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Healthy Priorities - From The Chief Operating Officers

Posted By Vance Van Petten & Susan Sprung, Tuesday, October 30, 2018

When we talk to PGA members about their primary concerns, one of their most consistent answers, time and again, has been HEALTH CARE—its availability and cost.

Even for those of us with access to relatively affordable health insurance, the legislative battle around the topic has left many producers uncertain whether that coverage will remain effective or affordable. For those without insurance altogether, the promise of reasonably priced health coverage through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been complicated—if not broken outright—by the political wrangling around the law. Now more than ever, our members are hoping the PGA will be able to offer solutions.

Safe to say, if there was an easy fix for this situation, the Producers Guild would have implemented it already. Our non-union status means that the PGA has not been able to underwrite a guaranteed access plan like our colleagues receive through their union memberships.

That being said, you need to know that many PGA members do have access to employer-paid health coverage, though that coverage is conditional rather than guaranteed. For many of you who work on studio motion pictures or broadcast or premium cable television series, the “non-affiliate agreement” with the west coast office of IATSE can provide access to first-rate, employer-paid coverage through the Motion Picture Industry Plan (MPIP). This coverage is available only for certain job titles and requires recipients to work a minimum number of hours, but if you qualify, the PGA will provide guidance for completing the paperwork and getting approval from your employer.

For those of you who don’t meet the conditions to qualify for the MPIP coverage, our Guild is continuing to research options for you. One such option is available through Open Health, a company oriented towards health care solutions for workers in the entertainment industry. Open Health offers plans which are ideally suited for small production companies. If you’re an employer who owns a company with three or more employees (one of whom can be yourself), we strongly encourage you to call Open Health at the number on the opposite page, and ask about their offerings. In fact, the PGA was sufficiently impressed with Open Health’s coverage that this is the health insurance we offer to our own office staff.

If neither of the above options applies to you, consider contacting The Actor’s Fund, which has helped professionals in the entertainment industry—not just actors!—find affordable health coverage. While plans obtained through The Actors Fund and Open Health are self-pay plans rather than employer-paid plans, they may give PGA members better value than they would otherwise find on their own, and can provide assistance in navigating plans provided via the ACA.

The updated chart on the opposite page summarizes this information and provides important contact numbers. It will be reprinted in every forthcoming issue of Produced By. Meanwhile the PGA is pushing forward with its research as health insurance offerings continue to evolve. We hope that someday soon, we’ll be able to promote a plan that guarantees health benefits to every PGA member at a fair price. We know what a priority this is for so many of you; that makes it our priority as well.

 

  

Motion Picture Industry Plan

Available to:

Producers/Produced By, Executive Producers, Associate Producers.

Who:

• Work for an AMPTP signatory

• Work on theatrical motion pictures, prime-time network series, prime-time, first-run syndicated series

• Utilize a West Coast IA Crew

• Are credited with 600 hours of work over the past six months. (Assume a 60-hour work week.)

Once qualified, participants must be credited with 400 hours of work in the subsequent six-month period to extend coverage. 

CONTACT:

Your payroll or labor relations department. 


Open Health MEWA plan

Available to:

Employers and employees of small production companies.
 

Who:

• Work at a company with a minimum of three employees. Company owner may count as an employee if s/he draws a salary from the company.

CONTACT:

(866) 491-4001

Request information about MEWA (Multiple Employer Welfare Association) plans.


The Actor’s Fund

Available to:

All professionals who work in the entertainment industry.

The Actor’s Fund is the official organization representing the Affordable Care Act to the entertainment industry.

CONTACT:

(800) 221-7303  (New York)

(888) 825-0911 (Los Angeles)

Request a consultation to discuss individual plans available on the open market.

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Dodger Day 2018

Posted By Michael Q. Martin, Tuesday, October 9, 2018

On Saturday, September 1st, PGA members attended Dodger Stadium to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers take on the Arizona Diamondbacks in a battle for the lead in the National League West.  Pitcher Clayton Kershaw started for the Dodgers and pitched seven solid innings, despite giving up two solo home runs to Eduardo Escobar in the second and to Christian Walker in the sixth. The score stayed 2-0 for most of the game as the Dodgers could not figure out Diamondbacks starter Patrick Corbin.

In the bottom of the eighth inning the Dodgers found D’Backs reliever Archie Bradley more to their liking.  Justin Turner hit a single before Manny Machado worked a 10 pitch walk. Matt Kemp came to the plate and blasted a home run to make the score 3-2 Dodgers. Dodger closer Kenley Jansen shut down the Diamondbacks in the 9th to pick up his 34 save of the year. Kemp’s blast moved the Dodgers into a tie for first place in the National League West with the D’Backs. With the Colorado Rockies only ½ a game back in the standings, it looks to be an exciting September pennant race. Hope to see you next year at Dodger Stadium.

