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FIRST LOOK: A Documentary/Non-Fiction Screening Series

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, March 6, 2018

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


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


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


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


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


PGA members interested in joining the Documentary/Non-Fiction Committee, please request membership at:


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


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

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

Posted By Michael Ventre, Tuesday, February 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Posted By Chris Thomes, Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

Enter digital social content.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, February 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

photographed by Michael Neveux

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

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


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


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


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

RUSS: They know. You’re on a list.

LIANNE: You’re on a list. [chuckles]

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


RUSS: That’s pretty weird, isn’t it?


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


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


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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

*photo by Peter Land

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Power Player: Funny and Fearless, Showrunner Courtney Kemp Knows Exactly Where the Buck Stops

Posted By Sarah Sanders, Monday, January 29, 2018

It is roughly two minutes into my interview with creator, showrunner and producer Courtney Kemp, and she has already discussed red lipstick, offered me lunch and plunged into an insightful critique of misogyny in Hollywood. 

“There were definitely certain issues, especially early on, with being the definitive voice and having to say the buck stops here, even if I am wearing lipstick and a skirt,” she says. “It’s still my show. I’m still the showrunner.”

That show, which Kemp created, is the critically acclaimed Starz drama Power, currently in production for its fifth season and considered to be the network’s most watched original series to date. (The latest season averaged around 8 million viewers per week—for reference, that’s a number topped in premium cable only by HBO’s Game of Thrones.) The series marks her debut as a creator and showrunner, though she has been producing and writing for years for shows including The Bernie Mac ShowInjustice, and The Good Wife.

People are often surprised to learn that Kemp—who is direct but warm, with a big smile and mischievous laugh—is at the helm of Power, a gritty New York drama full of drugs, guns and gangs. “Im a black woman showrunner,” she states. “Which means sometimes that goes along with, ‘What? Youre a showrunner?’’’

“I think being a woman actually has been harder than being of color,” she continues. “I think that both things do define who I am and my experience on the planet. But being taken seriously as a woman, given the content of my show—my race was always going to make me a more authentic voice for people and make people trust me with this subject matter, or in this world with these characters. But my gender often was a challenge.”

Among those challenges: the frustration with others asking her to speak “as a woman” about sexism and misogyny, most recently in terms of the ongoing exposure of a deep history of sexual assault in Hollywood.

“I think we are ignoring a lot when we talk about this as a womens issue,” she says. “Its a power issue.”

Courtney Kemp discusses a scene on the set of Power with cast
member Omari Hardwick. Center: EP Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson

While she’s glad that the voices of those who have been exploited currently are being heard, Kemp admits she’s not optimistic about recent events having a lasting effect. “This is going to be a brief window I think, where this is going to be taken seriously. I think that we will snap back. Because everything is cyclical,” she says, though she quickly adds that she hopes she’s wrong. She is adamant, however, that any lasting change will require work by everybody.

“We have to not look at it as a binary and look at it as everyone’s responsibility,” she counsels. “I always get the question: ‘What can you do, as a woman?’ And it’s like, well, ask everybody.”

In fact, Kemp hates being asked her stance on anything “as a woman,” something she has spoken about at length. “I just hate gender essentialism, racial essentialism, essentialism in terms of sexuality or gender status … I hate all of that.” She instead values individual experience and emotional truth, both of which lie at the core of her beliefs about storytelling.

“You can’t say that because someone is a straight white man that they don’t understand. Because you don’t know what they understand. You can’t say because someone is a black woman that she can’t write, you know, the Lance Armstrong story,” she says firmly. “Thats the thing that I think is sort of my rallying cry, that writers can write anything.”

While the factual backgrounds of stories may require research, Kemp is insistent that what matters most when writing characters is accessing their emotional truth, which everybody experiences. She describes the wide range of characters she writes as all fundamentally coming from different parts of herself.

“Because when you’re writing at 2 in the morning, you only have yourself to draw on,” she explains. “You can’t really call anyone else and wake them out of a sound sleep and be like, ‘Well what would you do?’ So you really have to go for emotional truth.” And that, she insists, “knows no race, no gender, no color, no sexual orientation. Hurt, heartbreak, pain, struggle, triumph: they don’t know any thing to do with the person or the race, gender, et cetera of the character … The outside of the character isn’t what people are connecting to anyway.”

As with challenging sexism offscreen, Kemp believes a storyteller’s power to tell any story means the responsibility for crafting the still-scarce “strong female character” is on everybody. “When people ask me, ‘Tell me about how you create such strong female characters,’ Im like, ‘Ask the guys that. Why they dont. Why they choose not to.’”

Kemp herself is about to send another powerful woman to screens across the country, having recently announced her next project: the series Get Christie Lovewhich secured a pilot production commitment with ABC in a competitive bidding war this autumn. The show is inspired by the 1974 TV movie and subsequent series Get Christie Love, which starred Teresa Graves as an undercover CIA agent and was the first drama on network television to star a black woman. Kemp has been striving to remake the historically important project for years and has vivid memories of first seeing the original. “I was like: This woman is a badass. And she’s black, and she’s powerful, and she doesn’t care. She’s not hung up. She has freedom.”

