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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Hollywood has a 'Panic Attack!'

November 30, 2009 |  5:43 pm
ET-AtaqueDePanico

A few weeks ago, a movie industry pal tipped me off to an especially cool new YouTube short by an obscure filmmaker from Uruguay. "Watch it," he said. "This guy is going to be a big star."

I've been around long enough to know that people in Hollywood make those kind of pronouncements all the time -- and they're usually 90% hyperbole. But this time my friend was right on the money. In Hollywood, an industry obsessed with discovering the Next Big Thing, often opportunity doesn't just knock -- it will beat down the door.

When Federico "Fede" Alvarez came to Hollywood two weeks ago, he was a total unknown. But in a matter of days after arriving in Los Angeles, the young Uruguayan filmmaker had the kind of amazing movie deal that would seem far-fetched, even by "Entourage" standards.

After seeing his short film, which depicts an invasion of Montevideo by a battalion of giant robots, Mandate Pictures agreed to bankroll a $30-million upcoming film for Alvarez, with the filmmaker getting a cool $1 million director's fee. Alvarez also made the rounds of the talent agencies and ended up leaving town with a CAA agent team as well as a deal with Anonymous Content to represent him for commercials. Most important, Alvarez also came away with an A-list Hollywood godfather, "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi, who will serve as a mentor and producer, through his Ghost House Pictures, on Alvarez's first American film.

ET-Fede The whirlwind Hollywood courtship of Alvarez, who runs a successful post-production visual effects house in Uruguay, is yet another striking example of the bottom-up democratization of today's movie business. Although many of its critics, especially political conservatives, enjoy portraying Hollywood as a bastion of elitism, it's actually the opposite, a business with a boundless enthusiasm for fresh new talent. When talent brokers spy a promising new filmmaker, especially one who works in the most commercial of all genres - -the special-effects alien invader genre -- they are quick to woo him and shower him with riches.

Until now, young filmmakers were discovered at film school or at film festival screenings. Today, the fastest way to spread the news is on the Internet. It's telling that many of the young agents and producers who were first spreading the buzz about Alvarez discovered "Panic Attack!" on -- of all places -- Kanye West's blog, where the rap star had been touting the short film.

But Alvarez's sudden ascension also speaks volumes about a continuing power shift in the movie business. What's especially noteworthy about the flurry of interest in the filmmaker is that it unfolded almost entirely outside the studio system. Alvarez didn't bother to meet with any top studio executives, in large part because today's creatively cautious studios, who've been spending much of their energy reining in talent costs, are increasingly out of the loop when it comes to discovering new talent. If young filmmakers want to find funding for adventuresome projects, they are far more likely to look for support from today's aggressive talent agencies, managers and independent producers.

It's hardly a coincidence that Mandate was the company to make the most aggressive offer for Alvarez. The small indie production company, founded in 2005 by Joe Drake and Nathan Kahane, has become a magnet for creative talent, having landed a string of hot new scripts -- most notably Diablo Cody's "Juno" -- as well as helping produce a series of successful films including "Juno" and "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" as well as "The Grudge" and "Harold and Kumar" franchises."

Hollywood is based on a web of working relationships among people scouring the globe for new talent. Mandate's Kahane, for example, has worked frequently with Roy Lee, a savvy producer-entrepreneur who has built a business out of acquiring the U.S. remake rights to Asian thrillers, resulting in such commercial Hollywood projects as "The Ring," "The Grudge" and "The Departed," which won an Oscar for best picture. Lee had partnered with Mandate on "The Grudge." He has also been involved in Mandate's efforts to mount a Hollywood remake of "Oldboy," a hit Korean thriller with a big cult fanboy reputation. 

Lee always seems to have an inside track on new filmmakers from other cultures. So it hardly came as a surprise that when Alvarez arrived in Los Angeles, Lee was one of the first people he met. In fact, Alvarez was with Lee when Kahane bumped into the two men before a screening a couple of weeks ago. After Kahane saw Alvarez's short, he moved quickly, essentially making an offer that was so lucrative that Alvarez saw no reason to shop himself around on the studio circuit. In fact, it hardly makes sense for a filmmaker to take studio meetings at a time when a number of cash-crunched studios, most notably Sony and Universal, have publicly acknowledged that they have stopped making new development deals until after the first of the year. 

Of course, it helped that Mandate, which is partnered with Ghost House Pictures, was able to put Alvarez on the phone with Raimi, whom Alvarez viewed as the prototypical Hollywood filmmaker who had retained his ability to make films that were both personal as well as commercial. The Raimi-Alvarez relationship is clearly modeled on a similar arrangement that happened on "District 9," a surprise, independently produced hit from this summer where Peter Jackson served as a producer-mentor for the young South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp. 

Alvarez found himself at the center of an equally heated feeding frenzy when he made the rounds at the top talent agencies. But the easy winner was CAA, which was able to offer a crack team of agents, led by Todd Feldman and Stuart Manashil, who impressed Alvarez with their strategic ability and experience working with internationally based filmmakers. Though CAA operates on a team basis, Feldman and Manashil have a clear hand in the careers of such top directors as "300's" Zack Snyder, "The Dark Knight's" Chris Nolan and "The Hangover's" Todd Phillips. (Raimi is also a CAA client, which clearly didn't hurt either.)

Alvarez has what insiders say is a compelling original story that will serve as the basis for his film with Mandate. Once he finishes coming up with a three-act structure for the story, Mandate plans to hire a screenwriter to work on a final script. It may be a couple of years before we know whether Alvarez is the real deal or not. But his overnight emergence is another fascinating example of how Hollywood has gone viral. When a filmmaker arrives with a hot new idea or a striking new short film, it doesn't take long for word to spread far and wide.  

Have a look at "Panic Attack!" and see what all the fuss is about: 

   

Photo of Federico Alvarez by Nicolas Rodriguez

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