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WILLIAM HORBERG - Cover: The Audience Always Has Final Cut

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, November 8, 2016

How does a would-be producer achieve mastery of something like stories and how films tell them?
Well, a start would be spending two formative years of your life—seven days a week and 52 weeks a year—running a cinema that screens double- and triple-features of every stripe, from Hollywood golden-age classics to foreign, art-house fare to grindhouse cult favorites. Follow that with a solid year as a freelance script reader covering 12 screenplays a week to pay the rent and put food on the table, and it turns out you can develop a pretty good instinct for what works onscreen and what doesn’t. That’s what we’re taking from William Horberg’s example, at least.

Before his producing career came to life, Horberg founded the Chicago revival house Sandburg Theater with high school friend (and today, fellow PGA member) Albert Berger. But it was an unsuccessful pitch at Paramount that provided his career’s essential break. The studio didn’t buy the project, but it bought Horberg himself, offering him an entry-level development job just as it embarked on its fantastic late 1980s/early ‘90s run, including releases like Fatal Attraction, The Naked Gun franchise, The Hunt for Red October, Ghost, Wayne’s World and The Godfather: Part III. Working alongside execs like Ned Tanen, Lindsay Doran and current PGA President Gary Lucchesi, Horberg rose through the studio ranks to become a senior vice president.

When he finally left Paramount in 1991, it was to follow mentor Lindsay Doran to Mirage Enterprises, run by consummate filmmaker Sydney Pollack. Working alongside Pollack for over a dozen years, Horberg finally earned his first “Produced by” credits on films like Searching for Bobby Fischer and Sliding Doors. The duo nurtured the career of Anthony Minghella, who later joined the company as a partner, writing and directing two of its signature releases: The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain. In 2005 Horberg took a job as President at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, supporting such distinctive films as Lars and the Real Girl, United 93, Milk and Synecdoche, New York, and personally producing the adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s bestseller The Kite Runner. Since leaving Kimmel in 2008, Bill Horberg has produced through his own Wonderful Films banner, this year releasing The Promise, starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, directed by Terry George.

In other words, it’s a career that encompasses a staggering range of classic, innovative, elegant, weird, powerful and deeply-felt films. Many were acclaimed, some were derided, but each one of them carries some stamp of Horberg’s sensitivity, innate decency and profound love of story.




SO, OBVIOUSLY PRODUCERS COME TO THE JOB VIA DIFFERENT PATHS, BUT YOU’RE THE RARE PRODUCER WHO STARTED IN EXHIBITION.
I know. I guess it makes me an exhibitionist of some kind. [laughs] My passion was really books and music before film. I went to school at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. For a while I lived in a house with my high school best friend Albert Berger, who was going to Tufts and running the film society there. There was a fervent sea of cinephiles and 16 millimeter prints coming in and out of the house every day, with screenings on weekends. So I got caught up in that fever. Practicing scales all day, going to watch movies every night.
I dropped out of music school for various reasons and moved back to Chicago. But I was coming off the high of this Boston smorgasbord of cinema. There wasn’t anything like it in Chicago. And I just had this idea, “Why not? Wouldn’t it be fun to open a theater like those Boston theaters, the Orson Welles and the Coolidge Corner?”

WHO HASN’T DREAMED OF RUNNING A COOL MOVIE THEATER AT SOME POINT?
There was a movie theater that had gone out of business, called the Sandburg Theater. It had originally opened as a Playboy theater—the Playboy Corporation, for a time in the ‘70s, went into the film business—and the theater still had its bunny logo carpeting, and kind of a disco ball. It looked like a brothel design.

DON’T TELL ME YOU DIDN’T KEEP ALL THAT?
Well, we didn’t have much capital to remodel the place. I mean, I was 19 and Albert was 21. We happened to know a few people and we raised a small amount of money, just enough to turn the lights on and open the doors back up and vacuum the place out. But that turned out to be my undergrad education. Making popcorn, killing rats, lugging huge 35-millimeter prints around and negotiating with the projectionists union, which in Chicago had been founded by Sam Giancana and still carried some of that legacy.

I worked seven days a week, 365 days a year and saw all these movies, got to experience them with an audience. I guess from that point of view, exhibition served me well in terms of understanding, as my first boss at Paramount, Ned Tanen, said, “We’re in the business of putting asses in seats.” Cinema is basically a delivery system for getting an ass in a seat and selling them some Coca-Cola and some popcorn.

But ultimately the Sandburg closed in the early ‘80s. My comic about the theater is called “Greek Lightning,” which was a kind of slang for restaurant owners who sometimes burned down their own establishments to collect insurance. So one night, lo and behold, a bomb went off in this nearby pizza parlor. Nobody was ever accused, or certainly convicted of anything. But in the wake of that they canceled everybody’s lease and they tore down the theater. And now it’s a Walgreens. And—this is true, Chris. You couldn’t make this up—Cary Grant happened to be a personal friend of Betty Walgreens. And he came to personally dedicate the Walgreens on the ashes of the site where we had shown Only Angels Have Wings, Charade

OH, MAN. WAS HE AWARE OF THE IRONY?
No. I just stood silently in the crowd, feeling like young Tom Sawyer up in the gallery, watching his own funeral. [laughs]

OBVIOUSLY THERE’S ENOUGH THERE TO FILL A COMIC BOOK OR TWO, BUT HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR WAY FROM THE ASHES OF THE SANDBURG, TO PARAMOUNT AND BEYOND?
I was literally one of those guys who printed up business cards that said “Producer,” and then just faked it. My Sandburg colleague [Peter Hannan] and I hung out a shingle and started hustling, willing to do anything and trying to do everything. I had some relationships in the music world so I was able to get us a contract that allowed us to videotape the blues stage at the ChicagoFest. Another job we got was filming Cheap Trick, one of the first live concerts for MTV. I met Mickey Spillane in Las Vegas and optioned the rights to one of his books that I tried to get made as an independent movie. I was just hustling and learning by doing.

