Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 20 No. 42
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Low budget, rights deals put ‘Chuck’ on track for profitability

The Chuck Wepner movie is guaranteed to make a profit even before it’s sold its first ticket, said Mike Tollin, co-chairman of Mandalay Sports Media, which produced the film.

“Chuck,” a movie based on the life of the boxer, will be released in four theaters May 5 — two in New York and two in Los Angeles. It is scheduled to hit more than 100 screens by Memorial Day, and is expected to gain wider distribution after that, depending on how people respond to it.

The movie is in good financial shape primarily due to its unusually low production budget of around $5 million. Add in revenue picked up by selling the film’s distribution rights to IFC Films and post theatrical pay-TV rights to Showtime, and the movie already is in good financial standing.

“We’re already in the black on this movie at this point before we even sell a ticket, which is a great feeling,” Tollin said. “Cobble together the cumulative rights fees from foreign distributors, IFC Films and Showtime; work on a really tight budget; and everybody’s happy.”

Tollin said the film was able to operate on a lower-than-normal production budget because it compressed the shoot to 25 to 30 days instead of the normal 40 to 50. Producers also kept costs down by using digital technology with some of the fight scenes, adding in much of the crowd digitally. In 1999, when Tollin made the movie “Varsity Blues,” he had to convince hundreds of extras to go to an empty football stadium late at night.

“That was expensive and labor intensive,” he said. “Now it’s done mostly digitally. The digital effects have improved so well, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. That’s a big cost savings.”

A condensed shooting schedule and getting lead actor Liev Schreiber to commit to a lower salary helped keep the production budget of “Chuck” to around $5 million.

The key to completing the film on such a low budget, though, was to get Hollywood’s A-list stars to buy into the idea of taking a lower salary. In particular, Tollin credited Liev Schreiber’s commitment with the film’s success. It’s not known how much Schreiber, who plays the title character, is getting paid for the film.

“Back in the day when we had Jon Voight in ‘Varsity Blues’ and Samuel Jackson in ‘Coach Carter’ and Kurt Russell in ‘Dreamer’ and Keanu Reeves in ‘Hardball,’ their salaries were almost equivalent to the full production budget of ‘Chuck,’” Tollin said. “It starts with Liev Schrieber committing heart, soul and body to this movie and being willing to work for a fraction of what he could get on the open market. When you get that kind of loud-and-clear message from No. 1 on the call sheet, it’s much easier to attract other actors on that basis. Obviously, I don’t want to give away specific numbers.”

Tollin said the film could not have been made unless the production budget came in at less than $10 million. The well-known producer/director has spent the better part of a year talking about how sports movies, in particular, need to keep production costs low if the genre is going to become popular.

“There’s not a diminished appetite for sports movies,” Tollin said. “But the marketplace has shifted and we have to reinvent the economic model.”

That’s because U.S. sports films aren’t as popular in international markets. And that’s part of the reason why Mandalay changed the name of the film from its original title, “The Bleeder,” to “Chuck.”

“We wanted to make it more accessible and represent the fact that we don’t consider this a boxing film and aren’t trying to focus on a boxing audience,” Tollin said. “The lead character was a boxer, but the only real fight in the film is the Wepner-Ali fight, which happens at the end of the first act. But then it’s really a character study about a man spiraling downward in a sea of fame and not-so-much fortune.”

Tollin went on to describe the film as “classic Americana. It’s part ‘Rocky,’ part ‘American Hustle.’”

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.