Andrew Bloomenthal

Anatomy of a Production Deal

Anatomy of a Production Deal
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Nina Yang Bongiovi on producing Fruitvale Station


by Andrew Bloomenthal

It began when Nina Yang Bongiovi—producer with Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, received word from her old USC film professor about an ambitious young film student with a compelling story to tell. It just so happened, Yang Bongiovi was looking for candidates for her company’s Emerging Filmmakers program. Yang Bongiovi subsequently met with Oakland native Ryan Coogler, and learned of his idea to portray the final day of inner-city youth Oscar Grant—fatally shot by a Bay Area Transit System [BART] Police Officer Johannes Mehserle.

Protester with Oscar Grant flyer

Protester with Oscar Grant flyer

“Mehserle ended up serving time here in Los Angeles, so I was aware of this case” recalls Yang Bongiovi. “Ryan was philosophical and had a real message, and I told Forest we found our Emerging Filmmaker.”

Click here to read Creative Screenwriting‘s interview with Ryan Coogler on writing and directing Fruitvale Station.

Coogler’s first draft of Fruitvale Station came in at 140 pages. Concerned that such length would strain company resources, Yang Bongiovi sent Coogler back to the drawing board, to trim twenty to twenty-five pages. With Whitaker’s mentoring, Coogler hashed out which characters, locations and plot points could be sacrificed, and ultimately pared the script down to 115 pages, allowing Yang Bongiovi and her line producer to begin a budget breakdown.

With an initial price tag just over $600,000, financing Fruitvale Station was surprisingly more difficult than raising cash for movies ten times more expensive, pontificated Yang Bongiovi. Unlike $10 million-plus movies, which can hedge investor risk by combining multiple financing structures like foreign pre-sales, bank loans and other funding strategies, small-scale film financing typically involves begging for favors—hat in hand.

“When you’re doing a $1 million film, it’s basically just cash from people’s pockets, and it’s scary for people to invest,” explains Yang Bongiovi.

Mercifully, the film attracted Chinese investor Michael Chow, who committed the full $600,000 lump sum to the production. “That was interesting—a Chinese guy investing in an urban film,” pondered Yang Bongiovi.

But while Chow’s investment theoretically should have covered the whole budget, as originally drafted, supplemental capital was soon needed, as the budget ballooned 30%, for a host of reasons. More expensive actors joined the cast, including Octavia Spencer—fresh off her Oscar win for The Help. And the decision was made to shoot on 16mm film, to give the film a grittier look than would have been possible with the less-expensive digital format. But the majority of the added cost went towards the expense of filming on BART’s Fruitvale Station platform.

BART Fruitvale Station platform

BART Fruitvale Station platform

“We could have replicated a platform in a yard, but shooting at the actual BART location added authenticity, and there was also a healing aspect to this, between BART and the community,” Yang Bongiovi explains.

Raising the extra funds proved onerous, however, and at one point during filming, cash reserves dwindled so low, the production was unable to make payroll. Fortunately, rescue came in the form of Octavia Spenser, who stepped up to gap-finance the show.

Octavia Spenser in Fruitvale Station

Octavia Spenser in Fruitvale Station

“She said she had a lot of blessings in her life, and she wanted to pay it forward,” explained Yang Bongiovi, who gave Spenser an executive- producer credit, for her fiscal contribution.

“I’m not under any delusion that a million dollars isn’t a lot of money, especially when you consider how film students make movies for $150,000,” notes Yang Bongiovi. “And we hope the love and support we received on the film comes through, on screen.”

Click here to read Creative Screenwriting‘s interview with Ryan Coogler on writing and directing Fruitvale Station.

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