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Produced By Conference 2012: Ten Takeaways for Filmmakers, from Chris Nolan to Peter Berg

Produced By Conference 2012: Ten Takeaways for Filmmakers, from Chris Nolan to Peter Berg

More than 1200 attendees jammed the sold-out fourth annual session of the Produced By Conference on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City this weekend for panels and mixers that included some of the industry’s biggest players. Panels and mentoring roundtables were held throughout the day; still, many regular attendees I talked to said that for them, the real draw is the mixers and the chance to network.   Some of the folks who paid as much as $1000 for the conference wished there could have been a final party when the event wrapped late Sunday afternoon. Are you listening, PGA?  

Much of the talk on the panels took the form of shared anecdotes meant to encourage, inspire or enlighten others in the ranks.  Herewith, ten takeaways from the weekend:

1. Foreign sales have become hugely more important.  Overall film revenues for 2011 were 69 percent foreign, 31 percent domestic, said producer Michael Shamberg (“Pulp Fiction”) at the panel “Game Changers: Where Movies Should Be Going.”  That compares to 86 percent domestic, 14 percent foreign in 1988, one of the years he cited for comparison.  Meanwhile, the overall size of worldwide revenues has more than tripled in that time.  Bringing in a foreign sales consultant early to ensure that a package will appeal to foreign buyers can be key. 

“A good foreign sales agent is your best friend and greatest ally,” said Sarah Green, producer of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and several more Malick projects in the pipeline.  Green says she works closely with Glen Basner of Film Nation “throughout the process.”  “We run the scripts past him, the casting decisions, and he gives feedback on what a given element is going to bring to it.  You can be surprised by the different value that actors have in foreign markets compared to domestic.”  

Added producer Mark Johnson (“The Chronicles of Narnia”):  “The international market is climbing and climbing.  We have really switched to serving that, because it’s what’s growing.”   This shift matters for smaller pictures too, said several producers, since foreign sales are a way to finance pictures with artistic merit that the studios aren’t making.

2. Development money is harder to come by.  “Financing for development has dried up,” said producer Doug Wick (“The Great Gatsby”), also on the “Game Change” panel.  “And if you can get it, it often isn’t until later in the process.”  But wait – some producers still have it. Said producer Walter Parkes (“Flight,” “Men In Black 3”), speaking on a panel about global production,  at Parkes + Macdonald/Image Nation, “we have a development fund that allows us to independently and aggressively develop material.” 

3. Incentives can be misleading; forewarned is forearmed.   The aggressive incentive programs that lure productions to film in other states can have loads of hidden loopholes, including the amount of time it takes to receive rebates after you’ve spent the money (years, sometimes, panelists said).   The best strategy is to partner or consult with someone who has recent experience shooting in exactly the locale you’re considering, said a producer on the panel “Global Production Incentives.”   Gale Anne Hurd described a case where she shot in Florida to take advantage of incentives promised by Gov. Jeb Bush, only to have the state legislature fail to approve those incentives.

4. It’s not the size that matters, it’s the skill-set, when it comes to producing movies.  This from Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight Rises,” “Inception”), interviewed together with producing partner Emma Thomas by PGA exec director Vance Van Petten.  “The skills you learn in putting together a film with hardly any money are more important to whether you can pull off a large budget film than whether you’ve done another large budget film,” said Nolan, who made his first film, “Following,” for $6000.  His second, “Memento” came in at $4 million, and he and Thomas now routinely work with budgets north of $100 milllion.   Nolan also offered this advice when it comes to budgeting: “Always be entirely honest about what something is going to take and how much money it’s going to require.  No surprises.” 

