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WILLIAM HORBERG - Cover: The Audience Always Has Final Cut

Posted By Administration, Thursday, October 27, 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.

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?”

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.

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

No. I just stood silently in the crowd, feeling like young Tom Sawyer up in the gallery, watching his own funeral. [laughs]

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.

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)

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.

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.”

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).

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”


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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THE RESURRECTION OF DIRK GENTLY - Producers Pay Tribute To Douglas Adams' Atheist Ghost

Posted By Cecelia Lederer, Thursday, October 27, 2016

Strange things happen in our universe. In a douglas adams universe they happen more frequently and with additional strangeness.

You’re no doubt familiar with the unique, five-book ‘trilogy’ that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a hapless brit is involuntarily saved from the end of the world to find himself wandering the universe with a host of suspicious characters. But you may not be quite as familiar with adams’ follow-up series. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and its sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, were the first two of what were to be many dirk gently tales, but the series was tragically cut short by the untimely death of its author in 2001.

We don’t learn much about dirk gently (née svlad cjelli) in the novels. The rumors that he was born to a vampire in transylvania don’t quite explain how he somniloquized test answers at university, but those are mere trifles compared with the vast mystery of the universe you, me, adams and dirk inhabit. And it’s a mystery he plans to solve.

EP Robert Cooper (second from L), Max Landis (R of center), and Arvind 
Ethan David (right) relax behind the scenes on the set of Dirk Gently's Holistic
Detective Agency. (photographed by Bettina Strauss/BBCA)

Dirk is a holistic detective—he doesn’t look for clues or suspects, but rather lets the universe provide them via its fundamental interconnectedness. And this interconnected universe (something I’ve come to believe in far more than anything I was taught in Hebrew School) is responsible for BBC America’s production of the newest set of Dirk adventures.

When producer and PGA member Arvind Ethan David was in secondary school, he wrote, directed and starred in his own adaptation of Dirk Gently. The production proved to be a trial run for a revamped and relaunched production as a student at Oxford, a year and a half later. This time, the show was going to be visible enough that David and his partner reached out to Adams’ agents with a friendly and respectful “Please don’t sue us.” The relief of not being sued was replaced with what David describes as “joy and horror” when he learned that Adams himself would attend the performance.

“I remember seeing where he was going to sit and sitting about eight rows behind him to the left,” David recalls. He didn’t watch the show that night, rather he “watched Douglas Adams watching me do Douglas Adams.”

After the show Adams took David and his co-writer out to dinner. Afraid that they “broke his book” David asked, “Is it okay, the way we changed the plot?” to which Adams replied, “You fixed it.”

Adams fans don’t love him for his plots. We love his characters, his tone and his ideas. We love the comedy and the philosophy and the heart. The plot is just a vehicle for the good stuff. But to state the obvious, a hopefully long-running TV show with season- and series-long arcs needs a narrative to keep us holding on for next week.

“Our show is more of a Douglas Adams tribute album than an adaptation,” says producer and head writer Max Landis. “We’re trying to do a Dirk Gently TV show, and you can’t do that by trying to do a Dirk Gently book.”

 Showrunner Robert Cooper

Landis was the first and only person David approached for the job. “One of the fun things has been assembling a team of friends,” David tells me, “and a team of fans.” That’s the magical thing about Adams. It’s easy to turn fans into friends and vice-versa.

David and Landis had met years earlier and knew they’d work together eventually, even though they didn’t know what the project might be. And since the Dirk Gently novel had been optioned before David even met Adams, all they could do was wait.

“It kept being re-optioned,” says David, “and every few years his agents and the estate and his literary executors and I would have a conversation and they’d say ‘soon.’” Following an unsuccessful 2012 series on BBC Four, the option finally ran out. David put in the call to Landis and told him, “I have Dirk now.”

PGA member Rick Jacobs and showrunner Rob Cooper rounded out the team of on-set executive producers the day of my visit. There was more excitement in that room than one typically finds in an interview. You can almost sense the humming connection of a common underlying philosophy.

“In order to do something like a Douglas Adams adaptation of Dirk Gently, I think it’s really important to have a core group of people who believe in it,” says Jacobs. “Because it’s weird. And that can be scary for people if there’s not a real true passion.”

Another factor that can’t be counted out, as Dirk would certainly tell you, is timing. “I’ve been waiting to do this for about 20 years,” David beams. “And one of the things I’ve been waiting on is finding the right medium for Douglas Adams.” Was it coincidence that the discovery coincided with the option becoming available? Dirk would doubt it.

 David with episodic director Michael Patrick Jann

Douglas Adams’ work has proven famously difficult to adapt. Capturing his omniscient yet hapless voice and authorial readiness to tell us what horses and tables are thinking, is trickier with camera and screen than with pen and paper. But the producers aren’t daunted. The consensus in the room is that American cable television has become the place to tell intense, complex, genre-mashing stories like never before. The medium doesn’t shy away from what David describes as a “multi-stranded, interconnected story that will only make a limited amount of sense on first viewing,” or if we still watched TV the way we did before the advent of DVR.

Though developed without studio involvement, BBC America has jumped in with the passion you’d expect from the home of Doctor Who. “Dirk is the sort of bastard stepson of Doctor Who that comes out of Douglas’ time writing Doctor Who,” David nerds out with me. The arc he wrote, titled “Shada,” never aired, but it became the blueprint for the first Dirk Gently novel. “And so 30 years after that,” David muses, “to be able to bring it home … it is a kind of cosmic karma.” Or—a fundamental, holistic interconnectedness.

Cooper shares his immense respect for BBC America’s taking the risk and following Dirk into uncertainty. “They said they’re looking for something that will make noise in the marketplace and be different from anything else.” In an environment where most companies are risk-averse and steer toward the middle of the road, “they’ve been very supportive of that, in many cases pushing it farther from the middle.”

“This is not a show you do as a piece of business,” agrees David. “CBS doesn’t say, ‘Oh we need a new detective show … this is the one.’” But he happily paraphrases BBC America’s response as, “‘Hell yeah, bring on the weird!’ They let us make the show we wanted to make.”

 Producer Arvind Ethan David (left) on the set with cast members Elijah 
 Wood and Hannah Marks.

Sarah Barnett, the EVP and GM of BBC AMERICA, is as enthused about the project as anyone you might meet at Comic-Con. “It’s actually a match made in heaven,” she told me when we spoke on the phone. Agreeing with Landis’ description of the project as more tribute album than adaptation, Barnett explains, “You can’t slavishly adapt Douglas Adams. You have to find the heart of it.”

