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University of Scorsese - Emma Tillinger Koskoff Learns From A Master How To Bring Humanity To Her Productions

Posted By Sarah Sanders, Friday, January 3, 2020

“Lead with kindness.” These aren’t the words I was expecting to be the guiding philosophy of the woman best known as “Martin Scorsese’s producer”—the woman behind such dark, gritty blockbusters as The Wolf of Wall Street and The Departed. But from the moment she says hello, it’s clear producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff not only values but also embodies a genuine kindness. She’s in Manhattan for the New York Film Festival, where The Irishman and Joker both had premieres, and when we meet in her hotel suite, she’s just raced back from a morning screening. Despite her packed schedule, Koskoff is warm and welcoming, and by the end of our conversation I feel as though I’m talking to someone I’ve known for a long time.

This warmth becomes less surprising the more Koskoff talks about her work philosophy, and how relationships and human connection are of paramount importance. Indeed, for the past 17 years, her working relationship with Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese has been at the center of her career. Koskoff worked as his executive assistant for three years and in 2006 was promoted to President of Production for Sikelia Productions. She now works alongside Scorsese on all aspects of his film and television projects.

“I will say I have the greatest gig in town,” Koskoff says. “I've been so fortunate to be raised and mentored by Marty in this job. He’s so giving and patient. He’s extremely demanding,” she adds. “He has taught me so much, so it’s been 17 years of growth and a great learning process. It’s like my own private film school.”

Koskoff never went to traditional film school. From the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to start working in entertainment right away. “I knew that I did not want to go to college. I knew that I did not want to go to film school. I knew that I wanted to just get out and get into the workforce,” she says. “My father's a theater director. My mother's an actress, writer, director. So this is in my DNA. And now, I feel like the luckiest producer.”

Over the course of the years, Koskoff and Scorsese have built a meaningful relationship and learned how to work together really well. In addition to handling the production demands of their films, she prioritizes protecting Scorsese and his creative process. “My main focus, and what I pride myself on, is putting the support team around him and help make the shoot, the edit and the post as safe and secure as possible for him,” she says. “I always want to be able to give Marty the freedom to create and do what he does.”

Balancing creative and logistical demands was both a joy and a challenge throughout work on The Irishman. The star-studded film brings together a legendary cast including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci—and marks not only a reunion for De Niro, Pesci and Scorsese, but also the first time Pacino and the director have worked together. According to production notes, The Irishman is “an epic saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran, a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th century.” Koskoff loved the screenplay and working with the cast. Further, the idea of the film had been De Niro’s passion project for a long time, which added an extra special element to the process. “To be able to help him see that come to life was just very moving and amazing,” she says.

Even though Koskoff and Scorsese are no strangers to giant films, the scale of The Irishman was immense: It spans 50 years, and production involved 320 scenes in 117 locations. “It’s always challenging making a film,” she explains, but “this was particularly challenging, just given the amount of days, the scope and size of what we were doing.”

Scorsese apparently agreed. She recounts with a smile how he “would come to the set sometimes and say, ‘Who are all these people? What are all these trucks doing here? What is going on? Emma, this is not how you make a movie!’ And I would laugh and say, ‘Remember  though, we are carrying nine cameras at all times because we're shooting digital, and we're shooting film. Marty, that’s three camera crews! It’s a lot of people! This is how we’re making this movie!’” she says. “And he’d go, ‘Ugh, this is crazy!’ and then he’d go off laughing.”

In the midst of such a complicated production, it was especially important to Koskoff to ensure that Scorsese and the actors had the space and time they needed to do their creative work, and to be “malleable to the needs of the actors,” who were diving into intense, dramatic roles.

“I'll always err on the side of the human needs as opposed to the production demands,” she says, while also acknowledging that she’s deeply involved in handling all of those aspects, from budgeting to scheduling. “I'll always figure out how to compensate on that [the production] side to make sure Marty and the actors have what they need,” she explains. “Whether that’s making difficult phone calls to add a day, or whatever I have to sort of handle so that it’s handled, I’m happy and willing to do it.”

Still, not even the best preparation or negotiations can account for the weather, an element that has made for some of the most memorable days of Koskoff’s and Scorsese’s shoots. She tells the story of one particular day shooting The Irishman during a February cold snap when the windchill brought the temperature to below zero. They were by the water in Red Hook, Brooklyn, shooting a scene in which De Niro and actor Bo Dietl push taxi cabs into the river. “It was so cold, I can’t even tell you,” she exclaims, even with hot-air blowers they had brought to try to keep people warm. “I literally put on my ski gear: my ski pants, my winter boots, my ski jacket, my face mask.”

