While Hollywood has long relied on outside co-financing for its big-budget projects, industry watchers can't recall a time when so many deep-pocketed executives have wanted hands-on roles in filmmaking.
"It's the lure of the payday-when it hits, it's like a slot machine," said Tom Sherak, a partner with former Disney chief Joe Roth at Revolution Studios. "It's also very high-profile and can give an individual or a brand tons of exposure."
Amazon.com, for instance, recently optioned a book, "The Stolen Child," and intends to co-produce a feature based on the tome. The e-retailing giant is using as currency its worldwide marketing and distribution network. (Andrew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, hinted that the site's customers would have a hand in the movie-making process. He declined to give specifics on how that would work, but it could take various forms, such as feedback on the site or user-generated marketing materials.)
Crispin Porter & Bogusky is shopping a treatment to major studios for Burger King. Anheuser-Busch is moving into content creation that may at some point down the line include films. Nike founder Phil Knight is also getting in on the act, buying an existing animation and commercial production house and dubbing it Laika. His first feature film, "Coraline," is in preproduction.
Not everyone is convinced a rush to film is the right move, given the current landscape of ballooning production and marketing costs, flat DVD sales, and only a 5% attendance increase at theaters after an extended box-office slump. "It's a dangerous trend in that most people will end up taking a bath by getting into funding production, especially working outside of Hollywood," said a senior-level agent at a Hollywood talent firm.
Mr. Knight, who has linked with Dale Wahl, a 16-year Nike vet now president-CEO of Laika, has shown he's willing to invest. He paid $7 million for land near Portland, Ore., and is planning to sink another $100 million to build a Nike-like campus for film production. The company intends to staff up from 100 employees to nearly 500 over the next few years.
"Phil's not afraid of a business risk, but he does it on a very calculated basis," Mr. Wahl said. "Did the world need another athletic-shoe company when he launched Nike? Maybe not, but through innovation, excellent product and strong marketing, he made it vital."
Many moguls come to Hollywood ready to bankroll a message. EBay founder Jeff Skoll created Participant Productions with the express purpose of making socially conscious movies. He's done just that, with Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" following on the heels of Academy Award nominees "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Syriana" and "North Country."
Phil Anschutz, whose Walden Media was founded to produce inspirational, G-rated family fare, is riding high on "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" after duds such as "Around the World in 80 Days." The $150 million "Narnia" was a test of whether Walden could be a real player. The doubt faded when the film passed $744.7 million worldwide, making it Disney's highest-grossing live-action movie.
Great wealth doesn't always make great art. Fred Smith, the founder of Federal Express, funds Alcon Entertainment, responsible for the monosyllabic teen comedy "Dude, Where's My Car?" The company has fared better with family-friendly movies such as "My Dog Skip" and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," and has a varied slate in the works including "Wicker Man" with Nicolas Cage.
'A beautiful thing'
Marc Turtletaub, who financed his foray into the movie business from the sale of loan company the Money Store, seems focused now on art-house films such as "Sherrybaby" and "Everything Is Illuminated" after producing mainstream fare such as "Big Momma's House 2" and "The Honeymooners" with mixed success.
Mark Cuban, the outspoken entrepreneur who owns Landmark Theaters, HD Net, Magnolia Pictures and other pieces of a vertically integrated media mini-empire, said new faces in the business open up opportunities.
"Anytime new models can be tested by people using their own money, it's a beautiful thing," Mr. Cuban said by e-mail. "If movies around brands can work, it opens new doors."
Rich Silverman, president and founder of talent-management firm Edge Talent Group, said more projects in the pipeline mean more opportunities for talent and perhaps fresh ideas. But outsiders have to act prudentlyto succeed here, he said.
"There will always be rich people coming here because of a passion for the movies and money to burn," Mr. Silverman said. "They can't rush in naively without doing their homework. It's a very risky business, but in success, it's so gratifying."