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CHRIS MOORE - Cover Story: Chris Moore Has Some Ideas About The Entertainment Industry. He'd Like To Share Them With You

Posted By Chris Green, Thursday, June 16, 2016
Our cover stories are generally pretty retrospective. We usually take some time with a subject’s backstory, being sure to hit the requisite career highlights, how they got to where they are, and all that.

This one doesn’t do that.

And that’s not for lack of a backstory, because Chris Moore’s includes playing lacrosse for Harvard, selling a sequence of blockbuster scripts as a young agent, setting out as an independent producer and within the space of three years, delivering a pair of legit modern classics, in the Oscar-winning buddy drama Good Will Hunting—his second-ever feature—and the considerably less refined but equally bighearted teen comedy American Pie. And then comes the part where Chris Moore decided to not just produce movies, but produce them in public, as one of the creators of HBO’s seminal doc series Project Greenlight and more recently on the Starz series The Chair. Honestly, before this magazine came along—and arguably even since then—the best way to learn what the producer’s job looked like was to watch those first seasons of Project Greenlight and pay attention to whatever that big guy was doing. Chris Moore has been carrying the banner for producers for a long time, since before we even had a banner, honestly.

We’d have loved to cover all that stuff here. We didn’t.

Now in the middle of his career, Moore has emerged as one of Hollywood’s truly restless minds, a furious, almost compulsive analyst of the changes that technology has wrought upon the business, and of the ways the machinery of the industry have failed to serve the interests of storytellers and creative entrepreneurs. No one breaks down the shifting tides and big-picture paradoxes of contemporary film distribution, finance and marketing as accessibly (and zealously) as Moore does. If his diagnosis is subtle, his means of expressing it are a good deal less so. Chris Moore does not do sugarcoating, and readers of this interview should be prepared for some aggressively informal language throughout.

Moore joined Produced By editor Chris Green (and a trio of lucky PGA interns) at the PGA offices in beverly hills, and all but refused to leave until he’d answered every single question posed by anyone else in the room. It was quite a morning. But when all was said and done, we had recorded a one-man cyclone of an interview, which managed to connect the dots between the misplaced priorities of the industry’s marketing arm, the commercial implications of binge-watching Perry Mason, the fracturing of the movies’ "contract with the audience” and the reparative prospects of radical transparency.

So, as one of the guys who got Good Will Hunting made, what would it take to get Good Will Hunting made today?

I’ll start by saying I think it would be impossible to get Good Will Hunting made now, assuming it’s with two guys no one has ever heard of, like Matt and Ben were back then. If it was trying to get it made today with Matt and Ben starring in it, it would take one phone call. But if you wanted to make it today with two unknowns and a non-commercial script, I think it would be almost impossible. Nobody has any idea how to sell those movies today. Nobody has any idea how to get anybody to come see them. That means people putting up the money have no idea how to get their money back, which makes them totally paralyzed to make those kinds of movies.

So what happened? Did we just forget how to reach that audience? It’s not like that audience evaporated.

What I would say—and I’m probably going to be a zealot for this point over the next few years—is that we as an industry did ourselves a disservice because we blew up what I affectionately call the "contract with the audience.” People are super busy, but they love seeing movies. However, they don’t want to have to do a shitload of research to figure out what movies they want to go see, because they’re super busy, remember? In the ‘90s, when we were doing Good Will Hunting, there was very clear communication with the audience about what different kinds of distribution meant. There were theaters. After theaters there was pay television, then home video, and then after that, regular TV, where you watch cit with ads, or on the plane. In the theatrical category you had art house, independent theaters. Everyone who is reading this article who saw Good Will Hunting in the theater remembers which theater they saw it in, the theater where they’d go see the Miramax-type movies. And you had guys like the Weinsteins pushing those kind of movies. So the audience understood, if I’m the kind of person who likes Cinema Paradiso or Howard’s End, these are the dudes who are going to find those movies for me, and these are the theaters I’m going to watch them in. It was fundamentally a different experience than if I was going to go see a big movie, like Star Wars.

