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LIANNE HALFON & RUSSELL SMITH

Posted By Chris Green, Friday, February 9, 2018

There’s that favorite pastime among the putative hipsters of the world—adjudicating the relative authenticity and credibility of our icons within what we’d loosely call the independent regions of the film, music and media sphere. Who’s legit? Who’s a sellout? It’s really a matter of your taste and your readiness to argue about it. There’s no definitive answer.

Except for when there is. PGA members and producing partners Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith are independent filmmakers, the genuine article, full stop. The pair are the founders, along with colleague John Malkovich, of Mr. Mudd, the small but spirited company that has made a habit of punching above its weight class with critical and commercial success stories like Ghost World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Juno, which earned the partners their first Oscar nominations.

Given that track record (which extends beyond scripted features to the Emmy-winning doc Which Way Home and Zach Helm’s celebrated stage play El Buen Canario) and Mr. Mudd’s vigorous development slate (including projects bubbling at FX, Paramount and all over town), we could have spent our cover story recounting the highlights of a successful joint career in a brutally competitive business. That’s not the way the Mr. Mudd team—quite possibly the most vanity-free producers working today—likes to play it. Along with their fellow members of the PGA’s Independent Producers Committee, Halfon and Smith approached Produced By with a mission in mind: to spread the word about industry practices that today are battering the independent producing community.

Producers may find the accounts herein to be alternately ludicrous, chilling and—most depressing—familiar. Halfon and Smith are unsparing in their description of the obstacles the last 10 to 15 years have thrown at independent producers, from financier refusals to pay producing fees, to guilds’ insistence on bonds to cover foreign residuals, to even unscrupulous collaborators trying to game the system that determines eligibility for the PGA’s Producers Mark (p.g.a.).

Not every one of these stories will resonate with every PGA member. But even if your producing career isn’t routinely hamstrung by onerous requirements, the overall health of the U.S. independent filmmaking sector is something that should concern everyone who cares about the vitality of American entertainment. It may not be a pretty picture, but it’s one that we can’t in good conscience turn away from. Neither should you. Read on.

IT’S NEVER BEEN EASY TO PRODUCE AN INDEPENDENT MOVIE, BUT WHAT WERE THE OBSTACLES THEN AS OPPOSED TO THE OBSTACLES YOU’RE SEEING NOW? WHAT’S CHANGED OVER THE PAST 10-15 YEARS?

RUSS: I couldn’t even say how long ago this went away, but for independent producers, there was a period of time where if you had enough projects around town, you could limp by with enough development funding, you know, 25 [thousand dollars] for everything you set up, $12,500 up front, $12,500 when they kick it back to you. They stopped doing that. Now, they just say, “Hey, it’s all on you. Bring me everything and maybe even half the financing, and then we go.” Well in that period of putting together all that stuff, who’s paying for that? You’re paying out of pocket. That’s a pressure. So now it’s like you either have access to somebody else’s fortune, or you are just trying to figure it out.

LIANNE: And it means you need to have more projects. It means that while you’re producing something, you have to be actively developing five or six other projects. We start thinking about the movie as a finished product now, and then we kind of back into it. It used to be that we would sort of discover the movie as we made it and then try to find the best suitor for it. We can’t really afford to do that anymore, because there are just not that many places that will buy it. But there are some enormous positives, in that the buyers are as eclectic as our material. And it’s become easier to identify a compatible partner for production and distribution right from the start. It’s been a gradual process. The idea of the negative pickup and the combination of factors that surrounded the idea of the negative pickup … studios got comfortable with that idea: “You go and make the movie while we’re involved in a tangential way. You supervise it all the way through post and then bring it to us.” That was a great thing for independent producers, because it cultivated all those skills separate from the studios. For me, the difference was the slow emergence of streaming. As streaming came in, the business seemed to split, between the under five [-million dollar] movies and the movies that were 20, 30 and 40 [million]. The places that we used to go to slowly went out of business. Paramount Vantage closed up, and another half-dozen followed. Searchlight became more risk-averse. The ability to platform and to launch something slowly became prohibitively expensive. Because of social media, word-of-mouth was faster than platforming. The market started to separate—people were either on this side or on that side. And our films tended to be in the middle. They were from six to 15 [million]. And so this idea of picking something up that was execution-dependent, without enough time for an audience to discover something new, came to feel too risky. Execution-dependent—that was a good thing for us. Anything really good is execution-dependent.

photographed by Michael Neveux

RUSS: We could do that. Like, we knew we could do that.

LIANNE: I don’t know that it’s gotten harder to finance any individual film. It still takes a long time. But the possibility of taking a film from inception all the way through the process has gotten trickier because there are fewer places to go to and less infrastructure. So for us, the difference has been that for a certain kind of film, it used to be you could go to Sundance and compete with your peers. It was kind of like a beauty contest.

THE OPEN MARKETPLACE.

LIANNE: Yes, the marketplace. But now fewer and fewer films are picked up there. The market has sped up so much that even going into a festival, you need support, you need marketing, social media, you need everything at the start.

YOU NEED MARKETING EVEN JUST TO GET INTO THE MARKET.

LIANNE: Yeah. You have to be fully prepped. You have to be able to use the festival platform to your benefit. You can’t use it as we’d done before, where you build off of that and release six months, eight months later.

SO, LET’S DIG INTO IT. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PROJECTS WHERE THESE TRENDS HURT YOUR ABILITY TO DO THE JOB, OR EVEN CAME TO THREATEN YOUR LIVELIHOOD?

LIANNE: Young Adult was a perfect example of the predicament. Let me preface this by noting one thing we learned when we talked to other producers. On the Independent Producers Committee, it was amazing to us that everybody in that room had been in the same position as we had been in on Young Adult. We were intent on getting that made and we weren’t going to spend two years getting to that point and then walk away. So when somebody says to you, “This almost works … if you would cut 30% of your fee,” you’re not going to turn around and say, “No, no, no. It’s this or nothing.” That was something that we had in common with all those other producers. We all made those deals. It’s hard not to make that deal. If a serious financier can’t make the numbers work, most producers are going to say okay, we’ll do it. We’re the weak link in that chain as far as who’s going to bend to get the thing done, because we have to make films to stay in business. And to stay sane. But once you bend …

RUSS: They know. You’re on a list.

LIANNE: You’re on a list. [chuckles]

RUSS: Another thing that’s happened, though, is that the middle has completely fallen out.

LIANNE: Yep.

RUSS: I had somebody talking about a movie they were working on that they were being offered, and they named five really well-known names. I thought, wow … I’d go see that movie. It had a $4.5 million budget, and the financer said, “I’m giving you four and a half million dollars; not a penny more. Go make this.” Well, this is the decision that you have to make as a producer, which is: Okay, all those well-known names are going to take a big chunk of the $4.5 million. What is left to make the movie and can that movie compete? In this case, I was talking to an AD friend who said, “I got a first-time writer-director and the only way we can shoot this thing with all these people is maybe a 19-day shoot.” Well a 19-day shoot; that means you can’t have a single thing go wrong. And even then you have to have a script that matches those limitations. And by the time you go through all that, you’re asking if this is going to ever play in a marketplace where it can compete? We used to be able to say, “You give us 15 million; we’ll give you a movie that competes with the studio movies.” For the look, for the performances—across the board. I don’t know how interested they are in that anymore. Those movies may not ever see the light of day or make a profit, however they’re distributed. A lot of them aren’t even expected to have box office except for gross comedies and horror films. But everything else is shoved in that same budget category.

LIANNE: Then there are movies like The Libertine, where your margin as a producer is so narrow. When we were making that movie, we posted a SAG residual bond. It’s a number that you can’t anticipate because it’s wholly determined by SAG. For us, it’s a very unpredictable thing. It boils down to a kind of bill that you get. And once you get it, there’s no negotiation. We structured that deal on The Libertine with the idea that we would get that bond back, so it wasn’t part of our budget. We thought of it like a deposit we would get back. It didn’t come back. We had no control over when or how we got it back.
 

I KNOW THAT A HUGE ISSUE FOR INDEPENDENT PRODUCERS IS THE REQUIREMENT BY SAG-AFTRA AND SOME OF THE OTHER GUILDS FOR PRODUCERS TO GUARANTEE RESIDUAL PAYMENTS. COULD YOU UNPACK THAT ISSUE A LITTLE?

RUSS: Well they passed a rule. It was called Global Rule One. This was 15 years ago, maybe a little longer than that. But before that period of time, if you were a SAG actor, say you were John Malkovich, and you were doing a Working Title film shot in Germany—well SAG got whatever residuals SAG would get from when that movie came out in America. Of course, they figured, we’ve got all these people working around the world, and so we need SAG residuals on all those movies across the world that use SAG actors. Well most of those movies (or a good portion of those movies) are put together by a producer whose process is like, “Let’s see … I need product for German television. Get me a story where the artwork can have a guy with a gun, a girl in a bikini and a house on fire.” They just put those things out—and never pay anything to any guild or anybody anywhere.

