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DAVID HOBERMAN & TODD LIEBERMAN - After Two Decades as Hollywood Workhorses, The Mandeville Films Partners Hit The Jackpot in 2017

Posted By Chris Green, Wednesday, January 3, 2018

There are all kinds of ways to create a wildly successful creative partnership. Plenty of people cherish the romantic image of partners as joined at the hip … one-mind/two-bodies collaborations between lifetime colleagues who came up through the trenches together. But the truth is, the essential commonalities in a great partnership aren’t the biographical details, but the bonds that come from a shared sensibility, work ethic and passion for storytelling.

No one is going to mistake David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman for brothers; your first appraisal is more likely to be uncle and nephew. Hoberman is older by 19 years, the son of an ABC radio executive, who got his start in the ABC mailroom, delivering mail to fast-rising execs like Michael Eisner and Barry Diller. After a career that wound from Norman Lear’s Tandem Entertainment to the early days of ICM, Hoberman found himself once again in Eisner’s orbit. Working under Eisner and Jefrey Katzenberg at Disney, he was a key part of the executive team that led the studio to its late 1980s/early 1990s resurgence. After a decade at the studio, which saw him rise to become President of the Disney Motion Picture Group, he moved to the other side of the production divide, creating Mandeville Films and setting up shop with an overall deal on the lot. The company’s office remains housed there to this day.

The same year that Hoberman moved into that office, Lieberman arrived in Los Angeles, a theater kid with a degree from UPenn and hustle to burn. He quickly found a home in distribution at Summit Entertainment, where he earned a reputation for shrewd instincts, championing the company’s acquisition of hits like Memento and American Pie. Only four years after moving to Hollywood, Lieberman joined Mandeville, first on a temporary basis and soon thereafter as a kind of junior partner. After a mostly successful decade of producing mid-budget studio comedies, the duo took a left turn, teaming with independent filmmaker David O. Russell for the boxing-themed family drama The Fighter. The movie was a watershed for all concerned, rehabilitating the director’s reputation and earning Mandeville a new measure of critical acclaim and industry respect, as well as the producers’ first Oscar nominations.

Hoberman and Lieberman pivoted back towards Disney, breathing new cinematic life into The Muppets franchise, the success of which allowed the studio to trust them with the live-action reboot of its animated classic Beauty and the Beast. The result is 2017’s biggest hit to date, a film whose domestic box office take currently sits at No. 8 of all time, and which has grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. Mandeville saved its second act for the fall, releasing the Jake Gyllenhaal Boston bombing recovery drama Stronger and the modern classic kid-lit adaptation Wonder; the two films have earned the producers some of the best reviews of their careers, with Wonder establishing itself as the sleeper hit of the season.

What began as a mentor/protégé relationship has long since become a partnership of equals. Produced By grabbed the chance to meet up with Hoberman and Lieberman on the Disney lot this fall, in the middle of their company’s biggest-ever year.


IN THE EARLY STAGES OF MANDEVILLE, HOW DID YOU GUYS DEVELOP A WORKING RELATIONSHIP? DAVID, DID YOU HAVE ANY INKLING THAT THIS GUY WAS GOING TO BE YOUR PARTNER FOR 20 YEARS?

DAVID: I was thinking about that as we were sitting here—what would my professional life be like had I not hired Todd? Obviously, it’s impossible to know. But Todd was just a really good executive and I could count on him. If I asked him to do something, I knew it would get done. And then it just became what it became. It’s like one of those stories; you look around and it’s been 17 years. When you’re in a relationship for 17 years, you’ve been through everything with that person. I’ve been through his midlife crisis, he’s been through my divorce, we’ve shared our lives with each other.

TODD: Yeah, we trusted each other. Certainly for the first many years I was kind of drafting of David … learning, absorbing and figuring out what the business was. And I think I was providing something different for him. But then at a certain point you become contemporaries more than mentor/protégé, and it just naturally evolved. It’s a job, right? And then the job turns into something and so you end up figuring out a different relationship. So the success on the business side has equalled the success on the personal, emotional side, and those two things together make up something that’s really hard to force.

