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Kevin Feige - Cover Story

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Some of us collected marvel comics as a kid. Some of us read those stories and wondered why there couldn’t be movies about those characters that were as big and bold and fun as the franchises that created the tentpole template in the 1970s and 80s… Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, James Bond. The popularity of Christopher Reeve’s Superman showed that comic-book superheroes could deliver on the big screen. So it felt like a weird and cruel injustice, to some of us, that obscure grownup legal wrangling seemed to consign our marvel heroes to live only through ink and newsprint, and maybe the occasional action figure.

Some of us only wish we could go back to tell our younger selves: hang in there, kid. They’re coming. It’s only taking so long ‘cause they want to do it right.

We are now eight years and 14 films into arguably the most ambitious undertaking in the history of popular filmmaking, an attempt to breathe life into not simply a single iconic character or story, but to animate an entire ecosystem of costumed heroes—all of them, from the household names to the “B-side” cult favorites. The 14-film track record, each title distinct in its own right, is already considerable testament to its success. The Marvel Cinematic Universe today is a day-glo, double-wide bus, packed with a good-sized riot’s worth of outsize heroes and villains flying down the freeway of global pop culture. And the guy behind the wheel is Kevin Feige.

For a fellow whose job it is to keep an entire slate of billion-dollar franchises spinning in the same direction, Feige brings zero pretense to a conversation. Almost aggressively accessible, he talks about the massive apparatus of Marvel filmmaking with the unforced directness you usually get from your workout buddy or your old friend from camp. Though Feige (like many who have graced our cover) voices profound admiration for his films’ writers, directors and stars, his deepest affinities, we think, are elsewhere—he loves and reveres no one like he does the audience. His success as the MCU’s architect and pilot are a strong argument for the producer as, essentially, fan-in-chief.

Running a cinematic universe is, he readily admits, too big a job for one person, and so it comes as no surprise that Marvel utilizes a “creative brain trust” model similar to those that have guided companies like Pixar and J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot. Feige is quick to credit the wider Marvel team with providing the essential infrastructure and feedback for each of Marvel’s distinct properties, and we’re happy to salute them—all, like Feige, proud PGA members—and their contributions within. Their success embodies the animating spirit of their studio: that the real story is not, in the end, about Spider-Man, or Iron Man, or Kevin Feige, but about the entire family tree, the push and pull between equally unlikely patchwork teams of superheroes and storytellers, the crossovers and synchronicities and reflections, the feeling that at any given moment, you’re focused on just one corner of a world that’s bigger than any of us.

They did it right, in other words. It was worth the wait.

I CAN REMEMBER IN THE EARLY ‘80S WHEN “THE MARVEL UNIVERSE” BECAME A THING, WHEN THEY GOT BEHIND THAT AS A TERM. AND I BET YOU CAN REMEMBER THAT TOO.
Sure.

WHAT DID THE IDEA OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE MEAN TO YOU, AS A KID?
Honestly, the Star Trek universe and the Star Wars universe meant much more to me as a kid. Those were the universes that I was most immersed in, in my fandom. But I learned that it was a sprawling world. I will tell you in the very first Marvel offices that I ever worked at, 16 years ago, a very small office off of Little Santa Monica in West LA, we shared space with the kite company that Marvel owned. That should give you an idea of where movies ranked for Marvel at that point. Avi Arad, who was running Marvel Studios at the time and who hired me after working on the first X-Men film, said he was going to move out to LA full-time to focus on turning these comics into movies. The space that Marvel Corporate gave us was a couple of offices off of this literal kite factory. Every day, people would walk past going, “See you guys later. We’re going to the beach to test these.” [laughs]

Feige (center) chats with direct Kenneth Branagh (right)
on the set of Thor, alongside (from left) co-producer Craig
Kyle and executive producer Victoria Alonso.

But in the conference room of that office, we had a giant poster that said “Marvel Universe” across the top, and it had hundreds of characters drawn on it. All of these characters were in a shared universe. I would stare at that poster, and try to find the smallest character. Spider-Man and Captain America were pretty large, and then other characters were tiny. People who would come into meetings, we’d ask “What’s the smallest character on there you can identify?” That poster in that office was a window into how a shared universe in publishing and storytelling worked.

SO, LET’S TALK ABOUT THE DONNERS AT LEAST A ‘LITTLE BIT. WHAT WAS YOUR APPRENTICESHIP LIKE WITH THEM?
Well, I owe my entire career to it. I was just starting film school at USC in the fall of ’94 and a couple of months in, I realized that the smart kids were getting these internships where you go and work for no money, but you got college credit and feet-on-the-ground experience. I thought, “Well, if I’m going to go work somewhere for free, wouldn’t it be fun to do it for somebody that I admired?”

They had the internship postings up on the walls. And if you were doing the Richard Attenborough version of that moment, you would have the golden light shining down onto the card that said, Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions. Of course I knew about Richard Donner because of Goonies, because of Lethal Weapon and primarily because of Superman, which is, I still think to this day, the model which we all follow, the most perfect superhero movie.

I went home. I filled out my very first resume, sent it in and got a call just a few days later. I interviewed with Lauren and ended up working there as an intern. Over the years, I worked there in a few different roles. One summer I was a receptionist and even got paid. I learned to enjoy the adrenaline rush of phones ringing, schedules shifting. There was something fun about juggling it all.

Feige (center) on location in San Francisco for Ant-Man with executive 
producer Brad Winderbaum (L of center) and director Peyton Reed (beanie)

During my final semester of film school, they were gracious enough to ask me to stay around as a paid PA. So I would go to class and then go there on the time off to be a PA. Right around that time they said, “Okay, you’re going to graduate. Dick needs an assistant. Lauren needs an assistant.” I’m not sure exactly if they offered me my choice, but I remember somebody saying, “Think about who you would rather work with.”

If I had been asked that question on my first day two years earlier I would’ve said, “[gasp] Richard Donner! He’s a director! I want to be a director! It’s Richard Donner.”

Having been there for a couple of years, I realized that when Dick wasn’t working, he would relax between projects and work from home. Lauren on the other hand was in the office every day, developing multiple projects and producing multiple movies. Noticing that the people who were higher up in the company used to be her assistants, I considered myself very lucky that Lauren brought me on in that role.

WATCHING HER WORK AS A PRODUCER, WHAT DID YOU GET TO SEE THAT YOU WERE ABLE TO APPLY LATER, IN YOUR OWN CAREER?
Well, sort of everything. Soon after I started working for her, she got hired to produce a film for Fox 2000 called Volcano. It was a very sudden thing. I ended up working on Volcano from start to finish and watched her navigate those politics, which were very tricky. Another producer had set it up—it was actually one of Neal Moritz’s very early movies. Lauren had been brought in as a more senior producer because she’d had that experience. But I got to see how she worked, how she did the job the studio wanted her to do, keeping it all on track, but also deferring to Neal in certain moments. Through that experience, I also met Laura Ziskin, who was running Fox 2000 at the time. She would end up being another important mentor for me on the Spider-Man films.

The next one was a project that Lauren had developed in-house at Warner Bros., a remake of The Shop Around the Corner which became You’ve Got Mail. That was another amazing experience for me, having more responsibility and taking care of things like product placement and additional duties on the lower end of the producer totem pole. On any movie, there are conversations that other people don’t want to have—somebody’s hairdo is not quite right, or so-and-so is starting to gain a little weight over the course of the production. Every awkward conversation falls onto the producer. I’d think, “I wouldn’t want to have that conversation.” And I’d watch Lauren say, “Yeah, I’ll take it.” And she’d achieve the desired goal, and they didn’t hate her for it! I thought, “Oh, there’s an art form to that.”

During that time there was a script that Scott Nimerfro had brought to Lauren. It had been through various drafts over the years. I started reading it because it was really interesting to me, and so I started doing a thing that I learned from watching other people, which was simply doing story notes. Nobody asked me. I just started doing notes. And because Lauren is so gracious and such an amazing mentor, she would read the notes and go, “All right, this note is good. That one’s not so good.” And she asked me to come to the next story meeting.

So suddenly I’m sitting in a story meeting with Bryan Singer and Lauren and Tom DeSanto on what would become, three years later, the first X-Men film. That was the career path. It was extraordinary, watching Lauren work with the filmmakers, balancing what the studio wanted versus what the filmmakers wanted, versus most importantly, what the movie needed. And I always say to our actors and filmmakers, “I’m on one side. I’m on the movie’s side. That’s it.” Which is also saying I’m on the audience’s side. I learned that from Lauren.

SO NOT TO JUMP TOO FAR FORWARD, BUT IRON MAN WAS A PIVOTAL MOVIE IN THE MARVEL STORY. WHAT DID YOU LEARN IN THE MOVIES PRE-IRON MAN THAT YOU WERE ABLE TO APPLY ON IRON MAN AND GOING FORWARD?
That time was an amazing learning period. At the time I thought, “This is what Marvel will do. We’ll license the movies out and then Avi Arad and I will go to studios and give as much input as we can.” We didn’t have a lot of contractual approvals, honestly. There were some. But as long as they weren’t putting Spider-Man in a purple flight suit, there wasn’t a whole lot we could say. So I watched Avi, and saw how he would gain their trust beyond just being “the IP holder.” It helped that I had come from a filmmaking background and had the experience on X-Men. That gave a little tiny bit of street cred instead of just being …

A COUPLE OF COMIC GUYS.
A couple of comic-guy IP holders, exactly. Avi got us into the position that led to where we are now by being a cheerleader for all these projects and understanding and inherently seeing the promise of what all of this could become … convincing Fox to make X-Men, convincing Sony to make Spider-Man, and then The Fantastic Four movies, again at Fox. We had a front row seat to three, maybe four different studios, each demonstrating different operating methods. And we took all of the lessons we learned from our Spider-Man films, Fantastic Four films, Daredevil, Elektra, and Ang Lee’s Hulk—amazing experiences across the board—and everything we had learned up to that point, good and bad, from all those other experiences and put them into what became Iron Man. David Maisel brought in the financing, and Avi got a deal at Paramount to distribute those movies. Suddenly we were in a position to do it by ourselves. I remember very distinctly the head of the company in New York asking, “Kevin, can you make these two movies in two years?” and I said, “Yeah! [beat] Yes. [half-beat] Yes.” [laughs] Then we just had to figure out how to do it.

