiences but simply have to be realistic about the fact that those people "are going to go out to four or five films a year, if that."

Another factor: Universal's parent, Vivendi Universal, was flirting with bankruptcy at the time, and the studio's budgetary limits for the coming year had not yet been set.

What the models showed

As studios do when they are weighing whether to green-light a project, Universal created financial models to project what kind of revenue such a film might generate. When the models showed that the studio would have to enlist outside financial support to make a film with the various risks associated with "Seabiscuit," Universal persuaded DreamWorks, its partner on such films as "A Beautiful Mind" and "Gladiator," to participate in the project.

But Snider said the film "was still an iffy proposition, even at halves." So it reached out again, this time to Spyglass, an independent company operated by producers Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum that has co-financed such Universal films as "Bruce Almighty."

Barber owns racehorses and is enthusiastic about the sport but said his personal interest caused him to be "doubly cautious" before signing on to the project.

People familiar with the matter say Universal and DreamWorks each are paying about $26 million for the "Seabiscuit's cost" project; they will split the revenue from the film's release in the United States and a few foreign territories.

Spyglass pays the rest of the tab for the opportunity to release the film in the rest of the world, which Barber hopes will view it as "a global story of underdogs who band together."

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