DAVID: I think if you look at Hollywood, there are very few partnerships that last. There was no way to foresee that this particular relationship would do so, particularly given that he was in every way my junior, you know? A lot of people become partners because they grow up in the business together. So this one, I think, is particularly unusual.

YEAH. IT DOESN’T HAVE A LOT OF OBVIOUS MODELS OR PROGENITORS. SO HAVING BEEN AN EXECUTIVE AT DISNEY AND THEN MOVING INTO A PRODUCTION ROLE, HOW DID YOU LEVERAGE THAT KNOWLEDGE OF THE STUDIO TO GET THE COMPANY OFF THE GROUND IN THE EARLY STAGES?

DAVID: I knew the formula. Basically, our group started the Touchstone comedy tradition. I loved Disney movies and I knew how to do that. So that’s just what I naturally did. The thing that was interesting about Disney at the time is that our slate was so varied that we didn’t have the same identity as Warner Bros. or even Paramount in those days. We never really worked with the biggest movie stars because the studio didn’t want to pay them. We did a lot of movies with DeVito, we did a lot of movies with Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn … we had this sort of regular troupe and it was just a lot of fun. It was an easy transition for me because I knew how to do what the studio did at that time.

YOU CAME INTO YOUR OWN WORKING FOR MICHAEL EISNER AND JEFFREY KATZENBERG… WHAT LESSONS DID YOU DRAW FROM THEM THAT HAVE STAYED WITH YOU?

DAVID: Jefrey was all about the work. It wasn’t about dining out or having fun, even though we had fun. It was about doing the work and it taught me a work ethic that I’ve lived with since then. We used to be infamous for our script notes; sometimes they were as long as the script. That kind of rigorous approach gave us the ability to develop scripts that people wanted to make. That started with my training under Jefrey and Michael. We worked as hard as anybody could work. I mean there was that famous quote, “If you didn’t show up on Sunday, don’t bother coming in on Monday.” We’d arrive at work with our car headlights on and we’d leave with the headlights on. So it was a very rigorous but fun environment.

SO TODD, IN THE SAME SENSE THAT DAVID LEARNED AT THE FEET OF KATZENBERG AND EISNER, YOU VERY MUCH LEARNED AT DAVID’S FEET. WHAT WAS DIFFERENT ABOUT WORKING WITH DAVID?

TODD: I’d never worked in development. When I was at Summit, I was reading scripts but generally scripts that were already in production. Going to film festivals and watching movies, I was able to start articulating what I liked and didn’t like about finished film. But I had no skill set in what a three-act structure was or breaking down a script. So the idea of sitting in a room with a writer for three or four hours at a time was very foreign to me. It took me a while to understand that process and, frankly, get the patience to be able to do it well and be very granular about certain things. You can look back at my old school report cards and they all say the same thing: if I don’t like something or I’m not interested, I don’t apply myself. So I have to love it in order to sit in a room with a writer for three or four hours at a time. I have to love it.

SO MAYBE THE QUESTION IS ABOUT EVOLVING YOUR OWN INSTINCTS AND YOUR OWN TASTE. HOW DID YOU LEARN TO RECOGNIZE WHAT YOU LOVED AND BRING THOSE INSTINCTS TO BEAR IN A PROFESSIONAL CONTEXT?

TODD: I remember how when I was a kid, the movies that I would really respond to were the ones where I was moved emotionally, even if it was a comedy. I think back to some of the early John Hughes films or some of the early Amblin movies, that you had this feeling like the story was entertaining, but there was also something more … you came away from the experience with something that followed you out of the theater. I wasn’t able to articulate that until much later in life, but when I started looking for material and finding writers and things that I thought would be valuable for the company, that’s what I was looking for. We started doing comedies, and the first thing that I brought to the table here was a movie that ended up becoming Bringing Down the HouseIt started of as a spec called Jailbabe.com, and it was kind of a raunchy comedy with some funny set pieces. And through the course of development with all kinds of different executives, obviously David as well as Todd Garner at the studio, it evolved into something very different. But that movie, as much as it is kind of a broad comedy, has a heart and soul to it at the center, and it connected with audiences.