But we’ve lost that. There’s no contract with the audience anymore. Now, the audience thinks, "Well, do I need to see it in a theater? I can get Netflix. But if I subscribe to Netflix, what if they don’t get the movie? But wait, I can always buy everything on iTunes. I’ll just wait for it to be on iTunes. But wait, Amazon Prime just sent me an ad saying that for eight bucks, I get 40,000 titles along with free shipping. So maybe I should watch it there. So how am I supposed to pick what I want to watch?”

So what all that means is the audience for the "Good Will Huntings” is hard to find at one place at one time. Look, I thought Spotlight was a great movie. I was happy it won the Oscar this year. But it’s made less than 25% of what Good Will Hunting made, and we didn’t even win the Oscar. It’s not that Good Will Hunting is a better movie than Spotlight. It’s that when Good Will Hunting came out, we flipped two switches and that told every person on earth who likes that kind of movie, "Here’s Good Will Hunting!” Today you have to flip 50 switches and all 50 of those switches are aiming people at different things all the time. So the audience is totally confused. They have no idea what to listen to, so they’re sitting around waiting for one of their friends to tell them what movie is good. Fandango is giving me nothing. Fandango will email me and say, "Hey, Keanu is coming out this weekend.” I already know Keanu is coming out this weekend. The chance of me going to see Keanu is zero unless my kids want to go see it.

What Fandango should say is, "Hey, Keanu is the big moving coming out, and here are the four specialty movies coming out too.” But nobody takes that role. The problem isn’t that the audience disappeared. It’s that nobody can find them in a single place over a controllable period of time.

That’s our first problem. What used to be our contract with the audience has turned into just letting them fly out in the wind and figure it out for themselves. That’s bullshit. We’ve got to help the audience figure out how to find the movies they like. Secondly, we make too much stuff. I hate to say that, as a producer. But back in the day you’d have maybe one or two big movies a year, with smaller movies in between. Now every weekend there’s a big movie. Half the time there’s a big movie that comes out in theaters but also there’s another big movie that’s coming out on your pay-per-view that you’d like, but you think, "I don’t have time to see both.” The sheer numbers are astronomical. I heard there was something like 700 movies and 4,000 new hours of television that got made last year. There’s not enough hours in the day for somebody who’s interested to watch it all. So that compounds the problem, because there’s nobody communicating with the audience to say, "Hey, there’s a ton of content over here. Let’s divide it up and explain it to you.”

For instance, do you know what I binge-watched over the last two months because a friend told me about it? Perry Mason. A friend of mine said, "Do you like crime shows? Well, Perry Mason was the first one, and it’s awesome.” And I thought, "You know, I do like that show.” I watched a couple of episodes and thought, "This show is great.” So I binge-watched all 200 episodes.

Now, if you’re a guy who spent the last two months trying to convince me to watch a new show on TV or to go watch a movie in the theater, and you read this article and you learn that I, as your core audience, spent five hours each week over the last 10 weeks watching Perry Mason, you want to shoot yourself! You’re thinking, "Perry fucking Mason? What are you doing? We have Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders! We spent $70 million dollars to make that show!” Well, I haven’t watched one episode. But yeah, I watched all of Perry Mason.

Everything is available. We’ve flooded the market with old stuff and we’re making too much new stuff. And remember, on top of that, we’ve literally destroyed all the communication with the audience. Back in the day, if a movie got released straight to DVD, what did that mean? It must have sucked! Today, if a movie premieres on Netflix for its first run, it’s probably awesome. So how are we, as a business, telling the audience, "That movie wasn’t that good—this one is great”? We’re not.

So if you’re an audience member, you get overwhelmed. You end up feeling like you only have one option: going to films that will make your kid happy, like seeing The Jungle Book in IMAX 3D, on its first weekend. Would that have been my choice for those four hours of my life? No. But I know my kids want to go see it, so I’m going to go see it. And fact is, someone will be talking about that movie at work the next day. When you pick your kids up from soccer practice, those parents had to go see it too. It becomes your "water cooler” thing. Those movies are getting more people because the guy who probably wouldn’t have gone and seen it back in the day—

Now feels compelled to go see it.

