"Battleship," the high-concept but underperforming action film released by Universal earlier this year, made a surprise appearance in discussions about risky movies and passion projects at the Produced By Conference on Sunday morning.
Peter Berg, the director of that film, was taking part in a discussion entitled "Passion Projects: Making Films Everyone Says Will Never Get Made" when he addressed the elephant in the room: that his last film, based on the board game, was the kind of movie generally seen as the antithesis of a passion project.
"I have a movie in theaters right now which has obviously underperformed in many ways," he said. "When [a movie] doesn't work, it's an … interesting opportunity to look at what went wrong and how it went wrong."
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With "Battleship," he said, the scale of the movie simply overwhelmed everything else. "It was a movie that I tried as hard as I could to get inside of. But the concept is so big and powerful, and the money is so big and so powerful, that the movie is going to run away with itself."
In the end, he said, he failed to find a personal connection that would make him passionate about the movie. "I want to get inside the movie's world and feel like I know it better than anyone, and I couldn't do that … It was an interesting eye-opener."
His comments about "Battleship" came on a morning when a couple of the biggest panels at the Producers Guild's Produced By Conference dealt with the problems of getting risky movies made in an increasingly conservative studio system.
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Grazer shared his story about launching "Splash" in the face of a competing mermaid movie that would have starred Warren Beatty and Jessica Lange, and about reviving "American Gangster," which Universal killed after already spending $28 million.
The studio told him to never mention the words "American Gangster" again, he said – but he ignored them and immediately repackaged the Denzel Washington film with a new director, Ridley Scott, and co-star, Russell Crowe, in place of original players Antoine Fuqua and Benicio del Toro.
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Grazer and Berg also talked about their experiences together making "Friday Night Lights," and about the night Berg tried to get the studio excited about making the film by flying a batch of executives to Odessa, Texas for a Friday night high-school football game.
None of them wanted to go, he said – but they reluctantly agreed while stipulating that they'd leave at halftime. Instead, they stayed until the end and fell in love with the world of high-school football. Then, on the way home, the engines failed and the power went out on their airplane.
"I was like, 'Fuck!'" said Berg. "I knew I had the green light, and instead we were going to crash." But the power came back on, they made it home "and by the time we got off that plane, we had had the communal experience that ignited the particular passion necessary to get that movie made."
Earlier on the same soundstage on the Sony lot, another group of producers spent an hour talking about their own passion projects, and about the future of film production in an era where, as moderator Michael Shamberg pointed out, the annual chart of top-grossers is dominated by sequels and nearly 70 percent of box-office revenue comes from international.
"The audience is causing the change," said Ceán Chaffin, director David Fincher's producing partner. "The audience that we want [for serious dramas] is harder and harder to find."
"We have to be more inventive and resourceful than we ever had to in the past," added Mark Johnson, who began his career with "Diner" 30 years ago.
The session was titled "Game Changers: Where Movies Should Be Going," but most of the producers admitted that they don't really know where movies should be going – they just know that it's difficult to make quality films and difficult to find an audience.
"The most elusive thing is always good," said Doug Wick, producer of "Gladiator" and the upcoming Baz Luhrmann version of "The Great Gatsby." "Making something that turns out good is the hardest part."
The panel, which also included "Moneyball" producer Michael DeLuca, talked about dream projects that took years to get off the ground. For DeLuca, it was "Moneyball": "It took eight years," he said of the film, which would have died if Sony's Amy Pascal hadn't been a big supporter. "I've sworn off dream projects since then."
Johnson, though, admitted he has a dream project he's currently hoping to get off the ground: a script from "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan called "Two Face."
"I still think it's the best script I've ever come across," said Johnson, one of the producers on "Breaking Bad." "It's a comedy about racism, and it’s a very hard sell, but I'm convinced it's going to get made."
In a discussion of future projects, Chaffin said that she and Fincher (who was watching from the back of the soundstage) are considering a movie that would partially be shot in 3D.
"We think 3D should be applied very specifically," she said. "We're actually thinking of mixing 3D and 2D in one film."
Again and again, the conversation circled back to dealing with studios in an uncertain era in which even the old standbys are no longer safe bets. "If you just get a mediocre director and a superhero, it's not a particularly good equation for a studio anymore," said Wick.
And when a film doesn't work, the producers agreed that the results can be devastating. Johnson talked about going into a months-long depression after the commercial failure of Alfonso Cuaron's "A Little Princess," which he said was "the closest thing to a perfect movie I've ever made."
And Chaffin said she and Fincher were badly shaken by the commercial failure of "Fight Club," which Fox executives hated and which couldn't find its market until it was released on home video.
"'Fight Club' was devastating," Chaffin said. "All of us who worked on the film thought we had something great."
Throughout the session, Sony's Pascal received so much praise from the panelists that eventually Shamberg stepped in.
"Everybody here loves Amy," he said, "but we also like the others."
"All except one," said Chaffin, who declined to specify the one.