Producer Kevin Feige on the set of Doctor Strange with cast member Benedict Cumberbatch.

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE CHOICES THAT YOU SAW STUDIOS MAKE THAT MADE AN IMPACT ON YOU?
Well, there were casting choices that were perfect and there were casting choices that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Usually, it turned out the audience would feel the same way. For instance, today Hugh Jackman embodies Wolverine. He is that character. But at the time of the first X-Men we were trying to solidify who that character was, and on the first day his hair was just not “Wolverine hair.” I told Avi, “I don’t know about this …” and he flew up to Toronto. Hugh wanted it to be right and Bryan wanted it to be right. So we went in, and with the hair and makeup department, just started getting that hair up higher, higher, higher. Because that was Wolverine at the time. So I learned to be audacious in translating the comics, being open to changing things, but not changing them out of a fear that something might not work.

MOST PRODUCERS HAVE A SORT OF CYCLICAL EXISTENCE WHERE THEY’RE RAISING MONEY FOR A PROJECT AND THEN THEY MAKE THE PROJECT AND THEN IT STARTS OVER AGAIN. YOUR JOB SEEMS MAYBE NOT SO MUCH LIKE THAT.
To a large extent that’s true, but people forget that the first Iron Man film was very much an independent film. We had to presell territories to get all of the money. Fortunately, we don’t have to do that anymore. But that was a skill I learned, to go in and pitch the movie to the exhibitors from the different territories. My first reaction was, “Why do I have to do this? I’d just rather be in the room working with writers on the movie.”

But I soon realized that it was an amazing opportunity to tell the story to a group of people who are folding their arms asking, “Okay, what is this? What do you have here?” I could see where they would lean forward, where they would get interested. So then in the next pitch, I would adapt it a little to focus more on those aspects. And then I’d repeat the process. I’d go back to the room where we were developing the movie and say, “You know what? I think we should focus on ‘x, y or z’ because these people are responding to that.”

That’s not to say we made changes because we’d have an easier chance to sell it. But I looked at it like this was our first audience. So that was a good experience. Even though we don’t presell anymore, we’ve brought that into our process. We have an internal brain trust here at Marvel, and we’ll pitch them a project they’re not actively working on and see how they react. “Isn’t this a great thing? No? Well we’ll keep working on it.”

HOW HAS THE RATIO OF BIG STUFF TO SMALL STUFF SHIFTED AS THE MARVEL EXPERIENCE HAS EVOLVED? YOU’RE NOT STILL FLYING UP TO SET TO FINE-TUNE SOMEBODY’S HAIR NOW? OR ARE YOU?
Sometimes, yeah! Absolutely. I love to be on set as much as possible. The entire producorial team we have here is amazing, and we always have an executive producer on the ground the whole time on each of the films. They’re all incredibly accomplished, with most having at least one billion-dollar success under their belt, in some cases two. That makes up the heart and soul of the studio. When you have trusted producers there that you’re in touch with all the time it doesn’t mean you have to go running over there all the time. But a lot of it is big picture stuff. One of the things that we’re lucky about is that our ratio of developing a movie and making a movie is about one to one, which we don’t take for granted. And it opens us up to criticism like, “Oh, people are making release dates now, not movies.” “They had a release date before they had a script.” Honestly? That’s every movie we’ve ever made. I don’t know if I would be good at doing it the other way. It really is an amazing motivator. It’s kept us going for 14 films and counting.

MARVEL IS UNUSUAL IN TERMS OF BEING PRETTY MUCH A ONE-GENRE STUDIO. AFTER 14 FILMS, TO WHAT DEGREE DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE BUMPING UP AGAINST THE LIMITATIONS OF THAT GENRE?
Yeah, people ask, “How much longer can this last? How many of these movies will audiences accept?” I remember getting asked that in 2003, when there were three Marvel movies coming out that year. And like I said then, comic books are not all the same. Yes, they all have colorful covers because they want to sell issues. And, yes, they’re all are drawn within panels, so the medium is the same. But the stories and the characters are drastically different. I’ve always said, there’s no such thing as the “superhero genre” or the “comic book genre.” We take these stories from the comics and they lend themselves to other genres: techno-thriller in Iron Man, a political thriller in The Winter Soldier, a heist movie in Ant Man, a space opera in Guardians of the Galaxy, a psychedelic mind trip in Doctor Strange. So being able to continue to surprise audiences with a depth of what a Marvel Studios film can be has been my focus since the very, very early days. Because that’s what the material is.

That’s what’s fun about The Avengers comics, is that it’s a genius billionaire philanthropist and this super soldier who’d been in ice for 70 years, and this Norse god from another planet and this spy from Russia. Couldn’t be more different from each other and now they’ve come together. How the heck is that going to work? That’s always what was most fun about The Avengers.

I REMEMBER WATCHING THE AVENGERS, AND DURING THAT FINAL BATTLE, I HAD, YOU KNOW, THE “RATATOUILLE MOMENT.” YOU KNOW, WHEN THE FOOD CRITIC TASTES THAT DISH FROM HIS CHILDHOOD…
Wow. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

I WAS SITTING THERE IN THE THEATER, AND YET FOR THIS INSTANT I WAS NINE YEARS OLD, READING AN AVENGERS COMIC IN THE LIVING ROOM.
That’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten. Because that moment in Ratatouille, I think it’s one of the greatest moments in the history of film. That’s awesome. We’ve always said we’re replicating the experience of reading the comics on a big stage, and it has to work for people who read those comics and know what that experience is like, but it also needs to work for people who never opened a comic in their lives. That we know the sensation we’re going to try to evoke in the audience gives us an advantage. Obviously with humor it’s easiest, right? People have said, “Oh, humor is one of the keys to your movies.” And while that’s true, we didn’t set out and go, “We have to make sure all of our movies are funny.” But we realized that all of our favorite movies, whether they were dramas, science fiction movies, other superhero movies … they all had moments of levity. I believe that when the audience laughs, they open themselves up to the movie. And then you can get them, and maybe they’ll cry. Or maybe they’ll be shocked at something. But it’s that laughter that opens them up to say, “Okay, let me see what this movie has got.”

Kevin Feige discusses a scene with cast member Samuel L. Jackson
on the set of The Avengers.

But it really always comes down to that sensation of reading a comic book. When there’s a setup, and then a character does something decisive, and then you turn the page and you have a double-page spread splash panel. Internally we referred to the airport battle in Civil War as “the splash panel” because that was what we wanted to go for in that movie. Certainly you could say the same thing about the finale of Avengers.

Another one of the great things that we’re copying from the comic books is when there would be some big, world-changing event, and then as the characters went back into their own books they would be changed from that experience. So Iron Man 3 is very much about Tony suffering that PTSD from the events of The Avengers. You don’t want to take for granted that he was fighting aliens and the Earth almost got destroyed. It affected him.

As we got into 2014, we started to coalesce into our “phase two” rhythm, where we introduced a new storyline for an existing character, Captain America The Winter Soldier, arguably taking a chance by having it be tonally very different from the first Captain America film. That’s what excited us about it. And then something new, Guardians of the Galaxy. And then 2015, the same pattern Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. Now this year, Civil War, and Doctor Strange, a continuation of an existing franchise, and then something totally new and different. That’s actually our comfort zone. It’s nice when people are excited for a mega-giant movie, a big Iron Man sequel or Avengers sequel, “Oh, that’s gonna be huge.” I actually don’t like that as much as the “how does that work?” reaction. “Oh, so you’re doing a space movie? And one character is a raccoon and another is a tree? How is that supposed to work?” “Paul Rudd gets really small? What?” “Benedict, what? He’s a magician? How does that work?” I like confronting that skepticism and then surprising them and winning them over with the final movie.

People were saying, when we started our studio, “It’s too bad that you’re making your own movies now but you don’t have access to your biggest characters, the X-Men, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four.”

And I would always say, “What are you talking about? We have everything else!” Those early movies were about proving Iron Man is not a B-list character. We never believed in B-list characters, anyway. Guardians, people wouldn’t even call them B-list … C-list, D-list, who are these guys? That was exciting to us, to show it doesn’t matter the number of fans or the amount of copies sold. All that matters is, is it a cool idea that we think would make a great movie?


MEET THE TEAM
As we always say, producing is a team sport. During our interview, Kevin Feige made sure we knew that the success of Marvel Studios didn’t rest on one person’s shoulders, but on the collective skill and passion of the studio’s circle of executive producers who both manage the productions on set and provide essential contributions to story development. We asked them about some of their favorite Marvel moments and their experiences working in the studio’s unique creative environment.

VICTORIA ALONSO 
There’s a trust and a shorthand that we have as a team at Marvel—and that’s probably because we’ve worked together for over 10 years and 14 films! Since we’ve been through the trenches together, we know each other very well and I think we have complimentary skill sets and personalities. There is an effectiveness to the way we interact, problem solve and ultimately, just get on with the work at hand. I think that if we didn’t have that kind of efficiency, we wouldn’t be able to make so many films a year. 
STEPHEN BROUSSARD
What I really treasure about working at Marvel Studios is that we operate as “on the ground” creative producers, embedded with the filmmaking team at every step of the process. Making movies is incredibly hard, even when everything goes right. So we try to be in the trenches, working the problems together with our filmmaking partners. In that way, it helps to build trust that we all share the same goal: tell the best story. 
LOUIS D’ESPOSITO
The scene that keeps coming back to me is from Iron Man, where Tony Stark is working in his garage, and in walks Pepper Potts and Tony asks for her help. What made this scene so special besides it obviously being such a tender moment between the two characters was its evolution. Originally Tony was alone in the garage working with this elaborate machine. When the final budget came in, we had to cut a lot and this scene was on the chopping block. I remember sitting with Jon [Favreau], Kevin, Jeremy Latcham and Victoria Alonso, trying to save the scene. Jon starting riffing on how we could add Pepper to help, even ad-libbing the dialogue, and all of us knew we had something special. Not only did we remove the biggest costs, but we added a great character moment. If the limitation had not been placed on us, the audience would have seen a very competent sequence, but instead it got a seminal moment between two beloved characters.
JEREMY LATCHAM
Black Widow’s introductory scene in The Avengers is one of those scenes that really captures the tone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to me–it has real stakes but it is still genuinely funny. It gets to the heart of a great character relationship that will build over the course of the film and it gives the audience a great sense of the kind of movie that they are going to be watching. As the first scene after the title card, it has to really kick the movie off with a bang, and I think it does just that. 

