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WARREN LITTLEFIELD - 20 Years After 'Must See TV', His Series Remain Essential

Posted By Chris Green, 22 hours ago

Honestly, it would have been enough to have given us “Must See TV.”

Twenty years ago, if you’d asked anyone to summarize Warren Littlefield’s legacy within the television business, their answer would have rested on those three words. The shorthand slogan for NBC’s dominant TV lineup in the 1990s, anchored by Friends, Seinfeld and ER, the phrase today is a nostalgic grace note from the pre-digital era … the time when any series worth watching was on one of four networks and when NBC Entertainment—under president Warren Littlefield—ruled the TV airwaves.

Today, those airwaves are barely an afterthought, first thanks to coaxial cable and later, wireless data streams. Those four networks have lost the battle for prestige programming to once-upstart channels like HBO, AMC and FX, and streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu. And Warren Littlefield is no longer the leading TV executive of his time. Instead he’s the only former network president who can, today, call himself an Emmy Award-winning producer.

Littlefield, despite his modesty, has become something of a promiscuous award winner; between his two series, FX’s Fargo (created by Noah Hawley) and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (created by Bruce Miller), he’s been honored with multiple Emmys, multiple Golden Globes, a Peabody Award and a trio of Producers Guild Awards (“the three I’m most proud of,” he quips graciously). At this year’s Golden Globes, no less an eminence than FX chief John Landgraf pronounced, “I think it’s fair to finally say that, as a producer, you have now surpassed your great career at NBC.”

If you’re wondering why, listen to Littlefield’s long-standing collaborator and MGM President of Television Production Steve Stark: “I’ve been out there in subzero weather with him. I’ve been on calls with him well past midnight. Warren has earned the right not to do that stuff. But he does, because he just loves the job. He loves making television.” Lucky for us, Littlefield is making a bunch more of it—Handmaid’s Tale season two premieres April 25, Fargo year four is in the works, and there’s plenty more incubating in the development hopper of the producer’s first-look deal with Bert Salke and Andy Bourne of Fox 21.


So, WHAT’s  the Reader’s Digest version of how you found your way into the business and to NBC?

I guess it started when I was a young kid, like elementary school age. I spent a lot of time home from school, just watching television. It seemed to be OK with my mom. One day Stanley Campbell, who I went to school with, came by my house and said, “Hey, there’s a rumor you’re dead.” And at that point I thought, “Well, maybe I should show back up at school.” So, very early on I was captivated with the medium. Even though I graduated with a degree in psychology from Hobart and William Smith, I first began working for a small independent production company called Westfall Productions.

My first big break there came when I produced a television movie of the week for CBS called The Last Giraffe. My boss at that company, Charlie Mortimer, and another colleague named Jonathan Bernstein, basically taught me what it was to be a producer. Someone gave me a million and a half dollars to go to East Africa and make a MOW. That went on the air in 1974 and for some strange reason, The Hollywood Reporter picked it as one of the top 10 movies of the week that year. Of course that was an age when there were hundreds of movies of the week made every year.

They ran wild across the plains in incredible numbers.

Yeah. I’m not sure why The Hollywood Reporter singled us out, maybe because the title wasn’t Policewoman Centerfold, but I knew that was an opportunity to put me into a different playground. So, I used that credit and that little article in The Hollywood Reporter to get a job at Warner Bros. TV, where I was made a Director of Development. I was there for six months and then a job came up at NBC. I applied for it and I was offered a job as Manager of Comedy Development, working for Brandon Tartikoff.

Then a whole other level of education kicked in for me, and it was a wonderfully exciting time. I got to be a part of the Fred Silverman years, the Brandon Tartikoff years and then the Grant Tinker years … an amazing, amazing time to get to grow up and understand the broadcast business at NBC.

After about a decade in the trenches, once Brandon left, I was given the opportunity to be President of NBC Entertainment. I did that until late ’98, when they told me I would no longer be doing that. I had a 20-year run at NBC and of course, the highlight of that was the “Must See TV” years.

Obviously, more goes into creating a storied television lineup than we can get into here, but I’m curious about the lessons you drew from Brandon and Grant and Fred and how that may have informed your work with producers and ultimately your own work as a producer.