So over the course of years I was trying to figure out what that all meant, and I came to kind of a revelation at a certain point—people in our position have an ability to tell stories that compel behavior or move people in a certain way. So I started focusing in on what that meant and started personally looking for things that just, frankly, moved me emotionally. And if you look at a lot of the things that we involve ourselves in—not all of them but a lot of them—there’s an inspirational uplift, something at the end that leaves you feeling a little better than when you went in to the movie. I think that’s always been my personal taste, but over the course of checks and balances and trial and error, those are the things that I personally zero in on and I think both of us share that philosophy.

DAVID: Right. I remember when we had Pretty Woman in test previews, watching the audience react to that, or Beaches where you could literally hear the crying and the sobbing and people taking out their handkerchiefs. Or Dead Poets Society; the silence when that character committed suicide. I realized then what an impact the movie business has on people and has on their lives, and what it means to be entertained and emotionally moved and all that. And that’s like a drug. You just want to keep doing that.

SO HOW DO YOU PURSUE THAT OUTCOME? HOW DO YOU WORK TO ORIENT YOURSELVES DURING THE DEVELOPMENT PROCESS TO POINT YOURSELVES IN THAT DIRECTION?

TODD: That was part of the revelation to me, how significantly you can alter the shape of a story just by sitting and brainstorming and talking. Sometimes you don’t come in with the idea that’s going to do it, but through the course of discussion with your partner or a writer or something, in that room, something generates. I remember when we were sitting and developing The Proposal, which we developed for ages. I can’t remember who was exactly in that room, but an idea came up about changing the structure of the story by changing how many days the story took. And we realized that by adding one day over the course of that story, it would change the entire dynamic of the film. And I remember, similarly, when we were developing The Fighter. It was maybe because of a budgetary constraint, but [writer/director] David Russell said, “Let’s just take out the entire first act.”

DAVID: I remember that. It was a budgetary thing.

TODD: Yeah, it was budgetary. But in a way, the development process triggered by that budget constraint completely changed the movie. I remember thinking, ‘Well, how’s that going to work?’ And then you talk about it and realize that it kind of works.

DAVID RUSSELL DOESN’T WORK IN THE KIND OF DISNEY FORMULA MODE THAT YOU GUYS MAY HAVE MADE YOUR REPUTATION IN. IT SEEMS LIKE AN UNLIKELY PARTNERSHIP.

DAVID: Yeah, it was an unlikely pairing. David had a reputation at that time. But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know why or what or how, but it was probably one of the best collaborations we’ve had in working with a director. He was open to every suggestion and inspired everybody to want to make the best movie that we could make. He works very differently than most directors that I’ve worked with.

TODD: He does.

DAVID: Particularly on set. He’ll interrupt in the middle of a take and give notes, “Try this … try that.” The Fighter wasn’t a big-budget film, so we had to move quickly. We were sort of scrappy in how we made that film. But David turned out to be a great collaborator and great director and that movie got him back on his feet. It was a blast, that whole experience. It really was.

TODD: Deciding to move forward with a movie like that was a very conscious decision. You mentioned some of the comedies we’d done before, and I thought of this as the evolution of a company, expressing a desire to grow and get into different things. So it was a conscious decision to pivot into a different realm that we’d never been into before. It turned out really well and allowed for movies from there to happen. Frankly, The Fighter is what allowed for movies like Wonder and Stronger.

HOW DID DAVID COME INTO YOUR ORBIT? DID YOU PURSUE HIM? DID HE PURSUE YOU?

DAVID: We were interviewing a lot of directors and we came down to a few. David had a relationship with [Mark] Wahlberg and I think Wahlberg asked us to meet with him. We liked him. And I remember in that meeting we said, “Well, what would you do to the script?” and he said, “Like, nothing. It’s great.” And of course, we ended up completely rewriting the script. [laughs] I always say producing is about making choices, and the biggest choice you make is the director choice. And that one turned out okay.

TODD: He became like a close friend, too, to both of us. There have been lots of times where he’s asked us to come and help produce another one of his films, and there was always a schedule conflict. But we love the guy.