Article and photos by Michael Quinn Martin

- View the photo album on Facebook

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There And Back Again - How Michael Wormser Took The YouTube Route Back To Indie Filmmaking

Posted By Spike Friedman, Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Michael Wormser’s route toward his specific present role, as one of the go-to producers for YouTube stars making the jump to the big screen, makes sense only when you trace his career backwards. But also having spent some time with Wormser, it makes sense that an affable, hard-working guy would find his calling working within a creative community populated by those who chose to forge their own unusual paths in this 21st century version of the industry. Wormser was not born into Hollywood but grew up in New Iberia, Louisiana, “Cajun country,” as he readily calls it. He never imagined he would be involved in the entertainment industry until he was in college in Indiana. “Somebody had a sketch comedy group, and I joined that and really got the bug for it,” Wormser explains, citing the ‘90s heyday of Saturday Night Live for inspiring him to move to Los Angeles and pursue comedy.

He took classes at comedy theaters like The Groundlings and Improv Olympic, tending bar at night to pay his rent. While a short stint working as a PA at Gracie Films ended with Wormser making an ill-advised stand over the rotation of PA duties (a move that he describes in retrospect as “probably real dumb”), he was building a community in the comedy scene. “It was a close-knit improv group including guys like Eric Stonestreet and Pete Gardner, who have gone on to be successful, and who I’ve been able to maintain good relationships with,” Wormser says, “and it’s just cool that we came up from the same place 20 years ago.”

But Wormser was trying to perform at the time, and frustrated with his lack of progress following traditional paths, he made some moves to force the issue that would set his course. “I decided to make a short film called Who’s Sherman?” that I would write, direct and star in. All of my friends from Improv Olympic who wanted to be in production just came together, and we did it with no money.” Wormser was making it up as he went, turning to Craigslist for casting, going into production unsure of how he’d finance the whole thing. Mercifully his friend Greg Sipes, now a noted voice actor, stepped up and agreed to help finance the project and teach Wormser the ropes of producing his own work. “I learned that if you can get the ball rolling, you can do anything,” he recalls.

From there Wormser started making whatever he could, including producing music videos for bands he met tending bar. “I thought I had it all figured out,” Wormser says with a laugh. “I would work at night tending bar, and make stuff all day.” That was until he met his wife in 2006, who had a radical suggestion: Why not just produce work for a living? For Wormser, the light bulb went on.

He quit bartending and started taking on more professional work, working as a UPM on indie films. His natural inclination was to push the projects to get bigger and more ambitious. In some cases this meant packaging bigger-name actors into tiny projects. In others, it meant turning lucky moments into moves that brought higher-level talent to scripts he was developing. And sometimes it meant turning a chance phone call from a representative into a working relationship with director John Landis.

But after Wormser became a father, he needed to pursue something a bit more steady than producing indie features in the middle of a recession. So in 2009 he answered a Craigslist ad looking for someone to production manage 20 to 30 videos a week. While that volume and pace of output could have been daunting, it was exactly what Wormser was looking for. When he walked into the interview, it was with the Fine Brothers, who were the creative producers at the then fledgling Maker Studios. Maker was far from the YouTube behemoth that sold to Disney for $500 million. It was a handful of writer/creators, a few shooter/editors and a couple of producers.

Wormser was brought on to make sure that the top creators at Maker had the production support they needed to deliver their content on-time and on-budget. But the business model had yet to mature. “In 2010 not everyone believed you could make money on YouTube,” Wormser reminds me. 

He also was responsible for encouraging creative cross-pollination between the various content creators under Maker’s umbrella. Initially this was limited to a single YouTube channel called The Station, but eventually became a broader mission that led to platform-defining events like the wildly popular VidCon. “The Fine Brothers from the beginning saw how big this could get,” says Wormser. “I was just a producer who was excited to have a job.”

That job was making Maker as functional and efficient as possible. “It was low-hanging fruit,” says Wormser of the work he did to turn Maker into a content factory. He would arrange weekly meetings with content creators like Totally Sketch, run by director Michael Gallagher, Shay Carl, Timothy DeLaGhetto and others, coordinating programming for their channels, The Station and the network’s infrastructure. This meant building out a production process that could churn out dozens of well-produced videos a week on a shoestring budget. 

During Wormser’s time at Maker, they went from 30 million monthly views to 100 million, something he does not take credit for. “They were already growing exponentially,” he says, “but I was able to create a scalable model for the programming structure and workflow.” Despite its ad-hoc beginnings, Maker needed a slate of content they could depend on, week-to-week. Wormser made sure that happened.

Though Wormser was doing good work at Maker, his earlier work on features had lit a fire to produce films. “I came from the feature film world,” Wormser explains, “so I really wanted to make things with a cinematic quality, and the Fine Brothers were into a very regimented system.” That system meant production teams of three people supporting each creator, which allowed for work to be made quickly but limited the ability for it to evolve. “We were able to make great content, and understanding the scale at which we were working helped me facilitate our creators to make quality content within those parameters.” Each video’s budget was often spent on a single key location, prop or actor to flesh out the world; that was the limit of what could be done within the model Maker had created. Aside from that, it was green screens and visual effects provided by the post-production team that Maker assembled to put a professional sheen on the rough-around-the-edges work.