In the midst of all this activity I finally woke up to the fact that if I was going to be serious about making a career of this, I had to move out to Los Angeles. Andy Davis was the one Hollywood connection I had. He was from Chicago. He had been a successful cinematographer who transitioned to directing and went on to direct The Fugitive with Harrison Ford. But before that, he’d made a very early indie called Stony Island, which starred his brother, who was a musician; that was how I knew him. We’d shown the premiere at the Sandburg. Through Andy I met his agent, Larry Becsey, and through Larry I contacted Barbara Boyle, who at that time was an executive at RKO. Barbara told me there was a director looking for an assistant and felt I would land the job. So I bought a ticket and flew out there, and in typical Hollywood fashion, by the time I landed whatever film that guy was supposed to be making had gone pear-shaped and there was no job. So as a kind of consolation prize, Barbara offered me work as a freelance reader. Of course, I took it.

So I had this funny year where I led this Clark Kent/Superman double life, running around town presenting myself as a Chicago producer who had made stuff for television and had these feature film projects going. And then after a meeting, I’d sheepishly take off the suit and tie and walk around to the back door to where the story editor was … “Hey, I’m here to pick up my three scripts.” Thirty-five bucks per coverage report. I figure that I read about a thousand scripts over the course of that year. You read 1,000 scripts, man, you learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

WELL, ONE WOULD HOPE SO.
But I was out there pitching. I pitched a project to an executive at Paramount, a wonderful guy named David Nicksay. He really liked the project but he was unable to sell it upstairs. When I heard that Paramount was interviewing for a creative executive job, I called him up and said, “Hey, I know I seem like this big shot Chicago producer but I’d love to throw my hat in the ring.” So he got me an interview with people who were looking at the first wave of applicants. I met with somebody and never heard back. Oh, well.

Andy Davis was going into production on a movie he was going to shoot in Chicago, and I took a job as his assistant. So in the middle of this gig in Chicago, literally months later, I got a call from Paramount saying, “Can you be here on Monday for a meeting with Ned Tanen?” Andy was a great mensch and just said, “Hey, go for it.”

I flew out and literally had a five-minute meeting with Ned and he said, “Could you start next week?” That was a huge, life-changing break for me. Paramount was my grad school. I mean, it was halfway to a college fraternity hazing. “Here’s three scripts. We have a 7 a.m. staff meeting tomorrow and we’d like your written opinion on all three of them.” It was a raging river of work and I felt like I was swimming as fast as I could to keep from drowning. But suddenly I was in the room with people whose names I’d only seen up on screen. It was the era of Eddie Murphy, of Simpson and Bruckheimer, John Hughes and the Zucker brothers.

I was very fortunate to be taken under the wing of Lindsay Doran, who was a highly-regarded creative executive in Hollywood and who had been involved with some of my favorite movies. She was just a master in terms of how she eschewed the aggressive politics of the studio, but also defended her point of view and stood up for the projects that she believed in. Ned was someone else who I stayed very close to and who I had deep respect for. That’s the hardest job, being in the bunker every day of incoming missiles and inferno-level fires. He was a very tough guy and kind of intimidating, but had a wicked sense of humor and had an ability to razor cut through the bullshit. I thought he was very fearless in terms of how he did that job. The first research screening I ever attended was the legendary unsuccessful test of Fatal Attraction.

   
 Horberg (second from right) with (from left) Steven Soderbergh, Howard 
Rodman and cast member Joe Mantegna, on set in Los Angeles for an
episode of Shotime's "Fallen Angels" (photography, Wonderful Films)
 

REALLY? TALK ABOUT LEARNING WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOESN’T…
It was incredible. I mean, I watched a beautifully made, impeccably edited, directed and acted movie completely crash and burn in front of an audience who said, essentially, that we’d made a monster movie, and the monster can’t commit suicide at the end. Someone has to kill the monster. That was a shocking truth that was very controversial for the filmmaking team to come to terms with. That was where I saw Ned at his best, going from the producers, to the filmmakers, to the actors, to the editors to his own boss and, one by one, convincing everybody of what needed to be done. He brought the team back together to write and shoot and re-edit. And it became one of the all-time zeitgeist/cultural identity hit movies, a huge success. It was incredible to have been able to bear witness to that whole process.

SINCE PRODUCING IS REALLY A MATTER OF BUILDING SOME CRITICAL MASS AROUND AN IDEA OR SET OF IDEAS AND THAT’S CLEARLY WHAT NED WAS ABLE TO DO SO EFFECTIVELY… WHAT WAS HIS PITCH? NOT EVERYBODY COULD PULL OFF THAT KIND OF RIGHT TURN.
Ned was a truth-teller. A lot of people would’ve walked on eggshells around all of these powerful personalities. He just didn’t have that sensitivity, and that was his gift. He just sat everybody down and said, “Hey, look, she boiled the bunny. If you boil the bunny, there’s no going back. There’s nothing wrong with what you’ve done in terms of the artistry of it. You’re just going directly into the face of something bigger and stronger than all of us, which is the narrative want of the audience. The audience has final cut.” You don’t always have that gift. Sometimes you’re trying to read tea leaves and figure out the nuances of why something isn’t working. This wasn’t that. This was 500 people in a room going, “Fuck you. You have violated some primal tenet of what we want.”