“It was a big scene,” she explains, involving a crane, choreography from DP Rodrigo Pietro—and a three-hour reset to get the taxicabs out of the river in case they didn’t get the shot. “You know, with Marty, if it's not the way he wants it, we’re doing it again,” she says. “And we got the shot.”

While that day was difficult, Koskoff says nothing compares to shooting 2016’s Silence, a film Scorsese had been wanting to make for nearly 30 years, and which was shot entirely in Taiwan. “That was a beast. It was an incredibly difficult film to put together. I remember saying to him, ‘It’s you and me: We can't call LA when we get into trouble. We've got a finite amount of money. We've got a finite amount of time,’” she recalls. But Scorsese “was an incredible producing partner to me. I had to have tough conversations, we had to make tough choices, and we did it together.”

The most challenging of those days? Driving up a mountain at 4:30 a.m., preparing for a giant scene involving many background actors and getting a call that there was a downpour so torrential that the extras’ tents had blown off the side of the mountain. There was lightning, and the whole set was flooded—and the scene they were shooting was meant to be on a hot, dry day. “That's a situation where you have to just go with go with it,” she explains, though she did briefly consider calling it a day. “But we got up there, the rain stopped, the lightning stopped, we got those tents back up, and we made our day.”

Indeed, the work required to produce Silence made the project all the more meaningful to her. “My blood, sweat and tears went into that film, and I am so proud of that movie,” she says. It was the first time she felt secure in the knowledge that “I got this. I actually can produce a film,” she explains. “Somebody was saying I have imposter syndrome—you know, ‘They’re going to find out I don’t really know what I’m doing.’ But that really gave me a level of confidence that I didn’t have before.”

Koskoff was met with a new kind of challenge working on Joker: producing with someone other than Scorsese. She met Joker director Todd Phillips a couple of years ago. The two hit it off, and initially Scorsese’s production company was interested in making the film. While Scorsese ultimately was not able to be involved due to scheduling constraints, when Phillips asked Koskoff to stay on and her own schedule allowed, Scorsese gave her the go-ahead.

“It was quite terrifying,” she says. “I was very nervous. I sort of second-guessed myself. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I shouldn't be doing this. I don't really know what I'm doing … I don't know that I really know how to produce for somebody else.’” However, after some encouragement from her dear friend—producer and manager Rick Yorn—and her husband, Nick, Koskoff agreed. Phillips was “extremely supportive and welcoming and nurturing and championing,” she says, and working on the movie was a great experience.

Koskoff's 17 years with Scorsese have been, she says, "like my own private film school."
-photo courtesy of Niko Tavernise-

“It was another film that really gave me a level of confidence that I didn't have,” she explains. “I have a lot of insecurities and I have a lot to learn, and I know that. I’m confident in my ability in what I do, so I’m confident in the room. But I'm also not afraid to be vulnerable and to ask for help when I need it, and to lean on people when I need it. I make sure to surround myself with the best of the best because I stand on many, many shoulders.”

In fact, an element of working on Joker that Koskoff valued was being able to hire and bring along several crew members she had worked with before, including AD David Webb, with whom Phillips had been wanting to work for years. She’s very close to the crew members, explaining, “I’m attached at the hip to the line producer and the AD and the DP.”

Making sure the crew is happy is something Koskoff takes very seriously. “I want the crew to feel just as important as the actors and the director, and just as well taken care of. That's sort of how I like to operate, and I do operate,” she explains. “I’m a big fan of food trucks, a big fan of spoiling my crew, a big fan of, you know, Friday night wrap drinks,” she says. “It’s gonna be hard work, so let’s make it as much fun as it can be.” 

When I ask what she does for herself to decompress at the end of a long day, Koskoff is quick with her response: “I love to have a big, tall glass of red wine. Maybe two,” she says. She loves to sit in the trailer with her team and recap the day, “take a deep breath, and get ready to do it all again,” she adds.

It seems like Koskoff will have many more days to “do it all again.” She’s currently preparing to shoot Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon in Oklahoma over the summer.

