Director Garry Marshall’s new romantic comedy “Mother’s Day” opens this Friday with an all-star cast that includes Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson and Jason Sudeikis, among others.
The film’s financial backing comes from Seattle’s own version of star power, as tech veteran Scott Lipsky is part of local team that helped make the project a reality.
Lipsky is a longtime entrepreneur and investor, and he said there are many parallels between his life in technology and his newer world of movie production.
“It’s just like investing in startups … 8 out of 10 will lose money, 1 in 10 will break even, and 1 will make a lot of money — which will hopefully make up for all the losses,” said Lipsky, a former Amazon and aQuantive executive who has been an angel investor, a venture fund investor and an advisor to entrepreneurs and emerging tech companies in the Seattle region for 20 years.
Lipsky stresses that the risk is the lowest possible risk for a film investment that anyone on the team has ever made because of the way it’s all been put together.
“Just like investing in tech companies, investing in ‘Mother’s Day’ was about backing a great team with a smart plan to succeed. Also, diversification is a good idea too.”
Lipsky serves as an executive producer on “Mother’s Day” along with two other major investors from Seattle — Fred Grimm and Rodger May. Another producer on the film with Hollywood and Seattle tech roots is Mark DiSalle, the former CEO of BioPassword and a producer whose film credits include “Bloodsport,” “Kickboxer” and “Street Knight.”
Matt Hooper, of Seattle’s IME Law, is a big piece of the Seattle puzzle. He “packaged” the film and served as the connection to the film’s producer, Wayne Rice, who also made Marshall’s two other holiday films, “Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve.” Lipsky has known Hooper for some time and as an investor, he was a natural person to call on as Hooper was putting together the financing.
Lipsky — who after working at Amazon.com in its early days went on to co-found Seattle-based aQuantive in 1997, watching the online advertising company sell to Microsoft for $6 billion — said without Seattle this film could not have been made outside of Hollywood’s traditional studio system.
In fact, at 83 years old and with dozens of television and film credits under his belt, this is the first independent production for Marshall, the man responsible for classics such as “Happy Days,” “Mork & Mindy,” “The Odd Couple,” “Beaches,” “Pretty Woman” and much more.
“This is a very large independent film, to be independently financed,” Lipsky said, hinting only at the film’s 8-figure budget. “Once you get to this level you’re almost always working with studios because they’ve got the bucks, and they have distribution as well.”
It’s a moment in film history that is unique for Seattle, Lipsky said.
“Seattle is not known … this is not a film-centric city,” said Lipsky. “There’s a lot of small filmmakers and there’s a lot of activity in digital media, but the actual film industry and money for film industry does not live here very much. So this is probably — I don’t have the exact numbers — but this is very possibly the single largest collective investment that’s come out of the city for this large a budget film in history.”
As its title suggests, “Mother’s Day” tells the intertwining tales of mothers played by the assorted stars. Open Road Films, which released the recent best picture Academy Award winner “Spotlight,” acquired the U.S. distribution rights. The film will open on 2,900 screens this weekend and some of the competition includes the Key and Peele comedy “Keanu” and the animated kid flick “Ratchet & Clank.”
The film includes a few funny tech-oriented nuggets, including a classic moment when the character played by Jason Sudeikis chastises a girl texting while on the soccer pitch. “There’s no texting in soccer,” he declares. Microsoft’s Skype also gets a few key placements, with the the mother of the character played by Jennifer Aniston struggling to pronounce the product’s name properly.
Despite the financial backing coming from Seattle individuals, the city and the state of Washington can’t claim the picture as their own. As Lipsky pointed out, the film was shot in Georgia and set in Atlanta because fantastic incentives encourage productions to actually shoot there.
“Washington barely competes in that arena, nationally,” said Lipsky, who also sits on the board of the Seattle International Film Festival. “Very few large productions happen in the state because Washington State decided not to create incentive funds like five or six other states have done in a very big way.”
Regardless of whether the city or state are doing enough to lure productions, Lipsky said big-money backers here have traditionally looked beyond films when it comes to their funding dollars, focusing instead on tech and real estate.
“Because the projects don’t show up to begin with for production, it’s really just not in the mindset of the investors or the community here,” said Lipsky, who joined Amazon.com in 1996 two years after it was founded. “They don’t think about film, they don’t think about large projects.” He added that it was amazing to be in Atlanta during the making of “Mother’s Day” and to witness what the community has done to support filmmaking.
It’s really hard to make money investing in films, Lipsky said, and because of that he backed away from it for years. But he thinks the model Hooper built reduces risk “to a huge degree” and turns it into a smart investment.
“This is a really smart model. I would absolutely do it over again,” Lipsky said, even before the first box office returns start to come in. He said he can see more independent films being made the same way, and investors would be smart to get on board.
Lipsky calls the traditional Hollywood studio model very very different from the startup world where he’s made an impact. But he said there is a great opportunity to create “film funds” without the constraints of having a public company with a lot of overhead, like a big studio. He said just like a startup fund, investments could be made in a film fund “that is generating income for investors who might not know how to invest in films.”
“It would be great if there was a film fund that acted like a VC and said, ‘Yeah, we will invest in your project, we have investors who have created this fund, let’s make really smart investment decisions,'” Lipsky said. “And that is how I think about this industry from an investment opportunity standpoint.”
At a special screening of the film on Monday night at Seattle’s Cinerama, Marshall was presented with a lifetime achievement award from SIFF. Lipsky said the longtime director was excited to be in town during the week that his new film is opening.
“He wants to thank Seattle for being the biggest supporters of this film,” Lipsky said. “Without Seattle and the investors in Seattle it just would not have happened.” Lipsky thinks the director has been so pleased by the experience that he would work with the team again, and Lipsky thinks even more investors would get involved.
Lipsky even has a 3-second cameo in the film during a grocery store scene. Friends of Lipsky clapped and cheered at the premiere on Monday night as the former tech executive pushed a grocery cart across a grocery store parking lot.
But if his acting career doesn’t get a jumpstart because of that, he said the entire experience has been a positive one. And while he points out that he’s still working on a few tech projects, it seems clear that his name will be attached to more films in the future.
“On top of the investment, on top of making Seattle more important to the film industry — trying to — on top of being able to bring Garry in, it’s also a lot of fun,” Lipsky said. “Any investment anyone makes, you need to enjoy it and this was a lot of fun working with people typically in Seattle you don’t get to work with.