But from that small model, Wormser charted his course back into features. He moved within Maker from head of production to head of motion pictures, with the goal of collecting all of Maker’s talent in a single feature. He paired that goal with Glasgow Phillips’ screenplay “I Did It For The Lulz”, which became Smiley, a horror-comedy that brought a host of YouTube talent to the big screen for the first time. And at the tip of the production spear, he had the perfect in-house director, Michael Gallagher, whose YouTube channel Totally Sketch was the rare Maker channel that didn’t feature its primary talent in front of the camera.

When production stalled out within Maker, Wormser sought and received the studio’s blessing to go and try to make it on his own. “Wormser doubled down on finding alternate solutions to get the project made by any means necessary,” attests Gallagher, “always leading with optimism and a spirit of fun. And he was willing to bet on me as a first-time feature director, with no hesitation.” Gallagher helped finance the film with the money he had made as a YouTuber and was able to help flesh out the team via connections with fellow content creators. He brought YouTube star Shane Dawson into the fold as one of the leads, paired with less experienced, but still well-known talent, including the likes of Caitlin Gerard and Keith David.

Because Wormser and Gallagher had forged a shorthand language from their time at Maker, they were able to get Smiley shot in just 16 days. And because so much of the talent involved was—literally and naturally—internet famous, the trailer garnered over 30 million views when it went online in November of 2011. That kind of interest helped them presell the movie as SVOD, well before that was established as an industry standard. From there, Wormser was able to secure a limited theatrical run by partnering directly with AMC Theatres. As Wormser secured additional funding, allowing for greater resources in post and with marketing, buzz was building consistently from the YouTubers involved in the production—which is to say everything was going about as well as possible for an independent feature.

But 21st century models of filmmaking open themselves up to 21st century obstacles. The outlook for Smiley turned dark when users of an online message board took exception to the content of the movie, leading to a period of harassment for the filmmakers and threats that could have derailed the release of the film. “It went from going swimmingly to just being this nightmare,” Wormser says of the experience. Determined to see the project through, Wormser and Gallagher pushed past the backlash and released the film, though they were forced to attend the premiere with bodyguards in case any of the threats materialized.

Its controversy aside, Smiley planted a flag for the YouTube generation within theatrical releases. Wormser and Gallagher continued to work together, channeling most of their talent through the YouTube pipeline. Some of it has found its way back to YouTube, for channels like BlackBox TV. But they have continued to make work that has gone to larger platforms. Despite their access to YouTube talent, there are still challenges. “They have a bread and butter with their channels,” Wormser observes, “and they don’t want to mess that up by not performing well in a film.” However because of his partnership with Gallagher, Wormser has been able to build a level of trust leading to the likes of Jimmy Tatro, Shane Dawson and Logan Paul appearing in the work he produces. While Paul has waded into his own controversies in the past year, Wormser has nothing but praise for his work on Legendary Digital’s The Thinning. “He was really committed,” Wormser confirms. “He really just brought it.” Wormser also noted how working with YouTubers who are used to a level of creative autonomy means that the rehearsal process becomes an essential collaborative step in the creative process. “Even though we have the constraints of filming something,” Wormser says, “we’re always on the same page and fully prepared.”

It’s been a long journey to get here, but Wormser is back making independent films like he wanted. With Gallagher he’s currently taking the feature Funny Story around the festival circuit. The film is a dramedy, one that represents a more thoughtful evolution of the work that Gallagher and Wormser make together. For Gallagher, there is no better producer for him to work with as his career path takes on new directions. “Wormser is the secret ingredient in our productions,” he smiles. “He will take on any obstacle and move mountains to transcend the usual limitations of independent filmmaking.”

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Welcome To The Machine - Getting Started With Machine Learning In Media and Entertainment

Posted By Jade McQueen, Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Media and Entertainment industry, specifically film and TV, has experienced incredible growth over the past few years, with new streaming distribution platforms and a bigger-than-ever global audience eager to consume content on multiple devices. New ways of working, a proliferation of applications and devices, and new types of business processes have resulted in more content and more formats than ever before. With the explosion of content creation comes the challenge of keeping production streamlined, on budget and secure. Amid mounting concerns around data protection and cyber security, there are potential threats of costly hacks from a brand reputation, IP protection and monetary perspective.

To be able to address the new paradigm of production, content creators need to modernize their technology stack in order to digitize business processes. It is vital for production teams to stay focused on what matters most—creating award-winning shows and features. Enter machine learning and artificial intelligence. These four words are going to affect every type of business and are not going away. The automation of manual business processes and gleaning insights from the data and information we create are top priorities for any company that wants to stay relevant in the digital age.

 

WHAT IS MACHINE LEARNING?

The media and entertainment business is no stranger to innovation, as cutting-edge technologies have led (and are continuing to lead) to the creation of exceptional storytelling and experiences. With machine learning, we can train technology to automate and power simple, repeatable workflows from casting to talent agreements. Given the size of the administrative data set generated by the demands of production management, there is an opportunity to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to this ever-growing, massive amount of information. This opportunity frees up time and bandwidth for creators, transferring the “busy work” to computers. The more content you have access to, the more opportunity to train the technology. Production companies with large libraries and archives of footage, images, VFX, posters and trailers are perhaps best positioned to start training machine learning for automation. 