Kemp first began working on a remake several years ago, right after her father passed away, partly in order to work through attendant feelings of helplessness. Working on the strong character of Christie was in part an attempt to answer the question, “How do I get my power back?” However Kemp temporarily shelved Christie when Power took of on Starz.

Kemp is cautiously hopeful about Get Christie Love’s prospects, explaining, “I think it is a good time for a black woman to be on TV—y’know, speaking multiple languages, kicking ass, being vulnerable, having a complicated love life.” She also believes that “There’s a space and a time in the culture for a black woman showrunner to have multiple shows on the air,” as has been proven by Kemp’s soon-to-be-colleague at ABC, Shonda Rhimes.

She’s very pragmatic about the reasons for that time and space, however. “People actually want this content right now because they think they can make money. Because the only color that matters in Hollywood is green. So when people are like, ‘Oh, is it more open now?’” Kemp laughs and continues, “No! People know how to make money!”

Kemp created her production company, End of Episode, in part to be able to take advantage of the opportunity to have multiple shows on the air. “The idea is to really make more TV that is more inclusive of everybody and get everybody’s stories on,” she maintains. These days, though, it seems one of the hardest parts of telling those stories is finding time to write them.

“It’s almost impossible to get time to write,” she says. “I have to steal it.” She walks over to a bookcase in her office and pulls out a stack of signs, which she says she sometimes puts on her door. One is a flowchart guiding would-be interrupters through the process of deciding if they should knock (they shouldn’t). One says, “You made a wise choice.” Several provide directions to her assistant’s office, and one, which makes her laugh, that says simply, “NO.” “If Im going to write,” she explains, “this is the one that has to be up.”

Courtney Kemp on the set of Power with
cast member Omari Hardwick.

The writing needs to be as insulated as possible from the avalanche of other showrunning responsibilities. Though the writers’ room is her preferred home base, she flies back and forth between her set in New York and her writers’ room and editing suites in LA “pretty much constantly,” she says. “The writers’ room has to live without me. It has to make decisions without me, it has to breathe without me. And then I have to come in and go, ‘Okay, that doesnwork because I have a global idea of what the series is.’” She is, again, where the buck stops, creatively as well as logistically.

“Writing is what if, and producing is what is,” she explains. Her life as showrunner is a constant, often-contradictory balancing act between the creative impulses of making a television show.

“There’s so many different elements that you need to control, or at least try to control, because so many things will be out of your control,” she observes. “I mean, theres a hurricane—what are you supposed to do about that, right? Trucks get flooded, things get stolen, actors get sick. There’s so much you can’t control that you can only write for what you can, and that’s producing.”

Kemp credits mentors like Michelle and Robert King, Jef Melvoin and Greg Berlanti with giving her the information she needed to become a first-rate producer. “I still do things to this day that I learned from Greg,” she notes. He gave her tips on everything from season plotting (have a singular vision and keep coming back to “What is the show?”) to staff hours (10-6; give your staff the weekends of) to working dinners (“Once the foodarrived and everyones eaten, its 9p.m. What the hell? Just go home! Start in the morning”).

He [Berlanti] would take us to the editing room. We would learn how to edit,” she recalls. “It was very much a ‘teaching hospital.’ The best shows are.”

Kemp consults with direct J.J. Bassett (middle) and DP Mauricio -
Rubinstein(left) on location in NYC for the
Power season 2 finale.

Now that she has shows of her own, Kemp’s latest challenge is navigating the ways in which being a showrunner also means being a public figure. “Being recognized is weird,” she admits, adding that her experiences of being recognized come in pockets, “because of the ways that the shows audience has broken down.” She laughs as she tells a story about being recognized by a salesperson while checking out in Sephora. “I had one girl go, like, ‘You’re a legend!’ And I was like, ‘Uh, no. I need eyeliner! But I’m not a legend.’”

While fans of Power are passionate – “I’m so grateful to our fans and I love them, and I’m so really, really thankful for their watching,” she adds—Kemp goes back and forth between experiences like that and competing instances of frequently not being recognized by others in her own industry.

“I’ll literally be at like a showrunner’s event or something, and someone will be like, ‘Oh, hey, can I get some more water?’ They think I’m like a waiter,” she says. “Because there’s no way I’m a showrunner, right? I don’t ‘look like a showrunner.’”

Kemp is calm as she continues, though it’s clear that the feelings run deep. Sometimes when that happens, she explains who she is and what she does; sometimes she just walks away.

“You don’t have to educate people every time,” she refects. “You don’t always have to make it about well you should’ve known, or you should have recognized, or at this point you should be educated enough to realize, ‘Look, anybody could be anything.’ Because maybe you’re the education.”

She smiles a little. “My existence is enough. Like, I got in the room the same way you did. Came up with a good story. That’s it.”

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