LIANNE: It was the honor system, and it didn’t work.

RUSS: SAG got shit on all these years by all of these people pulling this. That drove this push to pay residuals. Well it’s one thing to say you’re going to pay residuals by putting it in a contract and leaving it to the various distributors in those countries to make that reporting. But producers are expected to guarantee a certain amount of that. SAG said, “We’re going to come up with an amount of money that we think this film can afford; give it to us.” And they did.

LIANNE: The problem gets worse with something like The Libertine. We had Johnny Depp in it, and so the guarantee was based on the comps from Johnny’s previous films, even though in this one, he’s playing the Earl of Rochester in an English drama.


SO THEY ASSUME JACK SPARROW FOREIGN RESIDUALS EVEN THOUGH HE’S PLAYING AN OBSCURE ENGLISH EARL?

LIANNE: Yeah. It was before Jack Sparrow, but yes, that’s the idea. Johnny was huge. And so they based it on that. There are all these companies that are set up to make sure that the residuals that are owed, get paid. They’re called CAMAs (Collection Account Management Agreements). So it’s in your contract that all funds will go through this CAMA and the CAMA will distribute those funds per the contract. It’s great. Honestly it was not as much at risk as it had been before, but it still leaves producers at risk, because independent producers are often asked to sign personal guarantees. You know, when we go into production, it’s Russ and I signing on behalf of Mr. Mudd. We’re the responsible party. So if somebody for some reason doesn’t pay their residuals, the guilds will come to collect. I got a letter from the Writers Guild on one of our films which was set up with Fox—I don’t remember if it was Demolition or Juno—but instead of going to Fox, the letter from the Writers Guild comes to me. I called them up and I said, obviously it’s not me who’s holding on to this money, but the truth is it’s my name on the contract. What they’re counting on is that rattling my cage is going to be heard much more noisily than rattling Fox’s cage. And I understand it, because we’ve gone after profits on a film, too. We understand that if somebody has your money and you go and say, “I would like it,” it’ll take you three or four years to get a response. So we understand the impulse. But the Writers Guild, even as they tell you on the phone, “We know it’s not you [who has the money],” are quick to remind you whose name is on the contract.

RUSS: And when you have a film like that one, which I think was Demolition, Fox Searchlight has a portion of the world, probably 70%, but somebody else has got 30%. However it’s distributed, the deal that they work out should have nothing to do with us. But say they sold it to Russia, Poland and the Ukraine, and guess what, the distributor there didn’t pay. So who are they calling?

THEY’RE CALLING YOU GUYS.

RUSS: That’s pretty weird, isn’t it?

YEAH THAT’S WEIRD ENOUGH THAT IT ALMOST DARES YOU TO TRY AND FIGURE OUT THE SOLUTION.

LIANNE: Well that’s what we’re trying to do as members of the PGA. If the PGA was a union, our rep would be on their phone with their rep. But the PGA is a trade association, so there isn’t the same kind of bite there. Also, because the AMPTP are often called the producers during collective bargaining, people think that we are sitting on bags of money. Even the ones who recognize that confusion, where the distributors are called producers, all the unions are said to be negotiating against the producers.

AS THE PGA COMMUNICATIONS GUY, THAT MISSTATEMENT IS THE BANE OF MY EXISTENCE. EVERY TIME THERE’S A LABOR NEGOTIATION, THE PRESS CAN’T HELP BUT CALL THE MANAGEMENT SIDE “THE PRODUCERS.” EVEN THOUGH THE ACTUAL PRODUCERS AREN’T AT THE BARGAINING TABLE.

RUSS: In other countries, that might be more accurate. In most countries outside the United States, producers own the copyright on their films.

LIANNE: Yeah.

RUSS: But not here. There are maybe seven that have negotiated themselves into positions to be able to do that. But there aren’t 40. In France, distributors have seven years where they can exploit the film, in its various forms, and then the rights come back to the producer. If we renegotiate for another seven years, they would always revert back. What a huge difference! Because in France, you could just walk your film into a bank and say here’s some collateral to secure the loan for my next film. We don’t have that here. The distributors own it in perpetuity, in outer space, in the next galaxy over that we haven’t discovered yet. That’s the language that you get now in contracts.

LIANNE: It’s one of the reasons that television is such an appealing world for independent producers, because there’s a tradition of writer-producers. This idea of a producer as a creative force is not a difficult one for them to absorb. There is no confusion there about who does what. But in the theatrical world, with the financiers listed as producers on films, can we be surprised that the crew doesn’t know which producers do what? Because there are 14 of them on the call sheet, usually listed alphabetically. We know from serving on arbitration panels that how you delineate that has become foggier and foggier. Now we’re nostalgic for the days when only three producers could qualify. Now it’s become an awarded title for directors. It’s kind of like being knighted. It’s kind of a perk of being at a certain point in your company’s existence or of your status as a director.

*

WELL, THAT’S THE POINT OF THE PRODUCERS MARK [p.g.a.]. WHEN YOU SEE A LIST OF PRODUCERS AND SOME HAVE THE MARK AND SOME DON’T, THAT TELLS YOU SOMETHING.

LIANNE: Yeah, it is an amazing thing, because it makes people pay attention. It’s powerful when you go into those arbitrations, where it breaks down what a producer is and does on the whiteboard. It’s a big deal, that p.g.a. mark. Without that, there would be no delineation whatsoever.

RUSS: But now there are a lot of people that have seen that board. Financiers are all of a sudden going, “I’ll be on the set.” What? Why? Well we know why. And a lot of times, you’re even paying for their hotel while they’re sitting out there for the requisite amount of time on the set, enough that the AD, the costume designer, whoever, is able to say, “Oh, yeah, I saw that guy on set.” Right? So now he’s ready to go for his mark.

Any time you have a system, you’re going to have people who try to game that system. Our job is to keep improving it, keep refining it.

LIANNE: That’s exactly it, and I think it will get refined. I think they’re doing that. I think that’s some of what the arbitrations are for. We’re figuring out in those arbitrations how to account for that.
 

I WANT TO GET BACK TO WATERFALLS, WHICH IS AN ISSUE I’VE HEARD OTHER PRODUCERS COMPLAIN ABOUT—THE DEGREE TO WHICH PRODUCERS ARE CONSIDERED INSIDE OR OUTSIDE THE WATERFALL, AND THE MISCONCEPTIONS THAT CREATES.

LIANNE: Once you sell a film, you’re never part of the mechanism by which the money flows. You can be a beneficiary of it the same way a writer or director or an actor would be a beneficiary of it, but we are never part of that mechanism. It’s entirely out of our hands. Once the film is sold for distribution, it goes to Fox or Lionsgate or wherever. When we see that a film has done well, and because we know exactly what the budget is, we can gauge when it might start to show a profit and what that profit might be. If there’s a question about whether we should be seeing some of that back end—usually we don’t—but if there’s a question about that, we’re always in a collective with the writer and the director and one or more of the actors. We have to be in a position to be able to pay for any kind of audit, because the amount of money that it costs you to investigate can be prohibitive. In the case of Ghost World, with a UK co-production, we simply can’t afford to get our money.

RUSS: Especially if you’re going to be doing it on an ongoing basis. Because you get in line, you get in a “flight pattern,” and then nothing happens. So you go okay, what happened there? “Oh, we got kicked out of line. Something else came in, and we’re back to number 24 in the flight pattern.” Because they just don’t want to pay! There are people that just flat out don’t. They’re on the wrong side of that naughty/nice list that everyone knows …which studios will pay, which don’t pay, which might pay when prodded, all that kind of stuff. You get in with one of those that doesn’t like to pay and it can last you six, seven years of putting out bait, fishing, chumming the water for something that doesn’t come.

LIANNE: We had to borrow some money recently to continue an ongoing audit that was double the amount that we thought the audit was going to be.

RUSS: An audit we did not initiate. But once the train starts rolling, you’ve got to get on.

LIANNE: It’s the equivalent of optioning a New York Times bestseller for a year. [laughs] You pay for the money you’re owed.

“YOU PAY FOR THE MONEY YOU’RE OWED.” THAT SUMS THINGS UP ALMOST TOO PERFECTLY.

LIANNE: I’m sorry. I feel like we’re making you just sit there and shake your head.

