Industry Spotlight: Ed Pressman Talks About 30+ Years of Producing
by Matthew Ross
Before Sundance, before Miramax, before Jarmusch and Spike, producer Ed Pressman was making independent films. Beginning in the late 1960s with his partnership with writer/director Paul Williams, Pressman demonstrated a mastery of the survival skills that make longevity as a producer possible: a flexible attitude to the ever-changing financial climate and the ability to cultivate unknown talent. In the past 30 years, Pressman has produced more than 65 films, ranging from the feature debuts of Terrence Malick (“Badlands“), Oliver Stone (“The Hand“), David Byrne (“True Stories“), and Alex Proyas (“The Crow“), to controversial art films (“Bad Lieutenant,” “American Psycho“), to prestigious studio Oscar winners (“Wall Street,” “Reversal of Fortune“), to mega-budget comic-book adaptations (“Judge Dredd“).
In 2001, Pressman began a new phase of his career when he partnered with October Films co-founder John Schmidt to launch the independent production company ContentFilm. True to form, Pressman’s latest venture has already met with success. Four films from the company’s initial slate (“The Cooler,” “Owning Mahowny” “Party Monster,” and “The Hebrew Hammer“) were selected for the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, with all but one securing a theatrical release for later this year. (Other Content projects include Jim Simpson‘s “The Guys,” which was released in April, and Robert Parigi‘s “Love Object,” which screened at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival.)
In addition, Pressman continues to make bigger-budget films through his Edward R. Pressman Film Corp and also oversees Sunflower Productions, a partnership with filmmaker Terrence Malick and Sony Pictures Classics. For indieWIRE’s industry spotlight column, Matthew Ross talked with Pressman about his early career, the challenges facing today’s independent producers, and why he’s been able to pick so many talented newcomers.
indieWIRE: How did you get started in filmmaking?
Ed Pressman: I really started during graduate school, when I studied philosophy at the London School of Economics. Before then, I had always loved film, but it had seemed totally remote as a career. In England, I met a young American filmmaker named Paul Williams. He was a very confident, outgoing director who had made a short film at Harvard. After a few days of talking incessantly about movies, we decided to form a partnership. We made a short together, and after that experience, everything else, compared to filmmaking, seemed so limited. At the time we started, film seemed to be a way of changing the world.
Paul was very precocious. He really gave me the confidence to get into the profession. Together he and I made films that Paul directed. The first one was a feature called “Out of It.” It was Jon Voight‘s first film, and John Avildsen was the cameraman. We shot it for about $200,000 at my folks’ summer house in Atlantic Beach, using credit cards and small investments. At the time, that method of making a film without distribution already in place was very, very rare. Cassavetes was doing it and that was about it; the studios really made the movies. But we made the film and sold it to David Picker, who was running United Artists. He then gave us a three-picture deal. We were 21 at the time, and it all seemed so simple. It was a great experience right off the bat.
Unfortunately, that film was held back from release because right after United Artists bought it Jon was signed up to star in “Midnight Cowboy,” and they wanted to wait until after that movie was done to get our film some visibility. The next film Paul and I made was “The Revolutionary,” which starred Jon Voigt and Robert Duvall.
iW: How did your partnership with Paul work out?
Pressman: We worked together for about eight years. Paul directed three films, the last of which was “Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues,” based on a book by a young writer named Michael Crichton. Then we started to produce films with other directors. We made “Badlands” with Terrence Malick and “Sisters” and “Phantom of the Paradise” with Brian de Palma. A lot of young filmmakers used to hang out at our office, including Brian and Martin Scorsese, because Paul was really one of the first directors of our generation to make it. Then he went on a spiritual trip. He gave up all his possessions, split up with his wife, and left filmmaking. He’s since come back, and he’s made some interesting low-budget films over the past few years; but it’s hard to get back into the groove after you’ve been gone for so long.
When he went away, he sold his interest in the partnership to me, and I went out on my own. The next time I had a partnership was when I started ContentFilm with John Schmidt two years ago.
iW: You’ve experienced the demise of auteur-driven studio filmmaking, the advent of Miramax and mini-majors, the birth of the current independent film movement, the Sundance phenomenon, and a wholescale evolution of film, financing, production, marketing, distribution and exhibition models. What perspective has this afforded you?
Pressman: In some ways things have changed, and in other ways they’ve remained the same. It’s definitely easier to get films financed, but I think it’s harder to get them distributed and marketed well. So many things have evolved over the years that didn’t exist when we started, but getting these films out to an audience is a much greater challenge.
