FESTIVAL: Beachside Film Politics, Indiewood and Screenwriters Debate in Santa Barbara
by Andrea Meyer
(indieWIRE/3.10.2000) — While the Santa Barbara International Film Festival might not offer the stellar film line-up of a Sundance or Toronto, its seminar series is outstanding. Perhaps because of the charming beach community’s proximity to LA (or because of the community’s charm and beach) the festival attracts panelists that include some of the more interesting filmmakers, studio executives, agents, and new media professionals working in the film industry today.
The first weekend, March 4-5, featured Independent Filmmaking: Planning the Endgame, with panelists Geoffrey Gilmore, Codirector of Sundance Film Festival and Rudy Tjio, Head of Acquisitions for Time Medien, among others, discussing distribution strategies for the domestic and international marketplace. For The Evolution of the Revolution, Mark Stolaroff of Next Wave Films presented an overview of digital filmmaking, including clips of various digital stocks and tape-to-film transfers. The big sell-outs, however, were “Has Indiewood Taken Over Hollywood?” about the new wave of studio-produced indie films, and “It Starts with the Script,” a two-hour symposium with some of today’s top screenwriters.
“Harvey Weinstein is the Louis B. Mayer of the new millennium,” announced Tommy O’Haver, director of “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss,” at the Indiewood panel. And no one argued with him. UTA agent Howard Cohen added, “Harvey is the worst of both worlds. They want to be filmmaker friendly, but they’re looking at the realities of the business.” Moderated by John Horn of Premiere Magazine, this engaging seminar examined the role of independent studios, like Miramax, in Hollywood and some of the ways that Hollywood studios might be following in their footsteps.
With Lorenzo DiBonaventura, President of Production at Warner Bros., and Mark Johnson from Dreamworks representing the studios and David Gale of MTV Films speaking for a new wave of young, hip production companies, the group talked about production and marketing strategies in the age of MTV and the Internet. In an era in which an ad campaign that begins and ends with Nickelodeon makes “Snow Day” a hit and “The Blair Witch Project” hits the $140 million mark thanks to an ingenious Internet campaign, where do the studios fit in?
“I think the best independent movies this year have been made by studios,” said Johnson, “be it Dreamworks with ‘American Beauty,’ ‘Three Kings‘ at Warners, or even ‘Magnolia‘ at New Line.” He remarked that the opposite trend is apparent in the more mainstream recent works of traditionally independent companies, referring to a conversation he had with Meryl Poster of Miramax, regarding a Tarantino-esque script she had rejected. “She said, ‘We’re not making these anymore. We want to make uplifting films.'” Johnson laughed and predicted, “Miramax is gonna be making ‘Ghandi,’ and Lorenzo is going to be making films with filmmakers staring at their own navels!”
O’Haver and Mark Pellington, director of “Arlington Road,” two independent-minded filmmakers with studio deals, talked about the pros and cons of working within the system. O’Haver told a story about sending a list of cinematographers to Miramax only to have all but two of them crossed out. Miramax then encouraged him “to meet this guy Ralph, because Harvey really, really likes Ralph.” Not missing a beat, Horn chimed in: “So when will Ralph start shooting your movie?” O’Haver winced, “Luckily he’s a really nice guy.”
DiBonaventura explained that studios are more likely to put muscle behind a blockbuster, because a small, specialized film requires an “equivalent work effort as a $75 million film” but with a less substantial pay-off. He said that “Three Kings,” a big budget film with an independent spirit, proved itself the exception. But he stressed that it “had at its core a very commercial premise. And David [O. Russell] was smart enough to put some movie stars in it. Personally, I prayed for $40 million. I never dreamed when we made it of going over 60.” DeBonaventura added that while 10,000 scripts might pass through a studio like Warner every year, if an executive really believes in a particular project, he or she will usher it through production and distribution. “It’s easy to think of studios as monoliths,” he said, “but they’re a collection of individuals. And there are a lot of people who are willing to take chances.”
At the screenwriting symposium the next day, the studio exec/indie director love fest continued, when Russell himself commended DeBonaventura for staying out of his hair during the making of “Three Kings.” Russell mentioned a conversation he had had with fellow panelist Alan Ball (writer of “American Beauty”) about “how your film can fly under the radar.” Russell said, “It’s funny about ‘American Beauty.’ Everyone at Dreamworks thought the big, important movies were ‘The Haunting‘ and ‘Gladiator,’ so they left them alone. And we had the same thing.”
Eric Roth, writer of “The Insider,” on the other hand, criticized the insufficient or ineffective marketing of his Oscar-nominated film from Disney‘s Touchstone. “We had Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Michael Mann and [writer] Eric Roth at the top of their game, and three people went to see it. That’s a problem.”
The lively discussion, moderated by producer Laura Ziskin and also featuring Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich“), Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry“) and Sherman Alexie (“Smoke Signals“), covered the gamut of topics, from working from non-fictional materials to the hazards of collaboration, and eventually settling on the chasm between big-budget entertainment and more challenging cinematic work.
Ball said he began writing “American Beauty” while working as co-Executive Producer on a sitcom. Fueled by hatred for his job, he went home and wrote a story about a guy fed up with his life. “I had had these characters floating around my head for years, and I just went home and wrote it,” he said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think what Lester’s going through in trying to find an intrinsic connection to his life is what I was going through in rediscovering a connection to my work.”
Russell said that he ironically took more risks with “Three Kings,” his first $40 million picture, than he had taken with his earlier work. “It was an experiment for me,” he said. “I think I’ve learned that I want to go back to the scale of my earlier films. But at the time I thought, cool, why don’t I try to drive this studio vehicle but make it really independent minded? I thought, let me go nuts with this stylistically. . . . I thought, this is a Pandora’s Box that hasn’t been opened. It’s rich with all sort of irony and perversity and strangeness, politically and historically.”
“Studios don’t like moral ambiguity,” said studio insider Laura Ziskin. “They don’t like irony.” She joked about the likelihood of studios funding edgier projects, “I’ve been reading that irony is out. Did you hear that, Charlie? And they don’t like satire.” Alexie corrected her, saying he’s currently working on a satire for Warners. “Don’t tell them,” she replied.
In addition to appeasing the studios, screenwriters are required to enter into a relationship with the director who is interpreting their work. According to the panelists, this relationship requires collaboration and often compromise, frequently resulting in changes to the original script. Ball talked about his initial anger when his frame story — a trial in which the kids are convicted of Lester’s murder — ended up on the cutting room floor.
He later conceded that the difficult cut was an improvement, softening some of the original script’s venom. All the panelists agreed that sometimes financial or practical restrictions could lead to creative decisions, some of which improve upon the film. Eric Roth, a writer whose work dates back to “Airport ’79,” however, has different kinds of memories. “I came from a different era. Writers were a little more interchangeable,” he said. “Redford, I love the man, but I said, ‘Creatively, you don’t have any balls, man.’ But he has the power. He said, ‘Here’s my balls, you’re out of here.'”
Ziskin concluded that in this business, “There are three movies: the movie you set out to make, the movie you’re making, and the movie you’ve made.” Alan Ball admitted, “I sort of let go of it. Midway through the process, I’d let go of the picture in my head.” In contrast to the industry vets, Ziskin asked Russell if his movie looked like the one he set out to make. “Yes,” he responded, “I think so.”