NATE MOORE
Winter Soldier’s attack on Steve, Natasha and Sam in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was an incredibly intricate piece of action that required total cooperation between all of the departments on 1st and 2nd Unit, and was an amazing example of the Russo Brothers’ creative instincts when it comes to action. And because it’s Steve’s first realization that Winter Soldier is actually Bucky Barnes, his best friend from WWII, it culminated in an emotionally loaded moment that redefined the character and catapulted Captain America into the forefront of the Marvel Universe. 

JONATHAN SCHWARTZ
The “12 percent of a plan/jackasses standing in a circle” scene from Guardians of the Galaxy feels 100% like James Gunn’s voice–you can detect his personality and sense of humor in every frame. It was a favorite scene in the script that was executed perfectly and ends up representing the whole movie in microcosm, with some of the film’s best comedy and most heartfelt emotion. That scene represented every decision we’d made along the way coming together to create something truly special, which I think is the platonic ideal of producing.


BRAD WINDERBAUM
One of the most fun scenes I’ve produced has to be Luis’ “tip montage” in Ant-Man, where we got to go into the character’s imagination and see all those characters speaking with Michael Peña’s voice. It was a brilliantly entertaining way to deliver some crucial story points, playing off a cool heist-movie motif while keeping with Peyton Reed’s comedic tone.

 

- Photography by Kremer Johnson Photography

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DO THE MATH - An Amazing True Story Plus A Dedicated Team Adds Up To "Hidden Figures"

Posted By Justine Neubarth, Tuesday, December 13, 2016


In one of the opening scenes of Fox 2000’s feature Hidden Figures, the camera floats above NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) lying on her back and fixing a car on a rural stretch of Virginia road. Even from its first moments, the film, which centers on the true story of three female African American mathematicians at NASA Langley Research Center during the 1960s, embraces women doing hard and sometimes unglamorous work. And it’s this hard work and persistence that Donna Gigliotti—one of Hidden Figures’ producers alongside fellow PGA members Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping and Ted Melfi (as well as non-member Pharell Williams)—sees as both the movie’s central lesson and something that she has embodied in her own career.

Gigliotti, producer of Shakespeare in Love, The Reader and Silver Linings Playbook, discovered the story in the form of a book proposal that landed on her desk in March of 2014. The author, Margot Lee Shetterly, was in the process of writing a nonfiction account of the black female mathematicians at the NASA program in Hampton, Virginia, whose calculations were integral to the space race and John Glenn’s 1962 orbit around the Earth. “I kind of couldn’t get over the fact that this was a true story and I didn’t know anything about it,” Gigliotti shares. “I thought well, this is a movie.” The book, titled Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, was released in September; the movie will be released on Christmas Day.

From left, producer Donna Gigliotti, Chernin Entertainment exec
Ivana Lombardy, i Am Other exec Mimi Valdez

Hidden Figures follows the trio of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), all members of the mostly female pool of human “computers” that NASA used for technical calculations during the space race. A math prodigy and scientific pioneer, Johnson was asked personally by John Glenn to double-check his landing numbers before his launch. Kevin Costner joins the cast as the director of the NASA Space Task Group; Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst also co-star.

The film proved a natural fit for Gigliotti, who professes an affinity for strong female characters. As a woman who’s fought for success in a male-dominated field, she found plenty in Hidden Figures to relate to. “A scene that I like tremendously is when Taraji Henson says, ‘I need to be in that room,’ and Jim Parsons says, ‘There’s no protocol for a woman being in the room,’ and Taraji replies, ‘Well, there’s no protocol for sending a man into space, either.’ Those are words that could have come right out of my mouth. Because as a woman in any business, I think making your voice heard is the biggest challenge.”

After reading the 55-page proposal, Gigliotti bought the rights and was on the hunt for a script when she met a young writer named Allison Schroeder. In their initial meeting, Schroeder declared that she “was born to write this script.”

“Now, I have been in the movie business a long time,” smiles Gigliotti. “And when people say that, you kind of roll your eyes at them.” Then Schroeder revealed that her mother, grandmother, and father had all worked at NASA, and Schroeder herself had interned there during summers while studying math and engineering in college. At that point, Gigliotti admits, “She kind of had me.” Once Schroeder had signed on, she and Shetterly—who was in the process of writing the book and is herself the daughter of a NASA Langley scientist—began their exchange of research and ideas.

Gigliotti then partnered up with director Theodore Melfi, who brought with him producers Jenno Topping and Peter Chernin at Fox 2000. Topping and Chernin, who had previously produced Melfi’s theatrical feature debut St. Vincent, were eager to work with him again. “The more you think about it”, says Topping, “the more [this film] makes sense for Ted in terms of his general interest and his oeuvre. He’s a humanist if nothing else.” When Melfi took himself out of the running for the next Spider Man film so that he could make Hidden Figures, Gigliotti was sold. “That kind of commitment and enthusiasm for a project is not something that comes along every day, and you have to acknowledge that that is a very potent motivator, when someone wants to make a movie at that level.”

Pharrell Williams, who joined the project as a producer alongside business partner Mimi Valdes, grew up just a few miles outside of Hampton, Virginia and is a self-professed NASA enthusiast. When he heard about the project, he pursued it “doggedly,” Gigliotti reports. While on a visit to New York, Williams invited Gigliotti to his suite in the Crosby Street Hotel and played her some ‘60s-inspired tracks that he had been working on. When he discovered that he didn’t have a recording of one song he had written, “I sat on the couch and he sang the song to me,” recounts Gigliotti. And so, with a private concert from Pharrell, the final members of the producing team fell into place.

Naturally, Williams took on responsibility for the film’s soundtrack, and brought Hans Zimmer and Ben Wallfisch on for help with the score. “The real, the big huge love affair that nobody knows about on this film is that Pharrell is in love with Hans Zimmer and Hans Zimmer is in love with Pharrell,” laughs Gigliotti. “You’ve never seen two guys riff on one another in the way that they do.”

Also key to his involvement was Williams’ history of advocating for STEM education. Women are rarely portrayed as being employed in STEM fields in popular media; a 2012 study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that across family films and prime time shows, there was only one female mathematician in over 10,000 characters. “So,” says Melfi, “here we are with a movie that has social and educational relevance for the entertainment industry.”

After Melfi undertook rewrites of portions of the screenplay (he and Schroeder are credited as co-writers), principal photography took place over 43 days in Atlanta. The city was chosen for both the tax incentives it offers, as well as for a few unique locations, including the last remaining full-size wind tunnel on the East Coast and the National Archives building. Given the film’s themes, Gigliotti was particularly sensitive to making sure there was as much gender and ethnic diversity as possible among the crew. “On average, on major motion pictures, approximately 12-15% of the crew is women,” she notes. “On our picture, I am happy to report it was 33% … Women gaffers? They exist. You just have to go and hire them.” 

producer and director Ted Melfi (center) on the set of Hudden Figures with cast members Octavia Spencer (left)
and Taraji P. Henson.

In its depiction of a segregated workplace, Melfi said he wanted to focus on “a different kind of racism that I think is more prevalent today: the everyday slights and the everyday unconscious biases that individuals grapple with.” On top of that, he adds, “The second most important thing to me was to get their home lives right, because we so rarely get to experience in cinema, middle-class African-American lifestyles and households in the 60s.”

But make no mistake, this film is also very much about space travel, culminating in John Glenn’s nail-biting launch in the Friendship 7. And in fact, the biggest difficulty of making the film proved to be “juggling three storylines, thousands of extras and the space race.” Gigliotti, Melfi confirms, was essential to making all of the gears turn. “Donna lived on set. She was the first champion of this movie … and is one of the best producers I’ve ever worked with.”

That support also included making sure that Shetterly provided her counsel during prep and filming. One of the first things Gigliotti asked of Shetterly was that she make all of her research available. Says Melfi, “I spent a lot of time with Margot. She took us on a tour of NASA-Langley when we first met … We kind of fed each other. It just kind of worked that way. She was writing, full-steam ahead, and we were actually shooting.”

The math of the story is incredibly complex, based in PhD-level orbital trajectory calculations. Even though much of it might be incomprehensible to the average viewer, Melfi and Gigliotti were attentive to the calculations seen on-screen and their accuracy. While Gigliotti says she is not a math person (“I went to Sarah Lawrence,” she cracks. “I don’t even know if they have math classes at Sarah Lawrence, in all honesty.”), she and the production team brought on Dr. Rudy Horne of Morehouse College to tutor the cast and crew on set. “Taraji P. Henson, she should be nominated for an Academy Award just because what she is doing on the chalkboard,” says Gigliotti. “Everything that she is doing, she is doing accurately.” Melfi agrees, laughing, “I got way too deep. I know more math now than I ever want to know.”

 Ted Melfi chats with fellow producer Pharrell Williams on the set.

Now that the final mix is complete and the film is set to be released, Gigliotti gets to participate in one of her favorite parts of producing: watching other people watch the film. “The truth is,” she professes with rueful humor, “for producers, you’re blamed if it doesn’t work, and if it does work, everybody else is the genius. So you got to take it where you can get it, and where you can get “it”—the affirmation of the work—is by actually watching audiences respond to the film.” She has already had the privilege of screening the film for the now 98-year-old (and “sharp as a tack”) Katherine Johnson.

“So we’re in Hampton, Virginia,” Gigliotti recounts. “Elizabeth [Adler, of Fox 2000] and I are in the back; Katherine Johnson is in front of us with her two daughters. And Taraji is up on the big screen playing Katherine Johnson. It was a little nerve-wracking, because you really hope that you’ve done a good job. But we did get a big thumbs up from both of her daughters and Katherine.”

Gigliotti estimates that from the moment she read the option to the release of the film, it will be have been two and a half years, which is “mind-boggling. In Hollywood terms, that is lightning speed.” She, Topping and Melfi all agree that there was a real and rare eagerness to get the film done as quickly as possible. “God, this was kind of one of the easiest [films] I’ve ever done,” Topping concurs. “They’re all horrible and this one wasn’t. It was a very happy set, a happy experience. And a great outcome, which is certainly amazing and refreshing.”