No matter how busy or stressful a day may be, though, Koskoff insists that having empathy is a vital element of producing. “Really try and keep your humanity,” she says. “Everybody is a human being. Everybody is there to do the same thing. Lead with kindness, lead with authority, lead with confidence. But most importantly, lead with kindness.”

Words to live by, on and off a film set.

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Taking A Long View of Short-Form - Quibi and Others Are Counting On An Appetite For Mobile TV

Posted By Chris Thomes, Monday, December 9, 2019

In a world where it feels like there can never be enough content to satiate the ravenous “I want what I want when I want it” viewer, it seems that any content—even nontraditional programming—can find its legs and make a go of it. However, there is one area of programming that has yet to actually make it over the top of the hill without rolling back—which it has many, many times—premium small-screen programming.  

I have written about this format for the past several years, and the story is always the same. A wave of enthusiasm comes along, investment happens, jobs are created, content is produced, and then, without a sustainable business model, it all unravels. This wash, rinse, repeat cycle has included the wrecked ships of Disney’s Stage 9 and Maker Studios, Go90, Machinema and Vessel. While all of these platforms have tried and failed to find an audience for short-form video programming, it looks like “groundhog’s day” may actually be coming to an end. With a very serious $1 billion-plus programming budget, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s premium short-form platform, Quibi, leads this latest run at the windmill.

As a refresher, mobile content of this ilk is under 14 minutes, has high production value, is original or derivative in nature, and often serialized. Most of it to date has been lifestyle programming. Very rarely has scripted short-form made a go of it, but it did have its day a few years back. Spurred on by the launches of streaming services and content slates like Seeso, Fullscreen, ABC’s ABCd, and Comcast’s Watchable, dozens of short-form content studios emerged to capitalize on the voracious appetite for stories told in 10- to 15-minute increments. But the market was short-lived, as subscribers failed to materialize and digital advertising competition from Google and Facebook made it hard to recoup budgets.

However, as mobile consumption continues to grow, Hollywood’s digital producers have been turning their attention to a new crop of potential buyers with increasingly deeper pockets. Over the last two years, the major streamers (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) started experimenting with show formats and lengths. Amazon funded Funny or Die’s short films, Netflix funded new episodes of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which range from nine to 23 minutes each), and even Hulu started to populate ancillary short-form programming alongside its related main shows in the extras section.

Driving this momentum for the streamers is the notion that short-form series have started to become a cost-effective way to keep fickle young viewers engaged between, say, new seasons of Stranger Things or The Handmaid’s Tale. The average cost of a digital project is typically about $10,000 per minute, but that can stretch higher than $20,000 if a project or the talent (actors, writers, director) warrants. Those budgets might have been more than the digital ad market could bear in the early, sponsor-supported days of short-form, but they are a fraction of the billions of dollars that Netflix and other streamers spend on programming every year.

Professional organizations are also starting to recognize the seriousness of the short-form market. Our own PGA now honors short-form with its Outstanding Digital Series award, and the Television Academy has several Emmy categories for short-form programs including animation, drama, comedy, variety, and actress and actor in a short-form drama or comedy series.

All of this interest is dwarfed, though, by Quibi’s investment in the space.

Initially, Katzenberg raised nearly $600 million from investors to put up a shingle for his new digital media and technology investment firm WndrCo in early 2017. Then, at the tail end of 2018, having teamed up with former eBay CEO Whitman, Katzenberg launched Quibi, a short-form, mobile-based subscription streaming service that debuts next year.

With $1 billion in backing initially from the likes of Disney, WarnerMedia, Fox, Viacom and NBCU, among others, Katzenberg and Whitman started with a lot of muscle. And their approach has moxie, too. At the Produced By Conference this past June, Whitman touted that “We’re the first OTT service launched without acquiring a library,” which means all that investment will disappear pretty quickly as they ready their service for debut.

Quibi isn’t the only major player investing in this space. Former Lionsgate co-COO and Motion Picture Group co-president Steve Beeks and former Fox Division president Mike Dunn have launched Elemental Content And Solutions, a new short-form production and distribution company that will be a fulcrum for funding and creating live action and animated series, told in three- to five-minute segments. Like Quibi, they are betting the 18–34 demo will spark to a new way of consuming content—that is, in short bites.

Quibi will drop videos in seven-to 10-minute chunks, which is very similar to the 11-minute segments on television today in between ads. As with TV, monetization will come from advertising, but there will be no more than 2 ½ minutes’ worth of ads in an hour. There will be a 15-second ad pre-roll for a five- to 10-minute session, and for those less than five minutes, there will be less than a five-second ad.

