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Amazon Studios’ Ted Hope: How to Make Better Movies

Indie film guru Ted Hope loves to talk, but went quiet after joining Amazon Studios. At the Seattle Film Festival, he let loose once more.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Rob Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock (5612493au) Ted Hope Variety's Massive: The Entertainment Marketing Summit, Los Angeles, America - 10 Mar 2016

Ted Hope

Ted Hope used to talk a lot. In the ’90s, Hope and business partner James Schamus’ Good Machine produced major films from indie stalwarts such as Ang Lee (“The Ice Storm”) and Todd Solondz  (“Happiness”). In the digital age, Hope became a proselytizer for DIY filmmaking, even when he moved away from producing himself. He briefly ran the San Francisco Film Society  in 2012 before taking on a job as CEO of streaming site Fandor.

Then last year, he was hired as the Head of Motion Picture Production for Amazon Studios. And that was when the talking stopped. Tapped by Amazon Studios head Roy Price shortly after Hope published his how-to tome, “Hope for Film,” the garrulous producer was muzzled by corporate PR.

Until now. On the heels of Amazon’s successful presentation for exhibitors at Cinemacon and a strong showing at Cannes (the company opened the festival with Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society” and premiered four other films, including “Neon Demon”), Hope is making his way back to the spotlight. On Saturday, he delivered his first public talk in two years, making the keynote presentation for the SIFF Catalyst conference at the Seattle International Film Festival.

His speech was vintage Hope. A barrage of idealistic statements and lists for improving the film industry, the presentation was so dense that Hope ran out of time to make all his points.

“I used to be a seller,” he said. “Now I sit on a different side. As a buyer who made movies for 30 years, I have a much different perspective than most people in my position. From that position, I’ve seen some things.” Overall, he added, the experience has made him optimistic. “I really do believe that we, the creative community, are on the precipice of what I think will be the greatest period in filmmaking ever.”

However, Hope made it clear that he wouldn’t be demystifying Amazon’s grand scheme or big gambles, which include the $10 million the company spent on Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” out of Sundance and $20 million it spent on “Cafe Society,” which opens next month. “I know you all want to know about the secret Amazon algorithms for how we pick our films and spend money,” he said. But he had a different focus in mind. “I constantly say, ‘Why do movies suck? Why are these scripts just not better?'” he said. “This is my first pass at talking about how we can engineer better movies.”

With the heft of a massive company behind him, Hope’s usual forward-thinking remarks had renewed resonance, even as he admitted they were a work in a progress. Here are some of the highlights from his evolving vision.

Explore the Future of the Business

“The art and the audience can change much faster than the business,” Hope said. “It’s the core of why I got really excited when social media and digital transmission became available.” He began to consider more options after the 2008 recession. “I recognized I wasn’t going to be financially compensated for my risk and wanted to find a way to keep my standard of living up,” he said.

That led him to consider moving out to the Bay Area and exploring the way technology was impacting his field. “The learning curve was really high,” he said, noting that during his brief time at the San Francisco Film Society, he was unable to develop his vision for “an incubator and accelerator for new forms and business models of storytelling.”

Instead, he wound up at Fandor. “I really learned a lot from running a streaming platform and figuring out the vernacular of the streaming business,” he said. It was the publication of his book that lead him to receive an offer from Amazon. “The book was my resume,” Hope said. “I didn’t go looking for a job at Amazon.” Instead, Hope said, Price was struck by Hope’s list of 100 recommendations for the future of film. “He asked if I’d like to just focus on making movies I love,” Hope recalled. “I said yes right away.”

Ted Hope Spike Lee Bob Berney

Bob Berney, Spike Lee and Ted Hope at the premiere of Amazon Studios’ ‘Chi-Raq’

Dave Allocca/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock

Look Beyond the Super Geniuses

Prior to joining Amazon, Hope said he watched some 250 – 300 films per year; now, “I think I’m probably at around 350.” But he added that only about 10 of those, from major directors, really left an impression. 

“When you’re seeing 10 movies that really inspire you per year out of 350, you start to get a little depressed,” he said. “Do we have to rely on that genius — those super-talents who make great films — to make movies better, or can we start to alter our practices to improve the results?”

Hope added that there were a lot of “good” films that had the potential to be greater. “Those good ones were the films that as a producer I would take on, massage, sometimes doing as many as 42 or 43 drafts,” he said. “I don’t have time to do that now from where I sit. Those are probably 200 projects… so the question is, ‘How do we start to move that 200 to the ‘excellent’ category?” His answer? “We can engineer our processes to make better movies by simply improving our practice.”

