‘Priscilla’ Was Shockingly Hard to Finance — One Man Stepped in and Saved It

Prolific Italian producer Lorenzo Mieli is known for backing Luca Guadagnino (“Bones and All”), Paolo Sorrentino (“The Hand of God,” HBO’s “The New Pope”), and Angelina Jolie (“Without Blood”; she also stars in his Pablo Larrain production “Maria”). However, his first American film, Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla,” was a very different kind of challenge.

“I would have never thought of myself as someone able to put together financing,” Mieli said on the phone from Italy. “I understood that in this moment in time, as producers, we want to protect the job of filmmakers. This is what we need to do.”

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Based on Presley’s memoir “Elvis and Me,” Mieli struggled to hold the project together: first against resistance from the Elvis Presley estate, and then having to find another international distributor after Sony fell out in response to the estate withholding rights to Presley’s music.

In the end, all of the sow’s ears became silk purses. A24 was an early and valuable ally, acquiring North American rights. With a non-signatory distributor and a budget under $20 million, it won a waiver during the writers’ and actors’ strikes. He even found money from Chanel, which he brought in to back the film’s soundtrack.

All of this should make Mieli’s Fremantle-owned production company, The Apartment, very popular among American specialty producers. “We are looking for creative new solutions to make films happen,” he said on the phone from Italy. He is looking for quality creators, “not just Italian filmmakers but also international filmmakers.”

Mieli was introduced to Coppola by her publicist, Bumble Ward. They first developed an A24 TV series based on a novel, but that was pushed back. A few months later, Coppola came to him with “Priscilla.” He started assembling the movie while Coppola wrote the script.

“It was not an easy moment,” he said. “We had to explore many creative ways of putting that movie together. At the end, we asked our shareholders at Fremantle to back me. They knew they were backing me financially for the whole cost of the movie.”

Why was it so hard to finance a movie based on recognizable IP? “It’s Sofia Coppola and ‘Priscilla’ is undeniable,” he said. “Sofia is Sofia. But people felt that after last year, when many of these movies didn’t succeed at the box office, everyone was scared. Nowadays, you need to find someone who can believe in the whole life of a movie and not just a few weeks of the release.”

This is not just the United States Mieli is talking about. “It’s true in France,” he said. “It’s true in Italy. It’s true in UK. And so the attitude of studio executives is the same: The word you hear the most is ‘concerned.’ That’s the opposite of what you want to hear when you choose a project or you want to invest your time and energy for a year and a half.”

Coppola cast rising star Jacob Elordi (“Euphoria,” “Saltburn”) as Elvis and Cailee Spaeny as the titular Priscilla. That was not enough to sell the film, which is why Mieli wound up asking for private money from Fremantle and with a 30-day production schedule. “This is probably what’s going to happen more and more,” he said. “It’s very hard to sell eccentric films in the traditional way to studios.”

It took Mieli until the summer 2023, a few months before the Venice world premiere, to find an international distributor. “Mubi was making a bigger step into distribution and investment in international films,” he said. “I met Mubi exactly in the moment when they wanted to make a step to invest in bigger movies. And they were so excited when they saw the finished movie, which was already in competition in Venice.”

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in "Priscilla"

When the music fell out, Phoenix, music supervisor Randall Poster, and Coppola stepped up to find creative solutions with cover songs and music of the period, like Jerry Lee Lewis. “It emphasizes the fact that you don’t hear Elvis sing an Elvis song,” said Mieli. “You don’t see that Elvis, the great incredible performing artist, but you only see that vulnerable, very weak sometimes, disappointing and manipulative Elvis. Everyone has their own projection on the characters. But the fact that you only watch the intimate Elvis in the house with no Elvis music makes the movie even more consistent and that made the movie even better. You’re gonna see a different thing. You have not seen it before.”

Fashion houses and luxury brands have long been sponsors for movie premieres, parties, and other celebrity-centric sponsored events. Saint Laurent produced Pedro Almodovar’s short film “Strange Way of Life.” And Mieli helped nudge Chanel into producing “Priscilla.”

“Sofia and Chanel have a long-lasting relationship,” he said. “I was trying to convince them to step into the producing, the branding of the movie itself. Not just costumes, parties, and premieres. Sofia and one of the executives of the movie, Charles Finch, have a strong relationship with Chanel. We asked them to step into the movie at a higher stake and help us with the music and with the movie itself. And they agreed.”

Mieli believes more indie films will seek similar connections. “All these brands have relationships with stars and with filmmakers and with with our community,” he said. “Armani did it years ago. It makes complete sense.”

Up next: Finishing production on “Maria,” which has been filming in Paris, Greece, and Budapest, and moves to Milan’s La Scala in December. “Raising the financing is our challenge right now,” said Mieli. “Cinema needs needs to be thought about in a creative way, in every sense, from the making, from the distribution side, from the financing side, and from the release side. Otherwise, you might sell it to a streamer and they just throw it away, and that’s not the way we support the cinema we want to make. This is what I want to do in the next few years until new models, evidence of success, and a consumption of the cinema is again something that will not concern studios and producers and filmmakers.”

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