Elemental’s content is shorter in length and its initial focus will be to align with mobile telecommunications carriers in high-growth international markets whose youthful customers are clamoring for such content. The early emphasis is overseas in Asia, South America and Europe, and their intention is to launch programming slates with those international carriers by the first half of next year.

While all of this sounds well and good, for the producer looking to capitalize on this market opportunity, there are some serious things to consider.

 

Is there a potential market for it? Absolutely.

Mobile video consumption continues to rise. Quibi’s bet is that it will have the ability to grab a percentage of viewers who are willing to pay for programming that’s far superior to YouTube and other social platforms. And with the general trend of consumers paying for streaming content, Quibi executives feel like they have a great shot at capturing on-the-go viewers. Their thinking is that if there are people who are watching more than an hour of video on their mobile devices every day, it’s not that crazy to believe that Quibi can get 2% to 4% of those consumers to a paid experience.

What are the deals like? Surprisingly generous.

Quibi’s deals are great for studios, but not necessarily for Quibi. As part of its deals, Quibi pays the cost of a show, plus a 20% production fee. For this, Quibi exclusively licenses the content in bite-size viewing form for seven years, after which the rights revert back to the creators and producers. But crucially, after two years on the service, creators will be able to edit the short-form version into one feature-length project and can sell the rights to international buyers. This innovative IP ownership model has upsides for both producers and platforms and stands in stark contrast to a streamer like Netflix, which takes all global rights for long periods of time. For producers, short-form has always felt challenging in terms of revenue streams, but Quibi offers a way to break out of that with potential real value for the producer and distributor.

Is there revenue to be had? People are starting to bet on it.

According to reports out this past July, Quibi has already booked $100 million in upfront ad deals from advertisers including Google, Procter & Gamble, Walmart and PepsiCo. Quibi’s starry and well-funded commissions give a clear sense of its ambition in the short-form market, while backing from both investors and advertisers suggests a high degree of confidence that it has the right ingredients to captivate audiences and generate impressions.

Does the viewer actually want short-form? That’s the million-dollar question.

Short-form, premium content may have the wind pointing in the right direction, but astute producers will wonder if it’s really filling a consumer need. Do people actually want premium short-form? Well, you could ask the same thing about the iPhone. There were plenty of mobile devices out there before the iPhone came along. What Apple did was make people want the iPhone. They created the desire for it by portraying it as a cultural phenomenon and tapping into the consumer’s sense of a cool factor.

Changing consumer behavior is not easy, and it takes a lot of money to create programming consumers will watch not just once, but many times—and hopefully recommend to friends. It will also take a lot of money to market it as a mainstream choice, something sorely missing from prior short-form efforts. Quibi and others are well aware of the hurdles, but they’re hoping their investments will get the train over the hill. And even if there is no consumer appetite yet, these new ventures are going to do their best to make you hungry.

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DONALD DE LINE - He's A Studio Exec-Turned-Producer Who Loves His Present And Looks Forward To His Future

Posted By Administration, Friday, November 22, 2019

The first thing you notice is his big, broad smile. Donald De Line looks genuinely happy to be where he is, doing what he’s doing. It is no doubt one of the many reasons he’s had such a long, successful career in the entertainment industry. De Line began as a studio executive before transitioning to a full-time producer. He totally understands the symbiotic relationship between the two career paths and credits his time running studios with making him a more involved, aware and participatory producer.

De Line’s approach to his work is based on a collaborative style of leadership, which perfectly suits this easygoing, dedicated filmmaker. He loves being on set and looking after his crew by anticipating and solving problems. He also enjoys being part of the tight-knit family that forms during a production and is genuinely grateful for the friendships that come from working together.

De Line’s curiosity and varied interests are apparent when you look at the breadth of his films—

The Italian Job; I Love You, Man; Green Lantern and Ready Player One, to name a few. As a studio exec, he was tasked with coming up with a broad slate, and that mentality has informed his producing. He’s up for anything as long as it’s a great story. His openness carries over into his acceptance of and excitement about the rapidly changing production landscape and the emergence of streaming content.

