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Fresh Out of the Gate, Cross Creek Makes ‘Black Swan’ Splash

The indie producer and financier has a $220M-and-counting smash under its belt and new projects with Clooney and Radcliffe in the wings

Introducing Cross Creek Pictures, the movie industry novice that has quietly struck gold on its first time out in Hollywood with “Black Swan.”

Cost: $13 million.

Worldwide box office: $228 million, and counting.

Backed by Louisiana oil and gas investors, the company has so far bucked the odds of the movie business.

What's more, the success comes at a time that many studios have shuttered their indie labels and focused their efforts on tentpole films.

Is Cross Creek just plain lucky?

“[Black Swan] was a home run, so expectations need be managed, but we have great faith in our business model. We are interested in taking artsy, creative directors and marrying them with commercial material,” Brian Oliver, the company’s president, told TheWrap.

Unique among movie companies, Cross Creek is both an investor and a producer, putting its money behind projects in which Oliver (pictured below with "Swan" director Darren Aronofsky) and the investment committee believes.
Like a ballet thriller.

“Sixty-seven people passed on this movie,” said a top agent who was involved in the deal. “The financier pulled out three weeks before the movie was supposed to happen, Natalie was on set training. For three days we were faking it.”

Then Fox Searchlight stepped in, agreeing to distribute the film with Cross Creek financing the production. Oliver was familiar with the script, and convinced the money behind the company – Louisiana oil and gas tycoon Timmy Thompson – to take the leap.

While Oliver has over a decade of experience in the industry — working as the founder of Arthaus Pictures and as vice president of Propaganda Films — Thompson, Cross Creek's chief executive officer, brother Tommy and son Tyler are Hollywood neophytes.

“There is a long, storied history in Hollywood of treating outside financiers badly, but I’m going to continue to treat them well. Without private equity, you can’t make independent film,” Oliver said.

Launched in 2009, Cross Creek's investors committed to investing $40 million over the company’s first year and a half in business.

To that end, it plans to release four to six films a year, budgeted at between $15 to $25 million. On deck is “Women in Black,” a gothic horror film starring "Harry Potter's" Daniel Radcliffe, that the studio expects will have domestic distribution locked up within the next week.

And Oliver is currently on the set of “Ides of March,” a political thriller starring and directed by George Clooney.

In all, the company has 15 projects in development, also including a biopic of film star Steve McQueen and a movie about notorious mobster James “Whitey” Bulger.

Oliver says that Cross Creek is able to produce high quality films with major stars by convincing talent to waive its standard fees in favor of a larger slice of the back end.

“We get talent to invest in the project, and if it’s a good movie they stand to get paid a lot of money,” he told TheWrap.

In the case of “Swan” that meant producing a lush, elegantly shot ballet drama on an $18 million budget, and using New York state tax incentives to drive production costs down by an additional $5 million.

“We’re playing in a space that everyone says is a no man’s land. We’re making studio quality films at a rate that studios couldn’t make them by using an indie model,” Oliver said.

Looking ahead, Oliver sees the war on production incentives as a potential obstacle to the independent model, noting that the company specifically chose Michigan to shoot “Ides of March” because of the state’s 42 percent tax credit.

“As incentives go away, we’re going to lose an important source of soft money. It’s become part of everyone’s finance plan,” Oliver said.