Against the Odds: How a First-Time Director Got His Wall Street Flick To the Big Screen

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Director Nicholas Jarecki on the set of Arbitrage.

When the fledgling filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki was trying to get his financial thriller off the ground a few years back, “we had everything going wrong,” he says. The billionaire who had promised to cover the entire $13 million cost of making the movie turned out to be bankrupt. The original leading man, Al Pacino, bailed a few months before shooting was scheduled to start. And Jarecki got tangled in a nasty legal battle with a producer who claimed co-ownership of the script. “I swear to God, I started to cry,” says the 33-year-old writer and director. “I called one of my friends, and I said, ‘Come on over. Bring a bottle of scotch. We’re gonna get wasted.’”

Today Jarecki is riding the kind of high that fuels the ambitions of anyone who has ever dreamed of making a movie. That financial thriller he was working on? That’s Arbitrage, starring Richard Gere as a crooked hedge-fund titan. Since its release on September 14, the film has gotten flattering reviews, earned a respectable $6 million at the U.S. box office, and even garnered Oscar buzz for Gere’s nuanced, understated performance.

While fewer people are going to movie theaters in recent years—why bother when you can stream movies on Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Instant at home?—more of those who do are seeing independently-financed flicks like Arbitrage. Overall, indie films pocketed just over a third of the $10.1 billion box-office revenue last year—a 3% increase over 2011. Now Jarecki has joined the ranks of successful indie filmmakers, thanks to his ability to write a script that would entice A-list actors like Gere and co-star Susan Sarandon, find deep-pocketed backers for the project, and doggedly pursue his creative passion even when nothing was going right.

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Jarecki’s filmmaking career began at age ten, when his Mom gave him a 8 mm, JVC videocamera that he used to make a swordfighting movie with a friend. After skipping his senior year of high school, the self-taught computer geek doubled up on college courses and graduated from NYU film school at age 19. But despite a privileged upbringing (both his parents are commodities traders) and industry connections (older brothers Eugene and Andrew are filmmakers too), it took him another 14 years and countless false starts before he released his first feature film.

“I’ve written plenty of scripts that sucked. This is number eleven, you know,” Jarecki says of Arbitrage. Earlier efforts mostly went nowhere. While Jarecki was trying to shill his other manuscripts, the self-described “artist/hustler” did everything he could to get noticed. After film school, he tried making music videos while working day jobs as a network engineer and systems architect for banks and tech startups. When there were no takers for his video services, he decided to interview his favorite directors to find out how they got their start. A literary agent (introduced to him by a family friend) liked the idea and got Jarecki a $50,000 advance to write the 2001 book, Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start. With the help of a talent agent, “we called 200 directors, and the 20 people who called us back, they’re in the book,” Jarecki says.

Writing a book about breaking in is a far cry from actually doing it, though. So when Jarecki heard that James Toback—one of the directors he had interviewed for Breaking In—was shooting an unscripted film starring Neve Campbell in just 12 days, he decided to make a documentary about it. Still living at home with his Dad, Jarecki used $20,000 he had saved up from computer gigs to make The Outsider. The 2005 documentary debuted on Showtime and Netflix to so-so reviews. So Jarecki went back to working for others, co-producing a Mike Tyson documentary in 2008, co-writing a really bad film based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel The Informers, making commercials, and writing a TV show for MTV that never saw the light of day.

“Anything there was to do, I would do it. I figured as long as it is a real job, I’m going to get some experience,” says Jarecki. But he also knew that in order to get a shot at directing an original feature film based on his own script, he had to have a great storyline.

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Inspired by the 2008 financial crisis, Jarecki wrote the first version of Arbitrage in 2009, then sought out mentors to help make the screenplay pop. A fan of Larry Karaszewski─who wrote the screenplays for The People vs. Larry Flynt and Ed Wood─Jarecki emailed him out of the blue on Facebook, struck up a friendship with him, and eventually asked him to read his script. Karaszewski says of Jarecki, “he has no fear. He went from being a Facebook guy who I didn’t really know to someone who is hanging out at my house.” And unlike most people who ask Karaszewski to read their script, “he would come to me with specific problems. Most people, when they give you things, they just want to hear you like it.” After nine months writing and rewriting the script, Jarecki was ready to look for money and talent.

To get Arbitrage financed, Jarecki says he and his producers called more than 300 potential investors. “I keep a list of everyone I’ve ever met,” says the natural-born networker. He says he even hacked a computer to steal the e-mail address of Justin Nappi, who would become a producer and co-financier of the independent film. Altogether, Jarecki raised about $4 million in equity funding from five investors: Mohammed Al Turki, a producer and son of a Saudi oil and gas magnate; the Polish film studio Alvernia; Ron Curtis, the film’s executive producer and CEO of the Jill Stuart clothing line; producer Justin Nappi; and Jarecki himself, who put in money he had saved from his fat writing fee on The Informers. He also got a cash advance on foreign sales and a big loan (of “$6 to $8 million,” Jarecki says) from Union Bank. He was able to secure the bank loan by using an anticipated tax rebate (on production expenses) of $2 million from New York State along with proof of contracts for future foreign sales.

Executive producer Curtis says he expects Arbitrage to bring in more than $30 million altogether, but that may be an overly-optimistic figure. The film had earned $6 million at the U.S. box office through October 7 and another $3 million internationally. It was the number one movie download on iTunes during its first week and a top five video-on-demand title in week two. Whereas big studios usually delay releasing their films online for at least four months after a theatrical debut, for fear it will cannibalize box office sales, independent films rely heavily on alternate outlets like Amazon Instant to increase their reach while there’s still media buzz for the movie. (Arbitrage opened in just 197 theaters, for example, versus the more than 3000 screens for Resident Evil: Retribution, which debuted on the same weekend.)

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“It would have cost $30 to $40 million for a big studio to make this movie,” says executive producer Curtis. Jarecki made Arbitrage for less than half that amount. Instead of shooting pricey panoramas and aerial shots of Manhattan, Jarecki’s director of photography Yorick Le Saux opted for tight shots inside limousines, bedrooms and restaurants. Jarecki negotiated discount rates at places like The Plaza hotel in Manhattan, where he shot a key scene in the film. And he paid Gere and Sarandon nominal fees plus a share of profits since he couldn’t match their usual multi-million dollar salaries.

Asked why he took a chance with a freshman feature filmmaker, Gere told, “It was the script. It’s a terrific script and a part I thought I could do something with.” To feel out whether Jarecki was ready for the director’s chair, Gere arranged a meeting and peppered him with questions. “No one knows if someone can direct a movie. In some ways it’s always going to be a crapshoot. But I kept looking at him, and I honestly believed that he would not allow himself to fail,” says Gere. Of the rapport between a director and an actor, Gere adds, “It’s like falling in love. It’s an alchemy that you’ve just got to feel it or you don’t.”

Luckily for Jarecki, Gere felt that alchemy with him. “It is extremely important to never forget the role that luck plays,” says Jarecki, who adds that, “the important thing is to keep pushing forward with your passion.” Jarecki kept pushing—from cold-emailing people he didn’t know to scrambling for new investors when his initial financing fell through—until he finally got what he wanted: the chance to write and direct his first feature film, Arbitrage.