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Why Producer Cassian Elwes Believes the Entertainment Paradigm Shift is ‘Starting to Happen Already’

Why Producer Cassian Elwes Believes the Entertainment Paradigm Shift is 'Starting to Happen Already'

 At 56, the prolific film producer — his latest project,
Elvis
& Nixon
,” arrives in theaters this Friday — also remains keenly
attuned to changes in the industry, from the push to provide more opportunities
for women and people of color to the growing influence of streaming services
like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu on the market for independent films.

In his Salon Talk at the recent Sun Valley Film Festival, as
well as at a mountaintop fête for Sun
Valley Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Oliver Stone
— where Indiewire sat at a
table with Elwes and Hollywood Reporter executive editor Steven Galloway, among
others — he revealed behind-the-scenes details from his 30-year career and
offered his thoughts on where the business is headed next: The “paradigm
shift,” he says, responding to a festival-goer’s question about the
collapse of the DVD market, is “starting to happen already.”

It’s the latest transformation in an industry Elwes has been
acquainted with since childhood, when he visited the set of Stanley Kubrick’s
“2001: A Space Odyssey.” (His parents were friendly with the
filmmaker.) Along with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,”
“Midnight Express” and “Apocalypse Now,” he mentions the
director’s 1968 masterwork as one of his inspirations. “Stanley had
nothing,” he said of the technology available at the time, comparing the
film favorably to “Gravity.” “He was making it all up as he was
doing it.”

READ MORE: Attention, Screenwriters: 7 New Scripting Tips, Straight from Oliver Stone, Mark Duplass, Cassian Elwes and David Seidler

 

To hear Elwes discuss the challenges he’s faced while
producing several of his best-known films, this early understanding of the need
to be adaptable and creative has served him well. On 2001’s “Monster’s
Ball,” made during his 15-year tenure at William Morris — and first
envisioned as a vehicle for then-client Whitney Houston to revive her career —
he convinced Lionsgate to back the project by slashing the budget in half, from
$8 million to $3.7 million, then comforted a distraught Wes Bentley over the
phone when the actor dropped out at the last minute.   
“He was totally out of it,” Elwes said. “He
started crying and said, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it. I’m not
there, I’m not there, I’m not there.'” After being told of Lionsgate’s
threat to file suit against him, Bentley “finally stops crying and he
says, ‘What if I could get a friend of mine to do this movie instead?’ And I
said, ‘Like who?’ And he says, ‘I don’t know, like Heath Ledger.’ … He called
us back in like half an hour and said, ‘Heath will do me a solid, man. He’ll do
it. He hasn’t read the script, but he’ll just do a solid for me on this
one.'”

Though Elwes has ample experience wrangling talent — in his
Salon Talk, he noted that both director Lee Daniels and star Nicole Kidman
flirted with the idea of abandoning “The Paperboy” mere weeks before
shooting was set to begin — it’s his insight into the financing of independent
films that’s saved several recent successes from the scrap heap. 

In describing the complex funding model for films with
budgets that fall between those of self-funded festival debuts and studio projects,
Elwes clearly sees opportunity — provided one is willing to do the legwork.
With the right subject matter, director and a star willing to work for less,
he explains, financing a film budgeted at $5 million can be done if one pursues
all potential avenues: pre-sale of foreign rights, loans taken out against
those sales, “gap financing” (borrowing money against rights still to
be sold), state tax incentives and equity financing.

Elwes is acutely aware of the importance of online
distribution, having sold “Elvis & Nixon” to Amazon Studios following
last year’s Cannes Film Festival for “an enormous amount of money.”
(Variety reported
the price tag
for the film, whose theatrical distribution is being handled
by Bleecker Street, as topping $3 million.) “It took me three months to negotiate the deal,”
Elwes said, “because I was so concerned the whole while I was making the
deal with them, that, oh my God, they’re going to use this as a template to go
buy other movies, and they’re going to say, ‘Well, Cassian agreed to that, Cassian
agreed to this,’ and all these agents in Hollywood are going to hate me. I had
to make sure it was a rock-solid deal.”
Indeed, rather than shying away from digital outlets’
competition with traditional specialty distributors, Elwes — though he remains
steadfast in his love of the theatrical experience — hopes to see the streaming
market expand to include Internet giants like Facebook, YouTube and Google. The
reason? His belief that entering the original content game will spur such
companies to appreciate, and thus to protect, intellectual property rights.