True to form, De Line’s upcoming projects are an amalgam of interesting stories and perspectives. There’s the YA movie based on the classic book The Phantom Tollbooth. It’s a hybrid live action/CGI film. Then there’s Marian, a retelling of the Robin Hood myth from the perspective of Maid Marian. As De Line puts it, “It was really always the woman behind the man and not the man.” And he’s looking forward to a limited series called The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, the true story of a guy who impersonated being a Rockefeller for 20 years. Think a real-life version of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

So wherever your future film tastes lead you, expect to meet up with a smiling Donald De Line. I guarantee he’ll be happy to see you.


 

What first attracted you to the entertainment industry?

When I was a kid, my family’s big activity every weekend was going to the movies. It was something that as far back as I can remember, I looked forward to. There was lots of debate and discussion about it, as we pored over the theater section in the Saturday and Sunday papers. So it was just something that was always a big part of my life. I found it to be such a transportive experience; it was something that affected me emotionally in a huge way, and it was just always a big part of my life.

 

Was there anyone or anything in particular that inspired you early on?

The access I had to the movie business as a kid was from our elementary school library. It was a series of biographies of different famous people throughout history. One I discovered was on Cecil B. DeMille. So I read his biography to learn what a movie director and producer did and how that worked. And it was just fascinating to me. I realized that that was someone’s job and it opened my eyes to that world.

 

Really? In elementary school? That is so random.

 Yes. Cecil B. DeMille. It was in first or second grade. 

 

You started in the business as a studio executive. Was there anything in particular you learned as an executive that really helped your transition to producing?

Absolutely. First of all, I think any studio executive is a better studio executive if they’ve been a producer. And I think any producer is a better producer if they’ve been a studio executive. Because we work hand in glove, to really have an understanding of what goes on—on each side—behind the curtain, is very, very helpful. We need each other. So I felt that having 13 years under my belt as a studio executive was very useful for me in terms of developing skills to deal with people and in delegating. As a producer, you have to be a leader on the set. You’re the parent. Being an executive taught me a lot about how to walk onto a set and assume that role and make people feel supported, make them feel taken care of, appreciated, and valued for their time and effort. A happy cast and a happy crew are critical to the outcome of a film. You want people to do their best and give what they have at their highest level.

 

Do you enjoy spending time on the set?

Yes. I’m a producer who loves being on set. I get there at call in the morning. My job is to check in with the director, take a mood temperature, suss out whether or not everybody is happy, get a bead on any issues that might be brewing. Basically get the lay of the land. It’s so funny because I’m very close with my sister, and years ago when I transitioned from being a studio executive to being a producer, when I would call her she would say, “Oh, you must be on set.” I’d ask, “How do you know?” And she’d say, “Because you sound so happy. You’re always happiest when you’re on set.” There’s just something about the creative process and watching a film come to life that’s like nothing else. It’s incredibly satisfying.

 

I feel like if I were part of your team, I would really appreciate that involvement and support from the producer.

I’ve had a lot of positive feedback that way over the years, whether it’s from a makeup or hair person or a prop person—any aspect of production. And then I’ll hear stories about them having experienced the opposite. So yes, I do think it matters.

 

When you made that transition to producer, was there anything early on that surprised you?

[LAUGHS] Yeah. It surprised me how little I really knew about what went on in the actual making of a movie. As an executive, I had dealt with so many movies for so many years and visited lots of sets, watched lots of dailies and been involved in everything from developing scripts to seeing cuts of movies in postproduction. But to really be there behind the scenes and experience it is entirely different. It gave me great appreciation for what producers do. Of course, to a large degree, I already had that appreciation. I was very much an executive who valued strong producers, and I always felt they made my job much easier. I always slept better at night when I knew there was a strong producer on set.

Mark Wahlberg, Ari Emanuel, Michael Bay, De Line and Dwayne Johnson check out dailies on Pain & Gain

 

But once you jumped into it you had even more appreciation?

A hundred percent. It really opened my eyes to the way things get done—what it’s like for a director on a given day to be faced with so many decisions under great pressure. As an executive you can sit in an office and say, “Well, why doesn’t he or she just do X, Y or Z?” It’s really not that easy.

 

You have produced films from so many different genres. Heist movies, rom-coms, biopics, action thrillers—you’ve made them all. Do you have a favorite genre you tend to look for more than others?

It’s really interesting you bring that up. I’ve thought about that before, and I think part of it is a result of having been a studio executive for a long time before I was a producer. Because as a studio executive I had to have a slate of movies to put out every year, so there’s some for family, some comedy, some drama. And I was used to thinking of a broad slate of films. So when I became a producer I kind of approached developing that same way.