It’s even more than that. They’re so overwhelmed that they feel like they have no other option! So when the kid goes, "Dad, I want to go see Civil War,” Dad doesn’t say, "Well, how about going to see Good Will Hunting?” because he’s never heard of Good Will Hunting. He has no idea it’s out there. So they go see Civil War. Every ad he sees is for Civil War. There’s not going to be a square on a ticketing website that says, "Oscar winner Spotlight, still in theaters.” There’s not a chance he’s going to stand up to his kids and say, "No, I don’t feel like watching two superheroes fight each other,” when he doesn’t know there are other options. So the things in the Jungle Book/Civil War category make huge bank and everything else is making a fraction of what it used to make, because nobody knows how to get their audience to behave in a consistent way.

Because what’s Netflix saying? Netflix doesn’t want you to behave the way you used to behave. They’ve got a huge marketing campaign saying, "Don’t watch movies the way you used to.” Meanwhile, the theaters are out there going, "No, no, do it the way you used to do it! " And then you’ve got all the TV channels, which each have their own theories. Some say you can binge-watch it. Others say you can watch it anytime you want, 12 hours after it first airs. So naturally, audiences think, "I don’t have to follow any shows. I can just catch up later.” Circling back to Good Will Hunting, I think today if somebody was doing it, the first thing they’d suggest is turning it into a television series. For a story like Good Will Hunting, you could’ve done that.

Still, for a movie that’s got those emotional high points, there’s something to be said about having seen it in a theater.

I do think there’s a unique experience, and maybe this makes me old, of watching shit with other people. I think it’s fun. When people laugh, more people laugh. People cry, and then more people cry. You’re having a communal experience; it’s just different, psychologically. If you watch it by yourself on your iPad, you still might like the movie but it’s a totally different experience than if you’re watching it with other people.

Like, I had some rough things happen in my childhood, and Star Wars bailed me out. Over two days, I saw that movie 11 times in the theater. My parents were getting divorced, and there was something about Luke Skywalker and Han Solo that just calmed me down. Didn’t matter that it was a fantasy world, I looked at it and thought, "You know, the world is okay.” That experience of going into a story and escaping my life really helped me get through it. And yeah, you could do that with an iPad. You plug those earbuds in, and there’s escape happening, for sure. But the thing that I would miss is the communal aspect—feeling like you’re not alone. That helped me through it as much as the movie did. So to me that’s the basis for this deep belief in storytelling and in community.

But not every movie needs to be seen that way. For instance, I did The Adjustment Bureau with Matt. That’s a perfect example. People love that movie. But it didn’t do that well in theaters. If Matt and the studio had sat down and said to the audience, "You know what? This movie is great. You’re gonna like it. But it’s a little cerebral. You know what? We’ll put it in theaters for a little while because we know some of you like to see it that way. But we really hope you guys watch it at home with your families.” And so then we take the marketing money that we would’ve used for the theatrical release and really push it when it’s on Netflix and Amazon. It’s not that we don’t believe in the movie. But we don’t believe it requires the theatrical experience to enjoy it. I think there would be just as many people who would go to see it in the theater, because we were so honest about it, as there would be people who would watch it at home. Then you’re living on whether the movie is good or not, not how much you spent on marketing.

Is there a way to find that audience that we just haven’t figured out yet? Or on the other hand, if we are dealing with a permanently confused audience, is there any means, other than sheer Civil War-level volume, to reach anyone?

I believe we can do both. But the entertainment business has to get its head out of its own ass. We’ve been so spoiled because we’ve owned this space for 100 years. Only Hollywood gets to sell its products just because we’re us. We own the straight pipeline to the theaters. Now they’re realizing they’re a real consumer products business. That’s why Disney is killing it—they have the best consumer products in the entertainment business. Because Walt was a genius and he realized we’re in the consumer product business before anyone else did.

