Given the downbeat summer boxoffice and difficult climate for financing, some surprising signs of optimism were sounded by a pair of leading producers Sunday morning at the kickoff panel on day two of the Produced By Conference called "Where Do Producers Go From Here?”
“There’s a greater need for content than ever before, regardless of what platform it’s created for,” noted Mark Gordon, whose credits range from recent blockbuster 2012 to last year’s indie The Messenger, which earned an Oscar nomination for star Woody Harrelson. “We will overcome the problems we’re currently facing in this business, and we’ll be better off than ever, as I see it.”
Co-panelist Marshall Herskovitz, a veteran producer (Blood Diamond) and former PGA President, agreed, to an extent, pointing out that “cable television is currently a growth business,” but adding that “network television is not, and feature films are not.”
Herskovitz lamented that the value of the entertainment experience for consumers has been irrevocably diluted by the sheer availability of it all. Gordon agreed but said, "So what? For producers, there are that many more platforms on which to exploit it.”
What should matter to up-and-coming producers is that, "at least 15 channels are currently making original programs,” said Gordon, “and they’re making them without regard to profitability.” He noted that critically acclaimed shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad had “defined” cable channel AMC, even if they were loss leaders in the ratings. “What I’m hearing from other cable networks is that they want to lose money, too,” Gordon said, only half-jokingly.
If only because defiance and persistence are inherent in their species, the two titans of production seemed bent on offering at least a few rays of encouragement to the packed audience of colleagues and would-be producers. Gordon, who is also vice president of the PGA, mocked the note struck by Variety editorial director Peter Bart in his column of the previous day, in which Bart characterized the confab as “800 producers and wannabes commiserating about the dire state of their craft.”
“F- Peter Bart!” Gordon proclaimed. “He’s not here. What does he know? He’s not even giving us a chance.”
In a freewheeling hour-long sesh moderated by attorney and PGA exec director Vance Van Petten, the two film and tv veterans had this advice for aspiring producers looking to bring pilots to television: “Partner up.” “It’s harder to get in the door these days without a relationship,” said Gordon. “So it’s best if you hook up with a more experienced producer. “ He added, “Me, for example, if you have something really great.” Already an executive producer on Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, among others, Gordon is now working with Herskovitz and partner Ed Zwick on a tv pilot, A Marriage, that was recently greenlit by CBS. “People are pooling their resources and working together more than ever these days,” Gordon pointed out. “I do it all the time, and so should you.”
Rambunctious throughout, Gordon did his best to upstage Herskovitz and vex moderator Van Petten at every turn. When Van Petten brought up transmedia, one of the gathering’s buzzwords, Gordon asked, “Is that when producers dress up in women’s clothing?” The term actually refers to content with multi-platform possibilities. Herskovitz knows a little about it, having pioneered bringing pro-level writing and production to the webisode form with the short-lived online series “Quarterlife” in the fall of 2007. The climate hasn't improved enough, even now, to have supported the series, he said. “The advertising model for new media simply isn’t there yet. You’d have to hit a magic number. If you could get to a million views per episode, then I believe that would be a business. We only got to 400,000.”
The content currently described as “transmedia,” Herskovitz said, is just “using old media to leverage into new media,” thus expanding the platforms for exploitation. The panelists urged aspiring producers to develop their ability to collaborate and form productive creative relationships. “A good productive creative relationship with a writer, actor or director who you believe in and can sell and work with – that’s the secret of success,” said Van Petten.
Meanwhile, at a time when studios seem more devoted than ever to churning out remakes, sequels and comic book franchises, it seems that even those producers “lucky” enough to be making the blockbusters don’t particularly like being in that that business. During Saturday's “Making Blockbusters” panel, Larry Gordon declared, “I’ve had bad experiences on my last two or three movies,” and referred to “rude and disrespectful treatment” that had considerably dampened his enthusiasm for the business. “I feel like a whipped puppy,” said Gordon, whose recent credits include The Watchmen, released by Warner Bros. and Paramount and the Hellboy franchise for Universal. “What does it mean when you’re so furious at the studio that you hope your own movie fails?”
Co-panelist Richard Zanuck, whose lineage at 20th Century Fox goes back to his boyhood when his father, Darryl F. Zanuck, ran the studio, remarked that the biggest difference in today’s era of conglomerate ownership is the diminished treatment of producers. “In the days of David O. Selznick and Sam Goldwyn,” he noted, “the producers were the heavyweights on the lot. They were kings, and the second-most powerful group were their secretaries.”
Though Zanuck has enjoyed enormous recent success – Tim Burton's 3D Alice in Wonderland has passed the billion dollar mark in worldwide grosses – he laments the studios’ focus on tentpoles. “What scares me,” said Zanuck, “is that we’ve weaned an audience that only knows these big and often bad extravaganzas. They are not looking for stories that are character driven and emotional. We’ve numbed the dramatic senses of our audience.”
And Mark Johnson, who’s currently producing the Chronicles of Narnia franchise, declared of the current summer’s boxoffice, “I’m perversely pleased that there are a number of big movies that aren’t succeeding.” Perhaps referring to familiar titles such as Robin Hood, he said, “People feel as though they’ve seen them even though they haven’t. The studios are going to see that they need to give us something original.”
In their advice to aspiring producers, the panel stressed the quality of the idea or the script, followed by tenacity and persistence. “You cannot and must not take no for an answer,” said Gordon. “When I hear ‘no,’ I just blank it out. I don’t hear anymore. I just go dead inside and say, “Let me out of this meeting so I can go try somebody else.”
Johnson concurred, adding, “ All the pictures I’m proudest of producing, like Donnie Brasco, Quiz Show, and The Little Princess took seven or eight years to make. I hear ‘no’ all the time, and it doesn’t affect me,” Johnson said. “I just say, ‘okay, who do I talk to next?’ If you believe in something, somebody’s going to say yes.”
Meanwhile, throughout the weekend, media mogul Ted Turner’s appeal to producers in a session on Saturday to make movies that advance global progress – partly by using the resources of his U.N. Foundation – seemed to generate a variety of responses. “My father had the mantra of making pictures that involved the audience in social change,” Zanuck said, referring to such Darryl F. Zanuck productions as Gentlemen’s Agreement and The Grapes of Wrath. “But you can’t have that mantra today and exist as a producer, as much as we’d like to. I don’t think there’d be much of an audience for it, anyway. I think television and HBO are better suited to do anything involving the issues.”
In a separate session, entrepreneur Mark Cuban, owner of 2929 Entertainment and Magnolia Pictures, as well as the Dallas Mavericks, declared that “The most patriotic thing you can do Is to get fucking rich, and pay taxes, and employ people.” But he also allowed that he had financed topical movies like Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room, Redacted, and Countdown to Zero not because they would generate big boxoffice, but because he believed in them.
And Mark Gordon, whose The Messenger dealt with the emotional fall-out with notifying next of kin about an American killed in Iraq, said he was able to raise the movie’s $6.5 million budget even without attachments. “That’s really unusual,” he noted, but “the people who financed it cared about the content.”