 

I was thinking about Ready Player One. I can only imagine that when you work with Steven Spielberg it puts a project in another dimension.

 Yes, it does.

Donald De Line on the Warner Bros. lot, where he has his production company


That being said, were there any particular lessons you learned that were specific to working with him, anything that made that a different experience?

He’s just amazing for the singular talent he brings to everything he does, not to mention his work ethic is incredible. He would get there two hours before the call time, already working with his editor before the crew arrived in the morning. During lunch he’d be back in the editing room or shooting on the motion capture stage. He never wasted a minute. It was really something to see. I’ve worked with a lot of different directors, and all directors are hardworking. You can’t direct if you’re not hardworking. But he really takes it to another level.           

 
In terms of problem solving, you said you like to be there in person, on the set. Is your process a collaborative one?

I absolutely view it as collaborative. Some people enjoy collaboration more than others. It’s important that it’s approached that way, though. It’s the only way it can happen correctly, really. So yes, I try to stay ahead of potential problems and potential pitfalls. I communicate a lot with the line producer, with the AD, with the heads of departments. I know what people’s issues are. I know what they’re worried about. I know if something is upcoming that will stress certain people out. I’m always looking for ways to make sure we continue on a smooth path and try to stave off something that could make us stumble. If you realize you’re not going to make your day, everyone will be pulling their scripts out trying to figure out what we might do more efficiently, what we might be able to cut, what we might be able to push along in the schedule. That’s part of what I love about it. It’s puzzle solving with a timer going, in the best way. [LAUGHS]

De Line enjoys a laugh with Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman, in a scene from Going In Style


Is there anything that you haven’t done in your career that you still want to do—either in the industry or not?

Oh, that’s super interesting. I would like to write, whether it’s a screenplay or a novel. So much of my life is reading, whether it’s scripts or books, and so much of my material comes from books, so it’s all kind of interconnected in my brain. I love writers, and I have such respect for them. I’ve always wondered, “Could I do it? What would it be like?” I work with writers every day. I’d like to be able to put myself in their shoes and understand their process and their experience in a way that I don’t think I ever truly could unless I tried it myself. But that is something that I’ve just been too scared to try, so far.

 

It’s very intimidating, I think.

It is intimidating and yet I know plenty of people who all of a sudden I’ll run into—somebody who was a studio executive or a producer—and they’ll say, “Oh, I wrote a book.” Or “I sold a script.” And I think it’s the greatest thing in the world. It’s all about growing, learning, broadening your horizons in life. We only have a finite amount of time. And really, it’s something I would like to accomplish.

 

What do you like to do during downtime on a set, between takes?

If there’s not something that has to be paid attention to on the set, I’m trying to keep my other stuff going. So I’m either reading other projects, or reading what might become another project, or making calls back to my office and trying to stay up on business.

 

So you’re basically you’re doing work in between work?

 Exactly, exactly, yeah, just more work.

Michael Wright, Zak Penn, De Line and Steven Spielberg et to the point filming Ready Player One

 

What do you think is the hardest part about being a producer?

I suppose it’s balancing your responsibility to creatively do what’s best for the movie with being fiscally responsible to your financiers and staying within the box that you’ve agreed upon. That can be very tough and very challenging and put you in hard positions a lot of the time. It’s not always easy to make both sides happy. But I find that’s part of what’s fun about the job. You can always come up with a solution. And when you’re forced into going down a road where you thought, “No, this can never work,” oftentimes I’ve found the absolute best things have come from that. It leads to completely unexpected discoveries. A problem can be your greatest gift in disguise. Most importantly, a producer must always protect the story. We can never take our eyes off the story.

 

What are some other fun parts of the job?

I find one of the most thrilling things is I have a profound respect for editors, and I think brilliant editors are kind of the unsung heroes of our business. I’ve seen an editor create alchemy out of their own idea—their own thought about what a moment could be—that is completely brilliant and not what anyone intended, and then it turns out to be the best of all. I am just in awe of that. So I love the post production process and watching editors work. I love talking to editors about why they made choices or how they did things. I know what an editor can accomplish, and I think that most people don’t, and I wish they were better understood and celebrated.

 

What change in the industry have you embraced most?