Disney is going to crush everybody until these other idiots figure that out. That’s what’s behind "Available anywhere on any device.” That’s not actually what you want to be saying. The filmmaker doesn’t want anyone watching their movie on a phone. They didn’t make the movie to be on a phone. But the studio—even Disney—will put it up for a little while in theaters and then pretty soon the ad is going to come out and say "Any device you want to watch!” It’s driving filmmakers crazy. But the studios don’t know what to do because they know there’s a ton of kids out there who are ready to watch the movie on their phones. They used to be able to tell all of those kids, "You know what? You’re going to the movies to see this.” Today they’re petrified because most of those kids are going to say, "Screw that, I’m just going to wait a couple days then watch it on my phone.”

I think we have to push back a little bit on the audience. We have to stand firm that we are smarter than the audience about how to watch a movie. It’s okay, in my opinion, for Disney to say, "This movie is only going to be available in theaters for the next six months. You want to see this movie? Go to the theater. If we’re wrong, and you didn’t have a good time, then we’ll lose money and won’t make another one. But if we’re right, you’re going to have a blast, and you’re going to be happy you were in the theater.”

But for the same reason, they’ve got to be really honest when they make something small, and say, "You don’t have to watch this in the theater. This is a great movie. We love it. It’s going to be just as good on your iPad, on your phone, whatever. We just wanted to tell this story. Watch it however you want.” If they aren’t honest about the smaller movies, no one will trust them about the big movies.

What would it take to make something like that happen? Is there an exec, or a company even, that’s capable of pivoting like that?

Well, there are legacy problems for the big companies, because they have deals with theaters. It made sense in the 90s, because the film business was totally internal. You, as a producer, didn’t have to sit in your office and figure out how a movie was going to sell. That wasn’t your problem. Your problem is how you’re going to sell your movie to the 10 guys who might pay for it. It’s a shitload easier in your life to think about only selling to 10 guys, versus selling to 20 million people or whatever. You had other people to figure out the marketing.

Today it’s the producer who has to figure out the marketing because A) there’s not 10, there’s 50 guys, and B) each one of those guys has a bit different view of what’s going to sell. I don’t think you’ll ever see Netflix saying "We’re going to make the next Star Wars and it has to be in the theaters for a period of time before it comes on Netflix.” They know where people are watching Netflix: on their phone, on their laptop, on their TV. So they’re making stories that fit on a smaller screen. They know that their push isn’t, "Come see House of Cards in Dolby surround sound IMAX 3D!” But a company that has a deal with Regal will be looking to put their stories in IMAX 3D. And as a producer, you have to sell to both of them.

So today, if you’re a producer, you have to think about marketing. And right now, it’s hard to pin anyone down on how to do the marketing. But what I fundamentally believe is the biggest problem—and this just me alone on this; I will take the bullets as they come—is Hollywood got spoiled, because even though we’re in the consumer product business, we controlled it. And what we controlled was that consumers had to pay us before they ever sampled the actual product. Try and name any other business where you get to do that. There’s not one. You test drive a car. You try shoes on, you walk around in them, you see if you like them. I can go to any ice cream shop and say, "Can I taste that?” and try a flavor before I buy it. Name another business where all you’ve seen is an ad and then they make you pay for it.

That’s the entertainment business for the last hundred years. Here’s a 30-second ad for a movie. Now pay me my $11 and walk in the theater. If you hate it and walk out, you don’t get a voucher for another free movie. Think about the psychology behind that view of marketing. In the entertainment business, marketing is not driven by what’s good about a specific movie. We just lie to you! I’ve been on movies where we actually shot extra days of bullshit that’s not even in the movie, just for the trailer. I’ve seen all kinds of lying. Because all we’ve got to do is get you to buy the fucking ticket. Why is the whole film business built around the opening weekend? Because that’s the longest the lie can last.