[LAUGHS] I NEVER GUESSED THERE WOULD BE QUITE SO MANY WAYS OF WASTING TIME AND MONEY. THIS STUFF IS JUST SO FAR AWAY FROM THE REASONS ANYONE I’VE EVER SPOKEN TO HAS GOTTEN INTO THE JOB OF PRODUCING.

LIANNE: Yeah. And to stay in business, you have to be doing that all the time. You’re trying to collect from the stuff that you made that succeeded. And all you’re going to do with that is fold it into more development, into an option or kickstarting a documentary. You’re just going to fold it into keeping your business. You’re going to reinvest it.

Producers Russ Smith and Lianne Halfon on the set of one of their early collaborations, Art School Confidential 

SO WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN TO CHANGE THIS? I THINK PART OF WHAT’S SO FRUSTRATING IS THAT SO MANY OF THESE THINGS ARE NOT JUST OUTSIDE PRODUCERS’ CONTROL, BUT ARE IN MANY WAYS OUTSIDE THE DOMESTIC ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY, WHETHER IT’S FOREIGN DISTRIBUTORS WITHHOLDING RESIDUALS, OR THE SHEER ACCOUNTING COMPLEXITY OF MULTI-PARTY FINANCING DEALS.

RUSS: One problem that is closer to home, for example—just in terms of the studio and the producer—SAG does not treat them equally. That’s something that could change very easily and take a huge burden off an independent producer, the requirement to pay a residual bond. Studios don’t have to pay that. How can it be that we do? How about if our ducks are in line and we provide the CAMA, then there’s no bond? How about you make a distinction between who knows how to do this and who doesn’t? If a guild isn’t sure how to make that call, the bond company can give you an idea of who can be a little iffy.

LIANNE: That’s why there is a bond company.

RUSS: Just do a little research! You know, “These guys have forfeited their bond a bunch of times and they’ve gone bankrupt twice. If I were you, I’d get a little money to put off to the side on these guys.” As opposed to “These guys have a stellar track record. Why are you fucking with them?” Decide who actually knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t, and if you have some fears about somebody that doesn’t, work them out.

LIANNE: None of the things that are difficult for us are irreparable or systemic to working in the business, because we do have a good relationship with the studios. The studios are necessary to us. They’re part of that chain that’s hugely supportive of what we’re doing. We need them. But in any other business, it would be clear that we are not part of that cash flow after the film is sold. When the person you sold a car to crashes into a bus, the bus company doesn’t come after you because you once were in that car. It just doesn’t happen, right? They know who’s driving. But when the WGA tells you that they know you’re not responsible, but still your name is on the envelope and they’re going to come after you … I mean, you understand the end, if not the means. They negotiate with those studios. There are sensitive relationships there. Just because it’s easier or more comfortable to come to us doesn’t make it the right thing to do. There has to be a better way. With the SAG residual bond, there’s no way for us to calculate it, there’s no way for us to negotiate, and there’s no way for us to demand it back. The Libertine was made 18 years ago. I negotiated it with a person who said, “I promise you you’ll get it back on X date,” and then she left SAG. What kind of negotiation do you do with any union where it’s based on a verbal assurance and is so unpredictable? That seems like something that could be easily remedied. Everything is based on the chain of title. So they completely understand who owns the underlying rights to that film—that even if we once had them, that we transfer it to the studio. They know that. None of this is mysterious. It’s just that as the business changed from the studio era to now, the group who was not represented is today at a disadvantage. The jaws with the least bite are the producers. Not the AMPTP “producers” [laughs] but the producers like the ones in the PGA. For independent producers especially, we’ve found strength in numbers. That’s a good thing, right? We love what we do. We just need to be able to stay afloat as we do it.


*photo by Peter Land

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Living Well Is The Best Revenge: Armed With An Iconic Title and A Hot Director, Veteran Producer Roger Birnbaum Breathes New Life Into "Death Wish"

Posted By Michael Ventre, Friday, February 9, 2018

Vengeance-minded movie buffs have always had one title that consistently pulls their trigger. That would be Death Wish, the 1974 thriller in which a man’s wife is murdered and his daughter brutalized into madness by a cadre of urban scum, so he takes a gun given to him by a colleague and sets out to pay it forward. Charles Bronson, known primarily before it for brooding character work in ensemble pieces like The even and The Dirty Dozen, became a star as a result of that polarizing tale of vigilante justice that many interpreted at the time as a right-wing exploitation fantasy.

Veteran Hollywood producer Roger Birnbaum has dusted off the Death Wish title, substituted Bruce Willis for Bronson as vigilante Paul Kersey and set the film in Chicago instead of New York. Those may seem like cosmetic changes, but they’re part of what Birnbaum considers more of a reimagination of the source material, rather than a standard reboot. The essential theme of the ’74 release and the one scheduled to hit theaters on March 2 is roughly the same— retribution—but the main character’s mission is of a different caliber entirely.

“This is not the kind of movie where a man goes and just wipes people out,” Birnbaum opines. “This is about a man looking for justice.”

The distinction isn’t just run-of-the-mill Hollywood spin. Those who remember the original will recall that while the unassuming Kersey stalks the dark and gritty avenues of New York and fills with lead anyone he deems a threat to mankind, he never really gets the people who send him on this shooting spree in the first place. In the new version, Willis specifically hunts the villains who attacked his daughter.

“In our story, a similar tragedy occurs,” Birnbaum says. “But in fact, when the system frustrates him due to the kinds of economic woes and understaffing that afflict many cities, where the police can’t help, he decides to go after the people who actually did this. So it begs the question: ‘What would you do if this happened to you?’”

Birnbaum is no stranger to the reanimation of old celluloid. Most recently he produced the 2011 reboot of Footloose, the 2014 version of RoboCop and the 2016 edition of The Magnificent Seven. At Thanksgiving, he could probably turn leftovers into something that would make Bobby Flay envious.

Yet the career of this Teaneck, New Jersey native is lengthy and impressive, going back to the early 1980s and including Rush Hour, Bruce Almighty, Seabiscuit, Memoirs of a Geisha and many other critical and commercial hits. In 1998, he and business partner Gary Barber co-founded Spyglass Entertainment. In 2010, Barber became CEO of MGM, and he and Birnbaum assessed their new movie-making toy.

“At the time we took over, the cupboards were rather bare with current product,” Birnbaum recalls. “We thought the fastest way to get material into development is to look at the library and see what titles would be important today. We came across Death Wish.

“Of course the Death Wish of the early ‘70s could not and should not be told today,” he adds. “So we wanted to roll up our sleeves and tell a story that would be relevant today. We worked hard to make something that was not exploitative.”

The script for the 2017 Death Wish went through several writers; Joe Carnahan eventually received credit, with a nod to novelist Brian Garfield and also screenwriter Wendell Mayes, who wrote the 1974 version. Then there was the little matter of a director. When discussing a film that examines a man’s reaction to unspeakable horrors, who better than Eli Roth, who made his bones (cough, cough) helming chillers like Cabin Fever and the Hostel films?

“The idea for Eli came from MGM,” Birnbaum explains. “I was part of those meetings. He’s very bright about material and was clear about what he wanted to do. We thought with my experience and his budding talent, we could help each other; I could help guide him to play in a bigger sandbox than he’s ever played in before.”

To hear Roth tell it, the collaboration was a hit from the very start, and it had almost nothing to do with Death Wish.

“I had heard about the legendary Roger Birnbaum for many years,” Roth smiles. “But I didn’t know him until our first meeting with MGM. We hit it off instantly. It’s hard to find somebody else who has that identical kind of Jewish/Catskills/ Borscht Belt sense of humor. In the first two minutes, we were trading ‘2000 Year Old Man’ and Blazing Saddles references.”

Of course, the movie they were talking about making had a much less funny version of “Excuse me while I whip this out!” The new filmmaking team had to find just the right lead actor to brandish a weapon and aim it at cretinous goons. It didn’t take long before Bruce Willis’ name came up.

“Bruce was willing from the get-go,” Birnbaum says. “I think he was intrigued by the title and told us he was interested. When the script came in, he embraced it. And when Eli came aboard they met in New York City, liked each other a lot and agreed on the point of view of the script. It all came together very, very easily.”

Says Roth of the Willis meeting: “Roger was great at coaching me. He knew Bruce well ... knew what to say and what to hold back on. He’s just someone who knows and understands people, movie stars, movie executives. Everybody loves Roger. He goes back to Unbreakable with Bruce.”

The production of Death Wish was unremarkable in the sense that it went that smoothly. A few days of shooting took place in Chicago—one day with Willis, the rest second-unit photography—before moving to Montreal for the bulk of the schedule. The shoot wrapped on time and within budget. And despite the city of Chicago’s recent difficulties with gun violence, not only was there no resistance to having the new Death Wish set there, city officials welcomed them, according to Birnbaum.

