By Peter Belsito, Guest Blogger
‘New financial realities will have a profound effect on the types of films we can make.’
How does Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene , exec produced by Ted Hope, fit into Ted's mantra on new films for today?
I won't be able to judge for myself because the six screenings scheduled are literally sold out and this year the press and industry screenings seem to be equally hard to get into. There are masses of people interested in the Sundance films and the subject matter of this one in today's cultish climate seems to be hitting home. We'll wait to hear the reviews and to see sales on the film. `
I confess I have always thought of the 90 minute dramatic three act story film (or documentary – ‘feature’ length) as an almost unwavering standard but truth is it is fairly recent historically. That length (before were short minutes long ‘segments’) came in the teens of the last century when cinema images actually had a proscenium arch before them and around the scenes and the actors and the camera filmed statically as if it were sitting in the close up rows of the theater. Come to think of it novels as we know them have only been around 500 years (thanks Dante). The 3,000 or more year old ‘Iliad’ was originally a long winded strictly verbal piece performed before audiences, not read singularly, it wasn’t written down until hundreds of years after it was conceived and first performed.
To Ted, the 90 minute standard feature is now obsolete – or passing away quickly and new forms are arising. While I have always known he is an original thinker I have to say that drawing him out and discussing these ideas was very provocative to me.
Ted was raised in a small town, 4,000 souls, in Massachusetts on the New Hampshire border. When he was 20 he came to New York City to study undergraduate Film courses at NYU. He met Anne Carey then -- and would go on to work with her to this day.
When he arrived in New York City ‘Indie Film’ was happening. He was there at The New York Film Festival when ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ and ‘Blood Simple’ showed and he at that time encountered Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers, riding the subway and buying groceries, just like regular human beings died. He became a reader for New Line, Laurel Entertainment, MGM and several other production companies,, a Production Assistant for Mark Slater on several films including an early Pele film and a film called ‘Return to Hell High’.--all the while being trained to write business plans for him on the side.
He then became stuck in a low budget horror rut. But during this period he had read good scripts, for example New Line had him read numerous ‘Sid and Nancy’ scripts. At that time the production company for the one Sid & Nancy film that was actually getting made was only hiring ‘cool people, not someone like me’. So he went to their office before 8 am one morning and the Production Coordinator came in, found him waiting, and ultimately hired him having thought he was on payroll from the beginning. So he became a production assistant on that fil too. ‘My body temperature is high, so I always look like I am working hard’. He in fact did so much that day that at the end of it he was hired as a Production Assistant / PA on ‘Sid and Nancy’ (then originally titled‘Love Kills’). On that film he ‘ran’ Gary Oldman (the star, i.e. Ted took care of him). Ted even got to say ‘roll’, and ‘cut’ for the first time when shooting "Sid" falling down the stairs of the Chelsea Hotel. At the time of the shoting Ted’s opinion of the movie was that it wasn't well done low budget production, and he didn't expect the film to be much, but as it happened it turned out pretty well -- and from that Ted started to understand that creativity did not come on with a pre-set template.After that production, it's Producer, Eric Fellner, was always open & generous to Ted. Low budget UK films were proving very interesting then. They were then another approach to the creative process and Ted’s experience also proved to him that good will to other people can pay off professionally.
Ted now knew many writers and he began to follow up with them and to develop other projects than films he was crewing on. During this period nine film projects he began never got made – but nobody knew that (except of course the filmmakers). "The nice thing about Producing is no one sees the true failures; it's the successes you have to worry about -- because that's what people can see!".
A film called ‘Tiger Warsaw’ was the beginning of his work doing product placement for cash to fill out the budget of a film. He now had a bit of a resume of experience and could go to film companies to offer them something. He was at this point tired of being a production assistant (lowest job on the rungs of the film production ladder) and he went to Peter Hawkins at Continental Film Group where Amin Chaudri (Producer, Director TV’s ‘Once Again’) was working on a new project. Ted studied production placement strategies and began making cold calls to get cars, clothing, electronics for the shoot. He was successful and ‘got the goods’. His ‘go get it’ attitude helping, he was hired as Unit Manager for Once Again, a film with Martin Balsam and Jessica Harper. After that,Chaudri asked Ted what he wanted to do and paid him $300 a week to find other scripts and also put together ‘Tiger Warsaw’ to shoot. He got Patrick Swayze (coming off of ‘Dirty Dancing’ but before it hit really big). Ted found the script, developed it, budgeted, and scheduled it, hired all the crew, did the cast deals, and even prepared shot lists, but his job title was Assistant to the Producer.
It was a horrendous shoot. Drugs. Hatred. No one spoke to anyone else. He was 23 years old and burned out.