“I think you’re going to see an avalanche — and I’m
praying that this is going to happen, but I’m predicting it here, too — of the
other Internet companies [distributing and creating content],” he said.
“I’m praying that Google gets into this business. They are the greatest
purveyors of piracy in our business… Ripping off a movie for free that you’re
supposed to pay for is a crime. Buying cocaine on the street is a crime. What’s
the difference? You’re committing a crime, and they’re promoting a crime
online.”

Elwes’ commitment to the health of independent filmmaking
runs deeper than dollars and cents, though. He’s assumed a leading role in
efforts to bring more women and people of color into the industry as screenwriters
and directors, tracing his work on this front, including the creation of The
Black List’s Cassian
Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowships
and The Horizon
Award
, to a scary
encounter with an unruly passenger
on a JetBlue flight from New York to Los
Angeles in 2012.  

“Generally, being a movie producer, or being anything
in the movie business — directing movies, or acting in them — is a fairly
selfish thing, because it’s so hard,” Elwes said. “You think about
yourself a lot, you don’t think about other people so much. And that experience
really got me thinking, ‘Maybe I should, at this stage of my life, be doing
other things for other people.'”

As a result, he’s brought a number of emerging talents to
Sundance in the past two years, introducing them to countless industry figures
and advising them on what it takes to succeed in what remains, more than three
decades after his first movie, “Oxford Blues,” a “a very, very
rough business.” And he’s just getting started.
“I know, for a fact, because I meet everybody somewhere
along the way, that it is impossible — not totally impossible, but very, very,
very difficult — for women to get their movies made,” he said, mentioning
the dearth of women directors involved in the top 250 films at the box office
each year. “I sit in the think tanks now, with Sundance and Women in Film,
and we’re talking about this a lot, what to do. And, by the way, we’re on it.
We’re going to go to the studios and basically demand that they hire a certain
percentage of women to direct movies each year.”

READ MORE: Oliver Stone Talks About Critical Responses, His Failed MLK Film and Why He’s Not Excited for the American Future

Though Elwes is “not a big fan” of hiring quotas, he’s
put his money where his mouth is, working on films from the likes of Courtney
Hunt (“Frozen River”), Liza Johnson (“Hateship Loveship”),
Amanda Sharp (“Sticky Notes”) and Jennifer Chambers Lynch (“A
Fall from Grace”), and bringing on veteran producers Christine Vachon
(“Carol”) and Lynette Howell (“Mississippi Grind”) to
mentor this year’s Horizon Award winners. At his Salon Talk, he relates
“Transparent” creator Jill Soloway’s description of Hollywood’s
male-dominated filmmaker pipeline, eliciting a laugh from the audience:
“These executives, all they want to do is hang with other guys, because
it’s young, dudely guys doing dudely things with each other.”

Elwes’s career of late is proof enough that studios are
wrong to frame hiring women and people of color as a “risk.” A year
after partnering with Pelican Point Media to form
financing and production company
Golden Gate Media, he’s thriving: In
addition to “Elvis & Nixon” and the aforementioned films from
Sharp and Lynch, IMDb lists him
as producer or executive producer on three upcoming projects — including
writer-director James Cox’s “Billionaire Boys Club,” starring Taron
Edgerton, Ansel Elgort and Kevin Spacey. In a sense, the true-life tale of a
Ponzi scheme gone awry, which first piqued Elwes’ interest after he wrapped
“Oxford Blues,” brings Elwes’ career full circle. (The film wrapped
shooting earlier this year, with plans to bring it to Toronto in the fall.) 

 

“We struggle, making pictures,” Elwes said at the
outset of his Salon Talk in Sun Valley, as the audience’s hubbub quiets to a
hush. “We don’t make much money doing it, and you guys all know that.
Occasionally, occasionally, one of
these pictures works, and you make some real money from it, but most of the
time you’re working for very low money, and we could all be doing something
else, making far more money doing it. But we love films.”

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