 

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Many best-of-breed technology providers, including IBM, Microsoft, Google and many more already offer artificial intelligence and machine learning services that can be applied to manual tasks or business processes.  At Box, we are able to leverage the machine learning capabilities from these companies by integrating them into our intelligence offering, Box Skills, and applying the intelligence to unstructured content in Box. The ability to apply these technologies to label objects and images, convert speech-to-text transcripts, and deterct faces in videos are just a few of the ways that we have started to apply some of the practical applications for artificial intelligence and machine learning.

 

What do we mean by intelligence?  And what will the technology “learn?”

Image recognition has the ability to detect individual objects and concepts and can recognize text in image files. Imagine if during pre- and post-production, you never had to add tags manually to photo repositiories from shoots, productions and release parties. All of those images would automatically have tags recognizing characters, text and faces.

Audio Intelligence has the ability to transcribe and identify key topics in spoken audio files, making recordings for auditions and trainings easily searchable by topics or even single words within each file.

Video Intelligence can transcribe and identify key topics for speech and detects individual faces, similarly to image recognition, as they appear in video files.  So you could instantly pull up an archive of past productions that mentioned “California” within the file.

 

How can it help producers and production?

Machine learning is coming to a critical point, as producers shift to new platforms for content distribution, expand revenue streams by monetizing existing catalog and new content, and look to eliminate content silos. What if technology could learn to tackle some of these tasks?


GET GREENLIT FASTER, LAUNCH BETTER

Companies like Cinelytic, a machine learning-driven software as a service platform, is empowering entertainment industry professionals to make faster and better-informed decisions around packaging, financing, producing, distributing and marketing of their content. For clients, Cinelytic provides comprehensive data reporting, predictive analytics, risk and project management tools in an integrated, easy-to-use online system. Using these insights, the system allows producers to develop, produce, finance and market content that will resonate with the audience. For example, producers can now prepare and forecast a business plan for a film project to share with potential investors. While the story remains king and key to success, machine learning can deliver insights on what it takes to create a blockbuster and host a differentiated audience experience.

 

CONTRACT & BUDGET MANAGEMENT: DOCUMENT TEXT EXTRACTION

 Contract management is a time-consuming, complex process that involves numerous document types and countless internal and external teams. Production companies can streamline their end-to-end process by leveraging automation to extract text fields from documents, depending on what information the organization needs. Machine learning is the backbone to this new, streamlined workflow. Technologies like optical character recognition (OCR) and natural language understanding (NLU) are applied to content, creating instructions for data that needs to be pulled from documents. With OCR technology, producers working to on-board new talent can automatically pull required information from a scanned copy, photo or PDF of the contract, such as the talent’s name, agent, lawyer, contract signature date or renewal date.

 

FREELANCE AND CREW MANAGEMENT: DOCUMENT CLASSIFICATION

 It takes a village for production teams to deliver the final cut. Maintaining the coming and going of freelancers and contractors for projects is difficult to organize and it’s hard to ensure that staffing is within budget.

With machine learning, organizations using outside crew and staffers can automatically assign a unique level of data classification to documents, including employment agreements and tax forms. This can be set up to start with on-boarding new contractors and  maintained during their tenure and through the closeout of the project.

For example, when on-boarding new crewmembers, production is likely to run into repeat contractors and staffers that have worked on other projects. Instead of searching through thousands of old records and files to find previous hire information, such as work history and hourly rates, machine learning can tag crew profiles with specific keywords. This allows production teams to easily find the information they need to finalize authorizations and move forward with their hire.

Machine learning can also be taught data retention policies, where specific information included in documents triggers the type of classification that should be applied, where the information should be stored and the length of time an organization needs to retain it for compliance requirements.

 

DIGITAL ARCHIVING AND WORKFLOW MANAGEMENT: IMAGE, AUDIO AND VIDEO LABELING

 Consider a production company’s digital archive. How many thousands of images, footage, posters, trailers and promotional materials exist in these libraries? All of these assets can and should be cataloged, but with the help of computers instead of individuals poring over pages and pages of data.

Whether during pre- or post-production, marketing departments across the industry can use machine learning to automatically recognize specific objects, characters, text and/or faces within the digital archive files. Agents can also use video facial recognition to filter through their talent’s clips and compile highlight reels, instead of digging through loads of content and files.

In the end machine learning is simply about driving more efficiency with intelligence from content and information that already exists within an organization. With all the content and experiences brought to audiences around the world, the entertainment industry is ready to embrace the power of machine learning technology. The applications for applied intelligence are endless, and we’re only getting started.

 

Jade McQueen began her career as an A&R executive at DreamWorks and Interscope Records before transitioning to film and TV. Her love of innovation and technology, coupled with a desire to bridge the gap between entertainment and tech, led to her current position as Senior Managing Director for Media & Entertainment at Box, where she oversees the company’s media and entertainment strategies globally.

