During AFM I spoke at length with J. Todd Harris, who we’ve known since his days running John Davis’ Classics division at Fox and from the go-go days of the dotcom bubble when we were both affiliated with a start up called ReelPlay.
Todd and I had a wide-ranging conversation that included his background as a theatre producer, his early independent film days, his recent Sundance films (The Kids Are All Right and Bottle Shock), his current projects, and plans to launch Branded Pictures Entertainment (BPE).
His two latest completed projects were both launched at AFM (The Family Tree, ISA: Myriad, and Miss Nobody, ISA: Moving Pictures). Both were privately financed independent films.
Miss Nobody (www.missnobody.com) stars Leslie Bibb, Adam Goldberg, Missi Pyle, Kathy Baker and Brandon Routh. “It’s based on a darkly funny script by Douglas Steinberg and tells the story of a secretary humorously murdering her way up the corporate food chain. I read it about nine years ago and finally the planets aligned when I met Boston-based producer Allan Jones who put together the financing. Tim Cox directed and made a gorgeous, eye-popping film.”
“Allan and I also collaborated on The Family Tree (www.thefamilytreemovie.com) by Mark Lisson with first time feature director Vivi Friedman doing a great job. Hope Davis stars as a woman who gets an unexpected chance to redeem herself and her family when she temporarily loses the memory of her past 16 years.” The film has a wonderful cast, including Dermot Mulroney, Selma Blair, Chi McBride, Christina Hendricks, Gabrielle Anwar, Keith Carradine, Bow Wow, Brittany Robertson, Max Thieriot and John Patrick Amedori.”
When I asked Todd how these independent films meshed up with his newly formed company Branded Pictures Entertainment, he got a little philosophical on me:
“As you can see from my filmography, I’ve always loved independent films and I do think that’s where a lot of interesting filmmaking come from year in and year out. At the same time, having now made 37 movies (about 30 of them independently), it’s not been lost on me the power that major branded films can bring to an audience, such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Iron Man. And while I still have a weakness for the occasional independent diamond in the rough, I’m excited by the creative and commercial opportunities that branded properties offer.”
“Branded Pictures Entertainment (BPE) grew out of my experiences with Davis Entertainment and Intellectual Properties Worldwide (IPW), where I got to see shrewd businessmen like John Davis and Marc Toberoff work Hollywood in very different ways. But the one thing they had in common, is they both understood the power of the brand in driving major studio fare. And this is something my right hand in BPE, Marc Marcum (who also worked at Davis and joined Todd at IPW), also understands.”
“The idea behind BPE is that in an increasingly cluttered marketplace of ideas and entertainment, the brand stands out. Thus audiences, while open to newer experiences, generally gravitate toward entertainment with some familiarity associated with it. Thus, in their quest to attract mass audiences, studios have embraced branded material. 90% of the top grossing films every year are based on underlying properties – whether it’s a remake, sequel, or new film based on a play, toy, game, videogame or book.”
“Taking this compelling market reality to heart, BPE sets out to acquire and develop, at a relatively low cost, dozens of branded properties which are plentiful for those who know where to look and how to obtain them. Furthermore, BPE will package the project with a director or actor and then build a marketing plan around it.”
“So BPE is not unlike a venture capital model, whereby we’ll be seeding the development of 50-75 brands and hoping to make 5-10 movies over 4-6 years. A few decent base hits and all our investors will prosper. One home run, say a Transformers, and we can turn BPE into one of the better investments they’ll have ever made.”
Although tight-lipped about most of BPE’s projects, Todd was able to discuss one, The Lost Diary of Don Juan, which is essentially the origination story of Don Juan, from his early days as an orphan in a Spanish convent to his becoming the storied lover. Based on a book by Douglas Carlton optioned from CAA, Todd is now working with Mexican director/ writer/ producer Alfonso (Poncho) Pineda Ulloa . They are now looking for an actor aged 28-36 and plan to shoot in Seville.
“Everyone’s heard of Don Juan and we found a great book to use as the basis for a movie. The perfect template for this type of movie is Sherlock Holmes. What Lionel Wigram did with Dan Lin, Susan Downey and Joel Silver for this once dusty brand is our model.”
Todd has reached this point through a circuitous route. His conclusions about the indie film world coincide with the conclusions drawn industry wide. His first film, Denise Calls Up, was produced for $600,000. Alliance’s Charlotte Mickie sold $1.5m worth of worldwide rights, Sony Pictures Classics picked it up at the end of Cannes FF after it won a Special Mention for the Camera D’Or. Alliance is still paying royalties to Todd and the film’s investors. Since then he has had 5 films in Sundance, including this year’s hit The Kids Are All Right.
The challenging landscape of the independent film world, however, has taught Todd some hard lessons. Specifically, he has learned that a marketing/ distribution game plan is necessary starting with the films’ first steps into pre-production. “If I am going to do an independent film, I’m going to have a marketing and distribution plan in place ahead of time,” he stressed.
For example, his new project, Crooked Arrows, sort of a Hoosiers meets The Mighty Ducks meets Bend It Like Beckham, is the first ever lacrosse movie. In addition to being the fastest growing sport in the North America, lacrosse has an international fan base. By raising P&A at the same time as production financing, Todd and his fellow producers are in a position to orchestrate a very targeted viral campaign focused on the booming lacrosse population – through lacrosse websites, magazines, college, prep and junior programs, as well as the two professional lacrosse leagues. Added to this is the screenplay’s homage to the sport’s Native American roots, and Harris feels the film can access a much wider audience base than simply the lacrosse world. But with only 10% of the country’s 10M lacrosse fans attending the geographically targeted release, producers stand to turn a profit on their 7M raise.
“After 37 movies, I definitely get how to approach an independent film like this. I love movies like Juno, Little Miss Sunshine and The Kids Are All Right. Granted they all had good scripts and exciting filmmakers, but to have that kind of break out success is very hard to plan. With Crooked Arrows, we know we can make the movie for about 5M in a tax-incentive state, we know we can release the film on 250 screens in every lacrosse hot bed in the country for about 2M because we know where every lacrosse fan is. So even though Crooked Arrows isn’t a branded property yet, we’re following some of the same principles – and, with a little luck, it will become branded.”
Todd’s branded philosophy has also expanded into theatre, bringing him back to his roots. During the three years between Stanford undergrad and Stanford business school, he was managing director of a repertory theatre in Palo Alto called TheatreWorks. Most recently, he’s part of a team (that includes his songwriter wife Amy Powers) that has optioned and developed Heathers for a Broadway adaptation. “It’s not unlike the Hairspray model,” Todd notes. “A classic cult film with an ardent following becomes a really fun musical. Andy Fickman is directing and Kevin Murphy and Larry O’Keefe collaborated on book, lyrics and score. Beyond that I’m co-producing the new Doctor Zhivago musical which opens its Australian tour this February. And there are other famous movies Todd has his eye on. It may be theatre, but it’s still all about the brand.”
You can learn more about Todd and his projects at www.brandedpicturesentertainment.com.