THAT’S QUITE A LESSON TO ABSORB EARLY IN YOUR CAREER.
Yeah. But it was a period of a lot of success at Paramount. I got to participate in that success. That turned out to be a five-year run for me where I went from being a creative executive to a senior vice president of production. I cherish my years at the studio. Though just as much, I somehow always felt like a bit of an outsider within. There was often a kind of surrealism in terms of how decisions ultimately got made and how some things that nobody wanted to make seemed to take on a life of their own in the system.

 
 Horberg on set with director Neil LaBute during production of "Death at
a Funeral" (photograph by Phil Bray).

SO HOW DID YOU TRANSITION OUT OF PARAMOUNT? WHAT TRIGGERED THE NEXT PHASE?
It started when Mark Rosenberg died. He had been Sydney Pollack’s partner at Mirage, which was one of the premiere director-driven production companies. Sydney recruited Lindsay Doran to be the new President of Mirage, which created a shakeup at Paramount and an opportunity for me, because I stepped into her shoes and took over a number of projects that she had been running, including Ghost, which was a huge hit, and a few that she then joined as a producer, with Mirage.

So I got to work alongside her again but also got to meet and work with Sydney, her new boss, as he became a producer on these films. One was a brilliant script though a bit of an ill-fated movie called Crazy People, written by Mitch Markowitz, who wrote Good Morning, Vietnam. It was one of those scripts that really high-level people wanted. Sydney wanted to direct it. Barry Levinson wanted to direct it. But Mitch said, “No. I wrote it. I own it. I’m going to direct it.” It got on the floor with Mitch directing and John Malkovich starring, but it all fell apart. John is one of the great actors of all time, but he was going through some personal issues at the time, and probably miscast. Mitch was struggling as a first-time feature director.

You get to know people much better in hard times than you do when everything is going peachy. Because that was a particularly beleaguered production, I spent an inordinate amount of time with Sydney, and I think he got to see me as somebody that he liked, creatively and how I went about my job. Right around that time, Brandon Tartikoff had come in to take over Paramount. It had been a particularly tumultuous period. I’d had a fantastic run there. My first son was about to be born. It seemed like a good time to hit the pause button and follow Lindsay to join Sydney at Mirage.

What can I say about Mirage? It was probably the most meaningful collaboration of my career. Sydney was an artist who I deeply respected as a consummate storyteller and craftsman. He had started out as an actor and acting teacher and was the smartest guy around in terms of casting, script and certainly the smartest guy in the editing room. He was deeply contradictory but in a way which I thought strengthened him as an artist. He wanted to be a mogul and rule the world and make blockbusters, and he wanted to have a small boutique filmmaking shop that would make the next Truffaut movie. Both things were equally true on any given day. Whatever you were doing, you could be sure you were vulnerable to not be doing the other. It was a very lively place in that respect.

HOW DID ANTHONY MINGHELLA COME ON BOARD?
One of the first things that I brought in was The Talented Mr. Ripley. Anthony was hired initially just to write the script. But following the writing and development process, when he came to turn it in, he told me, “I don’t want to turn it in. I don’t want someone else to direct this. I want to direct it.”

A BIT OF A RECURRING THEME, HERE.
Yes … a writer wants to direct? You don’t say! [laughs] But Sydney and I were supportive of him to the degree that we could be, though it was a very expensive development property and Paramount didn’t want to just guarantee Anthony the project. But Sherry [Lansing] respected Sydney so much that if Sydney believed in Anthony, that was something she gave weight to. So we made an unusual deal where we had a short list of maybe six or seven major directors. We were going to go out to them, but if we didn’t get one of them, she was open to going back to Anthony. Anthony was none too happy about that.

I CAN IMAGINE.
As it turned out, those people either weren’t available or weren’t ready to commit. That process played itself out over a period of time. Meanwhile, Anthony went and shot The English Patient and came out of that a different person … not only a different person experientially, but in the industry-speak, he had a lot of heat.
Of course, in the perfect Hollywood “no good deed goes unpunished” way these things work, once The English Patient came out, Anthony became the hottest director in Hollywood, with every “A-plus” script on his desk. We were suddenly at risk of him taking another movie, after we had fought to get him the job and had waited a year for him.

Horberg on location in Kashgar, China for "The Kite Runner",
with novelist Khaled Hosseini (photography by Phil Bray.
 

YOU TRY TO DO SOMETHING NICE FOR A GUY…
Yeah! [laughs] So we had to sweat that one out.

Through the whole process of making Ripley in Italy for a year I had gotten incredibly close to Anthony as well. Ultimately I said, “Maybe there’s a way that we could all work together and expand this company to include you.” He’d seen what Mirage was about in terms of supporting filmmakers and navigating that terrain between independent film and studio-financed movies. Because that was really our coin. Sydney was in the rare club of filmmakers who had final cut as producer. He was so financially and creatively responsible. I really saw what it meant to be willing to own the studio’s own concerns and not treat them as “the suits.” There is a kind of brutality to this system, but their concerns are often legitimate. Sydney knew how to speak their language. And here was this whole world of international directors, writers becoming directors, indie guys who were being given material and resources. But what came with that, obviously, was the threat of loss of control, which is always terrifying to independent artists.