The film’s title—its name recognition and its visceral impact—is gold. But the story itself needed burnishing. The team set out to make a film that would lure audiences with an iconic name on one-sheets but would keep them riveted in their seats with something novel and more relevant to 2018.

“We wanted to make a smart, elevated genre movie,” Roth explains. “We didn’t want this to be pretentious or preachy. We wanted it to be fun. We were looking at films like Man On Fire, Eastern Promises, Sicario, Unforgiven, Taken. These movies touched a nerve because they have great characters who are seeking revenge.

“I love the original Death Wish,” he continues, “but there’s no point in replicating what they did. We wanted to make it about today, which involves looking head-on at the fact that we live in a gun culture and what happens with that. We wanted to look at it like what would happen if this story really broke today. Oddly this is the perfect time for this film.” (In a grim irony, Roth provided this quote only days before gunman Stephen Paddock massacred dozens in Las Vegas.)

Although the picture may be finished, the collaboration is just beginning. Birnbaum and Roth plan to continue doing schtick together in meetings and on set when not preparing for their next project, and they’re already batting around ideas, including hopes for the expansion of Death Wish (like its predecessor) into a franchise.

“Once in a while, you make a movie and you meet some talent that you just know you want to keep working with,” Birnbaum says. “Eli is a friend of mine for life now. We’re talking about other things.”

On location in Montreal, from left: producer Roger Birnbaum, cast member Bruce Willis, director Eli Roth

“It’s rare to click creatively the way I do with Roger,” Roth explains. “We both have the same work ethic as well as the same sense of humor. He knows when I’m on a project I’m possessed, in a good way, as he is. He’s so successful doing it because he loves it.”

Birnbaum recently was in London overseeing the production of Nasty Women, a reworking of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that stars Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. Roth, meanwhile, served as producer on two forthcoming edge-of-your-seat suspense pics, Haunt and Lake Mead. Yet their creative partnership will always be linked to that title first unfurled in 1974.

“It’s a terrific title,” Birnbaum reflects. “It’s a title a lot of people know. In this day and age, you have to try to get people’s attention as quickly as possible. Several generations never saw this. They don’t bring anything to the experience other than the advertising they’ve seen.

“But I’m very happy with this film,” he continues, “and I know audiences will love it. Watching the audience reactions in previews has been very gratifying. They’re really embracing the work Eli did with support from the rest of the team.”

Turns out, the best revenge of all might be ... success.

 

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The Case For Film: You Heard It Was Expensive? Inefficient? Obsolete? Maybe You Heard Wrong

Posted By Kevin Perry, Friday, February 9, 2018

Every revolution has its cost, whether paid in blood or tea or legacy, and the digital revolution is our current pop culture test case. With the ascendency and relative ubiquity of digital video, what artistic achievements might be sacrificed as film spools its way to a final reel? Or perhaps a better question: what do producers stand to gain by preserving the traditions of film?

The answers may surprise you.

 In Hollywood, the conventional wisdom is to be unconventional; readiness to run against the status quo is what fueled the recent embrace of digital photography after all. But now that digital has become the default format of choice, there’s an argument simmering in the production trenches that continues to get louder: the argument that shooting on film actually can be as or more cost-effective, time-effective and artistically effective than even the latest and best video formats.

As PGA member and 2017 Oscar nominee Todd Black will attest, it all starts with the script. “What’s the material telling us? What does it want to be? What do we want the audience to feel? That’s how I proceed when making decisions about film vs. digital.” But Black didn’t become an A-list producer without crunching the numbers. “We need to always look at the budget. That’s a given, because it’s a business. It’s show business, but it’s also show. You have to say, ‘Does this give the best show to the audience?’ And if it’s film, then use film. If you can figure out the budget.”

That’s a big ‘if’ - take it from indie filmmaker Matt Miller. “When you’re considering something low-cost, you just have to set priorities on a production,” says Miller, the founder of Vanishing Angle, an artists’ collective dedicated to furthering various creative endeavors. “What’s the best use of resources to create the director’s vision?” That vision begins with the right equipment. “Film cameras are more available and therefore much cheaper. Often, rental houses are so excited to be working on film again that their techs go nuts!” he reports. “They’ll basically give you a film package almost for free … pretty much almost for free, anyway. Because they’re available. You’re not having to compete with these ‘fancier,’ ‘more exciting’ digital packages.” (The air quotes are Miller’s.)

But the thought of relying on 20th century machinery to capture a contemporary motion picture frightens some producers. Troubleshooting is paramount on Miller’s mind as he continues. “A film camera, it’s intricate, but it’s very mechanical. There’s a power source and there’s gears that run. If something’s off, you can usually tell right away. It’s easier to assess than if you have damaged software or a dropped pixel, or some other crazy thing that’s happening with your digital camera.”

Appropriately enough, it’s when the camera starts rolling that you discover the impact that film can have, not just on picture quality, but on the entire environment of a set. “There’s a general preparedness and energy that comes with shooting on film. Because everybody knows there’s a literal translation of dollars rolling through the camera,” Miller opines. “There’s a kind of static electricity that charges everybody on set the minute you start hearing that camera go. Everybody kicks into gear and there’s a professionalism that sweeps over the set because it has this analog, tactile quality that everybody can hear and see. It becomes more real.”

These sentiments are echoed by writer/director JT Mollner, who contrasts the immediacy of film with the comparative leisurely pace that sometimes comes with digital filmmaking. “When people know that there’s unlimited data and unlimited time and you’re not spending more money by shooting more, you start to get lazy and you start to get inefficient. Nobody on the set, from the crew to the actors, is taking it seriously. I really do think that quality rises to the top when you’re shooting film because of the urgency and the sense of value with each take.” Reflecting on his own production experiences while crafting the breakthrough 2016 western Outlaws and Angels, Mollner concludes, “I truly believe that shooting film saved us money and made us more efficient, but I never could have known that going in.”

And the result: Sundance gold. “The fact that it was shot on film really tipped the scales,” surmises Mollner. “It helped us get into the most prestigious domestic festival there is, but it also increased the buzz at Sundance. We sold out every single screening, and there was a lot of promotion about the fact that we were screening a print and that we’d shot on film.”

It’s natural for passionate indie storytellers like Miller and Mollner to have a proclivity for raw stock, but what about the world of episodic television? You would think that a weekly series with millions of fans breathlessly awaiting each ensuing chapter would never dare run the risk of shooting on film, right?

Well, you’d be wrong … DEAD wrong.

“Shooting The Walking Dead on film thus far has been a surprise and a delight,” beams the series’ Executive Producer Tom Luse. Nine years ago, Luse and his team tested the look of digital video against the grain of 16 millimeter. “The big thing was the look on the zombies, the look on our ‘walker’ makeup was superior on film. This was all done for aesthetic reasons, not for financial reasons, at the time. But in shooting the show on 16, we discovered that it was an incredibly nimble format. We could move the cameras very quickly; they were light. We often shoot three, four, five cameras on a given setup and the film cameras we find give us more flexibility to move around more quickly than digital cameras.”

That scrappy sense of grit and gore helped catapult The Walking Dead to unheard-of success for a genre show on basic cable, a feat not lost on its creators. “Frankly, the big hope for us is that our show becomes that show 10 or 15 years from now that kids will watch in their basement and go, ‘Doesn’t this look great?’” Luse goes on to assess, “It has that filmic look that so many of the great horror films from the ‘70s and ‘80s had. I do think that there is a history of the ‘film look’ that our show certainly continues.”

The argument for film isn’t just a matter of quality; it’s also a consideration of quantity. After wrapping his latest feature, Miller arrived in the editing bay triumphant. “We automatically had great looking footage and we had less footage we had to go through on the post side. We were more efficient in how we shot that footage on set, as opposed to a lot of times on a digital project when people just let the camera run for 20 minutes at a time because they can. No matter how many times you say as a producer, ‘That’s still gonna cost us later!’”

Miller isn’t solely concerned with price in terms of dollars. He also wants to make sense. As he sees it. the integrity of his craft is being auctioned one pixel at a time, and he takes a long view of the dilemma. “What’s cost-effective about having an industry that’s unhealthy?” he asks. “What’s cost-effective about having an audience so inundated with content that they don’t know what to choose because there’s no barometer for quality anymore? It doesn’t matter how good you make something because they can’t find it or know what to watch. Low cost stops mattering. How do people recoup anything?”

