If Megan Ellison shows what a very, very rich person with a yen for moviemaking can do, Cynthia Stafford is determined to show what a “a mini-mogul” who got her funding from a big lottery win, can do.
In the last few months, as Ellison, daughter of billionaire Larry Ellison, has counted the profits and losses from such high-profile films as Kathryn Bigelow‘s “Zero Dark Thirty,” Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “The Master” and John Hillcoat‘s “Lawless,” Stafford has seen three of her own films come to the market.
With a smaller fund and less experience in the business, the former single mother of five from Hawthorne, Calif., has backed indies that haven’t made much of a mark on the critics or at the box office. But she’s enjoying the ride, Stafford told TheWrap.
“I love stories, and I love to see how people view the world,” she said. “I remember watching movies at home with my dad and saying, ‘What if we did this? If we had the money, could we?’ And I would always say, ‘Yeah, we will one day.’
“And now I’m in that one day, and I am really having fun with it.”
The recent crop of films produced or partly financed by Stafford’s Queen Nefertari Productions consists of the comedy “The Brass Teapot” (photo below), starring Juno Temple and Michael Angarano as a young couple whose money problems seem to be over when they find a magic teapot that spews money every time one of them feels pain; "Polish Bar," a drama about a Jewish rapper and DJ; and the horror-movie spoof sequel "Holla II."
Stafford defended all three films and said she wants to be involved in films with positive messages, but critics turned up their noses at all three, which had limited theatrical runs and are available digitally. According to Box Office Mojo, “The Brass Teapot” has a lifetime gross of only $6,997 in two theaters, with “Holla II” grossing $41,537 in six. No theatrical release for “Polish Bar” is in the site’s database.
So is Stafford draining her $30 million lottery-funded production fund with these movies? (Stafford shared a $112 Mega Millions lottery win — with a $67 million lump-sum payoff — with her father.)
“Au contraire,” said Lanre Idewu, Stafford’s husband, who heads her production company. He insists that the use of tax credits and deals that return their investment first give the company a healthier financial outlook than you might expect.
“It’s part of our model to make sure that we’re out first,” Idewu (left, with Stafford) told TheWrap. “We want to make sure that we have the highest certainty of success. There is always a risk, but you want to stack the odds that you’ll actually receive money back in your favor as much as possible.”
The company, he added, is “all about ownership. We’d rather have 75 percent of a small pie than .001 percent of a bakery.”
Stafford said the film that had the biggest impact on her growing up was the 1967 drama “To Sir With Love,” with Sidney Poitier as a high school teacher. But when she won the lottery in 2007, she said, she had other priorities that took precedence over going Hollywood.
“I had bills I needed to pay,” she said. “I had kids that were in foster care that I needed to get out. Actually, my main thing about getting money was so that I could afford an attorney. And once I was able to take care of my legals and my financials, I thought, ‘Hey, what should I do with my time?'”
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She made a $1 million donation to the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, and used that as an entrée to meet power players like David Geffen, who she said told her, “Watch over your finances” in a brief phone conversation.
She also went back to the two-day film school she’d attended before winning the lottery. The first time around, she remembered, the instructor asked the class, “How many of you think you’re going to do a million-dollar feature?”
“I raised my hand,” she said. “I won the money approximately a year later. And I took his class again, and he looked at me and said, ‘You won the lotto.’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I remember you said you were gonna get the money. What’s going on here? Are you a witch or something?'”
Now that she’s found her way into Hollywood and claimed the “mini-mogul” mantle, Stafford says she feels welcomed by the community she used to watch from the outside.
“I feel accepted,” she said. “But the other side of it is, I could care less.”
She burst out laughing. “I kind of live life on my own terms. I’m still new, and I’m having a good time with it. I got here from a house in Hawthorne that was barely a thousand square feet, housing me and five kids. And I’m grateful, really, just to be part of the process.”