Cooper tells me, “We’ve tried to make something that is very different and unique and has its own voice and is, I think, unlike anything else on TV right now. So that’s the challenge that was set out to be accomplished and it’ll ultimately be up to the fans to decide whether it lives up to expectations or not.”

In LA, pilots are still how we mark the seasons, but it’s not standard practice in the UK. “It was important to be at a network that wasn’t concerned about testing,” explains Jacobs, “because our show’s not just heavily serialized, it’s also a broken puzzle that gets put together at the end of the season.”

Production on Dirk Gently is structured more like an eight-hour film than a TV series. There aren’t many standing sets, which traditionally make TV production easier than film. But Cooper credits the constraints of the medium with grounding the project in reality. “If you try to literally adapt [what’s on the page], it becomes either $100,000,000 or not very identifiable. We are introducing you to a very real world with very real characters who have very real problems that you’re going to hopefully identify with. And then we’ll slowly reveal and insert the more strange and absurd characters and moments into that.”

The constraints are significant. “We’re producing the show in an incredibly competitive situation,” Cooper said of Vancouver. “There’s not a ton of crew available and we’re competing for locations. This is a very location-heavy show that has a level of detail in it. We often talk about the fact that it’s never just two people in a room talking … there’s always two or three gags per scene. That requires a crew that’s constantly on top of every single element. Sometimes even we can’t keep track of all the interconnected layers of the story and how they intersect.”

Because the show is more tribute than adaptation, the original text isn’t as helpful to turn to for outside answers.

“My Dirk then and our Dirk now is very different from Douglas’ Dirk,” David admits. The Dirk I’ve read about is middle- aged and overweight. His clothes are shabby, his apartment’s a nightmare, and there’s a small ecosystem evolving in his refrigerator. But on the page, those details fade into the background and we’re free to find Dirk the single coolest dude to ever walk the planet. On the other hand, “In a physical representation of that,” David continues, “he has to charm you. He’s such an impossible, ridiculous character that if he doesn’t charm you, if he doesn’t take you along for the ride, it doesn’t work. In the words of P.T. Barnum, he has to fool at least some of the people some of the time into believing that he’s a great detective, even if the rest of the time, we can see that he’s not. So he’s not just the absurd figure he is in the books, but someone who you would follow into danger, into an adventure.” Exactly like BBC America is.

Not wanting to lean too heavily on voice-over, the producers tasked the directors with finding that omniscient voice lost in the transition from page to screen.

“What we tried to do is give a very strong point of view to the filmmaking style,” says David, visibly excited about his collaborators. “We wanted people who would bring an authorial point of view to the filmmaking, like Dean Parisot, (Galaxy Quest) and Michael Patrick Jann (The State and Powerless). Both comedians and sci-fi nerds.”

Having self-proclaimed nerds working on the inside is key to appealing to the notoriously easy to infuriate subculture. I should know. I’m part of it. Women in science fiction are hard to come by, especially three-dimensional ones. The only woman in the room, I pressed the men on how they planned to live up to my expectation that anything Adams must include cool, smart and weird characters with double X chromosomes, Trillian Astra, Kate Schechter and Random Dent.

Landis’ giddy response filled me with optimistic anticipation. The action lead of the show, Farah Black, is female but not in a ‘sexy-girl-knows-judo’ way. When we first meet her, she’s tied to a bed. But like women in the nerd world, she isn’t kept down. In no time, she subverts expectations of what women in sci-fi are traditionally capable of. “I tried to write characters for the show who are as interesting and weird as the male characters. That to me, is what an actual strong female character is,” Landis asserts, marveling at how greater Hollywood still doesn’t get it.

“The best movies and the best TV shows always have interesting female characters,” he continues. “You’d think that just from a practical, business standpoint you’d learn to write them better, but they don’t. I just wanted to create characters worthy of Douglas Adams.” Along with Farah Black, another new creation is Bart, Dirk’s counterpart, a holistic assassin. Although there will be the odd reference to old friends from the books like Professor ‘Reg’ Cronotis and Thor, God of Thunder, much of the story is original. The TV series takes place after the books, with the intervening time gap filled in by comics written by David and published by IDW. The team is evidently fearless when it comes to expanding on their source material. “I wanted to tell a new Dirk Gently story,” Landis pauses, “or at the very least, for sticklers, a story in the style of Dirk Gently.”

In each of the books, Dirk has a different sidekick. In the show he’ll have Todd Brotzman. “Going into the TV series it was clear to Max and clear to me that Dirk, like all detectives, functions best when he has someone next to him, someone to show off to and someone to be a detective around,” David explains. “However in Dirk’s case, those people never want to be there. So they’re unwilling sidekicks. Or as Todd puts it, ‘I’m not your Watson, asshole.’”

Cooper describes Todd as “a character who has no supernatural power or very strange things in his life until Dirk drops in, and then he goes on this wild ride.” Without Adams to narrate, Todd is our guide in this world where the blind lead the blind.

“And there’s still a lot in the margins,” David reports with excitement. “I think one of the very clever things about the way Max conceived the show and hopefully the way we’re all executing it, is that it’s a bigger world than we’re seeing. That’s a very Adams-ian thing. Hinted at in the margins of the frame and intruding slowly as the show progresses is a bigger frame, a bigger mythology. We think that the beauty of television, as long as the audience turns up, is that you can go for years. You have time. You start at one corner of the coloring book and you get to build out and build out until there’s a giant map … And given some time, we’ll get to do a Dirk-verse.”

The loss of a brilliant artist in the prime of their life is a tragedy shared between every fan, every person for whom their work served as a touchstone. The day I found out there would be no more Douglas Adams left for me to read was the day I confronted mortality. Fifteen years later, when I found out BBC America was bringing me more Dirk Gently, I started to wonder what the afterlife might look like, if it existed. And if it did, could I watch it on TV? 

Tags:  arvind ethan david  bbc america  dirk gently  douglas adams  elijah wood  netflix 

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AN AFRICAN QUEEN - Two Producers Strive To Spark The Young Dreams Of A Global Audience with 'Queen Of Katwe'

Posted By Brandon Wagner, Thursday, October 27, 2016

Lydia Dean Pilcher and John B. Carls’ collaboration on Queen of Katwe—in keeping with their careers to this point—starts with the idea that they’re not the last generation to be living with media or the last generation to be living on this planet. Queen of Katwe was conceived from the first as a film for the future, for a rising generation to see themselves in and understand that they have the power to change the world.