The timeliness of the story had a lot to do with it, according to Gigliotti. “I said to Margot originally—because I’d never heard this story and because what’s going on in the world and in the country¬—this is so special. It’s like you’ve captured lightning in a bottle. And anybody who read that script or the book felt exactly the same way: that the time was right. In the words of Martin Luther King, there was the ‘fierce urgency of now.’”

And of course, Hidden Figures is a true American story, one that’s perhaps particularly trenchant in our current moment. Says Melfi, “In my mind, the film is incredibly relevant to what we’re experiencing today. Here we have a time in the nation’s history where black and white, male and female put a man into space. The mission trumped all of the nonsense, trumped all of the racial inequality and the gender inequality. There’s a line in the movie, Kevin Costner says it: ‘We all get there together or we don’t get there at all.’”

Gigliotti echoes that sentiment. “It’s a movie, ultimately, about these women’s contribution to something in American history that was formative in the nation. The entire country—no matter your gender, your race, Democrat, Republican¬—the entire country was about America, and it was about America getting a man in orbital space. Maybe we need to be reminded, as a country, that we can be like that.”

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SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE - A Quartet of PGA Members Comes Together To Produce "Arrival"

Posted By Michael Ventre, Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Meetings aren’t always fruitful. Sometimes they’re simply opportunities for the parties involved to feel each other out, exchange ideas, chit-chat about current events, complain about traffic, enjoy bottles of water.

Shawn Levy and Dan Levine had a general meeting a while back with writer Eric Heisserer, known for such horror titles as The Thing and Lights Out. It was pleasant enough. They got to know each other. It ended with handshakes. But as Heisserer headed for the door …

“I asked him what he was reading these days,” Levy recalls. “He said, ‘I really like a collection of short stories by Ted Chiang called Stories of Your Life.’”

So naturally Levy and Levine—the producing tandem atop 21 Laps—perked up from that general meeting malaise. They got the book, read it and paid particular attention to one tale, “Story of Your Life,” about a linguist who learns an alien language. What followed is one of those quintessentially Hollywood string of felicitous events that film people gush over at awards season cocktail parties—if the picture is well received, at least.

producers Shawn Levy, Aaron Ryder, and Dan Levine 
en route to Arrival's Venice premiere.

In this case the prognosis is excellent, judging by the reception that the sci-fi drama Arrival has gotten. Directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and based on the aforementioned source material adapted by Heisserer, Arrival is about a language expert with a tragedy in her recent past, who is summoned when a bunch of mysterious space ships settle at different spots around the globe.

It all started with that general meeting, which set the tone for the high level of communication that developed among all the parties involved.

“We spent two hours with him,” Levine said of the meeting with Heisserer, which occurred about five years ago. “When he mentioned, ‘Story of Your Life,’ it was like a lightning bolt. It was one of the most incredible short stories we had ever read.”

From that point, usually the road to production becomes perilous, because a lot can go wrong. In this case, perhaps because of the admiration of the material by everyone involved, elements fell into place quickly.

The producers learned that the rights to the story were indeed available, but needed to spend some time convincing Chiang that his creation could actually become something Levy described as a “cinematically rich” motion picture before the author would agree to the option.

At the same time they were wooing Chiang, they brought the project to Villeneuve. As a directing entity, he’s been hotter than any sun in any galaxy, with Prisoners and Enemy released in 2013 and last year’s Sicario to his credit, as well as a current gig shooting the long-awaited reboot Blade Runner 2049.

Villeneuve warmed to the project immediately. With all of the principals having the same reaction to the story, momentum came naturally.

Producers Dan Levine and Aaron Ryder (left) confer with 
director Denis Villeneuve on set.

“I think if you ask Denis and my fellow producers, you might get a different answer for each person,” explains Levy, director of family-friendly comedies like the Night at the Museum series. “When you speak to people who have seen the film, it resonates in different ways for different people.

“For me it wasn’t because it’s deeply cerebral or spectacularly visual,” he continues. “For me it’s this core theme that, if you know your love will end in loss, do you choose it anyway? That for me is in the short story and in the screenplay and in Denis’ vision. It’s the first thing that got me kind of vibrating about this material—that fundamentally human question, that fundamentally human capacity, to choose love even if you know it will end in heartbreak. It’s beautiful. It’s resonant. That’s why.”

While the rights were being obtained and Villeneuve’s services were being secured, Levy and Levine partnered with David Linde, now CEO of Participant Media, and Aaron Ryder of FilmNation, and all four producers eventually set up the title with Paramount as distributor.

“It was kind of this fantastic gift that dropped on our desk,” Ryder explains. “I was attracted to it because I don’t think I’ve seen elevated science fiction in a long time. There was an emotional component to this as well. I haven’t really seen anything like it since Contact, which was 20 years ago, or Close Encounters, which was 40 years ago. Those two stood the test of time.”

Linde, formerly CEO of Lava Bear Films, was one of those enraptured from the start. “The script was submitted to us by 21 Laps,” he recalls. “We always felt it was a beautiful piece of material. We began to pursue it as a fellow producer and financier. Lo and behold, some of my best friends at FilmNation were doing the same thing. There was a lot of competition for the title.

“We and FilmNation and 21 Laps decided the best way forward was for us to all work together,” adds Linde. “And that’s what we did.”

Not every three-company collaboration works, but this one did. While having Villeneuve attached as director was considered a godsend, it was also a source of concern. After all, he’s a busy man these days.

The team at La Biennale di Venezia 2016 (from left): producer Aaron Ryder,
cast members Jeremy Renner and amy Adams, producers Shawn Levy, 
Dan Levine and David Linde.

“Our biggest obstacle was having the most prolific director working today,” Ryder elaborates. “He has quietly made five films—none of them small movies— over four years. We had to put the movie together and we cast Amy, but basically we had to put it on hold for the better part of a year to wait for Denis to finish another film. It was daunting to keep our arms locked together and not let the project fall apart. But that spoke to the faith of everyone involved in the project.”

Casting of the leads also came together relatively quickly. Amy Adams was a name that appeared at the top of everyone’s list and not because it was done in alphabetical order.

“Amy played Amelia Earhart in my second movie (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian),” Levy relates. “She was very, very quickly, if not instantly, at the top of the director’s list as well as the producers’. If the producers are seeing it with Amy and the director is seeing it with Amy, it’s gotta be Amy. She instantly responded to the script and came aboard.”

Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, who after enduring a personal tragedy early in the story, is recruited by the military to try and communicate with an alien presence that has suddenly visited Earth. Despite the sci-fi trappings, the role emphasized the emotional life of the character.

“Part of her brilliance is that she doesn’t need to go big in order to find power on the screen,” Levy says. “I think this is a tour de force performance of quiet power. Amy’s eyes have a transparency to her feelings that carry the movie. Count the number of closeups—static big closeups. That is the bedrock of the movie. She can do a tremendous amount with simple things.”

The role of Ian Donnelly went to Renner, but that casting was less clear at the beginning.

“We struggled with the Ian role,” Levy recalls. “It never was going to be a big, loud starring role. We needed an actor with intelligence because Ian is a man of science. But we also needed generosity in an actor who could hold the screen with Amy without trying to find moments and make scenes his own. Amy and Jeremy knew each other from American Hustle, and she was a staunch advocate. She felt like he was the guy we were looking for.

“A bonus with Jeremy is that he brings wit and levity to a very serious movie,” Levy continues. “And I think audiences will be grateful for that.”

Producer Aaron Ryder consults with director Denis Villeneuve on set. 

The producers’ close communication in prep led to a blissfully uneventful shoot. “Our biggest challenge, production-wise, was the Hazmat suits,” Levine reports. “They were claustrophobic, hot and heavy, so we had to train our wardrobe team to be like an Indy pit stop crew to get our actors into them fast and, more importantly, out of them at lightning speed. They practiced over and over, and during filming they did an amazing job. They’re the real unsung heroes on the film.”

Arrival may be arriving at the right time. Given the frenetic pace and intensity of the current news cycles, the film represents a rare opportunity to pause and reflect. It works as sci-fi, as mystery, even as a thriller, but above all, it just gets you thinking.

“What’s beautiful about this movie is that it speaks to us and the audience in a myriad of different ways,” Linde shares, “from an incredibly thrilling, beautifully directed film to something that actually speaks to contemporary life in a big way about the necessity for communication and trust. They're pretty powerful messages.

“Denis’ incredible dexterity in mixing big powerful moments with almost incredible subtleties of direction is what makes this movie work,” he continues. “It’s that mixture of a very large canvas with the intimacy of character, especially Amy’s character, that I think is resonating so strongly. Denis is a unbelievable communicator.”

 Dan Levine and Aaron Ryder discuss an upcoming scene with
Amy Adams

Although Villeneuve is a relative newcomer to Hollywood, the four producers—all PGA members—have known each other to varying degrees for many years and are all fans of each other’s work.

“On a project like this, it’s always great to have the PGA at your back,” Levine says. “I’m really proud to be a member. I know Shawn is as well. It’s nice to know in the end you’re recognized by your peers.”

Said Linde, “Being a PGA member is one of the highlights of my career. I have been accused of being a hybrid, in that I enjoy doing many different things. But everything about my career has centered around the production of films by great filmmakers. To be recognized for that by the PGA is a thrilling moment.”

Levy is busy these days with a number of projects, including season two of Stranger Things on Netflix; he and Levine also have this season’s John Hamburg-helmed comedy, Why Him?, starring Bryan Cranston and James Franco. Ryder has the indie drama The Founder, among other titles, in the pipeline. Linde has A Monster Calls coming out at the end of 2016, directed by J.A. Bayona and starring Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones.

But right now they’re enjoying the rewards of that rare phenomenon in the movie business whereby the elements fall into place as dreamed—almost a Hollywood script unto itself.

“This is one of our great prides,” Levy smiles. “A classic, homegrown piece of development.”

