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Producers Conference: Nuts and Bolts Survival Tools for Trying Times

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 7, 2010 at 5:13AM

Last summer's Produced By Conference was a huge risk for the Producer's Guild, which had no way of knowing ahead of time if the PBC would make any money--like most of the projects its members produce. I attended several packed panels on the Sony lot, where producers from Kathleen Kennedy to filmmaker Clint Eastwood shared info in a helpful and candid way.
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Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood

Last summer's Produced By Conference was a huge risk for the Producer's Guild, which had no way of knowing ahead of time if the PBC would make any money--like most of the projects its members produce. I attended several packed panels on the Sony lot, where producers from Kathleen Kennedy to filmmaker Clint Eastwood shared info in a helpful and candid way.

Clearly, producers were galvanized by getting together to learn and communicate--and this time around shelled out from $400 to $1000 to attend the second installment on the Fox lot. Another PGA goal was to change the view of the producer within the industry. "Many executives don't understand what producers do," says outgoing president Herskovitz (who was replaced Friday by newly elected co-presidents Mark Gordon and Hawk Koch). Herskovitz is positive that the last conference helped to change that, even if it did lose money."The amount we lost was miniscule," says Herskovitz. "It was an enormous marketing and PR challenge to get people to understand what it was. It would have made a lot of money. We limited the size and were oversold, we had to turn people away. So we increased our expectations."

Thompson on Hollywood

The PGA could see that the conference would play if it was set up right--and its members knew about it. AT & T sponsored the expanded event, which was held at the Fox lot, co-chaired by producers Gale Anne Hurd and Rachel Klein. 1100 people attended, reports the PGA. Profits will be reinvested into member education and services.) At one Town Hall, a long line of producers took questions from the floor. Name speakers included Ted Turner, Mark Cuban, Mark Gordon, Larry Gordon, Lee Daniels, Doug Wick, Jon Landau, James Brooks and Richard Zanuck. Among those running mentors' roundtable workshops were Hershkovitz, Koch, Bruce Cohen, Bonnie Arnold, Dean Devlin, Mark Johnson, Jane Rosenthal, Tom Gibbons and Jon Jashni. Ridley Scott and Brian Grazer were rewarded for rebuffing Variety's Peter Bart as their moderator with this column. Presumably, Scott and Grazer realized that they'd have to field the inevitable tough questions about Robin Hood, one of many over-inflated summer disappointments this year--and didn't show up at all.

Panels on financing, distribution and development were packed, as well as brand integration and 3-D. The producers I spoke to took notes, learned new ways of looking at things, networked and were reminded of people to call. Producer Melanie Backer was amazed at Independent Financing panelist Cathy Schulman's willingness to assemble 32 investors for the Christian drama Salvation Boulevard, starring Jennifer Connelly and Greg Kinnear. For most film producers these days, dramas are off the table: light comedies and genre fare are the order of the day. With the indie market drying up, many are looking to TV. Indie financing panelist Jim Stern of Endgame, who is able to self-finance but still relies on foreign pre-sales to hedge cash flow, has just wrapped revenge thriller Hungry Rabbit Jumps, starring Nic Cage, without a North American distributor, which is now understood to be the last thing to fall into place. Stern thinks giving away the upside to a distributor in advance is not a good idea.

Nowadays financing films overseas usually comes first, and distribs want to look at the final product, often at a festival, said Terrence Malick's producer, Sarah Green. Developing a trusting relationship with a foreign sales agent who shares your taste is crucial, the panelists agreed--but write wriggle room into the contract, because producers don't want sales cos to tie up rights for a long time. Set up benchmarks for sales allow producers to withdraw if need be.

Stern and Schulman emphasized that if you want to persuade actors to star in your indie movie for nothing, you'd better give them a role to stretch in, casting them against type. Otherwise, they might as well do the big studio movie for a paycheck. Moderator Gary Lucchesi of Lakeshore reminded that most indie producers raise foreign pre-sales and then fill their funding gap with equity investors. If it's too big, though, it's hard to fill. The panelists concurred that completion bond companies are always a good idea in a market where producers can lose their financing. With no lead actors with foreign sales value, or a North American distributor, it's hard to raise equity. In that scenario, you have to lower the budget. And producers can't expect to make $500,000 fees on small movies.

Greenberg Traurig partner Lisa Nitti pointed out that while Michael London's Groundswell raised $205 million from a Wall Street hedge fund in 2007, there were so many conditions and restrictions on the money that it was difficult to access for such films as Milk and Appaloosa. Groundswell bought out the library this past January, preferring to have more flexibility with each picture. Relativity and Weinstein Co. still have hedge fund backing.

State location promos were loud and clear at the conference: Incentive and rebate programs have gotten so lucrative in states like Michigan that there's no point in shooting overseas anymore, said Nitti. On the other hand, Stern's Endgame financed and produced a movie, Rian Johnson's Brothers Bloom, that had fallen apart at a small studio--by shooting it for 30% less in Serbia. Stern is prepping his next Johnson film, the time-travel noir thriller Looper for a year-end start (rumored casting of Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not yet set) as well as the Philip Noyce Cold War CIA thriller Wenceslas Square, which is not yet cast.

And with the studios not developing as much, that role has fallen to producers. Mandalay Entertainment president Schulman has a development fund, which mostly acquires book titles. Producers also have to find their own P & A money now, even when distribs want to buy their movie. Sometimes distribs will help them to do that.

"It's been a tough year in the business for everyone," says Herskovitz. "There are a lot of changes. Historically, producers are gamblers and mavericks, initiators. They generate projects, try out new films, technologies and ideas." Along those lines, the PGA's newest venture is a ProducersWiki website to aggregate the knowledge and information necessary for any sort of production: locations, budgets, casting, cinematographers, cameras. Producers themselves will supply the info. The PGA may reserve some parts of the site for members only, or subscribers, much like IMDbPro. "It's a game changer," says Herskovitz. "There's never been anything like this."

[Produced By Conference on Fox lot, PGAs Hawk Koch and Marshall Herskovitz, producer James Stern at Independent Financing Panel.]

This article is related to: Festivals, Genres, Produced By Conference, Independents


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.