After that film Ted decided to quit the business to become a full time drug counselor. But that didn’t work out because for that job you had to have a pretty high education level and Ted had only studied film.When he was then called to do a low budget horror film he went back to film. There was no script, no locations, no actors and they had a total budget of $100,000 and 10 days to shoot it. They were going to shoot in three weeks, regardless. It was Kristin Davis’ first role (‘Sex and The City’) and she was good. The sales agent was Films Around the World. Two or so years after they shot it, they reaized they had a problem: they only had 70 minutes. The producer, Steve Menkin needed seven more minutes, so to fill in space and extend the film they shot the ‘monster’ sitting around watching public domain movies between their killing sprees. The set was built in the corner of the office for Ted's new office for his company Good Machine.
But before that story (Good Machine) could begin, Ted took what he learned on that no-budget film and started to apply it to the art sector. Next, for $55,000 (in the can) he did Hal Hartley’s ‘Unbelievable Truth’ for which he was an uncredited producer. Harvey Weinstein, who was an unknown in 1989, picked it up for US at Toronto / TIFF and paid $250,000. Much of this money paid cast and crew -- which wasn't contracted but bought long term good will.
With these films to his credit, Ted still could not get his producing career truly started. Ted had more AD jobs in horror films. Ted got another job with John Williams of Vanguard Films when Ted offered to do script and project development for him for a low price. At that time that company had ‘Shrek’ in development.
For Hal Hartley's second film‘Trust’ then all the crew from The Unbelievable Truth came back despite that there was no cash flow until right before principal photography. The money that they had distributed bought a lot of faith and confidence. This time Ted was Line Producer and Assistant Director.
As this was a ‘hard job time’ he followed TRUST with Laurel Entertainment’s TV show ‘Monsters’ as Assistant Director. It was soon after this that that he met Larry Meistrich (as a PA on ‘Frankenhooker’) and James Schamus. Ted was then a reader for New Line and had read ‘Communion’ about alien abduction, and suggested that the company take an avant garde approach to the material (as opposed to the genre one they ultimately did). Janet Grillo, a senior story executive, said ‘Ted meet this guy James Schamus, he has a similar spirit to you’. They met and hit it off. James had no production experience but was a likeable, very social guy. Ted was quieter – but he had a lot of know how and some material.
Ted and Larry then did a short with Hal Hartley ‘Theory of Achievement’ which sold to PBS. Then Ted, Larry and James all Produced a second short film with Hal called ‘Ambition’. Then Ted, and James began their fabled company, their co venture, Good Machine, while Meistrich started The Shooting Gallery.
They next did a Claire Denis short, ‘Keep It For Yourself’ for Nissan and Producer Kees Kassander (he produced Peter Greenaway films). This gave Ted the luxury of six months’ office expenses. Also during that time they had ‘Poison’ and ‘Trust’ at Sundance Film Festival and James went and Ted stayed home.
The two of them were trying to figure out how to make Good Machine successful. Ted knew of Director Ang Lee, who was an NYU film school grad who had made such shorts as ‘Fine Line’ and ‘Dim Lake’. His agent denied them a meeting. ‘He’ll do Hollywood’.
At that time their office was by NY City Hall, near the New York Dolls Strip Club. So one day while Schamus was at the Sundance film festival and Ted was in the office doing the accounting, this guy walks in – it was Ang Lee. He was distraught. ‘I need to direct a film soon or I’ll die!’
So after four years of trying – this was a gift for Ted, and ultimately his and James' Good Machine! Ang Lee walked in with 2 scripts they then made into films. ‘Pushing Hands’ and ‘Wedding Banquet’. They each won the Taiwan script prize of $300,000 USD, between them they had won both the first and second prizes. They made ‘Pushing Hands’ first. It won the Pan Asian FF and sold rights in all of Asia and they held onto North American rights. Next ‘Wedding Banquet’ was budgeted at $1.5 million but they made it for $750,000 when it was all they could raise. It was the first feature film cut on an Avid. They got into Berlinale FF Competition. The film came out of Duart Lab and went straight to Berlin to be screened without Ted & James getting to see it. They were initially rejected by various sales companies because it was spoken 50% in Chinese, it was gay, and it had a story reminiscent in structure to films of the forties: ‘there’s no audience for this’.
They had 2 employees then, Anthony Bregman, Mary Jane Skalski. They had $2,000 in the bank. They had to decide whether to pay their employees or fly to Berlin with no expense money when there. With Anthony & Mary Jane's blessing, they went to Berlin.
They proceeded to make $3 million USD worth of gross sales while in Berlin. (Note – they had made $30,000 producing the film and then realized $300,000 selling it – sales were it!!,even when they charged 1/3 of the going rate)They then took ‘The Wedding Banquet’ profits and gave to the crew and generated much good will-- having learned a good lesson from The Unbelievable Truth.
