BIZ: New York Prod Co's Talk Shop; Pitches, Escaping Hollywood, and DV
by A. G. Basoli
(indieWIRE/06.05.01) -- "Do you accept unsolicited scripts?" asked an audience member to the four participants of the New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT) industry panel "Hollywood on the Hudson" last Thursday night. The answer, from panelists Anthony Bregman of Good Machine ("Human Nature"), Amy Robinson ("After Hours") of Amy Robinson Productions, Dylan Leiner, Senior VP of Acquisitions and Production at Sony Pictures Classics ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), and Steven Haft of Haft Entertainment ("Dead Poet's Society"), was a gloomy, unanimous "no."
"We simply don't have the manpower to cover material that is not solicited," Bregman said. "We do look at movies, though, especially shorts." Steven Haft and Amy Robinson agreed that agent representation is not the only option. "Send us a letter saying, 'Here's what we've written and here's what it's about,'" said Steven Haft. "Clue us in. We really do read the letters, and sometimes we call somebody up and ask them for the script."
Robinson concurred: "Put your writing in the letter," she said. "Two of the movies I made 'After Hours' and 'Once Around' were unrepresented." The most empowering suggestion came from Dylan Leiner: "It's really important to know the company you're considering sending stuff to," he said. "Make an inquiry about them just to find out how they work."
If nothing else, the third installment of the series "Film in the City," produced by Anne Bobroff-Hajal for NYWIFT offered just that, a close look at some Gotham-based movers and shakers whose films often travel the silk road to the Oscars via Hollywood connections. With the goal to provide their audience with an inside perspective on the unique character of each New York feature production company, the NYWIFT assembled panelists with close ties with major Hollywood entities. Sony Pictures Classics is a New York-originated "arthouse" division of a major LA studio; Amy Robinson and Steven Haft are New Yorkers who work here and make films for Hollywood.
Moderated by Film/television producer Cynthia Griffin ("Sex, Longing and Christopher Durang"), topics ranged from de rigeur development/production criteria to basic "what does it mean to be a producer," to the even more basic "why New York," to the just plain obvious "how will digital impact the industry." Luckily, the answers were often very entertaining, as well as informative.
Legendary producer David Brown who launched Steven Spielberg's career and produced, among others, "Jaws," "The Sting," "Cocoon," and "The Player" and most recently the multi-Oscar-nominated "Chocolat," participated in the first part of the panel. "Not even his wife knows, what a producer is," Brown said. "As the director George Stevens told me decades and decades ago, 'Every great film is made over the dead body of the executives.' The producer is a visionary, the first on the film, the last to go. In charge of much more than the budget."
That said, the choice between New York and Los Angeles proved more complex to explain. "I'm a New Yorker," Steven Haft said. "This is where I want to be. The less time you spend in LA, the more movies you're getting made. LA is very development driven; it's all about studios that develop hundreds of projects for a senior executive who can say 'yes' 13 or 20 times a year. The further away you get from that, the more likely you are to getting the movie made. And New York is as far as you can get before the ocean."
For Amy Robinson, it's also a personal choice: "New York is where I feel comfortable and creative," she says. "But it's also about luck." The first movie she ever produced, "Chilly Scenes of Winter" by Joan Micklin Silver, was at United Artists and though well reviewed, it came out and died quickly. Sony Pictures Classics called her four months later and wanted to re-release it. "In Hollywood, when a movie is dead, it's dead. Sony Pictures Classics loved the movie and they came back to us. It wasn't five years later; it was less than a year. I bless New York for that."
"But you have to look at yourself and decide," Robinson continued. "I think all of us, or some of us here, are slightly outside the system. If we really wanted to embrace it, we would have to go there [L.A.]. And it's very lucrative. It supports all of these mid-level executives. I don't say, 'Don't do it,' if that's what you want to do. But it's a much more iconoclastic system living and working here in New York."
David Brown recalled making "The Player" with Robert Altman: "Actually the pitches that we have in 'The Player' don't compare to the pitches I've heard. Hollywood's myth is far less than the reality. Two studios wanted us to change ['The Player'] to the steel industry; they didn't understand why we wanted to set the film in Hollywood."
Low overhead and small staffs also make New York for a more manageable operation and simpler development process. "My president is a young woman called Kit Golden," Brown said. "She brought me two projects that made her president of the company: 'Angela's Ashes' and 'Chocolat.' She's a product of the NYU film school, lives in New York, wouldn't think of living anywhere else. We don't make a lot of movies, don't have a lot of development. . . . Our motto is Shakespeare's words: 'The Play is the Thing,' nothing else but the story."
Sony Pictures Classics' exceptional track record is due to "trusting the filmmakers," Leiner said. "We're twenty people based entirely in New York, contractually. We don't have offices in LA and we don't have offices in London or Paris. We produce between 12 and 17 films a year, one or two documentaries, and acquire a handful of foreign film films. We are very director-driven. We have relationships with David Mamet, John Sayles, Richard Linklater."
This year SPC has three projects that were originated shot on a digital format: the Polish Brothers follow up to "Twin Falls Idaho" "Jackpot," Sundance Jury Prize winning documentary "Dogtown and Z-boys" and a documentary about the last days of Jerry Garcia, "Grateful Dawg." "People have gotten immersed in the debate over what's better to view," Leiner said. "As a distribution and production company, we don't care. It's all about what the filmmaker wants. A film, a story and the nature of a specific film should dictate its lighting, stock and what type of medium is used to make the film."
How refreshing: producers who don't get in the way.