Fred infused us with a kind of “anything is possible” and “do it now” spirit. And believe me, based upon the shape that NBC was in at the time, someone had to think that way. Brandon was thrilled each and every moment of the day to be in a sandbox where he was engaging with creative people and knowing that he could be a spark that would bring content to life.

I think Grant’s greatest lesson for us was: respect the audience. Stop looking at the audience as alien beings. He would look at a group of us and say, “You’re young. You’re well educated. You love this medium. Why don’t you start doing programming that would make you race home across the freeways at night to get to your television sets because you had to see it? Start thinking about the audience as you. What do you want to see?”

Well, we’d just launched Cheers and Hill Street Blues. These were sophisticated, adult forms of comedy and drama. And while they didn’t start strong, they ultimately became foundational building blocks for what NBC would become. Those were incredible lessons.

you mention how those shows didn’t start strong. When you start that sentence about a contemporary show, usually it doesn’t end with, “…but it became a legendary TV series.” These days the stuff that doesn’t start strong tends not to get a chance.

I once had a memorable conversation with Brandon, because Cheers was the lowest rated program in all of network television. Like, it’s not that it wasn’t in the top 10; it’s literally the last rated program on any network. It’s the bottom. “So, what do we do? Cancel or renew?” And Grant happened in on the conversation and he asked, “Well do you have anything better?” We said, “No.” And he says, “Well I think you answered your question.” So we picked it up. It was an incredible lesson. We believed in it. We believed in the auspices in front of the camera and behind the camera. And it took time for America to realize that this is what you might get from NBC.

The same was very much true for the slow start of Hill Street Blues. Then we had an incredible Emmy night in 1981, where the entire night felt like a tribute to Hill Street Blues. We moved the show to Thursday night and never looked back. We had T-shirts made for our affiliate meetings that said, “Patience Rewarded.”

Well that’s got to be very gratifying. as an executive, what was the nature of your working relationship with producers? And how did that shape your initial forays as a full-time television producer?

Even as President of NBC Entertainment, even through all the “Must See TV” success, I don’t think I ever thought that I was the most important person in the room. I think I always knew it was the creators, the showrunners and producers who made exceptional content. They were the most important people in the room. Our job was to broadcast it. I had a very respectful and appropriately elevated sense of their magnificent talent.

So after 20 memorable and award-winning years at NBC, I figured that my great network education and what I think is a pretty intense work ethic would propel me to instant producing success. It didn’t. It turns out, I had a lot to learn as a producer. One of the reasons that I’m still doing it is I feel like I’m still learning every day. 

That’s something I hear from lots of producers. It may be the thing they relish most about the job.

Exactly. I think that, as a group, that intellectual curiosity drives us all. 

given that you didn’t enjoy the initial success you may have expected, what was the nature of the lessons that you learned over that time? how do you keep going as a producer when you’ve been the architect of “Must See TV” and suddenly it’s difficult to get a show on the air for more than half a season?

I finished up at NBC and I was under a producing deal there for a short time, but it became pretty clear that they weren’t all that interested in anything I had to offer. So, I went to Paramount and I had my first development season there. I did a drama call Keen Eddie, that starred Mark Valley and Sienna Miller, and a half-hour called Do Over, that starred Penn Badgley. Two pilots, both picked up to series.

And then I watched each one slowly die. With Keen Eddie, we finally got on the air at Fox. I’m really proud of what we produced. We were a favorite of everyone except for the head of the network. And so we withered and died there. Do Over landed at the WB network and ultimately, they kind of pulled out of half-hours altogether. It was a tough realization. I spent a lot of time and energy. I was proud of what I did. But nothing really stuck.

Then there was a long, long drought. I was playing entirely in the network development game. Of course that was my background. I knew network television pretty well. When I was under a deal at ABC-Disney, we found a half-hour Swedish serialized documentary. Andy Bourne, who worked with me at the time, brought it to me. I thought it was really interesting. Maybe we could turn it into a one-hour character documentary.

