Cari Lynn is a contributor to AwardsLine
Early this autumn, as the Occupy Wall Street movement heated up, writer-director J.C. Chandor was getting nervous. Really nervous. It was only days before the release of his writing and directorial debut, Margin Call, set in 2008 and about a fictitious investment bank discovering it’s the linchpin of the financial crisis. “My fear was that the OWS movement would turn into the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle, where they were breaking windows and burning cars,” Chandor says. “And there’s the old adage about films, that when it’s that too close, no one wants to see it.” Of course, Chandor and his ensemble cast — including Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, and Demi Moore — were relieved that things went “in a Gandhian way,” which, Chandor says, kept the national dialogue open. “This film, to me, was always a tragedy,” he said. “It’s about misused potential. People who should, could, and would’ve been doing other things with their lives but had been roped into this world through extreme compensation packages. … To have had that gut feeling about what I was writing [three years earlier] end up being what people decided to protest at the time the film was coming out was lucky, but really exciting.”
Now with an Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay, Chandor is marveling at the trajectory of his project, which was a linchpin of its own sort: Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions’ experiment in the simultaneous theatrical and VOD release. “We had to overcome the stigma of what in the old days would be called a straight-to-video release,” Chandor says of the propitious but unchartered route. “Obviously the world is changing. I had an amazing lunch with Bingham Ray … and he told me his belief was that, 10 years from now, there will be a circuit of 200 to 300 local, non-for-profit art theater houses that will also have a strong VOD component, where most of the revenue will come from.”
Would Chandor opt for the same theatrical/VOD path with subsequent films? He rattles off cautions, such as: no advertising for VOD; the potential need to do a four-wall contract with theaters; and theaters acting on fear of too much competition from too many angles (according to Chandor, despite an expansion plan, Margin Call, which had a better-than-anticipated opening at approximately $10,000 per screen, never moved beyond the initial number of 55 screens due to theater owners’ opposition).
Chandor, who made his living in commercials, says his interest in finance stemmed from his father, a Merrill Lynch lifer — and readily applies his avocation to film financing, frequently circling back to what he calls the sound business model upon which Margin Call was built.
“I came about this with a background in trying to put films together, mainly failures, but still, I learned a lot in the process,” Chandor says of his struggling for 15 years to get an independent film off the ground. “I don’t ever want the project to not make sense financially.” He’s not just talking the talk; according to Box Office Mojo, Margin Call has grossed $11.5 million internationally, and Chandor claims first-run VOD adds another $5.5 to $6 million. Not bad against a $3.5 million budget.
Uncompromising in his vision of the project, Chandor declined to expand the eventual budget, which he says he feasibly could have. Rather, the film was shot in 17 days, using offices of a freshly abandoned hedge fund that had occupied the 42nd floor of Manhattan’s 1 Penn Plaza. “When I walked off the elevator, I had a tear come to my eye,” he recalls. “You had an open view of the city — as if the rest of the world is looming over the characters’ shoulders … and then I came around a corner and there was a 150-person trading floor.”
He tried to capitalize on the tight shooting schedule, viewing it as a strength not only in recruiting A-list talent who could more easily commit to a brief timeframe, but also in creating an intensified atmosphere. “We’re trying to convey the panic the characters are feeling, only these characters are Type-A, hyper-smart, trained to never panic; likewise, these are hyper-trained, hyper-successful, veteran actors and it’s hard to rattle them, but with the pace we were shooting, there were moments where, if they made an error, you’d see a twitch, and I started to zero in on these things that you’d never have gotten if you had four days to shoot a scene.”
Chandor also acknowledges the brazenness of entering a niche of finance-themed films that’s long been viewed as filled, with the evergreen classics of 1983’s Trading Places and 1987’s Wall Street still cornering the market (both of which, Chandor says, he was a huge fan). Previous films that dared dip in a toe, like the UK’s 1999 Rogue Trader and 2000’s Boiler Room quickly bottomed out. Contrast this with the reception Chandor found at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2011: “The first question I got when I landed in Berlin was, ‘Why haven’t the U.S. arts looked more in depth into this issue that essentially blew up the world? Why are there not more films coming out about this?”