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EASTERN PROMISE - New Outreach To Hollywood - And The Opening Of A Mainland Super Studio - Smooth The Path For Co-Productions In China

Posted By Matt R. Lohr, Tuesday, December 13, 2016

With rising production and marketing costs keeping pace with globalization, international box office is an ever-more-decisive factor in determining a film’s success. In recent years China, home to the world’s largest ticket-buying population, has seen its position as a box-office driver increase dramatically. In 2014, Paramount’s Transformers: Age of Extinction crossed the $1 billion worldwide mark thanks in large part to a record-breaking $300-million-plus haul in China, and earlier this year, Legendary Entertainment’s Warcraft offset an underperforming U.S. take with over $200 million in Chinese earnings. Now China is set to further solidify its place in the global film firmament through a major endeavor designed to encourage and facilitate international co-production on the mainland.

PGA member and President Emeritus Hawk Koch first got a glimpse of China’s potential as a co-production hub in 2009, when he traveled to the country with producer/director Taylor Hackford to scout a then in-development production. “I spent 10 weeks there,” says Koch. “It was like the Wild West. Everybody for the first time was kind of figuring out, wow, we’re gonna make a whole movie in China, and you can’t just go in and say, ‘Well, we’re big Americans, we’re gonna walk in and show them how to make movies.’ That doesn’t work. You have to see and learn from them how they make movies, and hopefully there’s a common ground.”

The Hackford project never came to fruition, but Koch reconnected with China’s emergent co-production potential in 2013, when as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he hosted a visit from Chairman Wang Jianlin, founder of Dalian Wanda Group, a multinational real estate and development conglomerate whose holdings include AMC Theaters and, as of last January, Legendary Entertainment, producers of Warcraft. Over lunch during his visit, Chairman Wang told Koch of his plans to build a major movie studio space in China with facilities and amenities capable of hosting multiple major productions. “I said, well, if you’re gonna build a movie studio in China, don’t build it for today,” Koch recalls. “Let me help you get the best production designers and FX supervisors and cinematographers and sound technicians, and build a studio for 2018, not for 2013.”

Later that August, Chairman Wang announced the $10 billion groundbreaking of the Qingdao Movie Metropolis (QMM), a massive development project in the temperate 9-million-strong port city of Qingdao, encompassing state-of-the-art business, residential and entertainment/recreational facilities, all surrounding the new and still-growing Wanda Studios. Koch, who since wrapping up his Academy presidency has joined Wanda as a special advisor to Chairman Wang, feels that the production facilities and amenities Wanda currently offers, and the additional tools forthcoming, are like nothing else available in the country. “We’ve got 15 stages up, with another 15 that’ll be ready at the end of next year. We’ll have both indoor and outdoor marine tanks and the largest soundstage anywhere in Asia—100,000 square feet.” Set construction is already underway on the facility’s existing soundstages for Legendary’s forthcoming sci-fi sequel Pacific Rim: Maelstrom, with more Legendary productions planned to shoot on site in the near future.

Koch’s longtime associate Sarah Platt, a fellow PGA member who is now Wanda’s director of international engagement and outreach, emphasizes that the studio represents just one aspect of the experience Wanda will offer producers. “The Qingdao Movie Metropolis is like an ecosystem that supports filmmakers,” Platt says. “Because five-star hotels and villas and condos will be just over the bridge, you don’t have to worry about turnaround much anymore. There will be international schools and an international hospital as well. As a filmmaker, being away from your family is tough. A lot of people don’t want to go out of town. If they do it, they do it grudgingly. But in this case, you can bring your family, you can enroll your children in school for the year or for six months, and it really provides a unique opportunity for your family to stay together and experience something totally different, while you make your state-of-the-art film.”

The formal international launch of Wanda Studios and the QMM took place on October 17 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Chairman Wang addressed an overflow crowd of Hollywood business notables. In addition to outlining the amenities and facilities available at the Qingdao complex, the Chairman also provided details about another important opportunity Wanda offers to producers looking for co-production possibilities: an incentive program, supporting filmmakers on a first-come, first-served basis, capitalized to provide up to $150 million per year over the next five years, with potential expanded funding to come in the future.

These incentive programs, notes Koch, can be utilized to support any of the three major types of international/Chinese co-productions. “A full co-production, which means Chinese financiers or producers put up some of the money for the film, guarantees your film can be released in China, as long as the Chinese censors have read and signed off on your script and you made the film the script said you were going to make.” (China’s current quota system restricts traditional international film releases to the country’s screens to 34 titles per year.) “If you do it as just an assisted production, with no set level of commitment from a Chinese partner, you’re not guaranteed Chinese release. A full co-production can take between 40% and 45% of the box office out of the country. If it’s an assisted production, you only get 25%.” (The third Chinese production model, an entrusted production, is for Chinese-language films produced with international funds; these films typically play only in Chinese theaters, although some will occasionally travel to countries with large Chinese-speaking populations.)

Koch says that since the announcement of the incentive program, “the phone has been ringing off the hook” with producers eager to pursue this unique-in-the-Chinese-marketplace opportunity. One company that will be utilizing the Wanda incentive program is Arclight Films, a US/Chinese/Australian operation whose past and upcoming titles include a broad range of films in both English and Chinese, released under the company’s Easternlight Films subsidiary. Arclight managing director Gary Hamilton was part of the launch event at LACMA and says Arclight plans to bring three productions to Wanda over the next two years. “I had the pleasure of going to the facility not too long ago,” says Hamilton, “and I was blown away. I’ve never seen anything like it.” He praises the relationship he has thus far enjoyed with the Wanda team. “I find them incredibly helpful. We were flying a director over recently, and it was immediately, ‘What flights do you need booked?’ ‘What hotels?’ They really want to please, they want to go out of their way to make sure it’s going to be very professional. Just about everybody I’ve dealt with at Wanda, they’ve either worked at the studios, or they’re very westernized, so communication is no problem. I think once the studio is fully up and running, it’ll be seamless going there.”

Koch and Platt have prided themselves on preparing Wanda to address any concerns international filmmakers and their productions may bring to the QMM. “I know the previous problems producers would have coming to China,” says Koch, “and I think we’ve solved most of them. We can deal with customs, visas, how to get your money out, and we have a great production services company that will help you.” Platt cites an in-the-works database of locally based non-Asian atmosphere extras, as well as a new short-term, multi-entry work visa known as “Type Z,” which Wanda arranged with the Qingdao government for international crews. “Before now,” explains Platt, “I think an international crew person would only have been able to get a working visa for something like 30 days, and then they have to leave the country and come back and try to renew it. [Type Z is] a 90-day work visa, with an option to extend for another 90 days. And my understanding is that you don’t have to leave to extend it.”

But even with Wanda’s up-to-the-nanosecond production facilities and the various bureaucratic and logistical efforts that have gone into easing the flow of international co-production into the Chinese filmmaking community, Hamilton still cites key intangibles which incoming international producers should be aware of before bringing a project to China. “Unlike a lot of people,” he says, “I’ve been going back and forth to China for many years. And I think some producers are still a little skeptical, because they’ve never been to China and have their preconceptions. But the Chinese, the way they want to absorb and learn about western culture and Hollywood movies, I think is a very positive thing. It’s a very open industry, and from a business standpoint, obviously we’ve seen the Chinese market grow. For an independent producer, it is the Holy Grail to get theatrical release in China, at the scale where you’re talking 3,000 to 5,000 screens. It’s hard to do that in the U.S. as an independent producer. You know, if you get 500 screens you’re doing well.”

Koch notes the quality of a producer’s relationships in China as another key factor for successful co-production. “The Chinese place a tremendous emphasis on trust,” he observes. “They really have to trust you in order for the relationship to work.” He also recounts a recent film viewing experience during his latest visit to the mainland as illustrative of a key point for producers interested in making a run at Chinese box office success. “I went and saw Ang Lee’s new film (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) in a Chinese cinema, with the 120 frames per second and the IMAX 3D. And the place was packed with young people, and they applauded at the end. I think as Chairman Wang said at the LACMA event, of course we love all the tentpoles and the big action movies, but he also sees the reversion to really strong storytelling and strong characters. The Chinese audience, of course they’re gonna go see Fast and Furious whatever number it is. But the fact that they were going to see Billy Lynn as well, to me, that’s heartwarming.”

Koch and Hamilton each have one key piece of advice for any producer considering bringing a production to China and hoping to satisfy its viewing audience. And it’s the same piece of advice from both of them. “I think they have to go there first,” says Hamilton, “and really see it for their own eyes. It doesn’t take much to actually talk to a few Chinese people and listen carefully to what they want. The market is very young there. I think the average audience member is like, 23 years old. So when you start talking about going there, I think you really do need to do some homework and get to know the market.”

Koch reiterates Hamilton’s suggestion and reinforces the emerging central role Wanda Studios will play in China’s film future. “Come to Qingdao, and look at it firsthand. If you’ve never been to the moon, it might be a little scary,” he laughs. “But once you’re there you go, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ I’ve made over 65 movies, in places like Durango, Mexico and Emporia, Kansas. I know what it’s like to go on location and be in someplace where the only thing you’re doing is working, and the rest of the time is really not very fruitful. There’s a lot of culture in Qingdao and in China, and so it’s exciting. We’re not just Hollywood anymore. The world is very small today, and you have a real chance to enjoy your life and make a really good film there.”

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TELLING STORIES IN THE AGE OF BIG DATA - Marketing Is No Longer Something You Do, It's Something You Are

Posted By W. Vito Montone, Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Every part of the entertainment industry has been disrupted and moved, willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously, into a new era—the era of data. Those on the front line of change have resisted the designation “digital.” After all, digital versus analog is simply a format issue, a matter of storage and transport.

The advent of digital media in our world did not alter the essence of storytelling, but it changed stories and everything around those stories into data. There is gold in the data. And it’s easy to miss it. If we dismiss it or misunderstand it, we’re flying blind. And flying blind is guaranteed to hurt and cost us dearly.

The data I’m referring to is “big data” and by “big”, I mean huge ... nearly unfathomable, with many distinct waves of impact—small and large.

That data is ready to upset the rules underlying storytelling and distribution. We love rules. They make us feel safe and provide the illusion that we “know” something, making it easier to manage.