That propelled me to Noah Hawley, who was also at ABC-Disney at the time. We made a pilot for ABC called My Generation. It was, I was told, Bob Iger’s favorite show. Then they had a management change at the network. Steve McPherson was out. Paul Lee was in. We went on the network for two episodes, Thursday night at 8:00, and then we were gone. But the most important part—this was in 2010—was that I creatively bonded with Noah Hawley. I had developed a script for Fargo when I was at NBC in ’97, a year after the movie had come out. I didn’t go forward with it as a pilot because my fear, despite it being a good script—Bruce Paltrow was the executive producer—was that network television would unfortunately do a network television version of Fargo. Already, it was an iconic film. But I knew we would wind up getting some television actress to play the role of Marge, and it certainly wasn’t going to be Frances McDormand. And so I let it go.

But here we were, many years later, and I said to Noah, “You know what? I think we can get Fargo from MGM. Television is ready for an adaptation of that movie.” To his credit, Noah wasn’t afraid of that notion. We engaged with MGM. They really were primarily booted up for movies at the time. Ultimately Roma Khanna, who was running MGM TV, said, “I can’t let you do it for network.” And I said, “Yeah, I get it. That’s absolutely correct.” I waited until my deal and Noah’s were over at Disney-ABC and I said, “OK. Now we can go do Fargo.”

We went in to see Steve Stark and Max Kisbye at MGM and Noah gave them his take on how to do Fargo. And they said, “We love it.” We reminded them, “It’s an anthology.” They said, “Doesn’t matter. This is a great way to go.” Then we called John Landgraf at FX, because FX already had indicated interest in developing Fargo. And that changed my world. That took me out of the network game. It reinvented me as a producer. I’ve never done network development since.

I want to backtrack a bit, to your guys’ conception of the show as an anthology series, which after all was a format that had gone out of vogue decades ago. It’s not hard to imagine the more traditional Fargo that might have been, where Marge has a case every week and it’s a procedural with some quirky accents. What led you to tack away from that  approach, toward this outside-the-box conception of the show?

It really helped when I got a call from Nick Grad at FX and he told us that in some discussions with Steve Stark at MGM, they were asking themselves, “Do we actually need Marge to do Fargo?” A really bold question! Noah wasn’t intimidated at all. He loved the film, was a student of the Coens’ work. Yet Noah was smart enough to see that if we tossed out the network procedural format, it was wide open. Nothing was more liberating than to be freed from those brilliant, iconic characters, not having to “do justice” to Marge. Because what Noah fully understood is that Marge was never a cynic. And so how could Marge deal with crime after crime, season after season and not lose that? She’d have to be a robot.

Executive producer Warren Littlefield (left) confers on set with showrunner Bruce Miller
during production of season two of Hulu's
The Handmaid's Tale. 

Yea, as a character, she’s not built for serialization.

What we described is that Fargo is a state of mind. We would not be locked into any of the characters from the movie. We would not be locked to a time period. We would be locked to a sensibility where, as Noah articulated, it’s the best of America versus the worst of America. We wanted the audience to fully invest in these characters for 10 hours and then walk away. And that would be a satisfying television experience, bringing Fargo to life.

When we started to break down the show and pitch it, we got a big old Rand McNally road atlas and put it on a poster board. When we first walked into MGM, we took out felt-tip pens and we said, “So here’s where this story starts and then here’s where it goes.” And we just started drawing it out on the map as Noah wonderfully talked about these characters, what those characters’ journeys might be, all against a theme and aesthetic that we knew.

Max and Steve jumped off the couch. No one sat there and nodded their head with approval. They jumped off the couch. They said, “This is a reinvention of this movie. This is a reason to make it as a television series as opposed to a half-hearted retread of a the movie.” Meanwhile friends and colleagues would ask, “What are you up to? What are you working on?” And I would say, “Well I’m doing Fargo as a TV series. We’re developing that with FX.” And they’re like, “Dude, this is the worst idea you have ever had.”

Yeah. [laughs] I admit, I remember scratching my head the first time I heard about it.

Television critics who are also friends, they were telling me, “Big mistake.” I just said, “Hey, you know what? It is possible that we could have made a mistake. I’ve made them before. But watch the first hour and you’ll decide. You’ll see and you’ll weigh in.” And that all turned out pretty well. Our partners at MGM and FX have been wonderfully patient. They just say, “A season of Fargo … it’s an event. Whenever Noah is ready, we’ll do more.” And that propelled us into Year Two and then to Year Three. Four is now being hatched.