SO GIVEN THAT THE PRODUCER’S JOB OVER THE COURSE OF PRODUCTION IS TO SUPPORT THE DIRECTOR AND GIVE THE DIRECTOR THE TOOLS THEY NEED, WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO WORK WITH A GUY LIKE DAVID, WHO HAS A VERY UNIQUE STYLE?

TODD: I think you have to earn that person’s trust so that when they have—and he does—thousands of ideas, you can be a sounding board to filter ones that might be valuable or allow for a different perspective that might be valuable. I mean it was David who said, “This script needs humor in it.” That tone came from him. His approach is almost like jazz music, where there’s no linear approach to it, you just kind of hear your way through it. To a certain extent, you can control that as much as you can control that.

SOMETIMES YOU DON’T WANT TO CONTROL IT.

TODD: That’s right. I think part of producing is knowing when to step in and knowing when to step back. It’s as much knowing when not to do something as it is when to do something.

DAVID: True in life, as well. [laughs]

SO IN TERMS OF THE STUFF THAT THE FIGHTER ALLOWED YOU TO DO, YOU MENTIONED WONDER AND STRONGERHOW DID YOU GO ABOUT EXPLOITING THE LEVERAGE YOU GOT?

TODD: One thing we’ve heard a lot is, “We don’t know where to kind of categorize you guys. Your movies, The ProposalThe MuppetsWarm BodiesBeauty and the Beast—they’re literally all over the place.” And we say, well, that’s reflective of our taste; we don’t want to just focus on just one thing. So I think what The Fighter allowed us to do is focus more on things that we just loved as opposed to finding things because they were going to get made.

DAVID: I think, also, people accept you as more serious filmmakers. We’ve had a few of those kinds of successes. Beauty and the Beast is the first all-out blockbuster. As my dad said, “Never peak too early.” So it was rewarding to have that at this time, because we hadn’t had one. We’d had a lot of success, but not that big, billion-dollar movie. I think that changes peoples’ perception of you. So you just keep doing what you do. I do think that the diversity of our slate comes from the diversity of being at a studio. I just looked at it like a studio executive. If you look at the movies we’ve made over the course of years, it would resemble the slate of a studio. So I think that was a big influence on the direction that we took.

WITH BOTH BEAUTY AND THE BEAST AND THE MUPPETS, YOU GUYS FOUND YOURSELVES PRODUCING STORIES AND CHARACTERS THAT WIDE SWATHS OF THE PUBLIC ARE DEEPLY ATTACHED TO. THAT WOULD SEEM TO CREATE A DIFFERENT KIND OF PRESSURE ON THE PROCESS. HOW DID YOU BOTH NEGOTIATE THAT?

TODD: I think, as a creative person, you kind of have to go in a little bit with blinders on and not let that stuf in. For both of those, I realized how revered they were, certainly, but you don’t actually absorb—or at least I didn’t absorb the pressure until after the fact. Because if you absorb the pressure during the course of it, you’re second-guessing decisions and saying, “Well, is this the right thing because of something the fans said?” Then you lose a little bit of the creative plan.

Hoberman on the set of Traitor with cast Don Cheadle
Hoberman & Lieberman (center) on the set of The Proposal with cast
Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds (left) and director Anne Fletcher (right)

DAVID: I never look at it that way. You can’t look at that big of a picture. You can’t let yourself go, “Oh my god, we’re taking this crown jewel of the studio and we’d better not mess it up.” You have to put all that aside—which I do; I’m able to compartmentalize—and just do what you always do on every movie, which is to service that film. Because if you let all that stuff come in to your thinking, you’re not going to take chances, you’re not going to allow your creativity to flow and you’re not going to succeed.

TODD: It’s easy enough to say you shouldn’t make decisions out of fear—easier said than done, for sure—but in circumstances like these, it’s almost essential, I think.

GIVEN THE IMPORTANCE OF THE “DIRECTOR CHOICE,” HOW DID YOU ARRIVE AT BILL CONDON AS THE GUY TO HAND BEAUTY AND THE BEAST OFF TO?

DAVID: Actually it was a pretty easy choice because he loves theater. He wrote Chicago, he wrote and directed DreamgirlsHe had done the Twilight films at Lionsgate, so he’d worked with visual effects. He had the whole package, really. He was familiar with all the Beauty and the Beastthat were in theaters going around the country. He was a true aficionado and truly loved the story. And he came in with some really good ideas as a writer. So it was actually kind of a no-brainer for us.