Sydney represented a bridge, because he could say, “Mirage has final cut. I’m not going to cut behind you, filmmaker-to-filmmaker, but I’m going to force you to be responsible to the audience. I’m not here to have someone use my final cut to make an un-releasable or inaccessible film. But we are going to guide you through this system. If you’ve never gotten studio notes before, we can help translate those notes into something that you can understand.” So Sydney and Anthony and I joined forces, with an LA office and a London office for Mirage.

I HAVE TO IMAGINE THAT THERE WERE A LOT OF YOUNG AND AMBITIOUS FILMMAKERS WHO WANTED TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THAT.
Honestly, it wasn’t for everybody. There were some directors that never crossed the threshold of wanting to have another director produce them. But we made Ang Lee’s first studio-financed movie. We made Tom Tykwer’s first studio-financed movie. Obviously, Anthony Minghella. Steve Zaillian is one of the greatest Hollywood writers of my generation. We believed in him as a director. We got behind Steve writing and then directing Searching for Bobby Fischer—not an obvious studio film by any means. We made Cold Mountain with Miramax. We made Sydney’s movies. We made Anthony’s movies. It was really a unique place at a unique time in the business, riding the explosion of Sundance, the baby boomer bubble that still allowed smart movies and dramatic content to be consumed theatrically. It was the heyday of Miramax and all the innovative zeitgeist movies that Harvey was championing … Soderbergh, Tarantino. I was very fortunate to have been such a large part of it for so many years.

TO WHAT DEGREE DID YOU TRY TO REPLICATE THAT FORMULA IN YOUR YEARS WITH SIDNEY KIMMEL?
I had an idiosyncratic career strategy: I decided early on I was only going to work for older Jewish men named Sidney. [laughs] So Sid Ganis was my boss when I was a senior executive at Paramount. When I left, I went to work for Sydney Pollack. Years later I was hired to be the president of production at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. I have a lot of affection and respect for Sidney Kimmel. We made 13 films together in three years. It was an intense time for me, a synthesis of my experiences as both a studio executive and a producer. I’m really proud of many of the films we put out—an eclectic mix that included Talk to Me, Lars and the Real Girl, The Kite Runner, Death At A Funeral, United 93. But all good things come to an end, and I left in 2008 as both the U.S. economy and the specialized theatrical business underwent massive contraction. If there was an epitaph on the tombstone of my experience at SKE it might read, “You made me laugh. You made me cry. But you didn’t make me any money!”

IN THE YEARS SINCE, THINGS HAVE GOTTEN NO BETTER FOR DRAMATIC, GROWN-UP FILMMAKING. WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE PROSPECTS FOR THOSE KINDS OF FILMS THAT YOU’VE IDENTIFIED WITH?
You’re defined by the movies you get made. They don’t represent all the movies that you want to make or have tried to get made. I love movies in every genre. I’m a comic book guy. I draw comic books. I’m really into that world. Thinking of my time at Paramount, it’s incredible to think what we could’ve bought, owned and controlled. But Popeye had come out and that had been a bomb. The visual effects and technology hadn’t really matured to a point where you could do those things the right way. And then I went to work for Sydney, a billion-dollar director who had a single green-screen shot in his movies. So my career went a certain way. But I just like good movies. I like it when people take a genre and are pushing the edge or twisting it or reinventing it. I would give my right arm and my left leg to have produced Inside Out or The Big Short. What a genius thing to do, to turn those abstract ideas into accessible, entertaining storytelling. I like to think Searching for Bobby Fischer is a movie that could’ve made $100 million in a more just universe. It’s a movie that my 12-year-old son and my baby boomer friends watched and loved. I like movies where there’s something there for everyone.

AND YET THOSE FILMS ARE ONLY GETTING HARDER TO GET MADE.
You remember that bit from Woody Allen, in Midnight in Paris, about “Golden Age fever?” I think Golden Age fever is something that afflicts all of us, the idea that there was this time, somewhere in the past, where it was easier to do what’s so hard to do today. I think that’s just false. I think for every generation, it’s just really hard to make a good movie. To actually craft that story and character and visual experience and big idea, and have all those pieces work together like a piece of music, ending on the right chord and the right melody. It’s just really, really damn hard to make it all work on that level.

SO MAYBE IT’S AN OBVIOUS QUESTION BUT, WHAT MAKES IT SO HARD? WHEN THINGS GO WRONG, HOW DO THEY GO WRONG? AND WHAT CAN YOU DO AS A PRODUCER TO RIGHT THE SHIP?
Well, as they say, you write a movie three times. You write it on the page, trying to make that structure work and make the conflicts into something that evokes an emotional response in the reader. You write it again with the camera and the actors, with all the vagaries of production and the happy accidents and the tragic fuckups and the gale-force winds of personality and ego and money and time. Some things just crack under those pressures. And then you really get to write it again in post. And I’ve always found that part of the process to be the most tangibly fascinating and rewarding. I’ve learned a lot sitting in those rooms. I’ve seen incredible surgery done where you’re getting a complaint from the audience about the hipbone over here, but you realize there’s something in the ankle that you can adjust and there’s no more pain, the patient is walking. I love that aspect of it.