Queen of Katwe, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was released by Disney in September, is the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young Ugandan girl raised in the slums of Katwe by her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). Phiona fatefully crosses paths with Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an engineer by training and a church youth counselor by profession. Katende is teaching the children of Katwe to play chess, in the hopes of expanding their horizons. Phiona quickly proves to be a natural and begins to rocket toward international attention, which forces her to confront her own perceptions of the limits of her world.

Carls got his start in a producing partnership with Maurice Sendak, ultimately leading to a collaboration on Where The Wild Things Are. About five years ago, he was looking to do the kind of sports story that would “restore your faith in humanity.” The story of Phiona and her chess skills came his way from North Carolina businessman Trey Budder, who like Robert Katende, was a supporter of sports outreach ministry. As Carls started the process of securing the rights, ESPN discovered the story, ultimately publishing The Queen of Katwe first as an article and then a full-length book by Tim Crothers. “I didn’t even have to do my “producing thing,” beams Carls; Disney reached out and joined forces in a case of fortunate parallel thinking.

Queen of Katwe is a film about understanding and unlocking unrealized potential. “As a producer,” Carls says, “I’ve often wondered if [not understanding our potential] is holding us back.” He’s intrigued by people like Robert Katende, with whom he worked extensively throughout the production. Carls doesn’t skimp in his admiration for the people who “are going out to these hostile environments ... and transforming lives.” Phiona is a “great success story that comes out of that kind of environment.” If all kids were given a chance, he muses, “It would be remarkable to see how much difference could be made.” Working in his favor is the openness of the young minds among the film’s viewers.

Telling this story in the family space gives them, Carls believes, an audience more likely to “actually go out afterwards and make a difference in the world.”

Mira Nair was always a leading choice to direct, but when Carls initially reached out, she was in the process of making The Reluctant Fundamentalist. But given some time and another draft of the script, Nair was able to come on board, along with her longtime producing partner, Lydia Dean Pilcher.

 Director Mira Nair (seated) on the set of Queen of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda

The collaboration goes back 25 years, to 1991’s Mississippi Masala; Queen of Katwe marks their 11th picture together. Pilcher feels like she and Nair agree on “every level of sensibility and aesthetic.” Queen of Katwe has a special significance given that it allows them to return to Uganda, a country in which they’ve done a great deal of work, particularly with Naisha, the film school they helped to found. For Pilcher, Queen of Katwe also represented a break from the endless hustle of pulling together independent films, a project that allows her and Nair to make “the kind of film that we always make, but with the support of a studio.”

Katwe’s Africa-based story might be a tricky sell domestically, but Pilcher’s production company Cine Mosaic has always had a firm commitment to producing films for the global marketplace. After all, we’re now in an age where, as she observes, the international box office is substantially larger than the domestic. Pilcher believes in the story’s appeal to groups who don’t normally see themselves represented in films, even as she appreciates its importance for “Disney to keep their brand relevant” in the global age. The opportunity to “see more stories about other cultures in very authentic, relatable ways” is one of the most fundamental means we have of building inter-cultural understanding. Studios are gradually coming to see the value of these stories and the necessity of telling them authentically.

For a major studio film, Queen of Katwe relies to an unusual degree on unfamiliar talent and production values, taking place entirely in Africa (save for a brief sojourn to Russia) and featuring a cast composed almost entirely of actors of color. Phiona was the key casting, as the filmmakers searched all over Africa and the U.K., seeing hundreds of girls and eventually choosing Madina Nalwanga. Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo fell into place shortly thereafter, with the rest of the players cast in Uganda and quickly run through a workshop to bring them up to speed for the challenge of working on a major studio film.

 Producers Lydia Dean Pilcher (left) and John Carls (right) discuss the shoot 
production executive Tendo Nagenda.

Pilcher hopes the film provides a transformative experience for young girls, who don’t often see themselves in these pictures, to lead the way. She told me about a screening she’d arranged for the crew of her current project, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for HBO, to which many of them brought their young children. One girl, of elementary- school age, particularly stood out to her. “She was just glued to the screen,” she recalls. When Pilcher approached the girl’s mother afterwards and asked about her daughter’s enraptured response, her mother replied, “These girls are not used to seeing themselves on the big screen.”

Even beyond the faces that are represented, it’s the voices the film allows us to hear. Queen of Katwe enables Pilcher to continue to champion “female storytelling” as she has for all of her career. She sees the female audience as underserved, and a story of female discovery and empowerment that could be animated by a filmmaking voice like Mira Nair’s made the decision an easy one.

Pilcher’s passion for making films for the next generation extends to her commitment to sustainability, a priority she traces to becoming a mother and thinking in very personal terms about the next generation. That sense of urgency led to collaboration with other PGA members and a collective effort to promote baseline best practices for productions to reduce waste and carbon emissions; the result was the formation of PGA Green, of which Pilcher was a founding Chair. It’s remarkably simple for any production to “go green,” she declares, taking measures as easy as calculating your production’s carbon footprint, keeping travel costs low and utilizing reusable water bottles. The PGA’s is the website she’s worked with that provides best practices and a carbon footprint calculator. We live now in the “first generation to feel the effects of climate change,” she reminds us and remains deeply concerned “that we’re the last to be able to do anything about it.”

 Producer Lydia Dean Pilcher and production executive Tendo Nagenda 
coordinate production logistics on the streets of Kampala.

But the good intentions would count for nothing without Pilcher and Carls’ devotion to crafting their stories hands-on. Both producers came up through the production ranks. Today Carls’ favorite part is the development process and the never-ending quest to find the best material. After all, that’s what attracts the best artists and craftspeople to work with, and “the team approach to moviemaking” is for Carls the essence of the job’s appeal. And he indeed relished the work, participating in every aspect of the production, including working closely with the real Phiona and Robert Katende.

Pilcher is a storyteller, interested first and foremost in films emerging from a powerful creative vision, “that make you think and feel deeply, that might make you change the way you view the world … It’s a great privilege to craft stories and to know that you might have some impact or forge a greater connection.” And coming through independent cinema has given her a sixth sense for how each element of a production—financial, creative, or logistical—impacts the whole.