Take, for example, the process of upgrading the abundance of digital films that will need to be reformatted in the years, decades and centuries to come. Miller is assured that software engineers will create the necessary technology to restore the rapidly obsolescent video work currently being churned out but warns of the ultimate cost. “Now you’re creating fakeness. You’re having a computer decide what fills in those gaps instead of reality filling in those gaps like it does on film. That’s gonna have an effect on the art form, that’s going to have an effect on the audience, that’s going to have an effect on the long term value of the film.” Miller delivers his points emphatically: “When you talk about the legacy of a project on film, beyond how the audience responds to it, there’s an actual financial implication to doing something on film vs. digital.”

Legacy isn’t just an artistic metric; it also has economic ramifications. According to recent estimates, it costs 12 times more to archive a digital project than one that was shot on film. “The only way to truly archive movies—and the best way— is on film. It lasts virtually forever,” explains Mollner. “With these new digital storage formats, they change so often that there may be a time when there’s no way to convert your file, which is essentially what you’ve turned it into if you haven’t shot film: a file. If there’s no way to convert that file at some point to the new medium, then it will vanish forever. It gives me great peace of mind to know that I have a physical film print archived and it will never go away.”

So what does Mollner say to the sizeable legion of storytellers who tout the virtues of video? “The best I’ve ever heard from anybody is that it gets close to looking like film, which should answer your question as to why we shoot film. If everybody is trying to find ways to look like film, why not just use the real thing?” Mollner summons his inner chemist as he continues, “It’s countless silver halide crystals swimming in emulsion. There’s grain and there’s texture and there’s depth. You’re never ever gonna get that from the digital medium. Video, all it is is pixels. That’s what it breaks down to. It’s repetitive, it’s consistent, it is what it is. But film is alive, it’s organic, it’s unpredictable, and it’s magic. It affects audiences in a subconscious way.”

Asked for a closing argument, Mollner doesn’t disappoint. “Filmmaking is danger. That sense of danger is what makes it exciting—it’s lavish and unpredictable. That’s what makes filmmaking beautiful and a true art form.” Drilling down even further, he insists, “I truly believe that film is art and video is commerce. If we’re going to support artists, we need to give them the opportunity to shoot film on film.”

Check the gate. Change the conversation.

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The In-Between Place: Digital Series Producers Break Down Extending A TV Show's Appeal To The Web

Posted By Chris Thomes, Friday, February 9, 2018

There is so much television now it’s mind boggling. It’s honestly a challenge to just find a few shows that I can settle into. Thumbnails of artwork swim in a confusing flurry as I drift off to sleep every night, remote in hand, having found absolutely nothing that I want to watch. It’s chaos.

The Netflixes of the world are trying to solve that problem, and perhaps they will. But for now, just finding the right television show feels like the biggest challenge on earth.

From the producer’s point of view, the challenge is just as bad. We just want to get our content seen. But with this giant layer of new technology between the producer and the viewer, it’s not easy. It’s supposed to be. That’s the promise of technology. All of these new streaming applications are dedicated to constantly improving discovery. Netflix is a master at this. They use data constantly to serve up different options to different viewers. In fact, no two Netflix homepages look the same. Everyone’s account is different because our individual viewing habits are different, and the application and algorithms automatically serve up what it thinks we prefer watching the most.

But all of that is for when you’re already in the app. What about when you aren’t?

Enter digital social content.

Specifically, I want to talk about scripted derivative digital series, or web series that are spinoffs or derivatives of existing scripted TV shows. Unlike memes, animated GIFS, and other micro-social content that serve up instantaneous and viral satisfaction, premium video series can deliver something these formats can’t—original character and story. Digital series can be the holy grail of social content for television comedies and drama, delivering to viewers new characters and storylines that deepen the world of a show. They can also be very effective at luring in and keeping audiences engaged, even when a show is in hiatus between seasons.

Clockwise from left: a walker from The Walking Dead: Red Machete; director
Joe Quesada watches a take from
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Slingshot;
storyboard art from
Slingshot; cast member Natalie Cordova-Buckley goes
over a scene with
Slingshot transmedia producer Geoffrey Colo

But getting a derivative digital series off the ground can be quite a feat because it resides in the “in-between” world—not quite marketing and not precisely the show itself. That status can lead to a garden of traps and landmines for those determined enough to push the rock up the hill. Variables such as network interest, funding and ad sales all contribute, as does production experience and where a show is in its lifecycle. The base of this steep hill doesn’t have just one starting place. John Canning, current Chair of the PGA New Media Council, most recently served as VP Interactive Experiences at NBC, one of the networks regularly producing web series. He thinks the trigger varies depending on how engaged a show’s producers are with digital. “I have worked with showrunners who were glued to social media and others who were not,” he explains. The key is to identify early in the process what are the production team strengths and understanding. Overall, I would say the traditional production teams are more aware of the community and the power to respond to fans. It is about balancing out that with making a great product given the constraints of modern productions.”

To Canning’s point, no matter how big or small the production company, their showrunners’ interest and engagement with social and digital content varies and can steer strategy. Even a juggernaut like Marvel has variations in their approach driven by the teams involved. Meghan Thomas Bradner and Marvel transmedia producer Geoffrey Colo brought Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Slingshot, one of the company’s first scripted digital series, to life. Bradner says, “There are a number of different individuals and divisions at Marvel involved in discussing digital strategy. It starts with our upper management, who see value in the future of digital, and then the creative teams at Marvel Television and the New Media division discuss what we can do and how that’s best executed. When it came to Slingshot, we also had our partners at ABC Digital Media Studio and our transmedia producer Geoffrey Colo who helped to execute that vision.”

That inconsistency appears to be one of the few consistent features across the board when expanding a show. A variety of stakeholders across the TV ecosystem can end up contributing. These drivers are often more ad hoc than they are part of a grand scheme. Sometimes it’s driven by a need of the showrunner or writers to delve into a story they couldn’t cover on air. It may be used for product integration for an ad sales deal or to satisfy a business development deal between a network and a partner. Other times, a series may be leveraged to maintain engagement when the show is between seasons. All of these drivers are tied to the funding of the project and act as steering mechanisms, dictating guide rails that ensure the effort returns on the investment in one way or another.

Jay Williams, CEO of Legion of Creatives, recently produced a web series for AMC’s Walking Dead. He suggests that, “Each distributor has their own set of guidelines in terms of how this type of content is funded and deployed. In some instances, they pay for it directly or they might work with a brand partner who functions as a presenting sponsor. The same goes for planning, which is usually part of a broader strategic framework but can often happen ad hoc based on the defined objectives of a specific show or shows.” Legion’s creative process requires threading many departments together to weave an approach that both maintains creative integrity of the show, as well as strategically aligns with objectives. Typically, this process includes Williams and his business partner Noam Dromi, the showrunners, executive producers, writing staff, marketing departments, digital content teams, and possibly integrated marketing, business development or ad sales.

External funding is critical for premium digital series since the cost is not always factored into marketing or production budgets. (It’s typically considered ancillary content.) However a handful of networks do spend on digital content. Nathan Mayfield, CCO & Executive Producer of Hoodlum Entertainment’s and ABC’s Secrets and Lies and its digital series, Secrets and Lies: Cornell Confidential, speaks from experience. “Most broadcasters have a need to reach audiences across their other platforms so there is always some budget towards additional content,” he says. “The important thing is that the content is meaningful for your intended audience. That means it should always be planned when you are developing the show from the outset. Consequently, that content becomes something more valuable for your broadcaster to leverage with advertisers looking to speak to the same audience. If you think multiplatform from the outset, it means you are able to mobilize quickly to create content should an ad hoc opportunity arise.”

While this flexibility seems to be key for both funding and approach, one element remains true north for any of these projects—story. They all serve one master ultimately—the main on-air show from which they were derived. Bradner at Marvel notes, “We’ve done a number of different types of shows, some sponsored and some funded traditionally. Earlier and earlier in the development process, we’re examining how digital executions can extend and support the ‘mothership’ show. It’s always a part of the discussion.”

For Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Slingshot, producer Colo steered the project from the spark of an idea—the simple desire to do a derivative series—through the entire process, from EP buy-in to the writer’s room. Colo explains, “The creative aspects are no different in short form. Typically you still want to follow standard story structure. You just have less time to tell that story. For Slingshot, we formed our own writers’ room and followed the same creative process as our broadcast show.”

Even when the process is similar to broadcast production, it’s the story itself and the beats that get complicated, especially when a digital series comes out of nowhere and wasn’t planned for from the start of the season. Williams describes the details of the process: “There are numerous variables that go into determining the best creative direction for platform extensions. Each project we work on approaches the process organically. In the case of our work on The Walking Dead: Red Machete, the fandom’s ongoing discussion about the iconic weapon first used by the show’s lead character, Rick Grimes, a few seasons ago, created a narrative thread that our team was able to build upon. With guidance from the show’s creative brain trust, we integrated the machete into a stand-alone story line that could bring back characters from past seasons who were no longer on the main show.”