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A Look Back: Marian Rees

Posted By Chris Green, Monday, September 10, 2018

Last week, the PGA office received word of the passing of one of its most revered members, Marian Rees.  One of the great producers of long-form television and one of the most dedicated members to have served the Producers Guild, Marian was an inspiring figure for generations of PGA members. A recipient of the Guild’s highest service honor, the Charles FitzSimons Award, Marian was a long-time member of the National Board, also serving a term as the PGA’s Vice President of Television.

In honor of her life and work, we here re-publish her Produced By cover interview, which ran in the Winter 2002-03 issue.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, Oct. 20 at 2:00 pm at Eagle Harbor Congregational Church, near her home on Bainbridge Island, Washington.  In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Eagle Harbor Church or the University of Iowa Foundation.

In Memoriam - Marian Rees 1927-2018


Some producers like to hear themselves talk.  Marian Rees is not one of those people.  Some producers waste no time in telling you how many awards they’ve won.  In a 90-minute interview, Marian Rees doesn’t mention a single one of her many honors.  Some producers dominate a room with their presence, their voices. When Marian Rees speaks, the room gets very quiet; the room comes to her.

Born, raised and schooled in Iowa, Marian Rees has the clear-eyed and plain-spoken directness that’s characteristic of her native state.  She has little patience for pretense, though she’s generally too polite and too dignified to let that impatience show.  The simply-appointed offices of Marian Rees & Associates, across the street from the CBS lot in Studio City, are a testament to her modesty, though that same modesty masks a tenacity that’s as deeply held as any in Hollywood.  She is a 50-year veteran of the entertainment industry.  She started her independent production company at a time when the conventional wisdom said that women weren’t cut out to be motion picture producers, much less company CEOs; she’s continued producing right up to this day, long after most purveyors of that conventional wisdom have hung it up and headed for the golf course.

“I liked her immediately,” says Fay Kanin, Rees’ one-time collaborator and long-time friend.  “She’s very talented, very smart, and modest about her smartness.”  Those qualities have served her well in her career, which began in 1952 with a job as a secretary/receptionist at NBC.  After graduating from the University of Iowa with a degree in Sociology—a distinction she talks about far more readily than her Emmys or Golden Globes—Rees found herself in California following the disappointment of not finding a position with her organization of first choice, the United Nations.  The NBC job was intended to be temporary, but she swiftly rose through those ranks to become an Associate Producer on legendary tributes to Frank Sinatra, Ethel Barrymore and Fred Astaire.  In the following decades, she spent seventeen years at Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions, Associate Producing the pilots for such groundbreaking series as All in the Family and Sanford & Son.

In 1981, Rees founded Marian Rees Associates, where she has since made her home and reputation as the gold standard of producing movies for television.  For the company, Rees and partner Anne Hopkins have produced over 40 films for network, cable and public television, including ten for the prestigious Hallmark Hall of Fame, and the five films that comprise The American Collection on ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre. Her work received many honors, including eleven Emmy Awards and 38 nominations, as well as a pair of Golden Globes, seven Monte Carlo Television Awards, Six Christopher Awards, the Humanitas Prize and a Peabody Award.  Asked to speculate on Rees’ recipe for success, long-time collaborator Dorothea Petrie pointed out that “every time out, she tries to do something special, special for her and special for her audience.  She knows that story is the most important aspect of any of her films, but they always include strong emotional content, and comedy, too.  Just like life does.”

This is the tenth in Produced by’s ongoing series of Case Studies of the careers of successful producers.  Produced By’s Chris Green had the good fortune to be able to sit down with Marian Rees and talk about Iowa, Hallmark, and the challenges of producing long-form television in a rapidly changing industry.

 

Chris Green: You grew up in Iowa, and I know that despite your many years in Hollywood, you’re still an Iowan at heart.  How has your background affected your career as a producer?

Marian Rees: Growing up where I did and when I did truly shaped my character, and that has been a fundamental part of the work that I’ve done.  Now that I have a body of work, I see it even more clearly.  You begin to see a pattern.  The character of Iowa is distinct, it truly is.  The educational system in Iowa has been historically the best, bar none.  Public education there is truly a heritage, a legacy.  The communities were dedicated to families, and education was at the heart of it.  Every citizen in that state has that birthright.  But when I first came out here I was very self-conscious about being from the Midwest.  I had not planned to enter this business at all.

When did you come out to California?

In 1952.  And with my B.A. in Sociology, I was going to do great social work.  And so being in the entertainment business was always intended to be a temporary job.

This is getting to be a long temporary career.

That’s right. (laughs) But the part of the industry I was in—live television—was very new on the West Coast and there were so many exciting people involved, young guys like Arthur Penn, Bud Yorkin, Jack Shea, John Rich, Norman Lear.  They were driven, and alive, and they were the ones that created and shaped that little industry out here.  They were all from the theatre, and I felt myself to be an outsider for a very long time.  But this whole component of a good education really buoyed me throughout all of that.  There were some instances when I realized I had an education that equipped me better than some I saw around me. For instance, one of the things that I’ve learned is that though I’m no English or literature major, I’m blessed with good grammar.  Now that may sound like a little thing…

Not to a magazine editor, it doesn’t.

That’s right.  You know.  If you’re working with writers, it becomes kind of a screening device.  When you read a script that is so lacking in that fundamental writing tool, it tells you something right away.