SO IN TERMS OF CREATING A WORLD AND REIMAGINING THIS ANIMATED CLASSIC AS LIVE ACTION, IT’S ONLY RECENTLY THAT THE INDUSTRY HAS EMBRACED THIS KIND OF REBOOT. OBVIOUSLY AFTER BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’S SUCCESS, WE’RE GOING TO BE SEEING A LOT MORE OF IT. HOW DID YOU GUYS APPROACH THAT CHALLENGE? WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THOSE PRODUCERS WHO ARE NOW LOOKING AT REMAKING ANIMATED MEDIA ANIMATION AS LIVE ACTION?

DAVID: Well, I would say that if you’re doing it just to fill the coffers, then that’s not the way to approach it. I think Bill and we were really looking to figure out how to make it our own. There are things you can get away with in animation that you can’t get away with in live action.

JUST AS AN EXAMPLE, LIKE WHAT?

DAVID: Like, who was Belle’s mother and what happened to her? [laughs] Who was the prince’s father, the king, and what happened to him? How’d he get this way?

WE NATURALLY ASK DIFFERENT SETS OF QUESTIONS WHEN WE’RE LOOKING AT LIVE ACTION VERSUS ANIMATION.

DAVID: Yeah. You’re held to a more realistic way of approaching a story. Another one: Gaston can’t be as broad as he was in the animated film. So I think that was the challenge. Bill had come up with this idea about the role of the staff—that they were going to become inanimate objects if the curse wasn’t lifted. So they had their own story. But our mantra was always: Let’s do something that we can be proud of, where we’ve made a contribution to a classic, as opposed to just copying that classic.

TODD: Exactly. You have to add something to it to justify it being a live action theatrical release above and beyond the fact that we’re just updating the technology. This would be another element to it, so again, going back to the idea of moving audiences: I think it was important to accentuate some of the dramatic storylines, back stories and things like that, that added to the emotional experience. I vividly remember seeing the animated film with my girlfriend in 1991 and leaving that theater feeling totally romantic and emotional. I approached it from the desire to replicate that feeling without specifically copying the movie. I think that was the goal and I think we accomplished it. Obviously the box office speaks for itself, but there were so many people calling, just saying, “Thank you so much. I took my daughter” or “I took my kids” or “I took my Mom.” It seemed to have that generational feeling, the same way that the movie did back 20-some years ago. And that’s really gratifying. 

YEAH, I’VE GOT TO THINK THAT HAS TO JUST MAKE YOUR DAY. OBVIOUSLY YOU GUYS GOT TO BE ON TOP OF THE WORLD FOR A SEASON, BUT HOW ARE YOU LOOKING TO CAPITALIZE OFF OF THAT AND WHERE DO YOU GO FROM THERE?

DAVID: You want to do it all over again! [laughs] It’s such a great experience that you do want to repeat it in some way, shape or form. Not that we weren’t always looking for stories that can do that kind of business, and people are maybe more likely now to approach us for those kinds of films.

TODD: The Fighter started it, and then Beauty and the Beast has moved it to a different level. What it does is allow you to narrow the focus and pick projects you want to do. But it also makes you push yourself to strive for excellence. Once you’ve gone out there with something that was so well received, both critically and commercially, you want to top it. So you have to scrutinize the projects you have and scrutinize the development and scrutinize the filmmakers even more and just making sure that every time we’re going after something we’re trying to do the very best version of it.

THAT MIGHT BE A GOOD SEGUE TO TALK ABOUT WONDER, WHICH IS OBVIOUSLY A VERY DIFFERENT KIND OF MOVIE AND ONE THAT’S NOT NECESSARILY AN EASY STORY TO TELL. THERE ARE ALL SORTS OF WAYS YOU CAN TELL THAT KIND OF STORY WRONG.