Mayfield is quick to point out it’s not just the writers’ room, but expectations of the viewer that also weigh on creative. “Depending on the show,” he explains, “the digital extensions should emulate how an audience is going to engage with the show and when they will choose to engage with the content—simultaneously, leading up to the episode, or simply housing conversations inspired by elements after they have watched an episode.”

It’s a balancing act for sure and one way or another, it requires buy-in from the writing staff. Mayfield confirms, “There is not a writers’ room that does not embrace the idea of digital extensions. Cornell Confidential was outstanding in this way. Showrunner, studio and network all embraced the digital content from the outset. It’s in the execution of these ideas where you see the true value of being one degree of separation from the writers of the show.”

Solving these story puzzles midstream is challenging to say the least, and it falls squarely to the experts, the writers and the producers. For Marvel, Bradner describes how the braintrust solved this matrixed issue in regards to Slingshot: “We got together with transmedia producer Geoffrey Colo and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s showrunners (Jeffrey Bell, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen) and talked about the ‘three C’s’—concept, characters and continuity. [We looked at] continuity because this is a linear TV show and we needed to figure out when Slingshot would be released and how that would fit into the story from the main show. It just so happened we had this ‘pocket’ of time in-show that we could explore dramatically with one of our fan-favorite characters, Yo-Yo. Natalia Cordova-Buckley is such a talented actress and has this natural charisma that the moment she appeared on the show, fans wanted to know more about her. Slingshot was the perfect opportunity.”

Ideas can come from anywhere, but the more the ideas come from the producers of the main show, the better. Robin Benty, a digital producer who recently served as senior director for digital strategy and current programming at FOX, elaborates, “Sometimes a producer will come to the network with an idea for an extension. We love when it originates with a showrunner because it’s organic to the storytelling, so we go out of our way to try to bring it to fruition. I don’t know if producers understand that they do have power by controlling the creative in these extensions. At the network, it’s our job to work with the studio, evaluate the resources and determine if it fits within the marketing goals. Sometimes the network or studio pitches a concept to a showrunner based on what we know about the audience, the engagement we want to stimulate or a marketing angle we want to hit. The showrunner then takes those goals and creates a storyline that works within the world of the series.”

Left: The Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Slingshot team shoots on a
bluescreen set; right: cast member Luliette Lewis in
Secrets and
Lies: Cornell Confidential

But story is not the only challenge; just as important is time. Because most digital series are ad hoc, schedules for production teams are already locked. Benty explains, “Writers and EPs must first service the broadcast show, and these extensions definitely take a backseat if the main show requires their attention. The network and its partners on the extension must honor that.” Canning agrees, adding, “You can’t force this … and frankly, with current show production, there isn’t always the luxury of time or money to get the additional material created despite desire on the writer/producer’s part. This is where I have seen success in a digital writer/producer that works collaboratively with the writers’ room.”

This seems to be a growing need in television—the digital producer. They can be the glue that holds digital content opportunities together. Without them, there’s no ability to thread the needle, run the traps, nor facilitate and coordinate all the tasks required to steer a digital series around its “mothership.” Williams suggests, “First and foremost, the writers and EPs have to produce a great show. Digital extensions only have value if the core IP is something that engages audiences. Showrunners have a finite amount of time and resources to do their job, so we never want to get in their way with what we’re doing. That said, their perspective is invaluable to ensure that we’re remaining authentic and not creating materials that feel too marketing-focused at the expense of story. With both Walking Dead and Sleepy Hollow, we worked directly with creatives from the show who were dialed in to the long term creative blueprint developed in the writers’ room. Gaining the trust of the showrunner(s), producers and distributor is something that Legion of Creatives makes a top priority. These creatives and executives are trusting us to deliver a level of quality their fans have come to expect, and being able to deliver at that level is something we take very seriously.”

And while a digital producer may be critical to daily production, top-down buy-in from the executive producer(s) is the article of faith that makes the entire effort permissible. Most everyone agrees that while good ideas can come from anywhere, in order to maintain creative control over quality and integrity of story, digital series are always best run top-down with the showrunners involved and engaged. Mayfield agrees, observing, “The most effective digital extensions are always top-down, only that to navigate the approvals process and infrastructure within a broadcaster model you need to be selling up to the executives every step of the way, allaying fears or skeptics, embracing your champions and inspiring their sales teams to make it a viable revenue opportunity.”

That’s what all this effort is really about—engagement. Social media allows distribution of this content, along with the reaction to it, to be captured instantaneously. Williams explains, “Fan engagement provides important insights in this arena, since social media platforms allow them to make their feelings known in real time. That’s worth its weight in gold. At the same time, the emerging crop of showrunners is very digitally savvy and often comes to the table with great ideas from the start. Every IP holder, particularly those with serialized programs, must be focused on creating the foundational elements for a franchise story world with their shows, even if it only exists on digital platforms. With so many choices competing for their time, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is not a viable strategy. Expecting audiences to wait a week between episodes or six months to a year between seasons without feeding their appetite for supplementary content is unrealistic.”

So while all of this seems like an incredible amount of work to produce a scripted derivative digital series, it may just be the kind of content that is absolutely critical to maintain viewers in our fragmented and overcrowded TV ecosystem. Mayfield reflects on the value of it saying, “The key factor is to balance the spectacle with the meaningful. That is, the digital extensions need to draw on the talent from those producing and writing the TV show and then seek out the best talent who are experienced in delivering and executing content that is native to the platform it is living on. Most writers are so savvy in short form or social content, and for those that aren’t, they know it is at their own peril.”

With so many choices for viewers, getting their attention over and over again as they get distracted with everything from Words with Friends to the latest fake news, not to mention trying to peel them away from your competitor’s TV show, is a never-ending game of cat and mouse. And while the Amazons, Apples, Hulus and Netflixes of the world build better mousetraps, producers might just chip off a little of the cheese to offer viewers, keeping them on a straight and narrow path back to their TV show and out of the maze of content chaos.

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Rediscovered Optimism - From The Presidents

Posted By Gary Lucchesi & Lori McCreary, Friday, February 9, 2018

These are complicated days in our business. It’s been challenging enough to keep up with the rate of technological change, but when it’s matched or even overtaken by the pace of social and cultural change, it’s hard to blame anyone for feeling a little disoriented. Inevitably—even understandably—there are those who want to hang on to the security of the past. If you spend any time with industry veterans, you’re bound to hear a few reflections about how much simpler and easier it was to make a movie or to sell a TV show back in 2007 or 1994 or 1982 or 1971. The stories of “the good old days” will go on for as long as you have the patience to listen.

But it put us in mind of a quote from Robert Rodriguez, which we hope he’ll forgive us for paraphrasing: “I do not believe that an old person’s pessimism is truer than a young person’s optimism.” We remember clearly our sense of optimism when we were just beginning our careers. Just as clearly, we remember the old-timers who never hesitated to tell us how much better it was back in their younger days. Sometimes it turns out ignorance is bliss. As young producers, we weren’t restricted by the knowledge of history. That freedom allowed us to find our own voices and give our ideas and passions free rein.

It’s a special kind of pleasure to see the cycle beginning again, from the other side of our careers. Among the reasons for optimism we found this year was Margot Robbie, who floored and delighted us at the PGA Nominees Breakfast when she acknowledged that after first reading the script of I, Tonya, she was convinced that Tonya Harding was a fictional character.

Producers of our generation thought we knew the story of Tonya Harding. Then we saw it through the eyes of a group of young producers for whom the subject wasn’t yesterday’s tabloid fodder, but a rich and vital story of resilience, social class and aspiration. It’s thrilling to be in the presence of the optimism of rising producers like Margot, Jordan Peele, Ava DuVernay, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Bryan Unkeless, Sean McKittrick and countless others who could be found among the Producers Guild Award nominees and honorees this year.

It only gets us more excited for the movies and series that we’ll be seeing next week, next year and next decade. We haven’t even begun to tap the potential of formats like VR and AR, and we barely have a sense of the immersive kinds of stories that will be possible in 2030. But it’s likely we’ll look back on this time and see it as a thrilling, pivotal moment in our careers. As fast as the industry is changing, there are more creative opportunities than ever before. Embrace the unknown. Discover your own future. We’re optimists, after all.