5. Great directors still differ on digital.   Nolan, who’s been an outspoken advocate for maintaining a film production culture based on 35mm film, said he’s still convinced it’s the best imaging format available.  “When digital is as good as film, I’ll be open to it,” he said.  But David Fincher (“The Social Network”) doesn’t see it that way.  Said his producing partner, Cean Chaffin, “Digital means that on the day, you can work longer; you’re getting more takes; the actors can play more, and they don’t have film slates being clapped in their faces.  How you apply the money in your budget is everything, and digital frees up more money. “

6. Don’t make a movie for the wrong reasons.  The right reason, according to Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights,” “Battleship”) is that you have “an inherent, primal connection to the core of the movie, such that nothing can shake your belief in it.”   Berg conceded that on “Battleship,” his big-budget game-based project that’s currently underperforming in theaters, he didn’t have it.  “On a movie like that, the concept becomes so intense and powerful, and the money becomes so intense and powerful, that it can be really hard to manage, and it runs away with itself,” he said.

7. Total immersion can be the route to finding the core connection to a project.   Berg, a big believer in showing up in person for research, says that when he and Brian Grazer (the two interviewed each other on a panel called “Passion Projects”) made the movie version of “Friday Night Lights,” “I asked Brian if I could spend eight months living with a high school football team.”  Grazer agreed.  While watching a game, Berg witnessed a tragic incident in which an injury on the field left a player paralyzed. “Through that experience, the movie got inside me, and nobody was going to change my conviction about making it.”   Berg said that for an upcoming movie,” Lone Survivor,” he embedded with a Navy Seal unit in Iraq for a month to learn what the men really went through.

8. In the future, more franchises will be female driven.    On a Saturday panel devoted to franchise building, “Hunger Games” producer Nina Jacobsen said Hollywood has finally figured out that female-driven franchises can be huge (“The Hunger Games” passed the $400 million mark in domestic boxoffice this weekend).  But on a separate panel, producer Cean Chaffin (“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”) was more cautious, saying, “We’ll have to see one that isn’t book-driven to know. “  (Both “Girl” and “Hunger Games” are based on blockbuster books).  On yet another panel, Lionsgate head Michael Burns said the company intends to do more projects with “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence.  “We believe there is enormous opportunity for female leads,” he said.

9. Don’t give up too easily.    Brian Grazer told the story of how six weeks into production, Universal  pulled the plug on his project “American Gangster” and incurred a $25 million loss on it.  This made the company so unhappy that Grazer was told never to mention the name of the project again.  But he realized that could make the project more viable by recasting it, he marched back in and pitched the new package – and the movie got made, with director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe as new elements.   On a separate panel about top tv producers, Shonda Rhimes “(“Grey’s Anatomy”) told how even she didn’t believe in her show “Private Practice” for the first nine episodes. “When the writers strike shut down production, I was hoping it would get cancelled,” she said.  But in a meeting to discuss its fate, she pitched all the ways she thought she could fix it, and was persuasive.  She got the go-ahead, and the show (in a version she now embraces) is still on the air.

10. When a movie flops, it’s often the producer who takes it hardest.   Yes, producers are people too, and when the movies they’ve believed in and fought for fail to connect at the boxoffice, many a dark night of the soul has resulted.   Several producers throughout the weekend spoke of the struggle to reconcile with failure and learn from it.  “It’s really devastating,” said Chaffin, who was left reeling when David Fincher’s “Fight Club” didn’t recoup in theaters.  “You go through the stages of grief, the blame game, the hindsight.”   In that case there was a happy ending – the movie eventually recouped on DVD and has become a cult classic and even a litmus test – Chaffin said she’s heard of film world job interviews where you won’t get hired if you’re not a fan of “Fight Club.”   The moral: even when you think it’s over, it probably isn’t.

Bonus takeaway:  For aspiring producers, it’s a good idea to be well-versed in the film “Lawrence of Arabia” and the book “The 48 Laws of Power,” by Robert Greene.   Not only is the robot in “Prometheus” (played by Michael Fassbinder) a student of David Lean’s “Lawrence,” but producers Shamberg and Johnson both said it’s the reason they got into movies.  “It really evoked the romance of filmmaking,” said Shamberg.  As for “Laws of Power,” Will Smith, Peter Berg and Brian Grazer have all read it — it ranks alongside “The Art of War” (which it draws from) in industry influence.  These titles (and “Fight Club”) are part of Hollywood’s lingua franca.  

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