TODD: Yeah. That was a book that David and I both read right as it was being published, and we fell in love with it. We both read it overnight, we called each other and said, “I don’t know how we’re going to get this movie done, but we have to get this movie done.” It was a message we had to get out in the world. We had no idea if the book was going to become big or not, but this was a movie we had to make. Thankfully, the book became gigantic and allowed for that momentum to push through and got the movie made. But we heard an extraordinary number of takes from writers and filmmakers. And most of them were, frankly, “Let’s not show his face,” or “Let’s wait til the end to show his face.” “Let’s get rid of the multiple perspectives.” “Let’s tell it linearly.” 

 But we kept thinking that the best asset we had here was the book. As hard as it’s going to be and with as many people telling us that we were crazy—and they did—that this movie that would never get made because of this kid’s facial difference, we just kept thinking the only way to make this movie is to do it in the way that the book’s doing it and honor these kids who have this facial difference. The book at this point is a modern-day classic, and I think now, if we had changed the book to a significant degree, we would have gotten throttled.

DAVID: The surprise of that experience was that it seemed like a pretty simple kids book. It’s a pretty simple message, a pretty simple story about a kid going through one year of fifth grade, but it turned into a very difficult adaptation. Like Todd said, people had all different kinds of ideas of how to do it. What we ended up deciding was that all we have to do is tell the story in the book. If we do that, we’ll be in good shape. And that turned out to be the right decision.

TODD: Sometimes—and this is where it becomes really challenging—you’re going to have writers and directors come in who want to put their own stamp on something. And so we needed someone to come in there and basically take what was so brilliant about that piece of writing and translate it from the written medium into the visual medium, as opposed to changing things to a degree to have ownership of that story. Thankfully, between [writer] Jack Thorne and [writer/director] Steve Chbosky, those guys revered that book. But we had so many people coming in saying “Here’s why you need to do it differently” or “Here’s the imprint we need to put on it.” That sometimes is an alluring proposition. But maybe the less cool idea is just take what’s written and put it up on the screen. In this case, it was the better version.

JUST TO BRING IT BACK AROUND TO THE BIG PICTURE, WHAT WOULD YOU TELL A YOUNG OR EMERGING PRODUCER WHO’S LOOKING TO GET THEIR FIRST FILMS MADE OR GET THEIR FIRST STORY DEVELOPED OR FIND THEIR FIRST DEAL SOMEWHERE? WHAT SHOULD BE THEIR TOP PRIORITY AS A STORYTELLER, AS A PRODUCER, IF THEY’RE GOING TO BUILD A CAREER?

TODD: Building along the theme of what I’ve been saying this whole time, don’t be scared of your own taste. Really understand what you love, because the only thing that’s going to move things forward is passion and fight. People say “no” all the time, but what I like to say is I can’t be the only person in the world who feels this way about this particular story. So there are other people who love it too, and you just have to find those people. Don’t pretend and don’t try to figure out what other people’s tastes are; know what your own is. I’m still learning, frankly. Every day, there’s a new experience and a new challenge.

DAVID: Because this is Produced By magazine, I wanted to share this experience. I learned how to produce a movie on a film I did called The Negotiator. Prior to that, I may have been involved in a couple of movies, but I really didn’t know how to produce until that movie, and I always give that movie credit. F. Gary Gray, who had done Friday and Set It Of was the director. Gary is a peculiar director. Sometimes you don’t know where he’s coming from or what he’s doing or why he’s doing it, and I remember we used to come in in the morning and Gary’d say, “Okay, I want to do this, this, this, this, this.”

And then he would leave and we’d look at each other and say, “Well, we can’t do this, this, this, this and this, so what are we going to do?” And the DP, AD and I would sit around and figure out what the day would be, how we were going to shoot it, what we were going to tackle. And then we’d come back and tell Gary, “Here’s what we’re going to do to try to accomplish what we think you want.” We did that on a daily basis, and that’s when I learned what the job is. I was with those key people, and we all gathered to structure and create what the movie was going to be, and then it was up to Gary to shoot it. That was an extraordinary revelation for me, working on that movie, and it helped that it turned out pretty good. It wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, but there are other reasons for that. But the movie turned out good and I could be proud that I contributed ideas. That’s the movie where I learned what the power of a producer is, what the job of a producer is and how a producer can affect a film.

 - feature photography by Kremer Johnson Photography

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