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

Published: December 5, 2011

POTSDAM, Germany — The German craftsmen on Stage 15 in the Babelsberg studio 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.”

Andrew Milligan/Press Association, via Associated Press

The actress Halle Berry, center, took direction from Tom Tykwer on the set of the film “Cloud Atlas” in Glasgow in September.

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.