CASE STUDY: Experimenter
Director: Michael Almereyda
Producers: Danny Abeckaser, Fabio Golombek, Per Melita, Isen Robbins, Aimee Schoof, Uri Singer
Budget: Under $2 million
Financing: Private Equity/NY Tax Credit
Production: 20 days, June,2014
Shooting Format: RED
Screening Format: DCP
World Premiere: Sundance 2015
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Awards: 2008, Sundance Institute: Sloan Lab Fellowship; 2009, Tribeca Film Institute: Sloan Filmmaker Fund: Production Award; 2015, Film Independent: Sloan Distribution Grant
Yale University, 1961. Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) designs a psychology experiment that remains relevant to this day, in which people think they’re delivering painful electric shocks to an affable stranger (Jim Gaffigan) strapped into a chair in another room. Disregarding his pleas for mercy, the majority of subjects do not stop the experiment, administering what they think are near-fatal electric shocks, simply because they’ve been told to. With Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial airing in living rooms across America, Milgram’s exploration of authority and conformity strikes a nerve in popular culture and the scientific community. Celebrated in some circles, he is also accused of being a deceptive, manipulative monster. His wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) anchors him through it all. Experimenter invites us inside Milgram’s whirring mind in this bracing portrait of a brilliant man whose conscience and creative spirit continue to be resonant, poignant, and inspirational.
Development & Financing
In 2007, writer/director Michael Almereyda was given a book about the life and work of Stanley Milgram, and was immediately taken with the story. With a documentarian’s passion for research, Almereyda dug deeper, reaching out to Milgram’s remaining associates and eventually befriending his widow, Sasha Milgram—who shared her late husband’s own films of his experiments with the filmmaker. Deeply inspired, Almereyda applied through both the Sundance Institute and the Tribeca Film Festival for grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds development of films with science and technology themes. Almereyda received both grants, each in the amount of $20,000, and “those two grants provided the support and space for him to write a screenplay and option the life rights,” says producer Isen Robbins. (Though Milgram was already deceased, the option not only protected the production legally and cemented the relationship between Almereyda and Sasha Milgram, but offered some security from the possibility of competing projects. Through Sloan, Almereyda was also granted a Science Advisor, prominent psychologist Harold Takooshian, who was a student of Milgram’s, and provided vast insight into the man and his work.
Though it had plenty of fans, for several years, Experimenter was caught in a game of musical chairs as Almereyda sought a producer to see it through. Early in the development process, producers Ted Hope and Anne Carey came aboard with notes, and attached actors Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder in the two lead roles. When Hope left the business soon after, he attempted to find new homes for his fledgling projects; Experimenter landed with Killer Films’ Christine Vachon. But the film appeared to stall at Killer, and it seemed fortuitous when Almereyda ran into producer Isen Robbins at a Sundance party in New York. Robbins and partner Aimee Schoof of Intrinsic Value Films had just wrapped one project and were about to take another to Sundance; long an admirer of Almereyda’s work, Robbins, feeling the bravado of the moment, invited the filmmaker to his office to talk about upcoming projects. Robbins, who is the child of two scientists, was instantly drawn to the Milgram story, and he and Schoof jumped in with both feet.
When Robbins and Schoof inherited the project, it came with a very appealing bonus: a $350,000 production grant from the Sloan Foundation, one of the first Sloan had offered. When combined with the potential to cover roughly 15% of the film’s budget through a New York state tax credit, Robbins and Schoof knew they had enough momentum to re-approach some of the project’s former fans even as they exposed it to potential new investors. After many false starts and fake investors, a San Francisco-based group promising upwards of $3 million (which seemed particularly real) arrived which allowed them to lock in a firm investment from a second equity/producing partner, Danny Abeckaser—with the provision that he be the “last in.” (Though they don’t always see the first returns, some funders feel more comfortable knowing that others have taken the first risk, and that a film is therefore that much closer to production when they invest.) “It was a path to a bigger budget, which was glorious,” Robbins reflects of this shot at financing, but the San Francisco money turned out to be illusory and jeopardized the additional investment. This constantly shifting financial landscape, says Robbins, is the tricky part of indie film financing, and keeping investors comfortable requires a combination of honesty and tact.
Executive producers Jeff Rice, Lee Broda, Lati Grobman and Christa Campbell who had brought in the legitimate producer/investor, could have walked away when the financing fell apart. Instead, they and Aimee devoted themselves to finding new partners without sacrificing the commitment they already had. Rice and Broda brought in producers Uri Singer and Fabio Golombek of BB Film Productions (now Passage Pictures), who invested nearly half the equity and worked hard on the production. Though momentum was building, the team was still facing a shortfall that meant a significantly smaller budget than they’d originally imagined—and this meant sacrificing days, salaries, a union crew, support staff and a brief flirtation with the idea of shooting on film. “Everything that’s not on the screen gets chopped,” Robbins explains of the painful process. But the shrinking budget also led to another serious roadblock: Experimenter’s Sloan Production Grant required a completion bond.