Marian Rees with Mario Machado and Tyne Daly
at the Emmy Awards

So, assuming the grammar is up to par, what’s the next thing you see in a script?

As a producer, the thing that has served me well is an ability to recognize a good story.  I’m more comfortable with my role in the community when we talk about ourselves as storytellers.  That’s a source of great security for me—I’m still insecure, even after all this time.  But it has to start with the story, and the best work is done when the producer has that passion and that vision, and allows him or herself to be guided by that story’s strength, its power. That’s when a film for me becomes organic, it has a life of it’s own; it will tell you what to do with it; it will tell you when you’re not paying attention to something; it speaks.  That may sound really quite odd but having made 36 films, you can find the voice in every film and every one will be different.

So, for you, what are the elements that make a good story?

Character.  It’s characters first, plot second.  There’s so much demand for plot-driven material now that it’s hard to persuade people to have the patience that character development requires. 

Did the medium used to be more character-driven, and it’s become more story-driven?

I think the sense of movies has changed.  I was talking with a colleague yesterday—a studio executive—and we were talking about the changing nature of the movie for television, the way the template is different.  It’s a genre that is really so vulnerable and threatened right now.  The way of telling the story is different; the pacing is different.  I think a lot of it is driven by demographics, so there’s almost a built in constraint.  Your movie won’t feel liberated.  You won’t get into the depth of character that will take you where the power of the story is.

Obviously, changing demographics have altered the way lots of producers frame their projects.  Are there other factors?

Well, the vertical integration of the industry has had more impact than anyone is willing to admit; it could have been predicted when deregulation happened.  We fought a losing battle on that, but the consequence was predictable and the vertical integration is clearly in place.  And so it’s not the storytelling that’s important as much as it is the ratings and the advertising revenue.  So we see programming where the story and the drama are eroded by added minutes for commercial time.  That’s a constraint on your story.  Instead of 94 minutes, the standard is down to 80 minutes, and it gets smaller and smaller.  That’s a real constraint.  You can’t let loose the power of the story through character development.  That takes time.

That’s an interesting metaphor: looseness versus constriction.  It sounds like a matter of giving a story room to breathe, room to find itself.

I think that’s true.  And that struggle begins to dissipate some of the strength that a producer can bring.  That’s why the producer’s central job is holding to that story.  That process requires constant vigilance. I keep coming back to passion and management.  I think when you do movies for television, you learn management; there’s no way around it.  The budgets are so stringent and you learn to manage the budget by managing the story.  You control the budget from the very beginning of the story development.  On our first movies, we would bring in our line producer, the late Bob Hudelson; we’d have him read the outline, the first draft and then say, “okay, Bob, where will this balloon? Understand we’re not going to change the storyline, we can’t distort characters, but give us a guide.” We did that to protect ourselves, as we had no contingency.  So it became crucial that we had a cushion, and Bob understood that.


So what were some of the tricks that he taught you?

Bob was brilliant at suggesting ways to compress.  I think that a lot of what he could see—from that outside perspective—was non-sequiturs, or redundancies that you don’t catch sometimes.  He’d say this was a non-essential scene, and he was right.  But if you start with a story and everybody understands that that story is to be protected at all costs, then the adjustments can be made through a process that makes sense.  That’s storytelling.  That isn’t just making a movie, it’s telling a story.  To me there’s a difference. 

What is that difference?

You don’t tell a story with the goal of getting an Emmy.  You tell a story for its own sake, and you do the best you can.  If it’s honored and in other ways recognized, that’s a consequence; it’s not the goal.  But I have many colleagues—and they’re not to be judged—who make movies for volume, for the business side of it, and for reasons that are important to them.  And that’s perfectly legitimate, but that hasn’t been my experience and hasn’t been my goal. 

At the same time, that’s a tough way to make your fortune in the world.

You don’t make a fortune doing it this way.  That’s really one of the reasons I started my own company, to separate myself from the need to drive a volume for another company.  I simply couldn’t do it well.  It was so much more important to me not only to tell the stories I wanted to tell, but also to own those movies.  I knew enough to know that that’s where the real security was.  Otherwise you’re an employee without benefits, without equity.  We don’t own all our films but we have a nice library.  They’re all films that have been personally directed in their development. They are the ones that sit well in my heart, and I’m proud of them.


So, which are the titles that you feel closest to?
 

For me, Love Is Never Silent is the embodiment of that process, both its difficulties and its satisfactions. 


What were the challenges in putting that story together?

