Role of the CFO

Lights, camera, accounting

Jason Cherubini is a CFO and founder of film studio Dawn’s Light Media
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Jason Cherubini

· 4 min read

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Who knew that movie stars and filmmakers needed a CFO to be the grown-up in the room?

Jason Cherubini did, and he’s built a successful career out of producing, conceptualizing, and financing dozens of movies.

Cherubini is the co-founder and CFO of Dawn’s Light Media, a film production company with offices in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles. He is also a lecturer of accounting and finance at Stevenson University and runs a finance consultancy.

CFO Brew spoke to Cherubini about the tradeoffs between finance and creativity, and why filmmaking is a bad business.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How did Dawn’s Light come about?

We kind of fell into it. A client had invested a little bit of money in a movie as a vanity project—they really just wanted to see their name on screen—and they thought something fishy was going on with the books.

It was artists trying to do business [with] really no concept, no budget, no plan, no nothing. This was probably 2014, and I thought film was the worst business in the world. Nobody should ever get involved in it, or nobody who wanted to keep their money.

But probably six months after that, an opportunity came up to use hard-money lending as finishing funds for a film. We were able to structure it and it worked out well. What we did for probably three years was almost entirely financing into films, into projects that hadn't done an appropriate capital raise; They ended up being short on the capital needed to get over the hump.

Having seen the same mistake over and over again, we realized that a lot of these filmmakers needed an adult in the room, for lack of a better phrase; they needed somebody who was going to say, “No, this is your budget.”

We started into production in 2017. We first did a movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren called Black Water. We did OK on it financially, but it definitely wasn’t an out-of-the-park home run.

We do a lot of made-for-TV movies. We refer to them as MOWs (movies of the week). A lot of the Lifetime and the Hallmark Christmas movies that all have the exact same plot of: A woman goes home from Big City to a small town, falls in love with a guy wearing a flannel, and there’s a dog. Basically, that’s the recipe for most of our movies. We jokingly say that we make content, not art, because everything is very commercial.

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There’s a popular misconception of CFOs being CF-nos. How do you reconcile the tensions between an artist’s vision and your need to be financially prudent and responsible?

I actually love the term CF-no. I think that’s a great attitude to go in with. Actually, we found most of the people we work with, especially the directors we’ve worked with more than once, it’s a give and take. We as a company and me as the CFO have a fiduciary duty; we have an obligation to bring this in on budget.

The budget is set because that’s what will give us a return when we go to sell it. Especially for a lot of our directors or the higher-level decision makers who are going to really push their creative vision, it’s all about giving them an idea of where their budget is going.

How does your finance work and your finance thinking influence the creative part of the process?

It’s more beneficial than I think almost anything else, especially the finance based on what your returns are, and especially your risk-adjusted returns.

What is this movie going to be worth to the market? And that’s where we need to factor in: What’s the genre? Who are the stars? Is there anything topical that’s happening in it right now? How are the trends happening to be moving? What marketing can we put in place that's going to help us out? All of these factors are going to be where we get our expected growth or expected revenue of the particular film, with a lot of the unknown that’s going to happen with it.

And again, all of this stuff comes back to the mechanics from the finance side of it to which we can then apply dollars, and everyone wants to see bigger dollars on their return.—DA

News built for finance pros

CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.