Occupy Wall Street types seemed like the perfect audience for “Margin Call,” a film which shows some of the fiscal sleight of hand that factored into the 2008 financial crisis.
Not so fast, says “Margin Call” writer/director J.C. Chandor.
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Not only does the film refuse to paint all Wall Street denizens as cold-hearted villains, it shows that money isn’t always the driving factor in foul financial decisions.
“The situation is far more complicated than quote, unquote greed. Careers are on the line, people’s self worth,” Chandor tells Big Hollywood. “It’s beyond monetary gain.”
The film, which nabbed two Independent Spirit Award nominations (Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay), is now available via Blu-ray, DVD and digital download from Lions Gate.
“Margin Call” follows a long, calamitous night in which a low-level investment bank worker (Zachary Quinto) alerts his bosses that the company’s fiscal house is about to come tumbling down. And, possibly, the entire economy along with it if the wrong moves are made. The modestly-budgeted film features Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore and Simon Baker.
The impressive cast wasn’t drawn to the project for a quick paycheck. Chandor, a first-time feature director with experience in commercials and documentaries, had to do some unofficial selling to seal the deals.
“The first couple of conversations with every one of these actors were an audition in a weird way,” he says. “The script drew them in, and they agreed to sit down with me.”
One doesn’t need to be a professional number cruncher to follow “Margin Call,” and that was all part of the plan.
“At every stage of the process, from writing through shooting and, most importantly, editing, it was about finding that balance … so that there wasn’t unnecessary information flying around,” he says. “We tried to keep the story as simple as possible, zeroing in on what was most interesting.”
One of the darkest dollops of humor in the film stems from how the bigger the boss, the more clueless he is regarding the bank’s spread sheets. Chandor used his own research to flesh out these bleakly comic morsels.
“I ran into a lot of that on the trading floors,” says Chandor of how he asked various professionals to break down in basic terms the work they do. “So many people were unable to do it. They’d get halfway into it, and then they couldn’t explain it in a very simple way.”
“If you can’t explain something in four of five sentences … that’s a sign that you yourself don’t understand what’s happening.”
“Margin Call” wasn’t a blockbuster by even independent film standards. But the movie raked in roughly $5 million in domestic ticket sales and north of $4 million through Video on Demand – the latter coming at the same time “Call” was in theaters.
The press seized on the OWS connection early on, but Chandor says that could have harmed the film’s profitability.
“In the end, things like that can have a very negative impact on the film. It makes it feel too ripped from the headlines,” he says. “That ended up not being the case. For a film with very little money for advertising, it helped raise our awareness significantly … but dollars and cents wise, I’m not sure how much an effect it had.”
The film’s impact on the greater independent film scene, though, may just be beginning. “Margin Call” maxed out on 199 theaters while simultaneously showing via VOD. The film was deemed a success on both platforms, assuaging theater owners’ fears that VOD distribution will eat into theatrical profits.
“For 95 percent of small, art-house releases that never break through the 200 screen release mark, this is absolutely a net positive,” he says.
Chandor initially rejected the VOD move, thinking back on the straight to video dreck of a decade or so ago. Now, he sees the “Margin Call”-style release pattern as a huge boon to independent film – and parents with small children.
“I have two kids. I don’t get to go to the theater any more … it’s an expensive night out,” he says. “I feel anything that increases the audience [for a film] is a good plus.”