Now, that was the industry 10 years ago. Today, because of social media, there are dudes who go to the first show on Thursday and they’ve already blogged it out and tweeted by 10 p.m. that evening, ahead of the midnight "premiere.” [laughs] So literally by the nighttime show on Friday, it’s pretty obvious how good the movie is. Rotten Tomatoes already has what everybody thinks. The industry has never had to deal with that kind of word of mouth. And they are petrified. Because none of these marketers has been selling quality, ever. The thing about the conversation with the audience is that you’ve actually got to get the audience to trust you.

So what are they selling, if not quality?

Most of the time, they’re just selling the stars. Time after time, marketing campaigns are built around who the stars are. It’s not that the audience said, "Oh, tell me who the stars are. That’s what I care about.” It’s clearly not. I have movies in my career that were huge hits that didn’t have anybody in them that anybody had ever heard of. And you see movies with the "safest” stars in the world tank all the time. The reason they do that is they have no idea how to sell the movie, and it’s easier to just throw Matt Damon’s face on a poster and say, "Oh, everybody loves Matt. They’ll come see the movie.” Audiences can see right through that.

So coming back to that question—How do producers or marketers connect with the audience in a way that’s authentic?

We’ve lost the audience’s trust. Someone is going to have to stand up and say, "We spent $100 million dollars on this movie. We thought it was going to be good at first, but didn’t turn out that way. Watch it on your iPad.” Just be honest. Right now, the marketers’ loyalty is to the wrong people. Their loyalty is to the filmmaker or the studio or the stars— not to the audience.

But any exec or producer in today’s industry who came out and said that would be accused of not "standing behind the movie.” Do we have to re-frame what it means to support a film?

Maybe. If a person is taking on the job of marketer, they put themselves squarely in between the audience and the film. And over the last 20 years, because of good agents and smart filmmakers, these guys are way more nervous about pleasing the filmmaker, to the point of outright lying to the audience. The truth of the matter is there are no filmmakers who have consistently been worth more than the relationship to the audience. Maybe Clint Eastwood and Warner Bros. have a relationship that’s lasted long enough and been good enough to say that they should lie for Clint. But that’s about the only relationship in the business worth lying for.

But we’ve gotten addicted to lying, even though being honest is smart business! You see some smaller filmmakers who’ve done it and it’s wildly successful. Kevin Smith is a perfect example. Kevin can do whatever the hell he wants. He talks directly to the audience. He goes out and he raises money for his $3-5 million movies. Kevin has figured out the math of his life so that everything works and his fans show up. Someone will say, "Well, he’s fringe.” Kevin isn’t "fringe.” He’s made big movies for Universal and Miramax. He just decided, "Fuck it. I’m going to start talking honestly to these people. My relationship to my people is more important than any of these Hollywood assholes.” That said, he has a ceiling, because he has a pretty specific audience. But Howard Stern did the same thing in radio. He decided that his relationship with his fans was more important than CBS, so he went to satellite. If Howard Stern was 20 years younger, he’d have the biggest podcast in the world right now. The Internet would’ve given him the ability to distribute his material, market his material, sell his own advertising. He could’ve done whatever he wanted because that guy has 50 million people who listen to him. And Howard Stern knows that those 50 million people are way more important to him than whoever’s in charge of CBS Radio.

That’s true, but these people you’ve mentioned, Howard and Kevin, have pretty public profiles, which is not something a lot of producers have.

That’s why my big message to producers is get the fuck out there. That’s actually my first step. Tell people why you’re doing it. For me, I love the experience of telling stories. I still get people who walk up to me today and talk about how much Good Will Hunting affected them. It makes me happy to have created a meaningful experience for those people. So that’s why I do it. And what my name hopefully stands for is simply quality. It doesn’t mean that I can’t make a movie about a guy drinking a glass of cum and throwing up in a bathroom. But honestly, if you try to do that in a meaningful way, that movie will carry over. I still get people stopping me to say, "That one time, in band camp…” I hope that what I make is quality, and that you know that I gave a shit about you, the audience member, when I was making the movie.