But in terms of the ultimate fate of my movies, on some level I feel it’s out of my control. I don’t approach the business from a pure marketing sense. My litmus test is: Is this a group of people and a world that I want to be in and put my heart and soul and energy into over a significant period of my life? Because when you say “yes,” it can carry a 7/10/14-year sentence with it. If it’s a jail sentence, there’s nothing more miserable. If it’s a ticket to be part of something special, there isn’t a day where I don’t wake up wanting to call somebody, wanting to dial for dollars, wanting to be in the room with the filmmaker and the writer and say, “No, we haven’t cracked this yet. There’s a better way.” I’m sure in the Hollywood parlance some of the things I’ve taken on are “small-target” movies. Or some of them are Quixote-like quests.

EVERY PRODUCER BETTER HAVE A FEW OF THOSE IF THEY’RE WORTH THE TITLE.
Yeah. But you have to judge that overlap between the movies that you want to make and the movies that are getting made. Unless you’re a billionaire yourself, you’ve got to cut your cloth to fit the market. If you’re not setting out with something that’s perceived as a four-quadrant, 3,000 screen movie, then you know that you’re going to encounter some financial resistance.

But those things tend not to be fixed. They’re perceptual and constantly in flux. I made a movie three or four years ago with Oscar Isaac. I felt really lucky to have him, just because I admired him so much. I just made another movie with him last year, except now he’s Poe Dameron in Star Wars and Apocalypse in X-Men. So certainly there’s a fluctuating marketplace of talent. There’s a marketplace of filmmakers. There’s a marketplace of ideas. And sometimes you have to play a long, patient game for an idea whose time has come.

This movie I just finished, The Promise, starring Oscar and Christian Bale, and directed by Terry George, is about the Armenian genocide. People have been trying to tell a version of that story for 75 years. Kirk Kerkorian lived to be 98 years old and he caused this movie to get made, kind of as his final legacy. But it’s a movie that I would say was made independent of the business, probably in spite of the business, not because of where the business is today.

HOPEFULLY THE PGA CAN NUDGE THE INDUSTRY IN A CONSTRUCTIVE DIRECTION. FOR A START, YOU WERE RECENTLY ELECTED AS ONE OF THE GUILD’S CHAIRS FOR PGA EAST.
It was a tremendous honor to be elected as a new Chair of the PGA East, alongside my better half and fellow Chair, Kay Rothman. In a nice bit of serendipity, my old boss at Paramount, Gary Lucchesi, is one of the two Presidents of the Guild; I like that after all these years and experiences, here we are trying to give something back, to push for the betterment of the lot of all producers in these times of tectonic changes in the industry. Our membership in the East skews a bit more towards non-fiction film and television and new media, and of course has that New York independent I-will-survive spirit. As a trade organization and not a union, there are some limits to what we can and cannot do, but I’m amazed every day at the ideas and initiatives our leadership and membership have undertaken to help producers.

IT’S A GRADUAL PROCESS, BUT HOPEFULLY WE CAN MOVE THE NEEDLE A LITTLE.
But process is everything. There’s something that Walter Murch said to me a long time ago. We called him Professor Murch, just a brilliant guy. “Bill, I think in the future there’ll be a machine. And its function will be to read, not the image that the director intended, but the deeper DNA of the movie, which I’m convinced is imprinted in the celluloid or the digital bits of data. And what’s encoded is the entire experience of making the movie … who was sleeping with who, and who was eating what that night, and whatever crisis the director was going through and who just got fired from their job at the studio. Movies are like chaos events … there’s so much going on, on every movie all the time, and I know it’s coded in there somewhere. And I think it would be endlessly more interesting to experience that story than the three-act structure that we think that we’re all here capturing and playing back on these primitive DVD devices.”

WHOA. MAKES ME THINK OF A GEOLOGIST "READING" THE GRAND CANYON AND SEEING EVERY GEOLOGIC EVENT THAT TRANSPIRED.

Right? Thousands of years of strata and substrata. Anyway, I very much think of my whole experience that way. It’s the process and the people and the experience. My takeaway is very much defined by process. I rarely go back and watch the movies that I have my name on as a producer. I find it’s almost impossible for me to suspend the knowledge that I have of everything that’s wrong or the compromises we made. But more than that, you mostly see the traces of the life that you lived so vividly, in this heightened way, among these kind of illusory families that come together and disband around the lifespan of any of these projects. And so Murch’s magic machine is never too far from my mind when I think about making movies and what it means to be a producer. 

-Photography by Noah Fecks




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Produced By: New York - Headlines 2016

Posted By Administration, Monday, October 31, 2016

For the third straight year, Produced By: New York has demonstrated itself as an in-demand and significant event for the producing community in New York (and really, for the industry at large).  The flagship Produced By Conference in Los Angeles will be heading into its 9th year in 2017, but the New York edition has blossomed in its own right, hosting numerous prominent speakers and celebrities and representing a neighborly but distinct producing culture from traditional Hollywood.

This year included guest speakers such as Tina Fey, Chris Rock, and via satellite link -- Matt Damon.  As always, the media was on hand to cover the event.  Below are a few of the headlines coming out of Produced By: New York from 2016.  Check back in later for more updates.

