Using the question “What does a producer do?” as a launching point, four producers got together last week during the LA Film Festival to participate in a lunch time conversation about their work and what it took to bring their respective films to the festival.
The panel, moderated by LA Times entertainment writer John Horn, included “Hollywood, je t’aime” producer Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, “Branson” producer and director Brent Meeske, “Public Enemies” producer Kevin Misher, and Kristen Tucker, actress and producer of “Harmony and Me.”
The discussion touched on the challenges of producing movies during a recession, the differences between producing studio and independent films, the role of actors in getting a project financed, and common misconceptions about what a producer does. Here are some of the observations that each participant had to share:
1. Kevin Misher on how the job of a studio producer has evolved in the last 5-10 years.
Observation: Due to the recession, studio producers are having to look increasingly to outside financing to get their projects made.
“Obviously in tough economic times it’s more difficult to find money to finance a script. So heretofore as a studio-based producer I only used to go to the studios to find financing. I think now it runs the gamut in terms of where you look… Now I think studio based producers are no different [from independent producers] in that, though there’s less independent money than there was a year or two ago, there are still independent studios and financiers who you now go to as a regular course of action to find financing for both your development and your production.”
2. Kevin Misher on how the job of a studio producer has evolved in the last 5-10 years, continued.
Observation: Financiers are more interested in giving money to a project based on the stars attached to it rather than the script or concept.
“People used to be much more prone to invest in a notion or an idea that you might have if you had a writer who they could recognize, or read a script and that they recognized had a certain level of quality and if the idea registered as a good idea. Right now, at least in the studio world, and even in the independent world, they’re much more keen to know who’s going to star in it ahead of just investing in an idea. And that to me is the most frustrating thing because when I was a studio executive I would never want any actor attachments on anything ever, because then I was stuck with one actor and you could never actually get rid of that actor if they went off to do three other movies or weren’t happy with the material. And you never had any flexibility on the material. So I was much more prone, and still am, towards investing in an idea that I respond to and then putting it together when you see fit and when it’s ready and having as many options ahead of you as possible because, ultimately, that’s producing: sort of winnowing around every opportunity possible.”
3. Charles Herman-Wurmfeld on selecting actors for low-budget movies.
Observation: Get creative with casting and utilize people you know.
“Especially for small movies, for which its very difficult to command movie star talent, I’m interested in a conversation that includes, as we do in ‘Hollywood, je t’aime,’ the truth that there are many more movie stars out there than we have ever heard of. Meaning, look around you and really, really understand when there’s someone in your immediate vicinity, friends, family, the person at the bakery where you buy your coffee in the morning who maybe has something exceptional… I think that we can add an uncommon value to our project by discovering those people.”
4. Kristen Tucker on her experience as a first-time producer working on a small, independent film.
Observation: Once a film has wrapped, the producer’s work often just begins.
“I was really just focused on making the film and finishing the film. And I felt really wonderful when we locked. That was a really great feeling. And being the sole producer of a low-budget, independent film, I didn’t realize how much work there was after that and how much money we still needed as far as marketing and festivals and finding distribution, web design and things of that nature. It kind of kept going and I wasn’t anticipating that.”
5. Kevin Misher on the obligation the producer has to the investors.
Observation: The producer has to balance the creative ambitions of a director with what an audience will pay to see.
“At some point if you ask for money that is disproportionate to what you can return to the investor, you’re going to stop being able to make movies. So, while you have to be very protective of the creative vision of a director or the creative goal you see for yourself, you do have to be responsible to the ultimate audience that’s out there and that’s part of the value you bring as a producer…making sure you know what the audience is and that the money that you’re given, you can bring back that return on investment to people who have placed that bet essentially and originally on you… And it’s your word. And ultimately your word sits on celluloid or video and it’s there to be seen and valued by other people.”
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6. Charles Herman-Wurmfeld on the idea of basing a project on a basic, marketable concept, which drives many Hollywood films.
Observation: Ideally, creative ambition should precede concerns about marketability.
“To get your words together in relation to story is an invaluable service to yourself and to your fellow story-tellers as filmmakers so on that level I think a concept is a good idea, like the DNA of your project. But I am also not really interested in just servicing a concept just because it’s commercial. Specifically, ‘Hollywood, je t’aime’ is very directly not commercial. Jason’s [Jason Bushman, the director] vision of the script was to tell a story of gay men that was not accommodating in any way a more hetero-cultural vision of what gay people are… So…I think the budget needed to be tailored to make sure we didn’t produce something that we could not return on. On that level I think we accommodated our market because we did a little research and found out what kind of space we thought we would land in around this time, when offers were being made and we tried to reverse engineer our budget all the way backwards and…make something that we could shoot in our home and our backyard and neighborhood where we lived, utilizing movie stars that we had discovered and that was our conceptual universe.”
7. Brent Meeske on the qualities it takes to be a successful producer.
Observation: The ability to maintain interpersonal relationships is one of the most important skills a producer must have.
“I would say the most important tool is the ability to maintain interpersonal relationships… That’s probably the one thing I spent the most time doing, whether with the people of Branson, Missouri or with my individual characters. And that means maintaining a relationship over three and a half years when I disappear for six months at a time or if it’s with Jack Black, who I went to high school with 23 years ago, maintaining that relationship, staying present, and being in the position at the right time to ask for that favor, ask for that meeting. If I had to boil it down to one job it’d be that: maintaining relationships, no matter who it’s with.”
8. Kristen Tucker on distributing an independent film.
Observation: Don’t shy away from trying alternative distribution models.
“I think it’s really good that there are so many outlets now and it seems to be evolving. It’s really exciting, especially for an independent filmmaker. We took our last film on a progressive distribution tour… These guys got in a van and they drove our film from city to city around the country, kind of like a band does… I think it’s really important to learn about all of your options and think about what’s really best for your film and how to really reach the audiences before making any decisions.”
9. Kevin Misher on the question, “What does a producer do?”
“I think the producer does everything. And it only stops when you meet somebody who is hired to do a certain role or assigned to do a certain role that you have absolute confidence in. Even with that you’re involved in a collaborative process but if somebody doesn’t do their job well you’re either going to fire them or start doing their job for them… So hopefully you hire really well, you collaborate with people you respect and who share a singular vision because the other thing a producer does is set the track that you’re rolling on and have a vision of what it’s supposed to look like on the other side of the field. And if you don’t do that and you can’t impart that to people or hire people who share that vision or are going to enhance that vision, you haven’t really done your job… So I think soup to nuts, you’re involved.”
For more, check out the podcast of the entire panel discussion on the LA Fest website.