I think in this platinum age of television, we’re highly aware that the level of quality just keeps going up every single year. And so each year, we try and scare ourselves more with what we attempt to do, and how much we put up on the screen, and how ambitious we are as producers. Each year we scare ourselves to death and somehow it all manages to work.

So having done what’s a pretty remarkable feat of adaptation from one medium to another with Fargo, you have another kind of exemplary adaptation in Handmaid’s Tale. How did your experience with Fargo lead you toward what you were able to do with Bruce Miller and The Handmaid’s Tale?

Well I never would have had the opportunity to be a part of The Handmaid’s Tale without Fargo. MGM and Bruce Miller had developed two scripts for The Handmaid’s Tale with Hulu. They were excited and interested in moving forward, and they focused on Elisabeth Moss. Elisabeth Moss’ representation was very clear: “She’s not lining up to do another series right now. We don’t see a reason for Elisabeth Moss to do that.”

I had recently joined WME and Ari Greenburg asked me, “Hey, do you know anything about The Handmaid’s Tale that your friends at MGM are doing?” I think you ought to look at this material. They’re interested in Elisabeth Moss.”

At the time, I was gearing up for Fargo year three, on top of my development slate. But I said, “OK.” So I read the scripts and I was quite frankly blown away by the power of the dystopian world that Bruce Miller had created in his adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. I read it. I sat down and read Margaret’s book. I read Bruce’s scripts again. And then I told Ari, “It’s incredible. I’m very interested.”

Ari called up Elisabeth Moss’ reps and said, “What’s your favorite television series?” And they asked, “Is this a trick question?” He said, “Just answer the question.” They said, “Fargo.” He goes, “Well, what if I have the producer of Fargo ready to do The Handmaid’s Tale?” And they said, “Well that might get Elisabeth Moss’ attention.”

So, what WME told me was, “OK. Here’s what you do. You need to get on the phone with Elisabeth Moss. You need to get her to agree to do the series. You need to get her to approve you. And you need to see if you can get her to give director approval to you, because that seems to be a hang-up in making a deal.”

Now, I’d never met Elisabeth, and she’s in Australia shooting   and these are the three things that I’m supposed to accomplish in this one phone call?

No one ever said producing was an easy job.

True enough! I had a multi-hour phone call with Lizzie. I said, “Look, you have an outstanding career where you have excelled so that you have options in your life. I’m in a moment where I also have options. I just think this material is so strong and so compelling that I can’t imagine walking away from this opportunity. If you did it, I would do it. And I promise I will be there for you.” And Lizzie said, “I think we have to do this ... I think I would die if I didn’t. I just can’t imagine leaving this opportunity behind.” It was in that phone call that we solidified our relationship and we moved forward. And yes, I promised her that even if it wasn’t in the contract, Bruce and I would never hire a director she didn’t embrace.

So, on the other end, what were your early conversations with Bruce like?

They were wonderful. Bruce and I met at a waffle shop in Hollywood. I had never met Bruce, never worked with him. But I knew of his work and I knew of his great reputation. After a lot of pleasantries, Bruce looked at me and said, “So, I really have just one question: how does this work, between us? Who’s the boss?” I said, “Well it’s kind of an easy question, because in the world of television the creator and showrunner is the boss. I think that I can be enormously helpful in achieving the ambitions of this series and I think I can be a very good partner to you. We have a dystopian thriller set in a world that doesn’t exist and that will not be easy to mount, but together I think we could do something that lives up to the material that you wrote.”

That became an unbelievable bond, and we’ve never once had a question about power or how anything works. Bruce defers to me in many production and directing issues. But yes, the creator/showrunner is always the ultimate visionary, and I serve that vision. That’s an exciting job for me. I love that.

I want to dig a little deeper, into the nature of your role on these series as a non-writing executive producer. Not every series has someone in that position. what does it mean for you? What is your day-to-day like as a producer who’s not in the writers’ room?

Well first of all, I have to say that while I don’t live in the writers’ room, that’s not a foreign world. I’m in and out of it and commenting and engaging, but that’s not at all my full-time job. I would say I’m “writers’ room adjacent.” I take great pride in the selection of directors. I’ve been at the head of that spear for all three years of Fargo. Very early on, it became clear that most feature directors were afraid of walking in the Coens’ shoes. So I said to Noah, “I don’t feel like being rejected by feature directors who are afraid of this. Let’s just find someone who can bring Fargo to life for television and who’s excited to do it.” And that’s what we did.

