By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 10, 2009 at 6:20AM
At the Produced By conference on the Sony lot last weekend, which was organized by Gale Ann Hurd and the Producers Guild, some of the best and brightest in the profession complained that nobody wants to fund movies for grown-ups these days. At Peter Bart's panel, Who Does What?, while producers Kathleen Kennedy and producing partners Lucy Fisher and Doug Wick talked about massaging tender egos, movies made to fill studio slots, fractious shoots turning out better movies than happy ones, and on-set disasters, they also complained that they can't make the films they'd like to make.
While big-budget high-concept four-quadrant movies get more care and feeding, "you've entered the business of making movies by committee," Kennedy admitted. "It's a challenge, once every department and the studio are weighing in, to protect the creative process." She described embarking on a $100-200 million studio tentpole as building a business from scratch: "You start a company, build it, hire everybody, create a commodity, market and distribute it, and you disband the company, even if it is successful. It's a ludicrous business model."
"It's what we do," sighed Fisher, who encouragingly suggested that with fewer companies making fewer movies these days, the studios are actually more powerful than the agencies, who no longer dictate or ram things down execs' throats.
Wick admitted that everyone is making less money--when movies that once cost $70 now cost $55 million, states like Michigan now look like viable places to shoot. As long as the talent you want is still willing to make the movie, that's okay. The studios are employing indie financing formulas and trying to apply them to talent, he said.
The current climate of fear causes less risk-taking and variation, said Kennedy. "They're all looking for the same thing. Tentpoles costing $150 to 200 million, formula pictures aimed at moviegoers 16 to 24, who are the movie-going demo. That's what's working. It's frustrating as a filmmaker. I've been in the business 20 years. My taste changes, evolves. Yet the baby boom generation is not going to the movies anymore. Few movies work in that demographic. I realize if I'm going to stay active and get movies made, I have to focus on what the studios want. They don't want movies that fall in the mid-range right now. They want big movies." (Here's EW's feature on adult films not working at the b.o.)
And these movies have to score right away, because three to four weeks later, they're gone. "We've entered the business of sports," said Kennedy. "Everybody's keeping track. Nobody talks about whether the movie is about, whether it's good, or the acting. That's changed a lot."
It had gotten too easy to get too many movies made, the producers admitted. And they insisted that as difficult as things are now, it's still possible to make a movie out of a really great script. Fisher holds on to the hope that we're in the midst of a cycle that will eventually give way to creative rebirth, while Kennedy finds that working with foreign partners is a positive thing, as she did with Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Persepolis. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's TinTin will open overseas two months before it comes stateside.
The negative of working with foreign sales companies, said Wick, is "the weird board game you play" of picking actors from column A and column B who may or may not be right for the part, just because they are bankable in certain territories.
Even Clint Eastwood, who participated in his own panel with producing partner Rob Lorenz, was able to push and cajole and raise indie money to get two movies made that no studio wanted: Mystic River and best picture Oscar-winner Million Dollar Baby. "You're always having to sell, it's never easy, you always expect someone up there you're going to have to cross guns with," Eastwood said. "I've gotten to the point where I've made pictures that were successful without catering to the 'core,' teenage kids. I don't want to make pictures for teenage kids, but it's great if kids come to see Gran Torino or Iwo Jima. I like to get the adults to come out. It's a challenge to make subject matter the whole family can see."
The Malpaso way, which is Eastwood's way, is lean, quiet, streamlined, actor-friendly--as long as they're willing to deliver in just a few takes. When Kevin Costner didn't show up on time for a scene during Perfect World, Eastwood just shot over the shoulder of his stunt double and was ready to shoot his face too when Costner turned up, shocked. "I'm paid to shoot film, that's what I'm here for," Eastwood told the star.
Producer-director-actor Eastwood resists taking a proprietary credit on a film. "When I watch production credits go to people who have nothing to do with producing the film, it agitates me," said Eastwood. "I like to see credit go to people who actually do work, not somebody's brother-in-law or agent. I hire smart people who try to make me look good."
Typically, Eastwood's latest, the South African drama Invictus, which Morgan Freeman brought to Eastwood, who in turn brought in Warner Bros., came in under its $50 million budget and four or five days shy of its 55 day schedule. "They bought it right away," said Eastwood. "It was an easy sell. Nelson Mandela is noble subject matter."
At age 79, will Eastwood keep making movies at his current pace? "That's the plan," he said. And westerns? No other script has spoken to him as a wrap-up of the old west as Unforgiven did. "It doesn't seem as if many people are writing them these days," he said.