• For instance, I’m sure you’ve heard these gems of conventional wisdom:
• Digital entertainment, like videos on YouTube, is best served in 1-3 minute segments, i.e. short-form.
• Millennials, the new blood for our product, have short attention spans.
• Millennials don’t care about news.
• Social media is all about silly cat and dog videos.
Sounds pretty ridiculous now, huh? But remember, five years ago it was the bible.

Here’s another oldie but goodie … “Marketing” is separate from “creation.”

If you think you know what the audience is thinking, sadly, there’s a high probability that you are wrong. As Chris Moore observed in this magazine earlier this year, “Our contract with the audience is broken.” It is broken because our content is data and we didn’t revise the terms to reflect that. As a brief but hopefully illustrative example, consider our recent presidential election.

Regardless of your political affiliation, if you were surprised by the result, you weren’t looking at the right data. Everyone has been asking how the pollsters got it wrong, but big data has been getting it right for years. The title of a TechCrunch article says it all: Analysis of social media did a better job at predicting Trump’s win than the polls.

Likewise, the artificial intelligence system MogIA, developed by Sanjiv Rai, the founder of Genic.AI has accurately predicted the outcomes of every U.S. presidential election since it was created in 2004. On YouTube, the average Trump livestream averaged 30,000 viewers; the average for Clinton was 500.

I share this slightly off-topic subject to illustrate the way data “blind spots” can derail our safest expectations.

This particular inquiry grew out of a panel discussion at the Produced By Conference, “The Inside Secrets of Entertainment Franchises.” The conversation was genuine, open and interesting, featuring real opinions shared without agendas.

The discussion about franchises provided a helpful boundary, focusing on material that had a previous public awareness in the marketplace. What was special was the presence of Peter Shukoff of Epic Rap Battles of History, whose web series commands nearly 14M subscribers and over 2.4B views.

What I took away was a greater appreciation for the blurred line between the audience and the creator/writer/producer/showrunner as a result of our highly connected world.

Several months later, I caught up with the panelists to follow up on the discussion and share their thoughts on the connected world’s impact on creative and marketing.

Those conversations have suggested a new taxonomy of marketing in the age of big data:

• Push Marketing
• Reactive Marketing
• Integrated Marketing

PUSH MARKETING
Push is the traditional, 20th century approach that takes product and “pushes” into the awareness of the market, the potential audience, and works to convince the audience the product is worth their investment of time and money.

This model assumes an inherent separation between the art and the audience. The project might have been inspired by the lives of the audience, but they have no connection to it until it is pushed into their awareness. As a one-time consultant with ABC Digital, I learned firsthand how the departmental separation between production and marketing was real and deemed difficult to breakdown.

This is a costly and, honestly, risky method, as the quality and approach used in the marketing creative becomes another element of success and failure.

Jaime Paglia works on both franchises and original material and understands this separation as a way to set realistic expectations. When he is focused on the task of making the best pilot, the question of how to engage with the audience feels like an ancillary concern. Plus there has been no “green light” so it feels wrong to start something you might not finish.

In our highly-connected and transparent world, there are effective ways to do Push Marketing, but it requires subtle analysis and fortunate guesswork about which part of the project will stand for the whole in a marketing campaign. Engaging with the right communities can give you a leg up when you’re ready. But as you’re about to see, you are really changing the marketing method when you do that.

REACTIVE MARKETING
Franchises are wise to listen to the market. After all, the audience got them to their enviable spot in popular culture and the fans are hungry for more! At this stage, it is dangerous to ignore the market, and it may even be impossible.

In Paglia’s experience with networks, they are open to changes based on distilled fan response that big data enables. This had led to more fully-fleshed secondary characters and new storylines that neither violated canon source material nor undermined the vision of the series.

For instance, in addition to increased audience appreciation rippling through social media, an added benefit on Eureka was the way alterations based on fan response gave Colin Ferguson the chance to recharge creatively by directing an episode thanks to his reduced screen time. Syfy accepted the reduction of their star’s screen time based on their faith in the audience’s appreciation of the secondary characters and storylines.

Like Paglia, James Middleton has been working on franchise extensions for years and acknowledges the value of working with the “market.” For Middleton, the challenge is to embrace the fans, yet defy their expectations, observing, “If you give out too many of the ingredients of the cake, it is hard to surprise them.”

Reliance on the element of surprise comes with its own costs, however, including the need for increasingly tighter security. On the other hand, if something is exposed unintentionally, are the admittedly disruptive forced changes (based on audience response) a bad thing? Middleton admits the changes are usually improvements. I was left wondering, when the data flow is so easy to tap, is it better to try to hold information tight—or embrace the market with controlled leaks? And if you chose to embrace the market we’re led to Integrated Marketing.

INTEGRATED MARKETING
Here’s a broad statement for you because of the organic embrace of the big data at their fingertips: new creators are the ones with the market. And this is true regardless of the format of the content.

I know from a personal experience the distinct advantage of tapping a starved fan community using new data streams. At least they were new in 2002 when I produced the first-ever official virtual/3D Star Trek convention. By engaging, embracing and co-creating with the fans directly, I was able to get 1.4M of them to visit the website without a lick of traditional “push” marketing dollars.

The Creators, the self-described title for the new generation of writers/producers/showrunners born of YouTube, are reaching uncharted heights and branching out into all facets of the entertainment industry launched by uncontrolled access and interactive insights from big data. These creators view themselves as surrogates for their own audiences—the polar opposite of push marketing.

Epic Rap Battles of History is an online powerhouse. Its fans are passionate, offering characteristic comments like, “I like this series enough to say that it may very well be the single best YouTube creation.” The fact that Epic Rap Battles of History is recognized as a TV Series on IMDB provides further context for that testimonial. There are creators with more views and more subscribers, but the creativity, production quality and execution of ERB makes it a clear standout.

Michelle Maloney, Senior Director of Studios at Maker Studios, has held several producing titles for Epic Rap Battles of History. She feels, “Traditional [push] marketing is something very few Creators have thought about. They have marketed their content via word of mouth.”

Big data and the digital revolution have in fact been driven by this oldest form of marketing. It is this zero-cost, word of mouth marketing that remains the essential goal of brand building. The same marketing that kept the local cobbler in the medieval village busy has now been integrated with content via YouTube, a purely data-driven platform.

Peter Alexis Shukoff, also known as “Nice Peter”, is Epic Rap Battles of History’s creator along with Lloyd Ahlquist, executive producer and cast member. Personally, he has over 2.6M subscribers and nearly 1B views.

Peter was the most adamant on the panel when the subject of marketing came up. When discussing the ways that marketing has influence over the creative process of large Hollywood projects, Peter insisted that “Marketing should be a service to creative. If they can’t sell it, they should be fired.”

I admit, I was surprised. Haven’t we heard this before? It’s a reaction that might not be unusual in a more traditional content environment with its separation between production and marketing, but I was stunned to see this approach in the context of the Creator lexicon. I had to get to the bottom of this and understand his view.

As Michelle observed, Creators market via word of mouth through their content. For Epic Rap Battles, the access to data via the direct connection with the audience from day one was instrumental in their success, fueled by Peter and Lloyd’s talent and leadership. From the very start, the audience was asked who won the battle and what figures the duo should parody next. If you like it or think it is good, you’re encouraged to share it. Big data enables that that connection in real time, accurately.

So during my conversation with Peter, I shared this hypothesis: if marketing success is measured by reach, engagement and adoption by the audience, then ERB’s success defines it as clearly at “one” with market and therefore actually marketing itself.

There was a pregnant pause. “No,” Peter countered. “That’s not marketing. That’s collaboration.”

You say, “tomato”…

Word of mouth may be the oldest and most effective form of marketing, but now it is so closely integrated, woven into the data stream, it’s all but invisible. Thus, it is possible to be excellent at marketing without knowing anything about marketing. Great content is marketing.

In YouTube parlance, to “collab” is to work in tandem with another channel, driving interest to each other. Marketing and collaboration are two sides of the same coin. They make each other better. Add your creative, your content, your series, your feature, and you’ve got integrated marketing, powered by data.

The Amazon Original Pilot season is an excellent bellwether. While some pilots don’t make it, there are standouts like Golden Globe and Primetime Emmy winners Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle that make it through with flying colors. I Love Dick, Jean-Claude Van Johnson, and The Tick all got Amazon orders this year.

Just recently, a new player appeared to service independent producers, Amazon Video Direct. It provides self-service access to the massive Amazon market reach via Amazon Video (TVOD revenue) and Amazon Prime (Shared SVOD revenue). I was able to catch up with the Head of Amazon Video Direct, Eric Orem. (Unlike other sources in this article, Eric was not part of the conference panel discussion.)

I was especially impressed with the service’s ability to use algorithms focused on viewing habits to put new and independent work alongside established fare. Eric, without divulging any details, alluded to new marketing-oriented features to be added to enhance the push marketing-based big data. Next year? Sounds hopeful!

Caytha Jentis, a PGA member and the writer, producer, and director of The Other F Word, shares, “Amazon Video Direct has been a great platform for our show. Our targeted audience is already Prime members, so it’s really easy for them to find and watch, although you don’t have to be Prime to watch. As your show does well, you have potential access to their entire database of subscribers.”

On top of that, the platform has added the AVD Stars program, a $1 million monthly fund that distributes bonuses to creators based on streaming activity and engagement—even more incentive to use Integrated Marketing as early as possible! Jentis can testify to the incentive it creates, as The Other F Word was recently among those awarded for the month of October.

So let’s put it all together. In the best of all worlds, there is no separation between creation and marketing. If it exists, it’s because of an artificial mandate. Meanwhile, the most powerful marketing is a collaboration with the audience—when your content becomes directly integrated.

Take a moment to appreciate that the digital revolution has enabled big data that gives you direct access to the market, trends and the audience themselves.

It is the challenge for creators of all forms of storytelling to find the most effective path to engage with the audience as soon as possible. Big data is waiting for you. Producers who can harness it have the power to transcend the magic of creation and aspire to true storytelling alchemy.


THE INSIDE SECRETS OF ENTERTAINMENT FRANCHISES

Originally livestreamed from the Produced By Conference 2016 at Sony Pictures Studios, "The Inside Secrets of Entertainment Franchises" pairs A-list producers with hot YouTube Creators to have an open discussion on franchise building. Produced by Matthew Skurow.