Question Your Intentions

Hope said all of his business decisions were informed by a constant questioning of his broader agenda. “Why bother making movies? It’s brutal,” he said. “I know this seems so simple, but I do this process probably on a quarterly basis. When I’m making the decision of whether we should buy ‘Manchester By the Sea’ for $10 million, these things are going through my head… I’m not somebody that meditates, but this is something I do every day. I can’t meditate about the world, only about my business.”

The process has accelerated of late. “Back as an independent producer, I ran about 25 projects at a time,” he said. “At Amazon, it’s significantly more than that. Films are competing for slots. I have to ask myself, each time, ‘Why is this specific film important? Why am I going to spend time on it this week, this month? If I keep picking at that question, it starts to move the film forward.”

Question Authority

Hope emphasized his need to push against industry standards to improve them. “I feel like Amazon hired me because I have so thoroughly questioned authority all along,” he said. “It’s part of their way of working. I love it. My assistants argue with me about these big ideas and I’m supposed to argue up. It works for me.” In general, he added, “practicing defensive pessimism has really kept me going and got me to a great place.”

Don’t Settle for Mediocrity

“I have a personal aesthetic of appreciating noble failures,” Hope said. “As a student, I learn when it doesn’t work; it helps me as an artist. But I know the audience doesn’t like those, so as an executive, I can’t really go out and try to spend my money on noble failures.”

As a result, he winds up constantly frustrated with lesser work. “It’s just surprising to me how many people aim for mediocrity,” he said. “They’re not willing to dream big, to believe that they could take the form further, take the emotions deeper, take the style into a different place.”

There have been some exceptions. “I recently sat with a director I tremendously admire and really want to work with,” Hope recalled. “I said, ‘Don’t you have scripts you really want to make?’ He said, ‘No, I know how to separate my shit from the good stuff. I have drawers of bad work that no one will ever see.’ I wish that was true for most filmmakers. I’m sure most people just show their drawers.”

Roy Price, Whit Stillman, Kate Beckinsale, Ted Hope, Eric d’Arbeloff and Bob Berney at the May 3 ‘Love and Friendship’ premiere in Los Angeles. (Photo Credit: Variety/REX/Shutterstock)

Aim For Something Different

“You have to show us something new and unexpected,” Hope said. “Most people don’t realize that we, as an audience, want to discover that. The second thing we start to look for is change. If I’m going to get past page 20, I better feel like I’ve discovered something, and if I’m past page 50, that change better have been resolved in some way. And if I’m going to bring somebody into a meeting, it had better deliver.”

Find a Theme

Hope emphasized the need for filmmakers to be able to explain the theme of their work. “I find the filmmakers who come in my office ready to ask for money just really aren’t prepared for that conversation,” he said. “They haven’t tested it and been challenged by their friends.”

And he’s experienced what can happen when they do exactly that. “One of the great directors came into our office and pitched a very elaborate movie,” he said. “In 10 minutes, he defined the theme, how it affected his characters, how it evolved through the acts. He expanded my expectations for it. I was completely sold. Most people aren’t able to do that.”

Know Why You Make Movies

Hope shared a list of nine reasons why he remains invested in filmmaking process:

Art: “First of all, this is the art form that I love.”

Product:It’s also the product that I love. Unfortunately, we have very few ways we can express our appreciation in this world. Much of it is buying and spending.”

Other people: “Luckily, for me, other people also love it. That helps me to survive a great deal.”

Movies can change the world:When it gets tough, I keep reminding myself of that.”

Movies are a good tool for communication: “What is it that I think is important and how do I share it with others? Movies do those two things really well. I don’t know a better way to do that.”

Movies help us talk about difficult things: “I find that fascinating: It’s really hard to talk about death, but if you make a movie about your parents dying, and everybody starts talking to you about it. You can feel it more. It’s hard for me to express my love to my wife sometimes, but then we watch a movie together and say, ‘God, that’s just like us!'”

The doors of perception: “I’m not the one to coin that term, but so much of life is when those doors are blown open and we start to see the potential of things. For American youth, that’s often the discovery of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. When you get through that youth, the next stage is probably family and friends and our enthusiasm for what that’s about. We start to fall into middle age, and it’s things like beauty, emotions, visceral pleasure. But really all of it is the question of what we’re capable of doing and how we resist settling for less. That gets me tremendously excited.”

Movies render complexity by turning it into beauty: “I love seeing things I don’t understand made simple. I had lunch with someone with NASA and he said they manage complexity. I said, ‘That’s kind of what I do, too.'”

Time: “I can’t think of a better way to spend my time than viewing movies. To me, there’s value in time.”

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