Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionarie”: The fiction and the non-fiction mix up

Last night Oscars cascaded over “Slumdog Millionaire”, the film that almost did not have a theatrical release and was about to go straight to video if it was not for the courage and the vision of its producers and investors. In our world, imagine Skype never being funded. According to its founders, they sat with about 45 VCs in London until they met Danny Rimer at Index.

If you are heading a startup now, and even if you have been through a series A, I want you to know how similar the film industry is to our world of startups, and how perseverance is a commodity that needs to trade more often these days.

“Squarepants Millionaire” landed on Film 4 and Celador Films’s desks in 2006. Commissioning the script adaptation to “Full Monty”‘s Simon Beaufoy, they later approached Boyle to direct it. He turned them down. Alas, on account of Beaufoy’s beautiful adaptation, he took the project on. The budget: US$15 million. This is independent filmmaking, so peanuts compared to Hollywood’s usual figures. The total annual budget for Film 4 is £10m. Yes, this is Europe and the film industry here is still a cottage industry in US terms. In August 2007 Celador Films looked for financing to share the costs and found that Warner Independent Pictures – the newly formed division of the big W studios putting on the hat of a VC (put a little money, look for a $100m valuation), was prepared to invest $5m. In May 2008, Warner Independent Pictures shut down, initially suggesting that Slumdog Millionaire would go straight to DVD.

Translation: this is when your investors jump ship and want you to close down the shop or sell in a firesale to any punter that will have you.

In August, Fox Searchlight Pictures, who originally bid for Slumdog but got it snapped by Warner, came to rescue the film by offering WIP to share the distribution costs by 50%.

Translation: this is when another investor comes along and puts funding for operational costs so you can continue trading.

As of 22 February 2009, the film has grossed $159,226,072 worldwide.
Last night, it won its producers 8 Oscars, including Best Film and Best Director, categories that are unusually won by the same film.

Why am I telling you this story?

1. Never stop talking to investors, even when you have some on board. They have their own agenda, which is to make a successful investment, and you have yours: to keep your company running in good and bad times so that third party’s leadtimes do not affect yours.

2. Companies have investment banks as advisors, but never exclusively. Any investment banker will tell you that on a daily basis they need to keep their clients close and sweet or they will go to a competitor for a better deal or for a transaction that you did not come up with but should have. Keep track of all potential investors or buyers of your company from day one. If the time comes to sell because the market is on an acquisition estampede: go and sell or you’ll miss the boat.

3. Slumdog Millionaire is a fable about destiny being fulfilled against all odds and about hope. The second is what kept the producers and early investors in the film knocking on doors till the very end to get the film the theatrical release it deserved. Do the same. Don’t become complacent when the series A money hits your bank account. Work even harder.

In his BAFTA award acceptance speech, Christian Colson the producer thanks the backers of the film: Celador, Film 4, Pathe and Fox Searchlight for their courage and their vision.

I wish you that: investors with money but also with ability to step in when the times are challenging. And to you, I wish you courage and stamina. The road to success never ends abruptly: it just gets harder but never ceases to exist for those who never surrender.

Credit crunch or other hurdles, gear up in courage and hard work and you will reap the benefits.

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