 

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER / Ashley Lee
October 29, 2016
Tina Fey Defends Jimmy Fallon's Donal Trump Interview

COMPLEX / Morgan Baskin
October 29, 2016
Tina Fey Feels Sorry For Jimmy Fallon

DEADLINE / Greg Evans
October 29, 2016
There's Box Office Gold In Diversity, Says Producer Panel

DEADLINE / Paul Brownfield
October 29, 2016
Late Late Show Producer On Integrating TV and Digital

DEADLINE / Greg Evans
October 29, 2016
Chris Rock & Producers On Rigors Of Getting Laughs...

HUFFINGTON POST / Maxwell Strachan
October 31, 2016
Tina Fey Defends Jimmy Fallon After Controversial Trump Interview

VULTURE / Halle Kiefer
October 30, 2016
Chris Rock Discusses Comedy Made For Different Audiences: "People Should Be Funny to the People Who Look Like Them First"

THE WRAP / Matt Donnelly
October 29, 2016
Chris Rock Says Comic Should Cater To "People That Look Like Them First"

DEADLINE / Paul Brownfield
October 29, 2016
Matt Damon On "Manchester By The Sea" & Why He Had Final Cut Approval

DEADLINE / Paul Brownfield
October 29, 2016
TV Showrunners On Being Captain Of The Enterprise & Why Money Isn't Everything

DEADLINE / Greg Evans
October 29, 2016
Tina Fey On Keeping Political Humor Fair And The Time She Stiffed Al Franken

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PGA BOOKSHELF: "Fade Up: '26' The Movers and Shakers of Variety Television" by Steve Binder & Mary Beth Leidman

Posted By Administration, Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Review by Bob Boden

The task of assembling most of the living titans of variety television to share their experience, anecdotes, memories, and predictions is monumental at best, but thanks to the tireless research and in-depth interviews of the authors, FADE UP: “26” THE MOVERS AND SHAKERS OF VARIETY TELEVISION, by Steve Binder and Mary Beth Leidman, is a brisk and entertaining read that triggers many memories and insights for producers in all genres.

As a television genre, variety dates back to the earliest transitions from radio, and has endured through the decades, though inconsistently. This book takes you from the pioneer days of Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen through the eras of weekly series starring Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Andy Williams, Perry Como and Carol Burnett, as well as paying homage to the specials headlined by the likes of Bob Hope, Mitzi Gaynor, Bette Midler, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand.

The modern era of variety, dominated by Saturday Night Live, America’s Funniest Home Videos, The Kennedy Center Honors, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, numerous late night talk shows and the legacy awards shows, also comes alive in vivid detail, as told by those who made it and witnessed it first-hand.

Stories of the groundbreaking and controversial turning points of the genre, including The Smothers Brothers, The T.A.M.I. Show, The Elvis Presley Comeback Special, Laugh-In and The Petula Clark/Harry Belafonte Special are peppered through the candid (and sometimes rambling) recollections of the producers and directors who were there, including Ellen Brown, Ken Ehrlich, Spike Jones, Jr., Nigel Lythgoe, Lorne Michaels, Don Mischer, George Schlatter, and most notably, co-author Steve Binder, whose contributions to variety TV are truly impressive.

This esteemed roster has collectively won almost 100 Emmy® Awards; they laid the foundation for one of the cornerstones of classic and contemporary television. Sadly missing from this vibrant exposé is the late Dwight Hemion, former directorial partner of Gary Smith, whose spectacular talent and style were honored by numerous contributors to this book.

Courtesy of this veritable “Who’s Who?” of variety television, one fascinating story follows another in this comprehensive tribute to an art form sometimes labeled irrelevant in today’s television landscape. Significant attention is paid to reality-competition shows that feature musical performances, which have in many ways inherited the elements and popularity from their ancestors, the traditional variety shows of days gone by.

Most recently (and perhaps ironically), there has been a recent resurgence of interest in resurrecting the classic variety form, with mixed results. But variety, in whatever form it takes, is here to stay, and will continue to evolve in the multi-platform universe. Thanks to these visionary men and women who helped lay the groundwork, there is much to review and emulate.

FADE UP is a thoroughly enjoyable trip down memory lane for all fans of the genre, and a tremendously valuable master class for those who want to learn about how the business evolved. If I were forced to find a negative about this fascinating book, it would be the lament of an audience member at an awards show who is enthralled by an emotional acceptance speech, only to hear that person played off the stage. I wish there was more to share.

- You can purchase Fade Up at Amazon or Kendall Hunt Publishing

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TOMORROW COMES TODAY - Cross-Platform Innovator Charles Segars Matches The Message To The Medium

Posted By Steve Pesce, Monday, September 19, 2016
PGA member Charles Segars has a lot going on. A pioneer in digital media, the CEO of Ovation TV, senior digital advisory roles with companies like DreamWorks Animation, a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University—and in his spare time, he leads advance teams for the President of the United States. Through all of his many activities, Segars has insisted on staying on the cutting edge of media and technology. "What’s happening in entertainment right now is very much what those guys must’ve felt like when they were working in radio and saw this TV thing starting up,” he says. While this constantly changing landscape is daunting for most, Segars has thrived thanks to his ability to spot the leading trends of the day and combine them with a reliance on tried-and-true principles: trusting the audience, staying flexible and always keeping story first.

