Programs Wed 1.4.2012

Case Study: Get Low

Narrative Feature

Director: Aaron Schneider

Writers: Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell

Producer: Dean Zanuck

Budget: $7 million

Financing: Equity financier ($5.5 million); German prod. company ($1.5 million)

Production: 24 days/ Georgia /February, March 2008

Shooting Format: 35mm

Screening Format: 35mm

World Premiere: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival

Awards: Edinburgh International Film Festival – Audience Award, Torino Film Festival – Best Actor, Robert Duvall/Bill Murray


Development and Financing
In 2002, producer Dean Zanuck was introduced to a young literary manager David Ginsberg who handed him the first draft of a script for Get Low. Written by Chris Provenzano, the story is about a mysterious 1930s Tennessee hermit who threw his own funeral while he was still alive. Zanuck was immediately drawn to the material and came on board shortly thereafter.

For a long time, it was just Zanuck and Provenzano, who had completed at least a half dozen drafts of the script. At this point, no money had exchanged hands – they were just two filmmakers passionate about getting their project off the ground. “I’ve never been big on paper. I’ve always been a hand shake kind of guy,” says Zanuck. “My lawyers will tell me not to do that, but I haven’t found myself in any sticky situations because of it.”

On a search for the film’s star power, Zanuck had a few meetings with actor Robert Duvall’s producing partner Rob Carliner. Soon after, they established a “gentleman’s agreement” that Duvall would star in the film once Zanuck could secure financing. Again, nothing was signed.

Despite Provanzano’s strong writing, the film’s humble budget (by studio standards), as well as the Hollywood legend (Robert Duvall) that they had on board, Zanuck struggled to get the film financed through the studio system. “Show it to us when it gets made,” is what he heard time and time again. Each time he added a new element to the package, such as co-star Sissy Spacek, he would go back to the mini-majors, only to hear the same answer.

By late 2004, Zanuck’s approach was to attach a director. After meeting with various agents, he was introduced to Aaron Schneider, an established cinematographer emerging as a director. Attracted to Schneider’s tenacity and commitment (he had invested his life savings into an Oscar®-winning short), Zanuck found him to be the perfect fit as director for Get Low.

Still seeking financing, Zanuck decided to continue packaging the film. “Clearly, the studios and mini majors were not going to make this film,” says Zanuck. That realization led him on the path towards pursuing individuals with private equity who believed in the material and wanted to get involved. He also hired a foreign sales agent K5 International to help search for investors.

Accustomed to the studio system, Zanuck soon realized that the process of independent film financing was much different than the world he was used to. After battling through an assortment of “snake oil salesmen” and potential investors that ultimately led nowhere, Zanuck finally got his first real lead. A friend of a friend connection through Schneider’s brought them to Martine Smitka, in New York, who was interested in raising financing for films. She in turn introduced them to a German production company interested in “getting their feet wet with a quality U.S. production.” They agreed to contribute $1.5 million, but the money still wasn’t in the bank.

With just 20% of the budget accounted for, Zanuck got a call from a friend who knew a wealthy individual interested in getting involved in the movie business. One meeting turned into months of courtship including social get-togethers, family visits at his beach house; it required an element of salesmanship on Zanuck’s part, and a meeting between the potential investor and C. Gaby Mitchell (other credited screenwriter) and Schneider. Initially requesting $2 million, Zanuck had the investor committed to $5.5 million in October of 2008 – the day the U.S. market collapsed.

“A lot of times, the biggest battle is to get agents and others to take you seriously,” says Zanuck. As a result, he requested the first few hundred thousand of the financier’s investment right away so he and his team could shop the project around town and be perceived as a “moving train.”

Zanuck officially went into preproduction at that point, not knowing whether the $1.5 million from the German production company would close. He then became interested in attaching Bill Murray for the role opposite Robert Duvall, but realized that contacting Murray was a feat in and of itself. “How does one get into the Bill Murray business?” Zanuck asked Murray’s lawyer. “You don’t,” was his response. But he did welcome Zanuck to submit a one-page synopsis of the project that he could pass on to his client. Not exactly encouraged by the phone call, Zanuck waited about a month and finally sent the synopsis.

To his surprise, Zanuck received a voicemail from Murray a few weeks later expressing interest in the project. Despite Zanuck’s family history in the business (his father is Richard D. Zanuck, producer of Jaws and Driving Miss Daisy; his grandfather was Daryl F. Zanuck, who co-founded 20th Century Fox), he was never as nervous as he was when he spoke to Murray over the telephone – concerned that if he damaged the relationship in any way, his largest investor would not supply the remaining $5.3 million in financing. But in the end, after much courtship, Murray signed on and the financier wired the rest of his promised investment.


Production Highlights
The entire shoot took place during February and March of 2009 in Georgia, where production received a 30% tax credit. It wasn’t until the first week of production that the $1.5 million from the German production company finally came through, three years after the initial meeting.

Unable to afford an editor, Zanuck purchased editing equipment and Schneider agreed to edit the film for free (Aaron joined the Editor’s Guild and paid the minimum).

During post-production, Zanuck called Cameron Bailey, Co-Director of the Toronto International Film Festival, and told him about Get Low. After seeing the film, Bailey offered to host a gala for them, and Zanuck prepared for their world premiere in Toronto.


Festival Preparation and Strategy
Sales agent Dan Steinman from CAA joined the Toronto team for a percentage of the film’s sale. 42 West handled publicity and was paid a flat fee.

Zanuck couldn’t have asked for a better festival slot – Saturday night, opening weekend, at Roy Thomson Hall. All of the actors attended the screening, and the film received a standing ovation. Unfortunately, many of the buyers weren’t there to see it.


Sale and Release
“Three or four years ago, this might have sold in a massive bidding war,” says Zanuck. “We had multiple bids, but the figures were pretty sobering” (the lowest offer was $250K). In the end, Get Low sold to Sony Pictures Classics for low seven figures for all North American rights.

Additional territories that have sold include UK, France, Poland, Scandinavia, Australia, South Africa, Latin America, South America, Germany, Russia. The Georgia tax credit earned them over a million dollars.

Get Low went on to play festivals worldwide, including Sundance, San Sebastián, Turin, SXSW, Tribeca, San Francisco, Seattle, Edinburgh, and Deauville in France.

Sony Classics released Get Low on 30 July 2010.  It has made about $10 million at the domestic box office thus far.

The DVD was released around Oscar® time, 2011.


Advice from the Filmmaker
“Two things you need to have: iron clad belief in the material you’re pushing, and iron clad belief in yourself,” says Zanuck. “…People will say, ‘we don’t make these kinds of films,’ and doubt can creep in. You can’t take anything personally. One of the phrases we would use is, ‘we just have to will this to happen.’”