In "The Way, Way Back," a tender and funny coming-of-age story now in its third week at the Malco Ridgeway Four, a pair of deadpan but amused adults stand back and assess the hip-hop dance moves of several teenagers.
"Any jukin', buckin'?" asks one.
"Nah," replies the other. "Not this far from Memphis."
For local audiences, the exchange is a laugh-out-loud moment. It's startling, in part because the delivery is so casual it suggests, absurdly, that Memphis street dance is as familiar as the waltz and the polka, even to workers in a Massachusetts water park.
But the Memphis reference isn't casual or random. It's an in- joke and shoutout from the movie's writing-directing team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash to one of the movie's executive producers, Memphis-based Ben Nearn.
A critical and commercial success, "The Way, Way Back" is the inaugural production of Sycamore Pictures, a movie company formed two years ago by Nearn and business partner Tom Rice, a Jackson, Miss., native who now lives in Los Angeles.
"The Way, Way Back" was produced on a modest budget of slightly less than $5 million. As a result, "the investors have already received a tremendous financial return," Nearn said.
In fact, the movie which debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival was profitable before it ever hit theaters, thanks to sales to foreign markets and a North American distribution deal with Fox Searchlight. In its first month of release, it has earned $14 million at the U.S. box office.
The 42-year-old Nearn, who describes himself as "a recovering investment banker," lives in Germantown with his wife, Elizabeth, 10- year-old son Clayton and 12-year-old daughter Anna Kate. In Memphis, he operates Sycamore Pictures out of a four-person Downtown office. The company also maintains a Los Angeles office run by Rice.
Named for an L.A. street where Rice once lived, Sycamore is a sequel, of sorts, to Nearn's first movie venture, Cross Creek Pictures.
Nearn was chief operating officer yet a minority investor in Cross Creek, which had a huge surprise hit with its first project, "Black Swan" (2010), the disturbing ballet drama that earned Natalie Portman a Best Actress Oscar, and also was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. In theaters, "Black Swan" earned about $107 million worldwide on a budget of about $13 million.
The movie was such a success that it proved to be "a blessing and a curse," Nearn said, because it raised expectations that every film can be a home run.
Cross Creek primarily has financed somewhat dark projects, including "The Ides of March," a cynical political drama with George Clooney, and "The Woman in Black," a ghost story with Daniel Radcliffe.
"While I was very proud of what we did at Cross Creek, at the same time I wanted to make movies with a more redemptive tone," Nearn said. "And I really wanted to produce some things that I could take my kids to, that we could be proud of as a family."
Learning from the experience of Cross Creek (where he remains a partner), Nearn decided to form a new production company that would enable him to have creative control. In partnership with Rice, a longtime independent producer and writer, Sycamore Pictures was born.
"We are still fiercely independent, but we want to make movies that are more middle-America-focused, something that someone in Memphis, Tennessee, or Birmingham, Alabama, or the Midwest would connect to, as opposed to New York or L.A.," Nearn said.
As "The Way, Way Back" demonstrates, the words "family" and "Midwest" aren't intended as synonyms for "namby-pamby." The story of a 14-year-old boy (Liam James) on vacation with his mother (Toni Collette) and her authoritarian new boyfriend (Steve Carell), "The Way, Way Back" deals with infidelity and alcohol as well as innocent teen crushes and water slides.
The film has earned mostly stellar reviews, and was cited by industry sage Peter Bart in a recent issue of Variety as "a wonderful little movie ... that contradicts every dictum about how to succeed in Hollywood ... ." Its success, according to Bart, offers a riposte to studio executives who insist on producing big- budget blockbusters and sequels, some of which flop spectacularly, such as "The Lone Ranger."
"We were so lucky to have the involvement of Ben Nearn and his company," Faxon said via e-mail. "After eight years of trying to get this movie made, we finally found someone who gave us the creative freedom to fulfill our vision. It took immense courage and trust on their part to allow Jim and I the opportunity to make our dream come true." (Although Faxon and Rash won the 2012 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for "The Descendants," the team had not directed a feature before "The Way, Way Back.")
Nearn said he spent a lot of time on the Massachusetts set of "The Way, Way Back" in May 2012, reinforcing the idea that he and Rice will be "nuts and bolts" producers and not just a money handlers.
A native Memphian, Nearn was an accountant with Ernst & Young for several years. He worked for Morgan Keegan and, more recently, with the Jeffries investment banking firm.
He became involved in Cross Creek after deciding to leave investment banking. Encouraged by a client with an interest in moviemaking, Nearn realized that an investment partnership to raise capital for the purpose of "greenlighting" independent motion pictures could be a viable business.
To finance Sycamore's film projects, Nearn raised $50 million from local and nonlocal investors to serve as a base for the production of 10 to 20 modestly budgeted movies over the next five years. The business model is based on profit participation rather than high salaries. In this way, "The Way, Way Back" was able to recruit an ensemble cast of name actors that includes Carell, Collette, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Amanda Peet, Maya Rudolph and AnnaSophia Robb.
"We like to have all the actors and directors and creative personnel invest with us, by taking pay cuts for a piece of the profits," which accrue after Sycamore recoups its production investment, he said.
Of course, being a moviemaker based in Memphis is different from making movies in Memphis. Nearn said Tennessee's troubled filmmaking incentive program needs to be overhauled before the state can compete with other growing filmmaking centers.
Even so, he is adamant that Sycamore Pictures retain its Memphis as well as Los Angeles headquarters base. He said he and his wife long ago made a decision to remain in Memphis ("I think we probably will stay here forever," he said), and that he's determined to remain in the movie business ("This absolutely is my career now").
Next up from Sycamore: "Can a Song Save Your Life?," shot in New York, with Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld and Keira Knightley. The director is John Carney, known for the cult romance "Once."
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