I spend many, many hours watching hundreds and hundreds of directors’ work from all over the world. The same is true for The Handmaid’s Tale. I guess that the most dramatic story is Reed Morano’s. Reed had been a distinguished DP but had directed maybe one hour of television, and she’d done a small, independent movie called Meadowlands. Bruce, Lizzie and I looked at a number of far more experienced and credentialed directors to help us launch The Handmaid’s Tale. And yet we really loved the sensibility, the attitude, the look, the vision that Reed Morano brought to it. She did a 60-page look-book. She gave us a soundtrack of what was in her head. The more we engaged with her, the more we came to feel that just because she didn’t have the resume didn’t mean she wasn’t the one.

We had a lot of people to convince that we didn’t need an Oscar winner—because today, of course, Oscar-winning directors do television. To their credit, our MGM and Hulu execs embraced that idea and helped me manage up to the highest levels of those companies to get that approval. Bruce, Lizzie and I were in sync. It didn’t seem crazy to us. Today, maybe it looks a little crazier … but I guess today it looks as much like we were brilliant.

Warren Littlefield (right) with fellow executive producer Noah Hawley on location in Calgary for Year One of FX's Fargo.

You can be both, it’s ok.

[laughs] Yeah. We just thought we had the right artist for the right task. I waited a week after we got Reed approved for the first hour and then I said to everybody, “Gee, I’m looking at the schedule and I think I’m just going to hire her for the first three hours.” And everyone went, “OK … you realize that if you’re wrong, then it’s over for the show? You’ll have destroyed the show.” I said, “You’re absolutely correct. But if I’m right, we will have locked ourselves in for the series and it will make up for other potential mistakes we may make later on, because we will be in a very solid place and know exactly who we are. Not to mention, we’re already a little bit pregnant because you already approved her to do the first hour. So, if we’re wrong, then I think I’ve already screwed up the series.”

Again, I have to say, our partners at Hulu and MGM supported that decision. They deserve a lot of credit for that. It was a very unexpected move and the rest, I guess is history. For year one of The Handmaid’s Tale, four out of our five directors were women. Most of our department heads are women. I remember them saying to me, “You know it’s OK, right? It’s OK if you hire a man.” Bruce and I are keenly aware that we are not women and this must be a very strong feminist piece. So, we’ve surrounded ourselves with many talented women who are writers, producers and department heads, not the least of whom is Elisabeth Moss, who is an active producer, and for year two, a brilliant executive producer.

But I really relish the kind of strategizing and mapping of the battle plan, because both of these series are quite ambitious in their own ways, and we’re not in a world of unlimited funds. We’re able to compete with series that run budgets that are two and three times greater than what we’re working with. I enjoy working on the battle plan with the line producers, the showrunners, all of the department heads, the ADs of how we’re going to pull this off. That’s fun to me. That kind of planning and prep with directors is what I really relish. When I look at what we shoot and what we put together, I know there’s a reason why we were in that specific grocery store and what that location brings to that scene. And I was a part of looking at the seven that we rejected in order to get to that one where the scene works as brilliantly as it should.

It must be very gratifying to be able to see yourself in all OF these secret, invisible ways in every frame.

Yeah. I mean, fortunately the scripts for The Handmaid’s Tale as well as Fargo, they’re works of art. But then they need to be produced. So many changes have to be made in order to bring those shows to life in their respective worlds.

You mentioned earlier how you haven’t done network development since you started work on Fargo. over those years, the quality of network programming has clearly fallen behind that of cable and streaming platforms. That said, you of all people can recognize that a healthy network television ecosystem is good for everybody. As someone who’s played both games, why have the networks had such a hard time catching up to the other platforms?

Well look, I won’t say “never” as far as going back to do broadcast network programming. But the process is awful. That’s just not the case in cable and in streaming. That’s why I have a first-look deal with Bert and Andy at Fox 21.They embrace a creative process where there’s much more “gray” to explore. I remember we had one year during my deal when I was over on the ABC-Disney lot, and we had a particularly frustrating development season.