Bonding a film can be an expensive process that comes with hefty fees and union requirements, and suddenly it became clear that the associated costs would significantly outweigh the benefit of the Sloan grant. There was no way to make the numbers work, and the filmmakers had to walk away from the $350,000. Luckily, the team was able to find an anonymous investor, along with Trevor Crafts and Mark Myers to come in at just the right time, with a contribution that would bring the production budget to a workable level. Experimenter’s “last in” investor did eventually discover that he’d actually been the first in—on the first day of shooting. Fortunately, at that point, he took the news well.
Though the production did qualify for the New York state tax credit, the credit comes in the form of a rebate, which made it necessary to secure a loan. The producers were able to convince Three Point Capital, an investment company that specializes in tax credit loans for film production, to take a risk on them without a bond.
Despite the compressed budget, Experimenter attracted an impressive cast, which Robbins attributes to relationships, material and the director. Almereyda brought in a number of old friends and collaborators like John Leguizamo and Jim Gaffigan in supporting roles, and veteran casting director Billy Hopkins filled out the ensemble with talented performers. “But Michael Almereyda—without question—draws cast,” Robbins says. “The director always draws them, and there are always a lot of relationships working in the background.” Throughout the nail-biting process of financing the film, anchors Sarsgaard and Ryder had remained devoted to the project, but working around their schedules was tricky; without the actor attachments, the money would have fallen apart. “You have to form relationships with the agents and managers,” Robbins advises. “They are the gatekeepers.” Sarsgaard had a four-week window before returning to the set of Black Mass (for which he’d had to shave his perfect Milgram beard, thus requiring a prosthetic). “And Stranger Things almost did us in,” Isen laughs, remembering the agency phone call only a week or so, before shooting started warning that Ryder’s TV commitment might conflict. Happily, Experimenter was spared when the show’s production was pushed, and the film’s cameras rolled as scheduled.
Experimenter shot over 20 fairly smooth days in June with a non-union crew. Roughly one third of the film was shot on location, but the days spent on stages also required painstaking preparation. Harold Takooshian was on set to check the veracity of the production’s representation of Milgram’s lab. But it was another on-set visitor—a live elephant—that created the strongest impression with Robbins.
For a sequence that featured Sarsgaard being trailed down a Yale University hallway by a full-grown elephant—a visual metaphor meant to highlight Milgram’s personal relationship to his work—producers had to secure a location that would accommodate the animal’s size and weight. Fearing the worst, Robbins carefully researched aggressive animal behavior, but was shocked and pleased to discover that the beast was a producer’s dream. “She learns her part. She hits her mark every take after that and loved the delicious dates from the craft service table as much as I did. Minny’s a perfect performer.”
Festival Preparation and Strategy
With a veteran director, an exciting cast and a strong script, the filmmakers knew they had a strong festival film, and decided to apply to Sundance, where they’d premiered seven films in the past. As part of Almereyda’s legal team, sales agent John Sloss had been attached to the project from the beginning, and Robbins is convinced that his presence strengthened the production at every turn, particularly when it came to applying to the festival, though he advises that no individual is ever responsible for consensus among programmers. “You can get tastemakers to lobby, but in the end, the buck stops at the material,” he says. Just before Thanksgiving in 2014, the film was invited to premiere at Sundance.
“You’re trying to create an event—at this giant event,” Robbins says of the process of creating buzz for the premiere. The team hired Linda Brown and Jim Dobson of Indie PR to handle publicity; they carefully exposed the film to a handful of influential critics and landed a few targeted press features in advance of the premiere. The producers were also thrilled when a number of cast members showed up in Park City (many on their own dime), not only because it affirmed their experience with the making of the film, but because their presence offered a distinct advantage when it came to selling it. “Your actors supporting the movie means a lot to potential distributors, because the support of the actors is free marketing to a distributor.”
By controlling the hype and allowing the film to be a discovery, the team had positioned it well for the multiple offers that rolled in following the premiere. “John Sloss can ratchet up a bidding war better than anyone,” Robbins recalls, and Sloss played the distributors against each other to leverage the best possible offer. While the film screened at Sundance, the producers also held private screenings in New York and LA to accommodate distributors who hadn’t made it to the festival. Eventually the filmmakers found the right fit with Magnolia Pictures: “They won it on their offer, what they intended to do, their history, their level of prestige and their understanding of the material,” Robbins says. Magnolia picked up all North American rights with a minimum guarantee for a healthy price (undisclosed), and Blieberg Entertainment handled sales in multiple foreign territories.
Experimenter received a day-and-date release in October of 2015 and grossed just over $155,000 across 30 theaters at its widest release. The Sloan Foundation awarded the film a $50,000 Sloan Distribution Grant through Film Independent, which was used to bolster Magnolia’s marketing campaign. The producers expect the film to be in profits soon.
The film was a big festival hit, both domestically and abroad, and Robbins points out that festivals are an extraordinary way to boost a project’s public profile while helping it to reach a wider audience.
Advice from the Producer
“I live by a philosophy of firm intention, lose direction, you can look at the path of this film: the filmmaker had a vision and he never gave up,” Robbins advises. “Michael just stayed true to getting the film made and we tried many, many different paths because in filmmaking, tenacity is greater than talent or intelligence, not to say we didn’t have some of those other qualities.” “ Another belief of mine is multiple attacks, multiple targets, if you keep coming at it, you’re going to get through. Just never give up. In Milgram’s own words, ‘Courage, courage, courage’.”