In discussing their ultimate hopes for Queen of Katwe’s reception, they observe that it’s rare to find a live-action film these days that offers what Carls calls, “a shared experience of filmgoing for the families.” Through direct, accessible drama, it demonstrates how when life knocks you down, “you can reset the pieces and play again,” one of the film’s most clever metaphors. For the adults, it offers a broader truth: “Everyone matters, and every life has an effect on all of us.” For Pilcher, Katwe is above all a movie for “young girls who don’t get to see themselves on screen,” even if the message that “opportunities exist for everyone if you focus and believe in yourself” is applicable to every audience member.

Whatever projects come next, expect Pilcher and Carls to bring their same belief in the importance of telling stories for the next generation, and their conviction that producers and their productions should leave the world just a little better than they found it. 

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STORY IS EVERYWHERE - The Multi-Platform World of Caitlin Burns

Posted By Justine Neubarth, Thursday, October 27, 2016

There is a moment in my conversation with transmedia producer and PGA member Caitlin Burns when I wonder whether she might know… everything. It is after she has walked me through the intricacies of treating acute childhood malnourishment in developing countries but before she has explained the mythology of the video game Halo. “Pretty much everything I talk about is somewhat complex,” Burns tells me when she sees my slightly-awed expression. “But that’s because the world we live in and the ways audiences engage are complex.” 

Burns’ task as a transmedia producer is to tease simplicity out of complexity, ensuring that the multi-platform products of a narrative project or franchise—video games, social media content, animation, novels and everything in between—are produced as part of a cohesive story. She began her career at Starlight Runner Entertainment, where she worked her way up from intern to full-blown producer on big-budget projects for the Walt Disney Company, Microsoft and Coca-Cola.

After 10 years there, she is now an independent creative producer, serving clients both small (like Serial Boxes, a company that releases serialized novels digitally) and large (Disney). She also serves as the Vice Chair of the PGA’s New Media Council and the Co-Chair of PGA’s Women’s Impact Network, and this summer was awarded the PGA’s Mark Levey Distinguished Service Award.

The term “transmedia” may have a tech-y, futuristic ring to it, but whether the product is books or virtual reality, Burns is adamant that her work is about how humans interact with technology and not the other way around. This belief bleeds into her side projects too—this fall she and her husband will be launching an online magazine, titled Pax Solaria, which focuses on humans in a high-tech future. “The real key is that all of my work is centered on the story,” she says. “Even when I’ve worked in nonfiction, it’s thinking about the ‘story- world’ and how to execute it as part of the narrative.”

Currently much of her attention goes to her role as the Entrepreneur-In-Residence at the US Fund for UNICEF, where she is a narrative designer and consultant for UNICEF Kid Power—an ambitious project aimed at increasing activity among American children while also fighting childhood malnourishment abroad. Burns describes it as a “21st century Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF.” Children wear a pedometer around their wrists, which is synced with an app, and the steps they take unlock funding for ready-to-use, therapeutic food packets around the world. Burns is responsible for the in-app content, as well as the social media, digital initiatives and live events.

Complex indeed. “As a transmedia producer, I am intimately aware of the challenges of explaining what I do,” she says after explaining the layers of the UNICEF project—just one of many that she has a role in. As it happens, she is very good at explaining things. Listening to her thread together ideas and cultural references is like watching someone stitch together a giant quilt, and it seems only fitting that before she was one of the first people to be formally credited as a transmedia producer, she studied costume design as a drama major (and environmental systems minor) at NYU.

When it came time to look for a professional internship to fulfill her major, she initially focused on costume design. “I went through all of these rigorous you-can-work-for-me-for-free applications and no one wanted me to work for them for free,” she says, laughing. “Through a series of twists and turns,” she ended up at the newly-formed Starlight Runner, which had only just begun its experimentation with multi-platform storytelling.

“When Caitlin came in to sit and talk with us, she just blew us away with this encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything,” says Jeff Gomez, founder and CEO of Starlight Runner. I share how my mind had similarly been blown.
“Ah,” he nods sagely. “So you’ve experienced the Burn.”

He clarifies: “She literally could talk about any subject you brought up with a degree of authority, and if there was something she didn’t know that much about, within a matter of hours she would come back knowing everything.”

Soon after Burns joined Starlight Runner, the Walt Disney Company walked through the door with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, looking for some help in managing the books, games and upcoming films that were unspooling from their unprecedented 2003 blockbuster. Burns was immediately hired as the company’s first employee, “and all of the incredible nerdy skills that I had brought in with production design and systems science suddenly clicked with the work we had to do with the Walt Disney franchises.”

For many of the franchises they work on, Starlight Runner produces a “mythology” of the story world: an honest-to-God book that is passed on to executives, game designers, writers and anyone else working on the project. Burns wrote large swaths of the first one the company ever produced—an 11” x 16 “ leather-bound tome imprinted with a skull and crossbones, a compendium of all things Pirates of the Caribbean. Some of the research Burns did on piracy—especially on pirate codes of law—ended up feeding back into the films, as well as fueling a blog about pirates that she wrote for seven years. Now, she adds, “I know more about ransoming than anyone who’s not directly involved with that really needs to know.”

Since then, Burns has produced “about 16” mythologies, including an ethnography of the Na’vi for Avatar. More broadly perhaps, her time at Starlight Runner taught Burns how to use transmedia to engage fans and build a community. Gomez says that Burns truly understood from the beginning that “fans were going to play a pivotal role in the success and the sustenance of entertainment properties.”

Perhaps that’s because Burns is herself a fan of the projects she works on. Speaking about her time working on Pirates of the Caribbean, Burns said she had to watch the 143-minute film 45 times “in quick succession” to make sure they had gotten everything right. “And I was exactly the kind of nerd that really, really, really loved it.” More recently, she worked as a franchise strategist for Disney’s Descendants, and spoke enthusiastically about reading the books with her daughter.

Growing up in Arizona, the first thing that Burns was ever a true fan of—“hands down”—was Jurassic Park. Her fandom is very much alive. In 2012, she and co-producer Steele Filipek launched a feature-length parody of the film, set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and titled McCarren Park. Made for $3,500, the film was released via app; viewers could “go from location to location and see another scene.” The app launched at the Tribeca Film Festival. Overall, she marvels, “It came out much better than it had any right to.”