I’m embracing all of the change that we’re in right now. We are in a difficult transition period with the shrinking of the traditional movie business. We are learning to adapt to a lot of new things and new ways of watching movies with the advent of the streamers. At first I was resistant. I’m now open and embracing of it. The appetite for smaller movies is diminishing at studios, but the streaming business is healthy and robust and wants those movies. And that’s a great thing. I don’t separate those two things anymore. I look at them all as just opportunities to tell good stories and get films made.

 

So does that mean you’re ready to tell your three acts in 10 minutes, like on Quibi?

You know what? I want to learn that form too—a complete experience in 10 minutes. That’s fantastic. I’ve never done it before. I’m game. That might be the most fun I’ve ever had!

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Producers On Producing: Emma Tillinger Koskoff interviewed by David Hinojosa

Posted By Administration, Monday, October 21, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The PGA co-hosted a "Producers on Producing" segment as a part of the 57th New York Film Festival on September 30th. PGA member David Hinojosa (First Reformed, Vox Lux, Beatriz At Dinner) interviewed producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff (The Irishman, Joker, The Wolf of Wall Street). Koskoff is President of Production for Sikelia Productions and Hinojosa is an independent producer and producing partner at Killer Films. Koskoff discussed her priorities as a producer, and how she fosters creative, collaborative sets. Koskoff and Hinojosa also answered audience questions on topics such as working with financiers, getting through gatekeepers, and the impact of streaming platforms like Netflix on the industry. You can view the full segment below. "Producers on Producing" is part of the PGA's One Guild initiative supporting inclusive membership, employment, content and depictions.

 

 

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Instant Gratification - Jake Avnet Is Only Asking For A Minute Of Your Time

Posted By Spike Friedman, Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Jake Avnet of Indigenous Media is a savvy digital producer; his work is defined by bringing a cinematic quality to online shareable content. He’s also a canny businessman, responsible for some of the most innovative brand integrations for filmed content on the web. But what comes across right away from meeting him is his passion for telling stories about interesting people. Sure he’s excited to talk about his history creating digital content and the business of 60 Second Docs, the online series he produces that has led to partnerships across a range of industries. But what he really wants to tell me about are the Weed Nuns.

“Weed Nuns?” I ask. “Weed Nuns,” Avnet replies. The Weed Nuns are a group of women in the Central Valley of California who proselytize the use of marijuana and create medicinal products for terminal cancer patients. These are passionate businesswomen focused on helping people. And with 60 Second Docs, you can learn their story in, well, just about a minute. Although other videos produced under the 60 Second Docs banner have more hits, the Weed Nuns documentary perfectly encapsulates the series’ ideal. It looks great, it tells a true story that has a couple of twists, and it is as digestible as it is thought-provoking. “Each one is a different story,” says Avnet. “It’s different characters, it’s a different journey. Hopefully people find joy in that.”

This instinct toward telling joyful stories about quirky individuals has allowed 60 Second Docs to become a thriving business with a range of brand partnerships. And each of these partnerships is rooted in real human stories. “We’re outsiders, we’re storytellers,” says Avnet, “and that’s basically our biggest asset.” Partners have ranged from Mike’s Hard Lemonade to the investment firm BlackRock. And because 60 Second Docs tell stories of interesting people, they have been able to work with GoFundMe to create a new synergistic home for their content. 60 Second Docs finds the most fascinating stories on the crowdfunding platform and tells those stories with a cinematic eye that the typical fundraiser would never have the capacity to produce. This shines a light on people in need and turns a brand integration into a way of doing good. “We’re people-oriented,” explains Avnet, “in terms of us thinking about how we can give back. This felt like it was an amazingly direct way of doing that.”

60 Seconds Docs teams with Mike's Hard Lemonade for a LA Pride parade float and Proud Dad campaign


Other engagements, including a promotional push alongside the release of BlacKkKlansman, appear more traditional, but still leverage the unique approach of 60 Second Docs. With BlacKkKlansman, they produced a short documentary that told the real history behind the film, centering it on Ron Stallworth, upon whom the film’s story was based. By blending interview footage, archival footage and footage from the movie, 60 Second Docs produced content that both promoted the film and led to a more profound level of audience engagement. The combination of archival footage and scenes from the Spike Lee film worked in concert to tell a compelling story and deepen the stakes of the movie for the viewer. And it did that in just over a minute, generating hundreds of thousands of views across a range of platforms.