It was in 1982, and I just started the company; we had just finished our first film.  So the next one up was a book that was brought by Juliana Feld, who optioned Joanne Greenberg’s book In This Sign.  The book is about a young deaf teenage couple who find each other and marry.  They have two hearing children and one, the younger boy, dies when he falls off a balcony, his cry for help unheard.  And so the fate of this family was in Margaret, the hearing daughter.  That was the crux of the story: her coming of age, conflicted and ambivalent about her role in that family being the ears, the communicator.  And the conflict when she falls in love and wants to have her own life:  How can she leave this mother and father for whom she has been the door to the world?  She finally marries and does leave.  Her telling her parents her decision is probably one of the best scenes that I’ve seen in a movie.  It still moves me, and I’ve seen it recently.  That story went right to the core of me when I read it.  And I didn’t know anything about deaf culture except my own passion for it.  Because if I’d thought about it, I would have said, “Well, nobody’s going to make this movie.”  But you can’t say that, not if you really care.  But Dick Welsh from Hallmark Hall of Fame came and said, “Is there something you really feel passionate about that you want to do?” And I said, yes, I want to do this book.  And he listened, and I told him there was one caveat in it: I had made it a binding agreement with Juliana Feld, herself a deaf actress, to use deaf actors in those principal roles of the parents.  If it fell apart on that, then it would fall apart on that.  So Dick said, “I’ll go to Kansas City and I’ll go to Brad Moore and ultimately to Don Hall.”  That’s where the decisions were made.  They liked the story, and when they heard of the legal binder, they came back in 24 hours and said, “yes.”  They would honor that legal component. So the next thing was to get it to the network.  At that time all the Hallmarks were at CBS, and the head of CBS said that under no circumstances would there be deaf actors.  He would not approve it.

That must have put you in a very difficult position.

I had to hold firm.  I would not unravel the legal thread in all of this.  I couldn’t do that.  And to their great credit, Hallmark wouldn’t budge either.  They held firm.  And it came to a real loggerhead. I’d get calls that said, “he’s not going to let you cast [deaf actors] Phyllis Frelich and Ed Waterstreet, but he’ll give the green light if you get someone like Paul Newman and Joanna Woodward to play the parents.”  Long pause.   And I said, “Isn’t it appreciated that even if we could get these consummate actors to play these roles, they don’t speak one word in the whole 98 minutes of the movie?  And frankly, I’m not sure that Paul and Joanne would want to void the integrity of this piece.”  That was my opinion.  By this time, we had people already on location. The train had left the station, but we had no green-light.  And finally, again to the great credit of Hallmark, they jumped networks.  Carl Meyer and Brandon Tartikoff were at NBC and they liked it.  So I went to Dick and asked if there was any possibility that Hallmark’s passion and commitment to this was sufficient to go outside CBS and go to another network.” When the word came back, Dick said, “I’m going to go to NBC.” And in 24 hours we had a green-light, with a cast in place, and we went off and made the movie, told the story. It was a good story. It just needed somebody to care about it.  And it became history. [Ed. Note: Love is Never Silent was nominated for four Emmy Awards, winning for Best Picture of the Year and for Joseph Sargent’s directing.]

It just struck me when you spoke about Hallmark and going out to Kansas, that this is another Midwestern sensibility.  I can see that their steadfastness spoke to you with a kind of kinship.  

I can’t say enough about the integrity of that company.  And especially in today’s context, with corporate America being judged by the example of Enron.  These scandals speak to the lack of that very integrity, the ethics, that is at the core of Hallmark. They’re very modest, self-effacing.  They know their audience, and they’ve served it well for all these years.  It’s the longest-running dramatic program in the history of television—50 years of uninterrupted programming.  That’s a huge commitment, and you don’t make that unless you believe in it.  We’ve had the good fortune of making 10 Hallmarks.  And you’re right, I understood them, and they understood me.  It was and is a place to tell great stories and have them embraced and promoted.  It doesn’t get better than that. 

How does that compare to the series of films you produced for The American Collection, on PBS?  Was that a slightly different way of working?

Not slightly different, grandly different.  It was a wonderful idea that Dr. Carolyn Reid-Wallace had as the Executive Vice President of Development and Education at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).  She was having dinner in London with a guy who was head of the BBC who remarked, “You know, Carolyn, doesn’t it seem odd to you that all the dramatic programming on PBS has an English accent? Isn’t that odd?”   It really sent her home thinking and she came back to change that.  She went to the Corporation’s board and said, “We need to change this.  I want to do movies based on American literature and American writers.”  They supported her, and then she set about to find a producer to do the series. She wanted the movies to be like Hallmark Hall of Fame dramas.  So she sought us out.

Obviously this represented an incredible opportunity for you.  How do you approach a chance like that?

I didn’t seek the job nor did I audition for it. I just wanted to help her.  I was absolutely taken with this woman’s vision and her passion and her determination to see it come to fruition.  She single handedly nurtured that idea, selflessly put herself in some jeopardy, and you can’t help but respond to someone like that.  She had the task of getting PBS to come aboard.  That was tough, strangely enough.  I was surprised that there was the initial resistance to it. 

Really?  I have to say that I’m surprised, too.

Well, it was new.  Where did we fit?  Where was our place in all of this?  Here we were on the West Coast, and outside of the PBS community, in a way.  Regardless of our credentials, we were outsiders, and we began to feel that.

I imagine it’s just a very different culture than your usual network. 