They then brought on industry sales veteran Christa Saredi to collaborate and two years later a junior sales person to start a full time sales operation (from Miramax and future CEO Universal Studios) David Linde. David’s debut was ‘Happiness’ at Cannes. Good Machine International became an Indie powerhouse, helping to generate not just Ted & James' films but also films from filmmakers all over the world.
Peter Belsito / PB – So what do you see as the problems in the future for filmmakers?
Ted Hope / TH – There are several. The lack now of a proven financial model. Marketing costs are too high. And, there are issues of content. The business today has changed from what most still perceive it to be. Good Machine was built at a time when the business had changed and no one saw it coming. It took forever in our ‘specialized film sector’ for companies to build themselves into an integrated structure. The financial model was the value of films was set in the US by its release and the money for them came from overseas, both in terms of profits and financing. After September 15, 2008 the money available to us for making films went down along with the repercussion of the slow drip of ‘the promise of the internet’ (not realized even yet!). When I wrote 25 years ago for Mark Slater in a business plan, I talked then in a paragraph about ‘the coming windfall from VOD’. Guess what? We’re still waiting today. What occurred on the side was the ‘slow drip decimation’ of other businesses (i.e. music) through the effects of digital transformatin. What it meant for film was that any business design for a steady flow from an asset library base had to realize and accept that now the product is copied, stolen. Someone said, ‘The value of asset libraries once assigned has diminished greatly’. What an understatement!
TH - We now witness the growth of indigenous filmmakers (great for film culture, difficult for US indie business). What’s happened in the last five years is that film used to get 50% from the US Acquisitions market – this has now collapsed. The cost of marketing has gone up while there has been a general collapse and stratification of the US film market. In this market critics influence buyers and audiences. But the critics have all been fired and the audiences have become fragmented, ‘they are stuck in mini echo chambers’, thus it takes more money now to reach audiences and influence them and bring them paying to a film. Thus from a filmmakers’ perspective the lack of a working financial model affects everything. How do you raise money? How do you show a return? And this is true for ALL budgets, from micro to high. Now this is the reason marketing is an issue for us. No one is going to spend more than they can reasonably expect to get back -- and that has become more difficult than ever. And this is because all audiences have moved from an economy of limited supply (i.e. fewer films) to an excessive abundance of product (too many films in the marketplace).
TH – The question at the center for us in specialized culture and its influence is the current social move from impulse buying to intelligent choice. ‘A limited supply gatekeeper economy is dependent on impulse buys whereas an economy of abundance requires thoughtful choice.’ The internet promises an inexpensive way to connect people to content. Some recent experiments in micro budget filmmaking while interesting have limited storytelling aspects. Ed Burns on the ‘Today Show’ talked about his micro budget movie ‘Nice Guy Johnny’ and it went into the top 10 Itunes rentals at $20 per rental. So the challenge at this level is marketing, how to make waves, get publicity and be seen. ‘How do we rise above the noise’?
PB – What’s in the future for movie content?
TH - Content is subject to a filtering process. Some might say of their work, ‘Mine is not the best nor in the best taste but it’s better than 98% of what I see in the world’. So I see very few fresh stories being told. Why? Professionals today (say in the schools or the business) are taught and trained in pre tested, accepted market realities. We have grown up, come of age understanding the same content and basis and accepted definition of ‘what cinema is’. The 90 minute film was designed for historical industry platforms and was the best reality for a previous time. So … I must ask, ‘is a 90 minute theatrical dependent window based release valid for today?’
TH – Some recent films that broke this mold are ‘Che’, the French TV film ‘Carlos’ and others they the French have made, the UK Red Riding experiments. We have come to think of cinema as limited to elements of development and production. We say, ‘that’s what cinema is’. We have accepted the dividing line between art (content) and commerce (marketing). Cinema creatively is about discovery, participation, appreciation, presentation. Filmmakers must understand that the above is their domain, these are the new ‘rules’ and they must heed this to reach their, today’s, audience in this modern world.
TH - We all need a real willingness to embrace cross platform trans media approaches to storytelling. We need to be able to afford to experiment by extending the means of embracing all existing revenue streams – not after the fact!! – but from the project’s initial concept. One way is the ‘direct to fan’ approach to aggregating audiences. It must also recognize that we humans today want to do more than merely consume. As an audience we also want to create during the process. Filmmaking now is ‘a two way push’, a participatory platform.
TH – I have been watching major changes in audience behavior. As my son grows I can see various things. He loves to be directed by someone he trusts. He also wants to participate and it means having an ownership in culture and this extends to properties and being part of a community is defined as more than just buying a product.You can read more about Ted Hope on Wikipedia, IMDb and on his website hopeforfilm.com