Another example: J.J. [Abrams] has done a great job of putting himself out there. If J.J. declared, "I’m only making stuff for Amazon Prime now,” I actually think 10 million people would sign up for Amazon Prime because they want to see whatever J.J. is doing. There aren’t a lot of those guys. Everybody’s trying to become a brand, but it’s just really hard. Sometimes your products don’t turn out the way you want them to. Sometimes you put your name on too much content and you start to lose control of what your name means in the marketplace.

But filmmakers are curious. They want to make different kinds of movies. And even though marketers try to lie about it, there are still artists out there that are totally honest with the audience. Peter Jackson does it. You watch the extra features on The Lord of the Rings stuff, and he’ll tell the audience, "This shot didn’t work. It was a bad idea.” And when it comes to marketing, Peter Jackson will say, "The Lovely Bones isn’t the same as Lord of the Rings. So if you want guys jumping on horses and fighting with swords, none of that happens in this movie. But here’s why I made it.” But because we’ve been getting away with lying to everybody for the last hundred years, the industry at large doesn’t know how to be honest with audiences.

So you get a business that’s so risk-averse that they literally can’t help themselves from marketing it as the "The Lovely Bones! From the director of The Lord of the Rings!”

Right. What Hollywood still hasn’t accepted is that entire dialogues now happen between people before anyone buys a ticket. Audiences know who Peter Jackson is. They know who the stars are. They’ve looked at Rotten Tomatoes. No one is walking into a movie anymore where the only thing they know is the title and the three lines on the poster. Instead of hiding behind a marketing campaign, the industry needs to embrace that the more the audience knows, the more they’re going to buy. It’s why you can test-drive a car. They’ll tell you how they built the engine! If the film industry did that, we’d actually get more people back into our business. And yes, some things would fail. But they’d fail because they sucked, not just because nobody heard of them.

There’s nothing wrong with telling the audience, "Look. This is a smaller movie.” or "Maybe you don’t need to see this movie right away.” I know a lot of people right now who would love to see Room. Everybody knows Brie Larson won the Oscar. People say it’s really good. But there wasn’t a lick of marketing. No one was out there telling anybody how to see Room. The guys who owned Room, they’re not involved with the marketing because they sold it to another company. And the other company is now marketing the next movie. They would probably make more money on a per-dollar basis by telling people how to go see Room than they will on whatever new movie they’re about to put out, because that new movie is competing against all the other new movies. Room is not. So tell the audience how to find Room.

I truly believe that there is a way to open up this dialogue with the audience. It’s going be ugly and violent at first. Some people are going to lose their jobs, some companies are going to be the last ones to do it, and some filmmakers will never do it. But over time it’s going to re-create this contract with the audience again where they know how to pick.

Right now, there’s so many layers of distrust. We can trick the audience. We can lie to the talent. We’re here just raking in money by screwing everybody over. But what’s happening now, which I love, is that the audience is getting smarter. We can’t lie to them like we used to. And talent is starting, like Kevin Smith, to go out there and talk to their fans directly about their work. There’s a friend of mine in the marketing world that came up with the phrase, "radical transparency.” That’s the goal. Everybody feels like they’re being conned, all the time. So people in our industry have to figure out a way to be authentic, because that’s what the audience wants.

Now, I’m sure people reading this article will say "Chris has an agenda. He’s trying to sell me something.” And you know what? You’re right. I want everyone to trust me and go buy the shit that I put out there. Yes, I want that. I’m admitting that. Does that make me more authentic? Does that make me more honest? I don’t know. I don’t know how to make people trust me except to be truly honest and talk about stuff that didn’t work, stuff that did work, whatever it is. But it’s going to get easier. Old farts like me are going to figure out how Instagram works. I have a chance to learn how things go, and catch up to the audience. And that’s why it’s a fun time to be a producer right now. ¢


The editor wishes to acknowledge the work of Kelsey Hockmuller in preparing this feature.

Tags:  chris moore  Produced By Conference 

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