Burns puts fan development front and center in her work, but sees transmedia as far more than a marketing tool. “A lot of people, when they’re thinking about [the transmedia] part of the producing team, they’re thinking about it as, ‘How do we reach the audience and engage them in a promotional way or in a simply outreach way?’” she tells me, “as opposed to thinking about the real power of what you can do […] when the narrative is building out into all of these platforms so that people can find it. And that sort of creativity ends up paying off hugely in fan development, rather than just audiences.”

Jenni Magee-Cook, an executive producer on the Descendants franchise, echoes this. “You don’t have to go practical anymore. You don’t have to do ad campaigns and marketing in the same way,” she says. “To me, [Caitlin] opened my eyes to accessing how millennials and younger actually consume information, and how you can actually speak to them and communicate with them. I think Caitlin had so much awareness of that.”

“Caitlin understood fairly early that transmedia storytelling was going to be important,” Gomez tells me. “Not just in terms of making more money for big movie studios, but in terms of how the world was changing in terms of communication.” That understanding has allowed Burns to apply transmedia techniques to not just entertainment, but social justice projects as well. That passion is currently manifested in her work at UNICEF, but it began at Starlight Runner, where she and Gomez worked on community development and population activation projects in Mexico and Colombia. Doing that kind of work “gave me the opportunity to work with cognitive scientists and ethnographers,” Burns tells me. “And that’s something that feeds into the work that I do today very strongly.”

And when it comes back to the entertainment industry, diversity is a priority for her. She’s excited about her involvement in the PGA’s Women’s Impact Network but also sees transmedia itself as a way to address Hollywood’s diversity problem. For one, franchises can be ever expandable with the help of transmedia. “The canvas is bigger,” Burns observes of the current landscape. “We don’t have to be stuck.”

She encourages her clients to test more diverse characters in ancillary novels and games, just to see how well audiences respond. “As attitudes toward diversity and representation have changed, they can also be supported by less high-budget experiments where [one] can see: ‘Is a female character going to be interesting?’ Yes, she is.” Later she adds, “It’s not just better business to think in terms of diversity, it’s an inescapable reality. Ignore it at your peril.”

A transmedia producer is an inherently forward-thinking role—the PGA credit itself includes those who have worked with “technologies that may or may not currently exist.” So I ask Burns what she thinks is next. “Honestly—I’m so excited about immersive theater,” she answers immediately. She begins painting a future where immersive theater experiences like Sleep No More will incorporate virtual reality technology. “We’re going to hit people with emotional and exciting and transcendental experiences in a very physical way, both in virtual universes and the real world, in theatrical experiences. And that’s when we’ll really have something cool.” She pauses. “And after that, I have no idea.”

And so for now, Burns is back to focusing on what she enjoys most: storytelling and combining the basics of narrative with the cutting edge of technology. “For me, the most interesting things happen when we connect people and technology and stories. That means I deal with new stories on old platforms, and old stories on new platforms,” says Burns. “I’m lucky I’m curious.”

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SEAMLESS - How Producers Use Brand Partnerships To Serve Their Stories

Posted By Matt R. Lohr, Thursday, October 27, 2016
Once upon a time, product placement in entertainment media was all about just pointing the lens at the label. But like every other aspect of entertainment, product placement has undergone vast changes in the last several decades, with truly collaborative relationships emerging between brands, content creators and the brand-integration companies that facilitate connections between the two.

PGA member Bill Gerber (Gran Torino, the upcoming Sean Penn-directed The Last Face) has a profound understanding of the value brand integration can bring to a film project. “When you look at the amount of ad dollars spent in the United States or even globally, compared to the amount of production dollars, it dwarfs the entertainment business,” Gerber says. “I think one has to have a global point of view about these things and see if there are opportunities to help the movie and the brand have a successful collaboration.”

Gerber worked closely with America Online executives Bob Pittman and Steve Case, and with writer/director Nora Ephron on the tie-in for Ephron’s 1998 hit romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, a classic association for both companies and the filmmaker. “They caught it at the perfect moment, right as the internet was kind of exploding. It was organic, it was creative, and it made everybody look great.” Gerber also has praise for retail giant Walmart, with whom he partnered on the 2005 feature-film version of The Dukes of Hazzard. “Walmart became a very integral partner, and they actually came and spent some time with us. We put all the executives in the General Lee and had them driving on the obstacle courses, and they ended up manufacturing toys for the movie. They did a Jessica Simpson poster that was wildly successful ... Instead of us just licensing to somebody, they were 100% all in, really gave the movie a lot of shelf space at the stores. They were just supportive on every level.”

Most recently, Gerber has collaborated with sports apparel and accessories specialists Under Armour, on both The Last Face and Ron Shelton’s forthcoming gangsters-and-golf action-comedy Villa Capri. Jeremy Brodey, Under Armour’s director of branded integration and partnerships, found in both projects a strong, innovative showcase for the brand. “At the end of the day, it’s all about a trusting relationship,” says Brodey via email. “Bill is great. He had a vision, articulated it clearly and was always open for a conversation if issues arose.” Brodey also notes how The Last Face, starring Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem as international aid relief workers, allowed for fresh thinking in terms of Under Armour’s brand placement. “Our core competency will always be sport,” he says, “but we make amazing products that transcend the traditional sport field. Bill and his team had a certain look and feel they were going for as it pertained to Charlize’s wardrobe, and via our Studio line we were able to help them achieve their goal. Being set in Africa and its extreme conditions, UA made a lot of sense to use.”

Under Armour’s participation on The Last Face also emphasizes what Gerber calls “seamlessness in the association.” “You can’t really let the tail wag the dog as far as collaborations and product placement are concerned,” he says. “The filmmakers I work with tend to err on the side of not taking the money or taking the placement, if it starts to feel problematic.” The key, he says, is to ensure that a film or TV project’s incorporation of branded imagery does not result in a moment that “feels too much like a commercial.”

Facilitating brand/producer collaborations that fulfill the goals of both partners, without compromising the intentions or effectiveness of either, is the mission of Branded Entertainment Network (BEN), a global brand-integration concern financed and backed by the technology innovations of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In May, BEN was formally launched as a rebranding of Corbis Entertainment, known throughout the world for both its brand-integration projects and its vast archive of entertainment and news photography. But BEN traces its roots back even further, to Norm Marshall & Associates, one of the key contemporary innovators in the transition from “product placement” to fully collaborative brand integration.

