Screen: Virtual Studio model brings W.’s Bushisms to life

The financial structuring of W. Was grounded in the Omnilab “virtual studio” model. Christopher Mapp told Genevieve Tait how art and business can go hand in hand.

When Omnilab media’s managing director Christopher Mapp – who executive produced the film – was asked why Oliver Stone’s W was considered a bankable production, the response was simple: “Bush gets stoned.” This statement may sound glib; however it is foreseeable that the portrayal of the spurious young-adult antics of one of politics’ more infamous and ridiculous figures will attract viewer attention. The US release of W saw the film make back its initial investment. With worldwide release continuing, the producers are safely in the black.

Omnilab has carved itself a unique place in the Australian and international film finance industry. The company does not fit neatly into financing categories, instead sticking its fingers in various filmmaking pies. Omnilab Media Group is a parent company financing sixteen different media companies. In 2007 Omnilab partnered with George Miller and Doug Mitchell to establish the digital filmmaking company Dr D, which is now working on Happy Feet 2; in 2008 they executive produced The Bank Job; and are currently involved in The Loved Ones, an Australian film that Omnilab and its Ambient Entertainment division will solely produce.

Omnilab “is not a fund, we’re not a hedge fund that’s for sure – it’s private wealth” said Mapp. It is from this position of private investment that Omnilab has cultivated an alternative financing route that requires significantly less participation from the traditional government bodies and studios. Their film financing and production have slotted neatly into the market gap left by the studios’ need for big budgets to cover their overheads and fees. Not having such costs allows the budget to go further. “The studios were leaving a gap in the ten to thirty-five million dollar budget range,” said Mapp. Omnilab has stepped in to fill this gap and in so doing it has developed the new “virtual studio” model.

Under this model Omnilab operates as executive producer, broker and sometimes producer, arranging both outsourced finance and often contributing finance of its own. Omnilab then partners with a distributor to manage the film’s release and marketing. Underpinning the model is a philosophy that art and business success go hand in hand – the artistic product informs the financial viability and business strategy of the film. “This industry is clearly all about story. That story could be told one way or another, and that comes into the artistic interpretation. This then needs to tap into the marketing so that we can make sure that there is the best effort for commercial success,” said Mapp.

This philosophy feeds the criteria for bankability which, despite its controversial content, W. satisfied. Studios were not initially interested in W. because its content was considered a “hot potato”. Omnilab thought it was ‘bankable enough because the script was great.’ They thus secured the closing finance, allowing the project to go forward. Distribution agreements for W. were secured according to territory; North American distribution and sales were agreed with Lionsgate, while Hoyts is undertaking the Australian distribution and releasing the film on February 26. Coming up on the Omnilab slate, under the virtual studio model, is the sequel to the 1982 film of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal and the adaptation of John Marsden’s Tomorrow When The War Began series.


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