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OPEN DOORS - Don't Leave Money On The Table: Today's Bets On Diverse Content Are Paying Off

Posted By Sasheen R. Artis, Friday, February 9, 2018

I recently had a lovely conversation with a young PGA member who hadn’t heard about the Producers Guild’s Power of Diversity Master Workshop. He made it clear to me that he didn’t think the program was necessary, given “the success of so many ‘diverse’ films and television shows.” However, when I challenged him on whether he had produced a project that was either “woman-led” (i.e., female director or lead character) or represented an underserved voice (i.e., a story from the disabled community or different ethnicity, religion or veteran), he said no. “Why not?” I replied. “With the success of movies like Wonder Woman, Get Out, Girls Trip and Coco, and TV shows like black-ish or The Good Doctor, not producing an inclusive story is like leaving money on the table.” Needless to say, the conversation ended soon after, but it got me thinking.

Even with success, diverse storytellers still face tremendous barriers to get their projects made. So why does the industry often leave money on the table?

It starts with access. In a relationship-driven business where executives and producers hire people they know or who remind them of themselves, opportunities for those who appear different are few and far between. The Power of Diversity Master Workshop tackles this major hurdle with a simple introduction.

PGA National Executive Director/COO Vance Van Petten with
Workshop Co-Chairs Sasheen Artis and Julie Janata and
Class of 2017 mentors and participants.

The Workshop is a free, eight-week summer program that offers Master Classes headlined by some of today’s top producers and provides one-on-one mentoring with PGA members. Past speakers have included Lori McCreary, Gary Lucchesi, Bruce Cohen, Mark Gordon, Bruna Papandrea, Marshall Herskovitz, Shonda Rhimes, Damon Lindelof, Paris Barclay, Caryn Mandabach, Lindsay Doran, Luis Barreto, Ali LeRoi and Bonnie Arnold. Open to PGA members and nonmembers alike, only 10 projects are selected each year. This ensures an intimate environment where high-level producers are introduced to emerging and mid-career producers seeking to tell authentically diverse stories with commercial appeal. Speakers listen to participants’ pitches, give constructive feedback and decide if they want to read the scripts. Fostering new relationships is an important step in getting more diverse stories produced.

With new relationships formed in the workshop, our 2017 alumni have already started moving their projects forward. For example, Paula Wood partnered with PGA member Bhavani Rao and organized a table read for her film, Blind Courage, hosted by casting director and PGA member David Kang. PGA member and army veteran Brian McLaughlin drafted his industry friends and organized a table read for his film, Scylla Dilemma. Lavetta Cannon’s TV show, Mahogany, is currently in development with PGA producer Eleonore Dailly. These projects as well as the numerous documentaries, web series and immersive experiences from more than 100 workshop alumni will come soon to a theater, TV or VR headset near you.

For more information on how you can get involved with the Power of Diversity Master Workshop, visit pgadiversity.org. The final deadline to apply is March 5.  

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Writer/Producer Sasheen R. Artis serves as Co-Chair of the PGA’s Power of Diversity Master Workshop.

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GOING GREEN - Let's Get Small: "Downsizing" Uses Green Production To Shrink Its Carbon Footprint

Posted By Kate Fitzgerald, Friday, February 9, 2018

One would not have expected a dystopian, sci-fi-orientated, environmentally conscious piece of film to have been the next move for Sideways and Nebraska director Alexander Payne. Lo and behold, this was the most recent route he took and will likely be the talk of the town. Downsizing is a comedy based around a fictional solution to a very real and pressing issue facing humanity today—overpopulation of the earth.   opens in the not-so-distant future. A scientific institute in Norway has finally perfected the process in which the size of humans can be reduced to a mere 6 inches tall. This offers a radical way to cut down on the earth’s consumption of resources and a major windfall for those who take part in the program and subject their bodies to this irreversible change. Downsized individuals are able to live at a royalty-level of affluence. Upon arrival, they settle into sprawling and luxurious (size-appropriate) mansions and begin to live their hedonistic lifestyle in “Leisureland.” Smart viewers readily see this to be a Faustian bargain.

Throughout the process of writing, Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne became increasingly concerned with honoring the science behind global warming. They were aware they were working on a subject matter that was by no means an unrealistic catastrophe. The script actually was written 10 years ago, but a mixture of fate, luck and context has enabled it finally to come to fruition at just the right moment.

And given the film’s subject matter, it’s worth recognizing the ways the producing team was particularly conscientious in the sustainability of the resources and practices being used throughout production.

It began with the smallest details. At the very start of filming, every member of the cast and crew was provided with a canteen; the set was declared a water bottle-free zone. The amount of plastic saved through this endeavor alone was enormous, but the crew didn’t stop there—implementing a rigorous recycling bin system, even including an entertaining “how to” video passed amongst members of the team.

Great efforts were made daily to source food locally, choose organic when possible and work with companies that shared their environmental values. The tea was provided by Pluck Teas, a company from Toronto which specializes in sustainable and fair-trade products. Coffee waste was minimized by support from a company called Office Coffee Solutions, providing recycled, compostable cups. To properly recycle the Keurig capsules used during production, Office Coffee Solutions and its partner, TerraCycle, provided a dedicated receptacle for the purpose. (TerraCycle specializes in recycling and upcycling waste management for challenging waste streams.)

  Producer/writer/director Alexander Payne (left)
  on the set of
Downsizing

  Kristen Wiig, Matt Damon and fellow cast
  members in a scene from
Downsizing

In set construction, numerous steps were taken to reduce environmental impact, mostly in the form of reusing and repurposing. One example was choosing metal as opposed to wood whenever possible, as it’s far easier to repurpose. The team also focused on reusing sets for different scenes of the film. Two of the film’s largest sets, the “Alondra Apartments” and the “Norwegian Village,” were both constructed using recycled elements from other sets. Additionally, the “Movie Theater” set was built reusing the same panels that had also been used for a previous set, “The Downsizing Chamber.” Every other set piece was donated after completion of the film.

Perhaps one of the most integral parts of the production’s recycling strategy was the choice to hire a liquidator to ensure that everything that could not be donated after the film found a useful home. For example, the gurneys used in a hospital scene were ineligible to be donated to any nearby hospitals as they were no longer up to code after being customized for the film. The liquidator did painstaking research and eventually found a hospital in Ghana that could put them to good use.

Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that parts of the filming took place in Norway, which is renowned for its progressive environmental politics. A large proportion of the country’s population drives electric cars, as the practice is incentivized by the government. Norway’s societal norms are based on long views of preservation for the world around them. The film’s executive producer, Diana Pokorny, explained that the Norwegian spirit of sustainability was contagious and intrinsic to the film’s green production practices. She remarked upon how she was struck by the country’s winding roads, a result of civil engineers’ choice to follow the lay of the land as opposed to carving it out. The environmentally conscious ethos stuck with the team throughout the rest of the filming in Toronto.

After the cameras were put down, the efforts toward a greener future did not stop. Paramount’s employee screening did its part, asking viewers to “Downsize for Good” by bringing new or gently used clothing and household items to donate through Clothes for the Cause. All of these individual green efforts across the film added up to the studio’s taking a huge step closer to producing an environmentally sustainable film.

These various green production techniques are becoming more and more commonplace in the film industry with tools like the Green Production Guide facilitating these practices and providing a framework through which they can be carried out, assessed and recorded. The Green Production Guide (www.greenproductionguide.com) helps film and television professionals find the resources and partners necessary to integrate sustainable practices and vendors into their productions. It makes greening productions simple with easy-to-use tools such as carbon calculators, best practices, resource checklists and more, including a database of over 2,000 vendors that supply sustainable products and eco resources to help green TV and film production sets.

If films continue to utilize practices and processes akin to how Downsizing did things, the whole industry will begin to move toward a more sustainable future. In order to do so, they will have to follow suit and mindfully do some “downsizing” of their own to reduce their environmental impact. Hopefully this won’t include the need to reduce ourselves to a height of 6 inches in the process.

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RISK TAKERS - Loan Ranger: Why Be A Bully When You Can Be A Partner?

Posted By Administration, Friday, February 9, 2018

JOHN HADITY
ENTERTAINMENT PARTNERS, NEW YORK, NY

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
'MASTER HAROLD'...AND THE BOYS
BURNING BLUE

FINANCIER
SNOWDEN
AMERICAN MADE

Every producer has at least one “movie that changed my life.” What’s yours, and why? 

Definitely two of the films I did with director/screenwriter Anthony Minghella, The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley. On both projects, there was so much that Anthony wanted to do but funds were limited. In every instance he sat down with the producers and financiers to work out alternative solutions that fit within what we could afford but preserved his vision on the projects. It was a lesson in how financiers can be thought of as partners instead of bullies. 

But I’m proud of all the projects we have financed, because completing a film is an achievement in and of itself. Since Entertainment Partners only provides loans (not equity), we don’t take performance risk, and we build in ample protection so that we’re not left at the altar, and the producer isn’t vulnerable should the film not perform well.