Caressa Douglas, BEN’s senior vice president of branded integration and content, has been with the organization since the Norm Marshall days, and she recognizes both the industry’s sometimes checkered view of the process and the fresh opportunities its latest evolutions can offer both producers and brands. “There’s a stigma of product placement with filmmakers,” says Douglas, “So it’s important for filmmakers to know that the business of product placement has evolved. It’s much more sophisticated, it’s much more seamless, and brand partners have also learned along the way. So it really can be that official, and it can really move a story forward.”

BEN utilizes a sophisticated media-planning platform to pair brands with potentially appropriate partner projects, then tracks return on investment through interfaces with Nielsen, Cision, Shareablee, and other demographics-aggregating services—breaking down audience-segment data, internet hits and shares, and other desirable impact-measuring factors. Still, for all its numbers-crunching acumen, Douglas says that BEN’s primary focus with every project with which they partner is serving the story, and that her responsibility to both the producers and brands with which she works is essentially the same. “Our primary goal is to be listeners. It’s our job to listen to what the brand is trying to do, what those objectives are, and we need to listen to what the filmmaker is trying to do. When we do that, we can be clear about what everyone’s goals are, once everyone’s honest and listening to each other, and there’s flexibility.”

Some of BEN’s high-profile recent projects include “Fried Chicken Week,” a five-night event on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! that showcased special comedy segments created through collaboration with KFC and the Kimmel writing staff, and a prominent presence for ice cream chain Baskin-Robbins in Marvel Studios’ 2015 Ant-Man. Not only did the film include a major scene set at a Baskin-Robbins store, complete with logos and employee uniforms, but the franchise was also name-checked in dialogue (“Baskin-Robbins always finds out”) that became a popular social media hashtag and even led to fan-created merchandise. “There was another restaurant that was actually scripted in,” says Douglas, “and they did not want Marvel to use their client. We took that opportunity to change it to Baskin, and they did share in the process—gave the writers insight about Baskin, the Baskin philosophy, the Baskin flavors, so they had something they could work with for jokes ... That was just one of those lightning-in-a-bottle things. It just took off.”

BEN will collaborate with Gerber on his upcoming production of A Star is Born, the feature directorial debut of Bradley Cooper, who will also co-star alongside Lady Gaga. The film is still early in pre-production, so no brand/producer partnerships have as yet been finalized, but Gerber already has praise for the working relationship he has enjoyed with BEN. “The feedback I’ve gotten, and the kind of companies that have been brought to our attention that want to get involved have been appropriate and kind of the best of the best.” Douglas has not yet read the film’s script, but she believes the collaboration will be “a pretty easy connection. (Gerber) will have many brands clamoring, whether it’s technology or fashion, spirits ... Hopefully, he’s gonna be swatting off all the offers he’ll have come in.”

BEN’s relationship with Gerber is a natural outgrowth of its ongoing partnership with the PGA; in addition to its extensive work with and on behalf of PGA-member producers, the organization also partners with the guild on yearly conferences and semi-regular summits at which it educates producers and content creators about the ever-shifting landscape of brand integration. “I think the biggest change,” says Douglas, “is the democratization of distribution, and along with that, the viewing patterns that have changed. I read a study that kids have an eight-second filter to decide whether they’re going to engage with a piece of content. They definitely have shorter attention spans. And the millennials ahead of them, they cut all the cords, so now you just have to find them on streaming content, and I think that’s challenging for brands and producers. We value our relationship with the PGA tremendously, because we really believe that every partnership starts with the producer and story. Until we have that story, we can’t bring it to the brand.”

Fortunately, the enhanced creativity and synergistic nature of contemporary brand integration means that many brands now view their partnership with producers and content creators as more than just a means to an end. Under Armour’s Brodey reminds potential future producer/creator partners, “We are here to help, we are here to provide insight if needed, but most importantly—we’re fans. We too want to see this movie get made, we too feel a bit of ownership. We understand and embrace the relationship-building aspect and the potential to work together down the line.”

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MENTORING MATTERS - Blessing Or Curse: When It Comes To Producing, Having An Outside Gig Cuts Both Ways

Posted By Meta Valentic, Thursday, October 27, 2016
I have a love-hate relationship with producing independent films. I love the creative freedom, the risky subject matter and the chance to work with emerging artists. Having been in the indie world in one form or another for the last 20 years, I’ve had many amazing experiences but just as many frustrations. Producing indie film is a slow, uphill battle that is often unpaid. I constantly wonder how producers do it—and wonder the same for myself! I’m lucky enough to have a flexible, well-paid job within the industry (as a DGA assistant director) that supports my producing habit, but I have yet to call myself a bona fide, self-supported independent producer. The majority of films I am developing have social-justice angles in decidedly non-blockbuster genres. How can I carve out the best career for me, one that allows me to work on my passion projects, while still earning a living?

That question led me to the PGA Mentoring Program. I finally got myself a much-needed mentor to help me navigate my specific professional challenges. Zanne Devine started as an independent producer and has transitioned into an executive role as the President of Miramax Films. She sat down with me for three hours this summer and we went very deep into my roster of projects. She immediately saw that my dual life as an AD and producer is both a blessing and a curse. Zanne revealed that even she, as the president of a major company, still produces small indies. In fact, she had just gotten back from the set of a film she’s producing—a small film shooting near the Arctic Circle. Talk about commitment!

She offered invaluable advice and tasked me with several important producer duties. I haven’t always gotten attachment or option agreements on my projects. Zanne stressed the importance of advocating for myself for those agreements. She also sees the upside of being an AD and a producer, and advised me how to use that to my advantage. She also helped me network with an executive at a like-minded production company—one that produces films with a heavy social-activism component. Zanne has encouraged me to lean into my producing niche.

It’s given me the kick in the pants I’ve needed for a long time.

So thank you to the whole Committee, as well as Meera and Kyle at the PGA office. Spoiler alert—I’m the co-chair of the Mentoring Committee. I’ve seen hundreds of mentorships blossom over the years, and I’m proud to join the ranks of successful mentor/mentee pairings that our committee facilitates. 

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ABOVE & BEYOND - Pointing The Way In: Two Longtime Volunteers Offer Access and Opportunity

Posted By Administration, Thursday, October 27, 2016
When Carla first joined the PGA, she volunteered for the Guild’s Events Committee. Building on that experience, she became part of the core group of members who conceptualized and created the Debra Hill Short Film Contest (later known as Make Your Mark). “Volunteering for the Guild has allowed me to meet some incredible people,” says Carla. “It also allows me to share my professional talents to benefit the Guild and its members ... sort of a giving back. Through several years of organizing events like the annual golf tournaments and Christmas parties, I have created lifelong friendships.

