Producers dish on an undeserved Oscar, difficult stars and the new movie from the makers of “Little Miss Sunshine”
The Produced By Conference, staged by the Producers Guild of America, brought an array of name producers and aspirants to the Disney lot over the weekend.
Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Smith held court, and some tentpole producers bashed 3D on the first day of the conference — but some of the other things that took place on Saturday and Sunday included talk of an undeserved Oscar, difficult stars, the new movie from the makers of "Little Miss Sunshine" and a joke title that turned out to be real.
WHERE CREDIT ISN'T DUE: At a Saturday morning panel devoted to TV showrunners, Damon Lindelhof ("Lost"), Marc Cherry ("Desperate Housewives"), Darren Star ("Beverly Hills 90210") and Andrew Marlowe ("Castle") got into a discussion of what it means to be a television producer — and, more to the point, what it means not to be a producer but to receive a producer's credit.
The problem, they agreed, is that it's hard to attract the most talented television writers — and to do so, a showrunner who can't get into a bidding war has to offer something else: an executive producer credit. Not only is it a more impressive title, but it brings more in residuals to writers who, the panelists agreed, often have not the slightest idea how to produce a series.
"We throw them out like candy," admitted Cherry (above, second from left) of the titles, which are frowned upon by the PGA and despised by the Directors Guild.
Cherry also said that one of his lead actresses on "Housewives" "isn't funny" and needs to be coached on her performance — but he wouldn't say which one.
THE WRITE STUFF: Credits were also a topic early in a Sunday panel called "The Evolving Role of the Creative Film Producer." "Who is Pierre Bismuth?" moderator Richard Gladstein asked producer Steve Golin at the beginning of the panel.
Golin laughed, and explained: Bismuth was a French artist friend of director Michel Gondry, who at one point mentioned to Gondry, "What if you could erase selective memories?"
Gondry loved the idea and mentioned it to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who came up with a take on the story, pitched it to Golin and got the assignment to write the screenplay for "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
The Writers Guild gave Bismuth "story by" credit for his one-sentence idea — and when the film subsequently won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Bismuth took the stage alongside Kaufman.
"He never even read the script," laughed Golin, "but he got an Oscar for it."
STAR TIME: On the same panel, several producers talked about the pluses and minuses of landing big stars for your movie. "When you take on a star like Will Smith, you know you're essentially taking them on as a partner," said Todd Black, who produced the Smith movie "The Pursuit of Happyness."
Black wasn't complaining about the collaboration — but Golin wasn't as cheery about "Fifty First Dates," with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore.
"That movie was not a lot of fun for me," he admitted. "Both of those actors are producers as well, and they were very active with that movie." A pause. "They didn't give me a lot to do."
COMPANY MAN: When the talk turned to producing a movie with a studio attached as opposed to making it on your own and then shopping it to studios, Albert Berger ("Little Miss Sunshine," "Election") talked about facing the decision on "He Loves Me," the film he's about to make with "Little Miss Sunshine" directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
Written by actress Zoe Kazan for herself and her boyfriend Paul Dano, the film was scheduled to be made without distribution, said Berger.
Then Fox Searchlight, which had released "Little Miss Sunshine," said it wanted to be involved.
"The question we had to ask," Berger said, "is do you want the freedom you might have making it without a distribution partner, or so you go with the them, since they're the place where you want to end up anyway?"
He went with Searchlight.
GROOMING LESSONS: Also on the subject of studio input on films, Todd Black said he ran into a stalemate with Sony on Tony Scott's 2008 film "The Taking of Pelham 123."
"John Travolta really wanted a tattoo," he said. "Because … well, because his character really wanted a tattoo. And somebody at the studio hated tattoos, and said that it would hurt the numbers.
"It turned into a very big thing, and the argument went on all night long."
The mess, he said, reminded him of a previous experience he'd had on the film "A Knight's Tale," when star Heath Ledger was adamant about wearing his hair in dreadlocks at the beginning of the movie.
The studio — also Columbia — was dead-set against that look, and wanted its star to be more attractive from the start.
"We were in Prague and they were in Culver City, and the clock was on our side," he said. "That was a case of, oops."
But lest Black be seen as a producer who is down on the studio with which he has a deal, he later heaped praise on Columbia's parent company, Sony.
"I would not want to be anywhere else," he said. "Amy Pascal is the most supportive studio head I have seen in my 25 years in the business. She will take chances that no studio head has done in my time in the business."
RADICAL VOD: Kevin Smith may have dominated the panel subtitled "Entrepreneurial Media and Indie Innovators," but the other panelists managed to get a few words in edgewise.
The most interesting exchange may have come when Nolan Gallagher, the CEO of Gravitas Ventures, described the release pattern for the documentary "American: The Bill Hicks Story."
The film initially played theatrical in 22 markets, he said, and was simultaneously released on VOD platforms that reached 100 million viewers. The filmmakers' total promotional budget, he said, was less than $30,000. And while the total box office was less than $100,000, the film has been a big success on VOD.
"The net result is that for that $30,000, it's going to earn about $600,000 in VOD revenues," he said. "And the filmmakers are going to make about half of that."
Charlie Corwin, the producer of "Half Nelson" and CEO of Original Media, looked down the table at Gallagher. "I've never heard of a $30,000 investment in marketing yielding a $600,000 return," he said. "If that's true, that's radical."
BANKSY UNDERCOVER: Top sales agent John Sloss said he's represented films that he knew nothing about before their filmmakers came to him — but nothing, he said, quite as mysterious as the phone call he received a couple of years ago.
"I got a call from England from someone I'd never even heard of telling me he had a movie he wanted me to see. He said, 'We can't tell you what it's about or who made it, but we've done our research and you're the right person for it.' And he said they were getting on a plane the next day to come show it to me."
The film turned out to be "Exit Through the Gift Shop," the documentary directed by Banksy (though the makers wouldn't admit that publicly for many months). Sloss sold it, and the film ended up with an Oscar nomination and hefty box-office returns.
STEPPING UP, AGAIN: At the "Smaller Stories on Bigger Screens" panel, one audience member asked Summit's Erik Feig about the "Step Up" series — which, he pointed out, did not fall under the "micro-budget" category.
"The first 'Step Up' movie cost about $24 million, and the second was about the same," he said. "The third was more, because it was in 3D. And just wait for 'Step Up 4.'"
Actor-director-producer Eli Roth, also on the panel, leaned forward to his microphone. "'Step Up 4-Ever!'" he said, to huge laughs from the audience.
Feig grinned. "Embarrassingly enough," he said, "that is the official title."
BUT WHAT I REALLY WANT TO DO IS PRODUCE: In front of a room full of producers and aspiring producers, Roth also summed up one of the tricky things about the job title.
"If somebody is a lawyer, you know they went to law school," he said. "If they're a doctor, you know they went to medical school. But anybody who's been to a movie can say they're a producer — and if you can write a check, you can be one."