A native of Pittsburgh, Segars was hooked on movie magic from an early age, taking the Universal Studios Tour at age 14 and sneaking back onto the lot a few years later to see the filming of the pilot for the ABC series Tales of the Gold Monkey, with its giant sets, big logistics and great special effects; "I was hooked!” he recalls. During college Segars worked as a PA and segment producer on the "Making of...” documentaries for some of the biggest films of the time; "I got to see up close how they made movies, including Poltergeist and Back to the Future... I was in heaven.”

TREASURE TROVE
          Almost as a footnote to his pioneering online work, Segars is responsible for launching a smash movie franchise, the National Treasure series. "While I was at the National Archives doing research, I learned that the glass case holding the Declaration of Independence had started leaking,” Segars recalls. "The case cracked over time, allowing fresh air and moisture to decay that most important document. Document specialists were urgently discussing what to do, saying ‘If you open it up the document will disintegrate. If you don’t open it up, it’ll still disintegrate.’ The National Archivist showed me a photo of when the Declaration of Independence was transported there from the Library of Congress. The guys guarding it looked like The Untouchables. They were driving those great old Fords and carrying big tommy guns. Here’s this giant motorcade to transport the Declaration of Independence to the National Archives. And I started thinking, what if someone stole the Declaration of Independence?”
          Segars took the idea to producer Oren Aviv. "Oren and I worked together on the story, and when we felt we were on to something we took it to Jon Turteltaub, who immediately jumped out of his chair, saying, ‘I want to direct this movie!’” Thank goodness he did. He made key contributions to to our story that made it the franchise it is today.
          The pitch was picked up quickly. "The next thing we’re in front of [Disney head] Joe Roth. That’s how quickly National Treasure came together. Disney bought it in ’99, long before The Da Vinci Code was even a thought. Now the script is in for the third movie. It’s very gratifying to see National Treasure’s continued success.”
          Turteltaub, who would go on to produce and direct the movie that would become National Treasure and its sequel, knew it was a great idea as a result of his previous experiences with Segars: "When I first met Charles, he was some stranger who was full of ideas/” Turteltaub remembers. "And every subsequent time I met Charles, he had a different job and even more ideas. Always supportive, always enthusiastic, always a cheerleader, and always a mystery.” 

Committed to a career in entertainment, Segars started working in television with producing jobs on magazine shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous as well as production exec roles on Viacom syndication hits like The Montel Williams Show. "About this time,” he recalls, "I got the greatest call ever. Jeff Sagansky and Rod Perth called and said, ‘We need to reinvent late night on CBS.’” After years of attempting to fill late-night with talk shows and game shows, network president Sagansky was ready to try something different. Segars and Perth were tasked with launching a group of scripted shows that came to be known as Crimetime After Primetime, a string of unique adult-themed series such as Silk Stalkings and Forever Knight. After serving as a crucial part of the team that recruited David Letterman to CBS, Segars was made head of Special Programming for the network,where he oversaw awards events like the Grammys and the Tonys, as well as experimented with shows consisting of wedding videos and animal attacks, years ahead of the reality TV boom. 

After years of experience in television, Segars began to see opportunities in the early dotcom boom, and in 1998 co-founded CountingDown.com, based on the idea that movie fans would flock to a site designed around their unique community. "I quickly learned online video worked better in short form— two minutes max—than the longer form I was used to doing,” Segars recalls. He also learned that painstakingly-crafted content, while usually well-received, could be quickly upstaged by fan-made content. The world of TV, with its overnight ratings, critics and focus groups, was being replaced with the digital realm’s ability to provide instant, constant feedback. "It was exciting and terrifying at the same time,” Segars says.

A major opportunity came Segars’ way when Jeffrey Katzenberg asked him to consult on an idea for a show tailored specifically to the YouTube audience, called YouTube Nation, which curated content from the ocean of videos uploaded every day. "The idea was that since there was so much content being uploaded to YouTube every day, literally years of video each day, many great pieces of content deserve but can’t get the spotlight.” YouTube Nation used curators to scour the internet looking for content, then would contact the creators and ask them to allow the video to be used as part of the seven-minute daily show. The show reached two million subscribers before ending in 2014.

The differences between traditional TV content and video made specifically for online platforms are vast, and Segars was quick to identify the unique requirements of new media. "You have to put great story first. In that sense, there’s no difference between traditional and online video. Where the pathways diverge is you have to understand the best practices for where you’re airing that content. A reality segment for television is very different from one for YouTube or Snapchat. While cable television wants a 22-minute or 44- minute show, each online platform has a different sweet spot. The second common mistake is failing to understand that each platform has its own best practices. Third, and most importantly,online producers need to upload content almost everyday, sometimes multiple times a day,feeding their fanbase with exactly what they ask for. TV can’t come close to that. Online platforms like Vine, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram are populated by content creators who have a one-to-one relationship with their audience.” As a result of his success with CountingDown.com, Segars has become an expert in emerging online markets, doing consulting work for major players in the digital realm.

Segars has concrete ideas about how online media differs from traditional broadcast models: "One thing that’s new for traditional media producers is figuring out the discovery mechanism. How do you get your audience to find you among a billion other uploads a week? Just like when you’re trying to sell a show to ABC, it’s an easier sale with a movie star in it because there’s already a fanbase. Where digital diverges is you need be to across five or six platforms. And you have to bring an advertiser, which requires a whole new muscle for producers to develop.”