Panelists:

  • James Middleton (Terminator Salvation, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Heroes Reborn)
  • Jaime Paglia (Eureka, The Flash, Scream: The TV Series)
  • Michelle Maloney (Sr. Director, Maker Studios)
  • Peter Shukoff (Epic Rap Battles of History)

Moderated By:

  • Shira Lazar (What's Trending, Tubeathon, Huge on the Tube)

Watch:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOdN0TlEaIE

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p.g.a. FAQ

Posted By Vance Van Petten, Tuesday, December 13, 2016

There are a few things I am reasonably certain of:


If Meryl Streep is doing a foreign accent, she’s doing it right.


If I like some music I’m hearing on the radio, one of my daughters will tell me to change the channel.

If it’s awards season, people are going to be
confused about the Producers Mark.

Over the last few years, producers and companies have embraced the Producers Mark, even more enthusiastically than we’d ever hoped. The Guild received over 300 applications for the use of the p.g.a. Mark on motion pictures to be released this year.

Of course, as I’ve learned, some producers’ enthusiasm for the Mark outstrips their under- standing of it and what it signifies. When the PGA first instituted the Mark, we knew that it would require a tremendous amount of educa- tional outreach to explain to our industry what the Mark does and doesn’t mean. It’s a gradual process. After all, before the Producers Mark, movie credits hadn’t changed for decades.

That’s why we keep developing new tools to help members of our entertainment community understand the essentials of the Producers Mark. You’ll find the latest on the next spread of this issue of Produced By: a handy guide to some of the most frequently asked questions about the Producers Mark and its application. For me, those pages are the most important part of this issue, and it feels a little silly to be using this space to talk about anything else.

So I’ll leave off here and ask you to turn the page and take a moment to learn about the Producers Mark. I’m ready to bet you’ll discover something about the p.g.a. Mark you didn’t know before you picked up this magazine. Be an informed producer. Better yet, share that information with friends and co-workers this awards season if you hear them voice misconceptions about the Mark and what it means. After all, the facts about p.g.a. look nice all printed and bound, but they never have as much impact as a quick clarification from a respected colleague.

WHEN I SEE P.G.A. AFTER A PRODUCER’S NAME IN A MOVIE’S CREDITS, WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
It means that according to the rules of the Producers Guild’s certification process, that producer performed a major portion of the producing functions on that particular motion picture.

DOES THE P.G.A. AFTER THE PRODUCER’S NAME MEAN THAT THE PRODUCER IS A MEMBER OF THE PRODUCERS GUILD?
NO. A producer does not need to be a member of the PGA to receive the “p.g.a.” designation after their name. In many cases, the sets of initials you see in movie credits (such as A.S.C. and A.C.E.) indicate membership in an organization. The Producers Mark is different. It’s a certification mark; its purpose is to designate that the producer has met an officially recognized standard of performance on that film.

IF A PRODUCER DOESN’T RECEIVE THE P.G.A. MARK FROM THE PRODUCERS GUILD, WHAT HAPPENS TO THEIR PRODUCING CREDIT?
Nothing. The Producers Mark doesn’t control or affect the “Produced by” credit in any way, nor does it invalidate that credit by its absence.

WHAT IMPACT DOES THE P.G.A. MARK HAVE ON AWARDS?
Determinations for the Producers Mark and for producer award eligibility are determined at the same time and via the same process. In addition to the PGA, AMPAS, HFPA and BAFTA all rely on the PGA process to guide their decision-making. However the final selection of nominees is always at the discretion of the organization giving the award. Overwhelmingly, these organizations concur with the PGA determinations, but occasionally, the decisions diverge.

WHAT’S THE PROCESS?
The process is initiated by the copyright owner of the film. After the post-production process has commenced, but 4-6 weeks before credits are locked, the owner submits a film for consideration via ProducersGuildAwards.com.

Within 2-3 weeks, the PGA sends out eligibility forms to every producer credited as “Produced By” or “Producer” on the film and sends confidential verification forms to a wide variety of third parties associated with the production of the film: the director(s), writer(s), department heads, company executives and key crew members.

Once forms have been returned, the PGA convenes a panel of arbiters, each of them active and experienced producers with numerous (and recent) credits, typically in the genre or category of the film under consideration. (i.e., If the film is a major studio tentpole, we try to utilize arbiters with considerable experience in making those big-budget studio pictures. If the film is a smaller indie movie, we rely on producers familiar with that type of production, etc.) An initial arbitration panel typically has three arbiters, though in rare circumstances two are used.

The arbiters review all materials returned to the PGA by the producers and third parties, with all personal names and company names redacted, so that arbiters can arrive at a judgment based on the testimony provided rather than the name recognition and perceived reputation of the producers.
Following the determination, the PGA staff informs the producers of the decision.

Producers who object to the decision have five days to notify the Guild of an intent to appeal. After giving producers the opportunity to add to or clarify their testimony, the PGA will convene a new panel of arbiters. All appellate panels consist of three producers. If the initial decision was unanimous, the appellate panel will consist of one producer from the original panel and two new producers; if the initial decision was not unanimous, the appellate panel will consist of three new producers. The decision of the appellate panel is final.

SO WHEN ARBITERS ARE LOOKING AT THESE FORMS, WHAT ARE THEY SEEING?
The eligibility form filled out by producers asks them to indicate their level of responsibility for a variety of producing functions spanning development, pre-production, physical production and post-production. The form also includes a free-response section for the producer to more fully elaborate on the specifics of the production and their role on the film. The verification forms filled out by third parties typically ask the respondent questions related to the nature of their collaboration with the credited producers. (For instance, the verification form for editors asks the editor to designate which producer(s) consulted with the editor regarding dailies, gave notes on cuts or participated in screenings.)

WHO SELECTS WHICH ARBITERS VET THE CREDITS OF WHICH MOTION PICTURES?
That determination is made by the PGA’s Director of Legal Affairs and Arbitrations in consultation with the National Executive Director.

WHAT IF THE PGA SELECTS AN ARBITER WHO (UNBEKNOWNST TO THEM) IS BIASED AGAINST A GIVEN PRODUCER OR FILM?
The Guild takes proactive measures to prevent that from happening. Prior to convening the panel, the PGA provides all producers with a list of potential arbiters. Producers are free to strike any arbiter for any reason. Such arbiters will not be empaneled for that particular film. Furthermore, all arbiters are asked to affirmatively state that they have no interests in the films to be arbitrated that might result in a biased judgment. Even if all of those hurdles are cleared, an arbiter will be removed from the process if they or the PGA administrator feels that bias is affecting their judgment.

WHY CAN’T THE PGA BE MORE TRANSPARENT ABOUT THE PROCESS?
We maintain the strictest confidentiality around the identities of the producers, third parties and arbiters involved because such confidence is the only way we can hope to get accurate and truthful information. Many producers are powerful figures in this industry and this might put pressure on third parties and arbiters to achieve a desired decision. Keeping those identities confidential is the only way to maintain the integrity of the process.

ONCE A PRODUCER’S CREDIT IS CERTIFIED WITH THE P.G.A. MARK, IS THAT CERTIFICATION APPLIED PERMANENTLY TO ALL OF THE PRODUCER’S FILMS?
No. A Producers Mark appended to a producing credit applies to that film only. It represents the nature of the work performed on that film alone and does not “carry over” to future productions.

WHY DO SOME FILMS CARRY THE P.G.A. MARK, BUT NOT OTHERS?
The Producers Mark is voluntary. Each of the major studios—Universal, Disney, Warner Bros., Sony, Paramount and Fox—has signed a contractual agreement to submit their films to the Guild for credit certification, as have The Weinstein Company, Lionsgate, DreamWorks and DreamWorks Animation, Lucasfilm, Marvel, MGM, New Line and Pixar. If an independently owned film elects not to participate, we can’t force them to submit for certification.

The Producers Mark also is recognized by the WGA, DGA and SAG-AFTRA. The PGA has agreed not to license the Producers Mark for use with any combined credit (e.g., “Directed and Produced By …”)

WHO DOES THE PRODUCERS GUILD REPRESENT?
The PGA is composed of over 7,500 professionals working in motion pictures, television and digital media throughout the United States and around the world.

HOW IS THE PGA DIFFERENT FROM ITS FELLOW GUILDS?
Unlike the DGA, WGA and SAG-AFTRA, the PGA is not a labor union. This means that we can’t go on strike, set wage minimums, or negotiate collective bargaining agreements on behalf of our membership. As we are now the largest professional trade organization in the entertainment industry, the PGA provides numerous benefits for its members, including educational and training events, employment opportunities, social and networking functions, and a collective voice that represents and protects the varied interests of producers and their teams, including the Producers Mark.

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RISK TAKERS - Fighting Through: Producing A Movie, Start To Finish, Is A Sheer Act of Will

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, December 13, 2016

NICK MEYER
SIERRA/AFFINITY | BEVERLY HILLS, CA

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
HOTEL RWANDA
THE COLDEST CITY
SOVEREIGN
EVERYONE HAS THAT “MOVIE THAT CHANGED THEIR LIFE.” WHAT’S YOURS?
Ordinary People. Not any of the famous scenes, but the very start of the movie, when Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore are driving home. The shot stays in the car, it’s dark around them, you can’t tell where they are. Then they pull into their garage, and the light comes on and you can see, oh, it’s this well-appointed, middle-class garage … and you can see the license plate and you realize they’re in the Chicago suburbs. It seems like a minor thing, but that was the first moment I realized how you could tell a story visually. It might sound strange, but that moment really landed with me. I still think about it all the time.

WHAT IS IT THAT ATTRACTS YOU TO MOVIES AS A BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY?
It’s this weird confluence of what I am, what I love and what I turned out to be good at. Movies had a huge impact on me as a kid. I was the son of immigrants and a competitive athlete, so the competitive aspect of the business never deterred me. I don’t know what else I would do, honestly.

WHAT’S THE MOST RECENT PROJECT YOU’VE BACKED?
It’s one of the biggest and most exciting projects we’ve ever backed, The Coldest City. It’s an amazing piece of material, a great world to tell a story in—it’s set in Berlin during the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89. The lead role is an incredible opportunity for a great actress, and Charlize Theron made the most of it. Our director, David Leitch, took what was on the page and made it sparkle. We’ve worked with the rights holders for a while now and developed it all the way through. It’s releasing through Focus Features next summer.