When we did “Badlands” and “Phantoms,” they didn’t succeed in their first theatrical releases. We were able to reissue the films ourselves and create campaigns for reasonably modest amounts of money in smaller markets. We did new commercials, trailers and one-sheets and then tested them in Little Rock, Ark., a self-contained town with a cheap television market. We proved the films there, and then we went to Memphis and Dallas, and after that we were able to hand them back to our distributor and convince them to reissue the film. We could never do that today. Now, after the first weekend, it’s clear if a movie’s going to do well or if it’s going to fail.
On the financing and production side, one of the big challenges for independent producers has been to find new ways to get films financed. At one time we found financing through video deals, then it was tax shelters until they were outlawed, then it was Japanese money, then it was German money — it keeps evolving. Part of my job has always been to stay ahead of the curve and find new ways to do it. In other words, the specific solutions have changed but the overall process is basically the same as it’s always been. It’s as difficult to make a film today as it’s ever been. It’s always been a struggle and each film is a miracle.
iW: How have you been able to stay ahead of the curve?
Pressman: I think you can’t always accept the rules as they exist because they keep changing. I’ll continue to do that. Right now, I’m very happy with the work that we’re doing. I think the films we’re making now stand up very well to the films that Brian [de Palma] and Terry [Malick] made early on.
But there are fewer distributors now than there were five years ago, and it’s harder to find the right marketing-distribution arrangement that allow films to come to their full potential. For example, with “Party Monster,” we’re using a combination of Strand Releasing and Blockbuster Video to get it out there. I think it’s a very good movie — despite some of the reviews at Sundance — and now we have to navigate the competition and the marketplace and make sure it sees the light of day in the best way possible. It would be nice to have our own distribution company so that we could distribute it our way.
iW: Have you considered starting a distribution company?
Pressman: Not really. That’s a whole other ball game and a very expensive matter. It can be a big black hole. I’d love to find a more strategic solution, like working with an existing company and contributing financing to help market our films in a way that provides continuity. We keep thinking about ways to do that. We’d like to initiate a pattern with distribution, do everything one-by-one. Something like what Revolution has with Sony, an arrangement between companies that is more than simple first-look deals.
iW: With Content, you’re firmly in the independent world, yet for a while you were doing a lot of studio films.
Pressman: I still want to keep a hand in the studio world; it’s an important component to our business. As things evolve, Content is going to do what it does and we will develop relationships with filmmakers. Many filmmakers who get involved with Content will want to make studio films along with their independent films. Part of the appeal of Content is that it will live in both worlds, and our filmmakers can connect to both worlds.
iW: You’ve helped launch the careers of a number of world-class filmmakers, and you continue to do so. Why do you think you’ve been able to spot these unproven talents with such great success?
Pressman: It’s not a systematic thing. I call it psychic eroticism, others might call it charisma. There’s an aspect to the director that I respond to as an individual, something represents in their being the films they’ll make. What I respond to is also what inspires everyone around the filmmaker and makes people what to work with him. The filmmaker’s personality inculcates in himself the films he makes. Just like David Byrne is quiet and introverted, so are his films. John Milius, Oliver Stone, and David Mamet are outgoing people, and their films embody those qualities. I’m responding to that individual characteristic. It’s always an individual director that attracts me, it’s not a script. But there are some common traits among each person I’ve worked with: a love of music, for one, also being politically engaged in the currents of their time. Working with directors is a vicarious creativity that I enjoy very much.
iW: What have been your most rewarding collaborations?
Pressman: The original relationship I had with Paul was a wonderful experience. In some ways, trying to recreate that kind of partnership is what I’ve been after ever since. It was never producer against director; it was a collaboration of us against the world, and a real friendship. I’ve enjoyed that kind of experience a number of times over the years. There have also been a couple of examples where it didn’t work as well.
My work with Oliver Stone was very rewarding — we made six films together. I did three films with Abel Ferrara, and as crazy as he is, he’s great. Even though it was just one film, I loved working with David Byrne. He’d never done a movie before, and he was learning from day one. Each of these guys is a different trip. You really learn through each of them, because they are very strong people. A lot of the relationships evolve. With Stone, the relationship when we did “The Hand” was a lot different than the relationship during “Talk Radio.” By the end, he was a producer as much as I was. But I can’t say there was one relationship above all the others. A lot of the people we’re working with now are fulfilling, too.