It is.  I’ve met some wonderful people that I would have never met before, people who are truly committed to the public broadcasting system. They’re deeply caring, well-educated people and are comfortable without the affluence that sometimes is a demarcation in our community.  And that distinction was reflected in other ways.  Our budget for the five films was 15 ½ million dollars.  Though it was the largest single grant in the history of the CPB, that isn’t a lot of money in Hollywood terms.  That makes one low-budget picture.  So I knew we would have to depend on the good will of this community.  And they came through!

When you say this community, the Hollywood community? 

Yes, I introduced Dr. Reid-Wallace to the heads of agencies.  I felt if they got the story from her, they’d understand why I made my commitment.  And they came on board and said, “just tell us how we can help.”  Their clients were encouraged to be a part of it. We had to set ceilings, and everybody bought in; if they didn’t, they didn’t come aboard.  Wonderful talent came aboard!  They went out under Exxon Mobil Masterpiece Theatre, some very different titles that might not have been chosen by someone else. 

Hopkins and Rees at the Caucus for Television Workers,
Producers and Directors Honors. 

 

That’s true.  It’s a very unique collection of titles.

Yes, eclectic in scope and not driven by any demography at all.  I just felt that it was essential that diversity was a central component of the project.  I was somewhat mis-quoted by the New York Times saying that I didn’t want to do works of dusty, dead old white men.  What I didn’t want to do was to go into material that wasn’t relevant, that didn’t have currency.  I didn’t care if it was written recently like Esmeralda Santiago’s story [Almost a Woman].  That’s a very contemporary story, but at the same time, it’s also an immigrant story, and that’s the oldest story of America.  But they had to be relevant; they had to be doable.  You can’t make an epic on $3 million.  I thought it was important that we had a piece that dealt with the South and the Civil War, but I wanted a different aspect of it.  That’s why Langston Hughes’ short story [Cora Unashamed] spoke so clearly to me. He set it in Iowa, which is a different point on that whole compass that directs us to the knowledge and the history of the Civil War or of slavery.  It will always be a part of our life story as a nation; we can’t leave it behind.  Interestingly, Cora Unashamed became the highest-rated movie on Masterpiece Theatre in its 16-year history.  I just learned that about two months ago, and that was rewarding.

I want to ask about your years at Tandem working with Norman Lear and about producing things with a social conscience; that seems to be a goal that’s very close to you.  Especially since there’s often so much hesitation about including a social message in a commercial production.

Well, HBO is doing it.  NBC is doing it, with The West Wing.  You can find it.  It isn’t absent.  It’s the independent movie for television that’s absent; as a result of the vertical integration, there’s a lot of in-house production.  So there’s not that demand for the independent voice.

Norman Lear’s voice was and is as independent as they come. 

That’s certainly true.  Tandem was a comfortable place for me to be because it was risk-taking and challenging.  It was raising the voice of contrariness, and going to a different level of commentary through comedy.  That’s what Norman was: a social commentator.  And Norman was fierce, both fierce and graceful.  But he has that ability as a human being to invite others in and let them become a part of it.  I think about Bob Wood, who was President of CBS and who was the other hero of all of this.  He kept the shows on.  Norman found his voice, and Bob understood what he was saying and put his own job on the line.  They became partners in this commentary.  I think television will always attract people like that. Television is spontaneous, it’s immediate, you know that you’ve connected.  There’s vibrancy and vitality about that and it’s measurable in a far different way than the box office.  It’s compelling, it holds you because of that.  I think it’s the most exciting medium in our lives.

In the very beginning of the interview, you talked about sensing the pattern to your career, looking back on it. The last question I’d like to ask is, when you’re looking at that pattern, what do you see?

At the heart of every movie, there is that central family.  Maybe it’s dysfunctional, or incomplete, or non-nuclear, but it’s that which binds people together with the kind of common thread we find in family.  There’s a kind of human yearning to be connected.  And if we don’t get it in the family, all hell breaks loose.  I think that yearning is universal, it’s timeless, it’s where we need to be, where we want to be… to be “at home.”  And yet we need to be independent.  And we are, some of us fiercely independent, and yet in that fierceness we recognize our own dependency.  I’m not sure that that isn’t a part of almost every movie I’ve made.  In fact, your question puts me in mind of another interview I had many years ago.  And perhaps your question gives me solace in the same way that question did two decades ago.  I never ever felt myself credentialed in this business.  I never felt I belonged; there were always others by whom I was awed.  Fay Kanin awes me.  I was awed by Norman, by Frank Schaffner, awed as I sat in his control room.  Literally in awe… it’s an awesome business in a way, isn’t it?  And so I was asked this question: Aren’t you really proud of this work?  Don’t you have a feeling of real pride in this?  And I started to tear up and I confessed, “Jack, I feel like a failed sociologist.”  It was just a revealing moment, for me as well as for him, and he took a long pause and let me have my little cry.  And he said, “Marian, these films that you have made, look at them.  Don’t you realize that you are a sociologist, working in the field?  That’s what you’re doing.”  And I never had those doubts again after that day.  That feeling was spent, and as a result, I looked at the work differently, and I answer your questions differently. I have a place in this industry.  No one is going to throw me out except myself. I’m comfortable with the movies that have succeeded, and I’m comfortable with who I am.  Looking back, I’m doing exactly what I should be doing and I’m at home. 

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