Because 60 Second Docs is by its very nature “snackable” content, it is able to live in multiple areas, which means the material Avnet produces is platform-agnostic. Making films that are optimized for online consumption can mean chasing views via the algorithms of behemoth platforms like Google and Facebook. That’s not the approach Avnet takes. “You see a lot of publishers play this game where they kind of are like, OK, Facebook loves VR? We’re a VR company now,” says Avnet. “We try to stay out of that fray.” For 60 Second Docs, that means eschewing the norms of the shareable Facebook video. 

Avnet’s cinematic instincts pushed him to produce more sophisticated material, going beyond user-generated content to engage up-and-coming filmmakers interested in telling new stories. “We went the opposite direction,” says Avnet. “We’re making films. They’re really short, but they are films. They hopefully have a bit of a cinematic eye. They’re a little more premium, and we think that will drive deeper engagement.”

Although the 60 Second Docs model does not require a lowest-common-denominator approach to chasing clicks, Avnet still uses digital platforms to optimize the product being created. And because 60 Second Docs are by their nature very short, Avnet and his team can test multiple cuts of a documentary with the public to see which people find more engaging. “It’s a rapid-fire focus testing process,” Avnet explains. This can happen very quickly because the content is being consumed very quickly. The team can infer which cut of a documentary the public prefers and then push a preferred option out across a range of platforms.

This instinct toward using the online space to create premium content comes naturally to Avnet. He grew up in the industry. His father, Jon, is a director and producer and is the co-CEO at Indigenous. But Jake also came out of film school during the early era of digital production. He learned how to produce quickly, on a budget, and across a wide range of forms including web series, music videos and advertisements. As studios became interested in moving into digital, Avnet had both the chops in the space and the cinematic eye needed to thrive. “The world grew up around us,” Avnet says of his experience in the industry.

This led to a partnership with YouTube under their Original Channels Initiative called WIGS, spearheaded by Rodrigo Garcia, now co-CEO of Indigenous media. WIGS operated like both studio and network—developing, producing and distributing new premium content, including Blue starring Julia Stiles and Eric Stoltz. “That was a really, really cool experience where it just became this crash course in all aspects of producing,” says Avnet.

Understanding digital means understanding the specifics of what makes certain content work on certain platforms. That is fundamental to the work Indigenous produces; their name is a play on the idea of being native to a medium. And no project is more indicative of Avnet’s understanding of the digital space than their release of Sickhouse on Snapchat. This found-footage horror film was designed to blur the lines between fiction and reality. “If you’re making a movie for Snapchat,” says Avnet, “you need to make it in a way that people want to watch it on Snapchat.” Sickhouse, though, is not just a Snapchat-native horror film. It is a well-made horror film that happens to conform to the norms of Snapchat.

With 60 Second Docs, this push toward short and high-quality content reaches its apex. But that doesn’t mean the project does not have room to grow. 60 Second Docs is already a global enterprise, having produced shorts on every continent on the planet. However the team is currently cutting deals to expand its reach. That means more than simply exporting what has already worked in the United States. It means adapting the work to appeal to different cultures. “It’s important to be thoughtful about what stories you are telling,” says Avnet of the challenge of balancing translating content that has worked well in the domestic market, versus expanding by producing content that is market specific.

Growing the scope of 60 Second Docs also means looking at ways of expanding the content to leverage what it is already doing well, while finding new ways to dig deeper into these stories. This has led Avnet and Indigenous to partner with Howie Mandel’s Alevy Productions on a television version of 60 Second Docs. The show will allow viewers to go deeper into these stories via interviews and features. Of the project and working with Avnet, Mandel says, “I came to 60 Seconds Docs as a fan because I loved their content. [Jake’s] approach makes the evolution into traditional film and TV very clear and we see unlimited potential.” 

Avnet’s push into this new space between traditional and digital media also includes Five Points on Facebook Watch. Five Points is a teen drama with a focus on social issues. Co-produced with Kerry Washington, the show places high-end content on a nontraditional platform to reach an audience that is increasingly eschewing traditional platforms. “Tasked with finding a way to combine the best of digital and traditional filmmaking to bring premium storytelling to an emerging platform,” says Washington, “I cannot think of a collaborator who would have brought a more thoughtful, resilient, innovative and visionary approach than Jake.”

This is a natural expansion for Avnet, because at the end of the day, he is interested in producing stories about fascinating people. And if a move to a more traditional medium means we get more than a minute with the Weed Nuns, it feels like that’s a win-win.

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