“The committee that I am most proud of is Make Your Mark,” she smiles, “and the way that it’s grown over the years.” Conceived five years ago from the seed of an idea by Carole Beams, the short-film contest to honor Debra Hill’s legacy was born from one night’s marathon collaboration between Carla, Carole, Steven Wolfe (see below), Erin O’Malley, Pixie Wespiser, Salvy Maleki and Vance Van Petten. “We all get to participate in one round of the judging process, which allows us to see some incredible work,” adds Carla, who also plays a key role in recruiting A-list judges for the contest’s final round. She strongly encourages her fellow members to volunteer for Guild service, taking advantage of committees’ abilities to create a community of colleagues and like-minded producers. Carla has been a member since 2003 and works as a talent producer.

Steven has been a key contributor to numerous committees, including Events and later, Mentoring. “I was involved in creating the Debra Hill Short Film Contest (Make Your Mark) from its inception,” he says proudly, “and have sat on that committee from the start. I’ve continued to mentor other producers every [mentoring] cycle for over 10 years. I’ve participated in the credits arbitration process whenever asked, participated in the job forums as an employer, helped staff Produced By conference events on multiple occasions, attended most General Membership Meetings since I joined the Guild and generally lent a hand, when asked, at anything I’ve been able to make the time for.” He believes that volunteering for the Guild is all part of giving back to the industry that’s been his life’s work. “I enjoy helping others find the inspiration to make their dreams a reality and offering guidance to those who don’t have a way into the business or into a particular area of the business they would like to work in. When I started in the business I didn’t know a soul, and I didn’t have a way in. It seemed like a closed, insider club and there were few resources or places to go for help and advice. It’s been a privilege for me to lend support to those who need a hand. I’m also keenly aware of the important position the Producers Guild holds in protecting the integrity of our credits and protecting the role of the producer and the producing team. I feel it’s imperative to do my part to be sure the Guild can uphold our objectives.” Steven is entering his 14th year as a member; he works as an independent film producer and talent manager. 

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GOING GREEN - Get The Lead Out: Time For Hollywood Pyrotechnics To Light The Way

Posted By Tassilo Baur, Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lead-based FX work is a problem that’s been hiding in plain sight for many years. It’s old news in Europe, where lead is essentially banned from all pyrotechnics. However that isn’t the case in the United States. Traditional bullet hit/squib production FX, designed in the 1950s and made with lead-based explosive chemicals, are still used almost exclusively here in the United States. It’s an alarming fact considering that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has stated “no amount of lead is safe.” The issue recently gained some long-overdue attention in the Los Angeles Times and in a report by Monona Rossol of Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety. But regrettably, the general response from Hollywood has been less than explosive.

Naturally the initial focus of lead exposure has been on cast and crew safety. However another risk mentioned but rarely emphasized is environmental lead pollution in both private locations and public spaces. Any location where lead-based FX are used could end up contaminated. As a pyrotechnician, I’ve seen these FX used in bars, restaurants, convenience stores, hotel rooms and kitchens, as well as the living areas and bedrooms of private residences.

Because these FX devices are designed to explode, significant amounts of invisible lead dust and contaminated debris are dispersed throughout the environment and remain there indefinitely after filming. Targeted cleanups with trained people, special equipment and testing can help make a difference. But unfortunately, effective cleanups are unlikely.

The EPA considers 40 micrograms of lead per-square-foot or more hazardous in residences. Yet a single, smaller-sized traditional squib can release 28,600 micrograms of lead dust and debris—more than 700 times the EPA’s limit. And that’s just a single one. It’s common to use multiple, larger devices.

It’s 2016—time for Pyro 2.0.

As Flint, Michigan has reminded us, lead contamination poses grave risks. “Green pyro” isn’t a contradiction in terms; it’s just an idea whose time has come. Lead has been effectively removed from paint, gasoline, July 4th fireworks, stage and theme-park pyrotechnics, and theatrical blank ammunition. Why is it still in production FX?

Other departments already get this. For example, grips replaced lead with stainless steel in shot bags a long time ago. Lead is out of makeup, pigments and art materials, too. With respect to pyro, I’m happy to report that New York City, Warner Bros. and a few of my colleagues seem to be on the right path. But apologies are in order: Hollywood’s pyrotechnicians should be leading the charge. Most of us aren’t even following it yet.
No one should have to risk lead exposure, especially when it’s easy to prevent. Unfortunately, like many legacy industries, physical FX is bound by tradition and a reflexive resistance to change. There are many FX, stunt, cast and crew people who want things to change but don’t dare speak up for fear of being branded as troublemakers.

But there are budget-based reasons for hope. While some lead-free devices are currently more expensive than traditional applications, others are actually less so. And all are cost-effective when you factor in potential problems from lead exposure risk, including legal liability. Every insurance policy is different, but lead contamination can be defined as “pollution” and excluded under conventional production insurance. Producers should check with their insurance vendors to make sure they are covered in case of a lead exposure issue.

Don’t get me wrong: FX done properly are a great way to bring visual thrills into your production. They just need to be done responsibly, which in this case means adopting safer, readily available lead-free alternatives that can protect the cast, crew, public and the environment. These solutions have been around for many years. We simply have to start using them.

Full disclosure: I work with some of the companies that offer lead-free FX alternatives to the production industry. I’m doing that because I want people to be safe and personally want to be on the right side of history. These devices aren’t perfect or zero impact. All pyro has risks. But at the very least, we can strive to be lead-free. If you can safely get the same effect in front of the camera without lead, why would you choose otherwise? 


  • Take lead-pollution seriously, speak up and spread the word. 
  • If there’s pyro in your show, make sure it’s done with limiting the environmental impact in mind, and by using lead-free materials.

  • Even if there’s no pyro in your show, but you’re shooting at a rented stage (and especially if your shoot involves minors), ask if there were action sequences with bullet hits shot there previously. If so, bring up the lead contamination concern, ask how cleanup was done, and ask to see the post-cleanup testing report. If they don’t have the right answers, point out that your production is taking an unknown risk, and try to negotiate a discount to offset the trouble and expense of precautions you might need to take in response. This will leave an impression.