There are easier and more reliable ways to make a living than by financing films. What draws you to film as a business opportunity?

We lend money to productions because we understand the space, have a good grasp on the risks and how to mitigate them. Most lenders tend to be impatient and not very tolerable of production exigencies, but my production experience enables me to work with producers to help solve their problems and successfully complete their projects while all the while protecting our investment.


What’s the most recent project you’ve backed? What got you excited about it?

Doug Liman’s American Made. I was excited over the size and scope of the production and felt confident we could manage the multiple-jurisdiction tax credit loan we were providing. I’m not shy around a challenge.

What are the essential qualities you look for in a producing partner? What flaws are you willing to overlook?

I look at his/her track record of bringing films in on time and on budget, and I ask around to hear people’s thoughts on his/her ability to collaborate and create an inspirational work environment. I’m willing to overlook going over budget because I build in protections for us on that front, but no one wants to work in a toxic environment. 

What’s a story you backed recently that really connected with you on a personal level?

It was very exciting for me to finance the narrative feature Freeheld, because years earlier I played a role in promoting Cynthia Wade’s doc that inspired it, and which went on to win the Oscar. And it brought me great joy to finance Paterson, because I worked with director Jim Jarmusch 25 years earlier on Mystery Train and it was so nice to collaborate again. 

What’s the quickest way to make sure you will NEVER back the project I’m pitching you?

Send me your budget in Excel. To me, that’s a sure sign that you have no idea what you’re doing!

  

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MENTORING MATTERS - Forging Connections That Last: "Making It" In Hollywood Is A Matter of Perspective

Posted By Brian Girard, Friday, February 9, 2018

I moved to Hollywood to be an actor and I became a producer. While I still do both, I am always looking to do more. Up to this point, I spent most of my producing career working in nonfiction, producing short-form content, branded entertainment and segment producing. But I really wanted to make movies. My good friend and producing partner at the time, Graham Suorsa, kept urging me to apply to the PGA Mentoring Program. Perhaps that would help kickstart the path I was truly after.

I remember the interview process was fairly brief. I went in, stated my case that I was hoping for a mentor who made movies. What seemed like mere moments later, I received an email from the desk of Todd Lieberman, his assistant reaching out to set up an appointment. Realizing who Todd was—i.e. one of the forces behind The Fighter (being from Massachusetts, it was one of my favorite films) and The Muppets (being from planet earth, it has some of my favorite characters)—I became very excited at the chance to meet with him, even if for half an hour. I prepped for my first meeting with Todd with a handful of highly specific questions … none of which we got to.

We hit it off immediately. Frankly, we spoke about almost everything except the industry. We talked about what inspired us, what kinds of movies and TV we loved, why we loved them, what kinds of things drive us to want to make the things we make. It was awesome, and I remember walking out of that meeting feeling inspired and motivated. And I still do, every time I meet Todd.

You see, that meeting happened over five years ago. Since that initial contact, Todd and I have stayed in touch, and we try to catch up a couple times a year. On one occasion, we spoke about an opportunity to work with the legendary Jerry Lewis, whose work I’ve loved my whole life. But … I was working on a TV series at the time and I would have to quit that job, potentially burning a bridge. Was it worth it?

Todd’s words: “What choice would your 15-year-old self make here? It seems like you’ve been manifesting a moment like this your whole life. Follow your heart. Follow that instinct that inspires you toward something.”

That meeting helped clarify things for me. I decided to go for it. The choice to work with Jerry Lewis ended up being one of the most poignant experiences of my career. I struck up a friendship with Jerry that lasted well past production and even up to his final days last August. We became friends, who called each other on birthdays and other occasions.

I will never forget what Todd said about this: “If you were to go back in time and tell your 15-year-old self that you would get to meet Jerry Lewis, and not only meet him but get to work with him, and not only work with him but become friends with him, would you say you would have made it in Hollywood?” My answer was, “Of course! But I feel like I’m just getting started. There’s so much to do!” And there is. So Todd and I continue to talk about what inspires us, what motivates us and what drives us to continue to create.

“We talked about what kinds of things drive us to make the things we make. It was awesome, and I remember walking out of that meeting feeling inspired and motivated.”

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ABOVE & BEYOND - Master Planners: For These Volunteers, Face-to-Face, Hands-on Learning is Key

Posted By Administration, Friday, February 9, 2018
 IAN WAGNER

Ian Wagner and Christopher Burke have been working for years to provide small, hands-on classes to PGA members, free of charge. They currently co-chair the Master Class subcommittee for the Guild’s West Coast Education Committee. For their tireless volunteering efforts, we are honored to recognize them here.

People should get involved,” says Ian, “because the Guild feeds off the energy of its members. I really believe that. We all bring different experiences and skill sets, and it’s incredibly important to be able to connect with others who are going through the same challenges.” Prior to focusing his volunteer efforts on the Master Classes, he volunteered at the annual Produced By Conference in many different capacities. He also tries to attend as many Guild events as he possibly can and even produced two short films as part of the PGA’s 2014 Make Your Mark Weekend Shorts Competition. We asked Ian about his most memorable experience as a volunteer. “The first Master Class I worked to put together was about filming with drones,” he recalls. “This was back in 2015 when the rules were still being hashed out at the federal level. The process of creating the panels and bringing everyone together was long and took a lot of hard work, but when the class was finally ready, it was standing-room only and really went off well. We ended up doing another drone panel the next year because the response was so great. That was really satisfying.” When Ian is not volunteering, he runs a small production services company that specializes in short-form content and branded entertainment. 


CHRISTOPHER BURKE

When Christopher James Burke is not spending his time volunteering for the Guild, he is a jack-of-all trades: he produces, writes, shoots and edits. From documentaries to behind-the-scenes material and sitcoms, he truly does it all. PGA membership has been one of Christopher’s most positive career experiences. Like his partner in crime, Ian, Christopher has written and produced shorts for the Make Your Mark competition for three years running and takes great pride in being part of an organization that recognizes and supports diversity. Christopher tells us, “One of the first volunteering experiences I had was helping to run a Master Class on the Canon C300. It was a relatively small, hands-on class held at Abel Cine in Burbank. The class was filled with various producers from reality shows, scripted TV shows and features. Everyone came together to learn the latest technology in a casual, no-pressure environment. During the short breaks, I noticed how quickly and easily everyone interacted with each other—asking questions, socializing, and sharing information from their various fields. By the end of the two hours, I knew that the class was a huge success, because everyone came away not only with practical knowledge of the camera but also with a deeper sense of shared community.”

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BOSPOAT - Best On Set Photo Of All Time: That's A Wrap

Posted By Chris Green, Friday, February 9, 2018

This is downtown Selma, Alabama, fall of 1967. The production is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The gentleman on the right is Alan Arkin, who would earn his second Oscar nomination for the performance. The gentleman on the left is Joel Freeman, the film’s executive producer.

We admit that we’re cheating a little with this one. It’s not a particularly distinctive photo, except for the presence of Mr. Freeman, who passed away a few days before this issue went to press, and who supported countless people in the early stages of their entertainment careers, among them, the editor of this magazine. Everyone remembers their first real break in the industry; Joel Freeman was mine.

He was 77 when he hired me for my first and only production job, working for a not-long-for-this-world dot-com production company. His peak years were well behind him, but he was determined to learn some new tricks producing for what people had just started to call the World Wide Web. And so a guy whose movie career included everything from Shaft to Love at First Bite to The Blackboard Jungle to Camelot to Bad Day at Black Rock to Lonely Hunter, wound up hiring a zero-experience grad school deserter to help create a book-review show for the internet. He was the definition of an old pro—great stories, an abundance of heart and zero bullshit.

The company went the way that most dot-coms went in 2000. Fortunately Joel had another passion: The Producers Guild of America. He was a storied PGA member, a longtime Board member and officer, the prime mover and first-ever Chair of the Producers Guild Awards (back then called the Golden Laurel Awards) and the fifth-ever recipient of the PGA’s highest service honor, the Charles FitzSimons Award. When the original editor of Produced By suddenly had to leave the job, just before the publication of our fourth issue, the Guild’s new executive director, Vance Van Petten, asked his Board if any of them knew someone who could write a little. Joel said he might know a guy.

That vote of confidence has made all the difference in my life. I’ve never held another job since Joel recommended me for this one. Remembering him here doesn’t begin to repay the debt I owe him. You can find pictures of Joel posing with everyone from Jack Warner to Isaac Hayes, but I’d like to think that this is how he’d want his peers to remember him, doing what he did best—working on set with supremely talented artists and craftsmen to tell stories that millions of people loved.

Godspeed, pal. See you in the final reel

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