We made up shirts, and what we put on the front of the shirt was the one note that you always got in network television no matter what the project was: “CLARITY.” Our shirt read “CLARITY” but with the international “no” through it. Because it may just be that the lack of clarity and the mystery as to where you are going is more interesting than having everything spelled out—because the audience can’t and doesn’t anticipate it. As a developer and as a producer, that’s what I’ve chased.

We’re given enormous freedom. Encouraged to take risks. On The Handmaid’s Tale, I often look at what’s in the script, at the day’s work, and I think, “I wonder if someone is going to tell us we can’t do this.” And neither from MGM nor from Hulu, have they ever said, “Don’t do it.” What Craig Erwich from Hulu did say is, “Look, our greatest fear is that this world is hopeless, that it’s such a dark, relentless, dystopian tale that the audience won’t be able to stomach it.” That’s a legitimate fear. It’s our job to give the audience a reason to continue that journey, to not give up. There must be some sense of hope. And that of course is all wrapped up in Elisabeth Moss, in what she brings to the character—or maybe more accurately the characters, Offred and June—that she is playing.

But that note is on target. Because that kind of grey that you play in, with that danger and risk, is embraced in cable and streaming. That’s why they have lapped broadcast in all award-winning categories. I’ll go back to Grant Tinker: respect the audience. The audience has matured. They have an incredible number of choices. You need to respect what they can handle and where they’ll go. That means more sophisticated character development and a story journey that we navigate that’s far more complex than anything that is being presented on network television. That’s what they’ve embraced and it’s served them well.

It’s served all of us well, honestly. But in terms of your role as a producer, it seems in many ways, not so very far from your executive roots, playing the essential support/champion role.

Well, I think that’s true. The difference is, as a producer when you support a vision, it means you also have to execute it. As a network executive you can support a vision and there’s a lot you can throw at it. You can throw money, you can throw promotion, you can throw lots of things, but it’s not your job to execute it. Maybe this has a little to do with my age, but today I have this enormous appreciation for a day well lived. That keeps growing because I’m involved in the detail of actually executing and making something. And that’s wildly satisfying in a career where I’m happy to say I’ve had more than my share of highs, and I’ve gotten to be a part of the best of the best. This is more satisfying than any other time in my life. 

That’s terrific to hear, just on a human level as much as on a professional one.

Thank you. I’m thrilled to be able to say it. I really am.

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* Photographed by George Kraychyk

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FIRST LOOK: A Documentary/Non-Fiction Screening Series

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The PGA East Documentary/Non-Fiction Committee presents First Look, a screening series showcasing pre-release documentaries followed by a filmmaker Q&A and short reception. The series is programmed and managed by committee members.

 

First Look is focused on documentaries that are released by small distributors, self-distributed or do not yet have distribution. (Studios and larger distributors are invited to participate in the official PGA screening program). In 2017 First Look screened KIKI, THE BLOOD IS AT THE DOORSTEP, DINA, QUEST, A SUITABLE GIRL and THE FORCE.

 

The venue, tech and reception are provided at no cost to the filmmakers. First Look does not cover filmmaker transportation or “print” shipping costs. The producer and/or director must be available to participate in post-screening Q&A.

 

In 2018 the First Look series will screen monthly, March – September. Although First Look is not a member screening program, members are strongly encouraged to submit their documentaries for consideration. All documentaries should be submitted a minimum of 8 weeks prior to release date. This is a very competitive process, and the FIRST LOOK selection panel  decisions are final.

 

If you are interested in submitting your documentary for consideration, please complete the First Look Submission Form.

 

PGA members interested in joining the Documentary/Non-Fiction Committee, please request membership at:
Easthttp://www.producersguild.org/members/group.aspx?id=136088
West: http://www.producersguild.org/members/group.aspx?id=138882

 

For questions regarding First Look or information regardingthe official PGA screening program, please contact Mitzie Rothzeid, Director, PGA East "mrothzeid_at_producersguild.org"


 

* photo from the Q&A for The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography

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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, Tuesday, February 27, 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 In-Between Place: Digital Series Producers Break Down Extending A TV Show's Appeal To The Web

Posted By Chris Thomes, Wednesday, February 21, 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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LIANNE HALFON & RUSSELL SMITH

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, February 13, 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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