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST RISK YOU’VE TAKEN ON A PROJECT, EITHER CREATIVELY OR COMMERCIALLY?
I have to come back to The Coldest City. Now that it’s come together, it might not sound like much of a risk in retrospect, but it was a major gamble. It was not inexpensive. We fought resistance to the period, resistance to the setting, the foreign accents … it’s not a right-down-the-middle story by any means, and we had huge exposure on this project for a long time. As a producer, you have to will things into existence, and we’ve been pushing this rock up the hill for three-plus years—because everything has to be excellent, in every respect.

WHAT’S A STORY YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED RECENTLY THAT REALLY CONNECTED WITH OR INSPIRED YOU?
As a sales company, we represent Manchester by the Sea. I’ve seen the movie four times, and there are moments in the film that will stay with me the rest of my life. The way Casey [Affleck] handles the pictures of his kids—the way we never see the pictures, just the frames. I look at that scene, and it’s just amazing. That’s what inspires me … the challenge of capturing that honesty, that power, but quietly without hammering it home.

WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A PRODUCING PARTNER?
I’m old school. There are a lot of people who claim the title of “producer,” but we’re looking for someone who’s going to be a partner in the creation and fabrication of the movie, all the way through. A great producer is the most valuable collaborator we can have, and we want someone who’s going to take that ride with us through thick and thin, no matter what.

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ODD NUMBERS - Thanks, True Believers!

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, December 13, 2016

In honor of Kevin Feige doing our cover, we asked some questions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's passionate fans.



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GOING GREEN - Hungry For Change: Serving Up Production Meals That Are Truly Green

Posted By Allison J. Samon, CHHC, Tuesday, December 13, 2016


”Lunch!” Across 16 years in production, never have I heard a more magical word, especially after an early call and busy morning of shooting. By the time lunch comes, production people like me are hungry and weary. A joyful, chatty line forms at catering. We delight (hopefully) over how good lunch looks, and trade stories about diet resolutions we’re making or breaking. But rarely do we talk about what’s in the food we’re eating … what it’s made of, how it’s grown, if it’s nourishing. In our defense, we just need to feed. We’re an army that marches on its stomach, and we don’t have a lot of time. But the truth is, production meals are typically sourced in ways that may be hazardous to the environment and our health. 

This topic is tough. With debates (and cynicism) already raging over everything from sugar to gluten and dairy, many people just roll their eyes if you bring up something like GMOs. But consider this: The United States Department of Agriculture has estimated some “50 million people in the U.S. obtain their drinking water from groundwater that is potentially contaminated by pesticides and other agricultural chemicals” and “over a billion pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. each year.”1 That’s a staggering threat to the environment and human health. And many of us contribute to this problem one snack, one meal, one production day at a time, without knowing that we ever did so.

As a Certified Holistic Health Coach and an independent producer, I’m passionate about uncovering the hidden environmental impacts of feeding our crews. This is not a petition for vegan or vegetarian productions, although carbon footprint is a different and important topic in its own right. Instead, this is an appeal to get thoughtful about how we source food for productions, both catered meals and craft services, and how it affects the environment, our productivity and our health.

Top: Time to think about where our food comes from
Bottom: GMOs actually encourage greater pesticide use
 

Production of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, is the hottest topic in food supply economics we’ve seen in a generation. It’s a relatively new science that “creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods” and involves much pesticide and herbicide use. The watchdog Non-GMO Project reports that “Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe and have significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs. The U.S. and Canadian governments, though, have approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale.”2

Some GMOs are designed to secrete a bacterial insecticide called “Bt toxin,” so farmers don’t have to spray them. Once ingested, the toxin causes the bug’s stomach to explode. Studies conducted by the Oregon State Health Division have suggested it may do the same to the microbiota of our digestive tracts.3 That’s a huge health concern, but there are also acute environmental concerns. Because GMOs invite the generous use of toxic herbicides4, this is a trend with serious environmental and economic implications.

So exactly how much herbicide? According to the USDA, between 1996 and 2008 alone, farmers sprayed 383 million pounds of it.5 And Washington State University has analyzed USDA data that shows a 527 million pound increase in herbicide use between 1996 and 2011.6 Over time weeds grew resistant, forcing farmers to spray even more herbicides that continue to settle in our food, soil and water in ever higher volumes.7 Worse, GMO seeds can travel and cross-pollinate. Scientists predict that self-propagating GMO pollution will outlast the effects of global warming and even nuclear waste.8 Monsanto, currently the world leader in GMO seed, also produces “RoundUp,” the best-selling herbicide on the market.

Additionally, and often less talked about, is that GMO production degrades soil, which in turn affects the nutrient density of our food and how our bodies react to otherwise normal nourishment.9 More and more people are developing previously uncommon dietary sensitivities that affect their health and productivity. And because these are sensitivities (or “intolerances”), symptoms are often delayed and don’t appear to be associated with any single factor. Instead, many people have slowly become gluten intolerant or have developed digestive problems, brain fog and chronic fatigue. On set, over time, this makes for an army that isn’t marching very fast or far.

So what can we do? I believe change must begin above the line, and it can start with producers demanding that catering and craft service vendors use foods whose production has been vetted by an accredited organization. The USDA Organic seal is one such option. The Non-GMO Project stamp is another. In California, there’s the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) seal. And there are several others. I believe this can and should be a supplemental certification that vendors can qualify for in the PGA’s Green Production Guide. (Perhaps a “Clean Food” certification?) Participating vendors could sign a pledge that all food resources they use are certified by one of the qualified organizations.

I’ve had the opportunity to test-drive this process a few times, most recently when PGA member Christian Jean asked me to produce his indie short Mojave Junction (2015) using green practices that included clean food. We implemented many green strategies, from carpooling out to our desert location and collaborating with the Bureau of Land Management on script changes that protected the desert ecosystem to serving up completely non-GMO meals and craft services, supported by vendors like Erewhon in West Hollywood and Co-opportunity Natural Foods in Santa Monica. The result was a huge hit with our crew. Over two long days and nights, our people praised the food and couldn’t stop talking about how much energy they had. Just one example: There was no soda on our set (most contain GMO sugars), and nobody missed it. In its place, we offered filtered water and an electrolyte mineral formulation. People kept lining up for more.

Sure, it’s just one indie short produced with a crew of 13 people (and a horse) far away in the desert. Naysayers and cynics will argue that “organic” is too expensive, that contamination is so widespread that certifications don’t mean anything or, my personal favorite, that GMO production is a harmless nonissue. Once upon a time, the same arguments were made against removing lead from paint and gasoline.

Through leadership, we can send a message that production food sourcing matters to the environment and to our health. We can vastly reduce the use of pesticides and toxic herbicides by making a few simple adjustments. And I believe this message can trickle up from an indie short made in the middle of nowhere to the biggest Hollywood blockbusters being produced on studio backlots. We just have to take the first steps.

Allison J. Samon is an independent producer, script supervisor and Emmy Award-winning assistant director, as well as a Certified Holistic Health Coach and the founder of Health Allie Lifestyle & Wellness.


1 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2946087/ 
2 http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/976/ge-food-labeling/international-labeling-laws
3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1404979/pdf/amjph00220-0064.pdf
4 http://www.bio-suisse.ch/media/de/pdf2005/benbrook3pauswahl.pdf
5 http://www.panna.org/sites/default/files/EPA%20market_estimates2007.pdf
6 
http://cahnrs.wsu.edu/news-release/2012/10/01/summary-of-major-findings-and-definitions-of-important-terms/
7 
http://www.momsacrossamerica.com/glyphosate_testing_results
8 
http://responsibletechnology.org/allfraud/bushs-environmental-legacy-on-gmos-is-irreversible/
9 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16440278


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MENTORING MATTERS - Starting From Scratch: A Good Mentor Helps You Get Down To The Essence Of Your Story

Posted By Whitney Hodack, Tuesday, December 13, 2016
Over the course of my fledgling career in the entertainment industry I’ve held a variety of positions from production assistant to post coordinator to reality TV producer. Of late I can usually be found working in the production office on various scripted TV shows, most recently as the production supervisor for Adam Ruins Everything. When I met my PGA mentor, Jethro Rothe-Kushel, I had recently made the transition from reality television to scripted content. My aspirations were (and continue to be) to produce feature films, but I didn’t really have any idea how to make that happen.

During my five years working in reality TV, I had made my way up to story producer, predominantly working in post. I was given hours upon hours of shot footage from our field producers and would have to formulate a full episode from what they had obtained in the field. But when it came to contemplating how to produce a feature-length narrative, the idea of starting completely from scratch was daunting, and I couldn’t think of where to begin.

That’s where having a mentor who has produced features (especially low-budget ones) comes in handy! Having produced several features himself, Jethro fit the bill. For our first two meetings I had general questions for Jethro: How do you get started? What’s the day-to-day look like? What are the major responsibilities? However I really started to understand things when I applied his advice to a project I had in mind.

A friend of mine had written a short that she desperately wanted produced. She handed it over to me and I finally had something tangible to discuss with Jethro. At our next meeting I led our discussion with, “This is a low-budget to no-budget project; what can we do here?” He went through the script with me and helped me break it down to its very basics. What is the main premise? What are the most important ideas to get across? In turn, we discussed how I could redirect my writer to give me a script that conveys these ideas for a producible cost. We also brainstormed how I can help my director find creative ways to get these ideas across within the constraints of the budget.

With Jethro’s help I was able to look at the script differently and see the ways to make possible something that seemed insurmountable. The project is still on hold while we work to find money and crew, but I have a much clearer sense of direction in how to proceed to get this piece made.

Going forward, the questions Jethro helped me identify are the things I’ll consider when a new project comes along. Ultimately what I’ve learned is that being a good producer is all about collaborating in finding creative solutions to problems that arise throughout the filmmaking process, from pre-production all the way through post and supporting your team every step of the way.

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ABOUT THE PGABECOME A MEMBERPRODUCERS CODE OF CREDITSPGA AWARDSPRODUCED BY CONFERENCEPRODUCED BY MAGAZINE