Additionally, online programming has to be produced differently from broadcast content. "Most online video is reality or sketch-based. This is mostly because scripted takes too long to bake and by the time it’s ready, fans are moving on to something else. Most content that resonates is two to four minutes, authentically delivered right to camera by the creators themselves, with a call to action to their fanbase to share it and give feedback that can be incorporated into the next piece of content.”

However, exciting things are emerging for long-form producers as well, with platforms such as YouTube Red."I have no doubt it will be a platform on which all types of content, at all lengths and at all production price points, will be exhibited,” Segars says. "Facebook is not far behind and will also be a monstrous video platform and buyer of content.”

Segars also consults for successful digital companies like Machinima and Whistle Sports—production and distribution companies engaged in building brands, finding talent and making content for unique platforms, with particular interest in young audiences. "The phone goes with kids everywhere,” Segars reminds us. "They carry it to school in their backpack. It’s their connection to the world. So to have someone tell a story over it is very powerful. If they have a few minutes during lunch or on the train, that five to six minutes is valuable real estate.”

In 2008, Segars took a leap into an older media form, the traditional cable network, with an eye to modernizing its business model. "Back in 2008, we raised some money and bought a tiny arts network called Ovation TV, which is now in over 45 million paid-subscription homes. Ovation couldn’t be more traditional in some of the content we make. We just did a $40 million miniseries called Versailles, airing this October. But at the same time we’re doing short-form, arts-centric content for specific arts verticals online. And we’re starting to aggregate some very interesting indie films and offering them to people on their handsets. We have a great team here and we move content across every conceivable platform,” Segars declares. "If there’s a tin can and a string people are using to talk to each other, one of our arts documentaries will be vibrating into there soon.”

 

These ventures plus massive growth in streaming services make it a very lucrative time for companies that know how to use these new platforms, which is why Segars launched Innov8 Design Studio two years ago, an agency dedicated to helping content creators connect with audiences."Content is king, but it takes the right balance of process—ideation and storytelling that is customizable for many differing platforms. Everyday we are learning and trying,” Segars says.

On top of all of these business endeavors, Segars is committed to public service, serving as a sworn deputy in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and has led advance teams for White House, setting up itineraries when President Obama travels. "Recently I was on Marine 2, and the White House photographer took a picture of me working on my phone trying to figure out where the motorcade was going next and what handshake was at the bottom of the stairs … He got this great shot and posted it on Instagram. In two minutes my phone was blowing up. It was jumping out of my hand.” And yet, even in this moment of fame, Segars returns to his passion for digital media. "People from all over the world were going, ‘Wow, what a great picture!’ That is the instant moment of digital. You get immediate feedback. And producers should listen to it. If your fan base is saying ‘I wish this would happen,’ take the layup. Make it happen for them.” Segars is insistent that anyone with an interest in entertainment and communications take an interest in the burgeoning world of social and online media. "The great stories you create can go everywhere to find an audience. I look at these new platforms as exactly the same as when someone built a movie theatre or put up a radio or TV antenna. It’s just that now the delivery system is a phone and a social media platform.”

 

Written by Steve Pesce

Additional text by Jeffrey McMahon

Photographed by Kremer Johnson Photography

- This article originally appeared in the August/September issue of Produced By magazine.

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PGA Dodger Day 2016

Posted By Michael Quinn Martin, Tuesday, September 13, 2016

As Vin Scully says before every game, “Hi everyone, and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be.”  On Saturday, September 3, 100 PGA members attended our annual Dodger Day as the Los Angeles Dodgers took on the San Diego Padres on a beautiful Labor Day weekend with a 71 degree temperature at game time.  The Dodgers sent Pitcher Rich Hill to the mound to face Luis Perdona of the Padres.

In the 4th inning, Adrian Gonzales singled to send Corey Seager home and put the Dodgers up 1-0.  Shortstop Seager is in the running for National League Rookie of the Year this year.  Later in the inning, with Justin Turner and Adrian Gonzales on base, Yasmani Grandal hit a three run home run over the center field fence to put the Dodgers up 4-0.  The home run was estimated at 440 feet.

In the 6th inning, Josh Reddick tacked on a solo home run to put the score at 5-0.   This was his first home run since the former Oakland A‘s outfielder joined the Dodgers on July 3.  Rich Hill was pitching a no-hitter for the Dodgers into the 6th inning until Alexi Ramirez singled for the Padres.  Hill ended up with 8 strike outs for the evening.

Joe Blanton pitched a scoreless 7th inning for the Dodgers. Casey Fein gave up one run in the 8th and Kenley Jansen kept the Padres off the board in the 9th, leaving the Dodgers with 5-1 victory.

Fans were also treated to a positive video report on recovering Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw as he pitched a three inning rehab start for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, after missing two months with lower disc herniation.  Since Kershaw was placed on the Disabled List on June 26, the Dodgers have clawed their way from 8 games back behind the San Francisco Giants, to 5 games ahead, and now lead the National League West.

Rookie Dodger Manager Dave Roberts (and possible NL Manager of the Year candidate) has accomplished this while the Dodgers have placed 26 players on the Disabled List this year, a National League record.

And, least we forget, this is 88 year old Vin Scully’s farewell season as the Dodger’s TV and Radio Broadcaster, a position he has held when he started with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950 at the age of 21.   Thank you Vin for 67 wonderful years.  You are the Dodgers!

- Article and Photos by Michael Quinn Martin

 

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