  • Please visit for more information and resources.

Tassilo Baur is a state and federally licensed special effects supervisor for movies and television in Los Angeles, and an internationally-recognized author, trainer, expert and lecturer on special effects-related safety.



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SHORT TAKES - Big Apple/Best Apple

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Will the real New York stories please stand up?

Q: With Produced By: New York coming up, we're curious: What film, TV program or story most vividly captures the city? Which production has that authentic New York feel?


Under the Boardwalk: The MONOPOLY Story

While Broad City episodes are often filled with fantastical elements and storylines, the show always feels authentic to the NYC I’ve grown to know. Many shows set in New York play it safe by filming on closed sets and stages, but Broad City often shoots on locations around the city. Additionally, the casting does a great job of reflecting real-world diversity in race, gender, and sexual identity.

VFX Producer,
Superman Returns

When Harry Met Sally immediately pops to mind, as it perfectly captured a slice of real-life NYC, strolling through the Met discussing paprikash and pecan pie, finding apartments through the obituaries and charming doormen, the uniquely New York sights and sounds of the holiday hustle-bustle. I love spending a couple of enchanting hours living vicariously as a New Yorker.

Story Associate Producer,
Married at First Sight: The First Years

Broadway is something that comes to mind immediately when thinking about New York. Although most of the movie takes place in a theatre, Birdman does a great job capturing the velocity and high energy of the city. Nothing beats that scene of Riggan (Michael Keaton) running down Times Square in his tighty-whities.

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Working Knowledge - From The National Executive Director

Posted By Vance Van Petten, Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Back in 2005, the PGA published a pamphlet that was modest in size but enduring in popularity. Titled “Your Rights as an Employee,” the booklet delivered 20 Q&A’s that sketched the basic framework of employment law as it applies to the entertainment business. It tackled this subject in direct, accessible language written to answer the most fundamental questions about the law that underlies our jobs: Are you an employee or an independent contractor? Are you entitled to overtime pay? How does the law protect employees from abusive conduct or discrimination?

We published that pamphlet in response to members’ concerns about their professional status and working conditions. Please remember than unlike the DGA, WGA and SAG, the Producers Guild is not a collective bargaining unit. Producers and companies don’t have a negotiated minimum basic agreement that dictates terms like wages and hours. Instead, producers and their teams rely on the employment protections offered by state and federal law. Not every PGA member is familiar with those laws—hence our determination to collect that information in one place, an easy-to-read guide that could serve as a reference—and not just for employees but employers as well.

Eleven years later, working conditions and employee rights remain a primary concern for our membership. Enough has changed in the intervening years that we went back to our Guild’s labor and employment counsel in New York and Los Angeles and asked them to revise our pamphlet to reflect new laws and practices, as they apply both on the federal level and the state level in California and New York. Numerous PGA members contributed to the effort, but I’d like to single out the dedicated work of Harvey Wilson in pushing the new pamphlet forward.

We’re very pleased with the result and hope that you will be too. If you’re a PGA member, you should find a copy of “Employment Rights of the Producing Team” included with this issue of Produced By. If you’re not a member, you’ll be able to find all of the information as a pdf on, or just stop by the PGA offices and we’ll be happy to give you a copy.

Producing is a unique job. Of all of the major creative positions in Hollywood, producers have the longest job descriptions and the fewest protections. Sometimes producers function as employees, and sometimes we work as employers. No matter which role you’re filling on a given project, a working knowledge of the basics of employment law is essential. It’s not hard to get taken advantage of in this business, nor is it rare to find yourself suddenly liable for issues that you didn’t know were your responsibility. Don’t let either fate befall you. Know your rights as an employee. Know your obligations as an employer. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll be in a position to tell the stories you want to tell and safeguard the career you’ve worked so hard to build.

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BOSPOAT - Best On Set Photo Of All Time: History In The Making

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, October 26, 2016

There are days when the excitement and drama of making a film matches the intensity of the story you’re telling. That’s especially likely to be true on the days when you’re shooting the climax of your movie and/or committing most of your effects budget. No second chances or reshoots on this one.

That focus and passion is front and center in this fantastic shot from the set of Guernica, which was released earlier this year by Sony and recently completed a triumphant series of premieres throughout Spain. (Currently the film is available via Amazon, iTunes, Redbox and similar platforms.) Credit for the photo goes to the film’s producer, PGA member Daniel Dreifuss, who knows that nothing beats the production value of an authentic location. “We reproduced the Guernica market bombing on the exact spot where the market used to be in April, 1937,” he shares proudly. It was a complicated day, involving not only practical effects and numerous extras, but “a whole zoo of animals … donkeys, geese, rabbits, you name it.” Lending the shoot even greater resonance was the presence of four local residents who had witnessed the bombing as children. Even as much as the re-creation of the bombing itself, Dreifuss says, “I think it was very powerful for them to see the market from their childhood come alive again.”

We’re lucky to work in a business where we get to travel to unique and historic places and stage our stories with costumes, production design and effects. But sometimes production reminds you of the big picture, which is that we’re even luckier to be the ones telling the story, instead of the ones who lived it. 

We know what you’re thinking. “Best of all time? No way. I’ve got an on-set photo way better than that.” If that’s the case, we dare you to prove it. Submit it to Before you submit, please review the contest rules at Because no matter how great your photo is, we have no desire to get sued over it.

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Posted By Administration, Wednesday, October 26, 2016
30 Fox employees, including producers from 15 different shows and production companies, all gathered between stages 2 and 3 on the studio lot for an “On The Lot” lunch this September. One of the Guild’s “hidden gem” programs, the lunches provide a unique opportunity for fellow PGA members working at a given studio to meet up, create or renew connections, and share a tasty catered meal. The recent lunch at Fox provided plenty of good food, high spirits and great networking . If you’re interested in connecting with the producing community on your lot, we’re ready to help organize it; email program organizer Karen Covell at


The inaugural night of the invitation-only SET (storytelling, entertainment and technology) series not only provided PGA Northwest members with an occasion to come together around their own signature event, but provided them with unique insights into the challenges of telling stories. Held at Lucasfilm, the first SET event featured speakers such as Pete Docter (PIXAR), Kevin Lin (Twitch), Rayne Roberts (Lucasfilm) and Maureen Fan (Baobab Studios). Members of PGA Northwest (and New York- or L.A.-based members in town) should be on the lookout for announcements of another SET event in the near future.

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