The Produced By Conference offers an interesting perception for the up-and-coming producers in play to have close access to the producers who are getting the big films done. While different elements, especially the medium of TV, seemingly have a bigger impact on the progression, the rules of what works always change and yet story functionality stays the same which is further emphasized with both exec discussions and notions of narrative connection.
A Conversation With Michael Burns The Vice Chairman of Lionsgate has enjoyed a very interesting couple years with the smaller studio making leaps and bounds to interact with the big players in a series of interesting power moves beginning first with the acquisition of Artisan Entertainment a couple years ago and recently with Summit and the immense success of “The Hunger Games”. The ideas of what this studio truly wants to be comes into question which through an informal discussion with producer (and Produced By co-chair) Gary Lucchesi of Lakeshore Entertainment (whom Lionsgate made the recent “Lincoln Lawyer” with) allows certain details to more come to light.
Burns started off in the financial sector in NY in the 80s with places such as Lehmann and eventually Prudential which gave him access into the media/entertainment sector. From the very beginning, the film “The Exorcist” was very influential to Burns which definitely created an irony when Sherry Lansing and her husband William Friedkin (who directed that film) later became his neighbors. In an ode out of “Mad Men”, Burns’ dad (ironically named Pete like one of the central protagonists on the show) was “very much like the Don Draper character”. One of the lessons his father taught had him at the end of his primary schooling given a $5000 check that said “The End”.
Moving through business school on his own, the key for Burns was “vary to entry and first mover advantage” which he learned in the financial sector. This ideal applies, at times, to new platforms which he suggests not trying on the inset calling the action “a fool’s errand”. For him, the movie that turned Lionsgate around is not the one you would think: “Monster’s Ball”. That began to fuel his motto: know who is showing up opening weekend. Turning to the perception of franchises like “The Hunger Games” and the acquired “Twilight” series, he knew (specifically in relation to “Hunger Games”), that they could take up to 25 million dollars of risk. The Summit acquisition, he continues, he saw as a “risky deal” because he was worried people were possibly burned out on the “Twilight” franchise (they were not). Continuing on that course, in terms of looking forward, Lionsgate just finished shooting “Ender’s Game” which Burns believes could be a franchise as well. The biggest challenge he sees is the comparative size of P&A budgets and how to make the product “rise above” others which also keys into finding the right opening weekend. Overseas, of course, is very important. Sergei Yershov, one of his execs at Lionsgate, helped set up everything for distribution in Russia and that country has now become a Top 5 territory for them.
Moving into formats, Burns says that “3D is great for the right movie” but says that “I am not the right guy”. Television is now becoming though the go-to spot. He uses the example of all the material at Sundance but ultimately each year that festival only produces one film people will hear of widely. This creates the motivation for those kind of indie writer/directors to go to TV because that is where their voices can be heard. Burns explains that as he looks at their library, he thinks that “Red” or “The Expendables” can be television series but the question becomes: can it be serialized? And can you get the talent to agree to be in it?
Attacking notions of perception, Burns says that “we don’t want to be the new major” but “we want to be a studio with the biggest library”. In terms of accessing a new and increasingly diverse audience, the possibilities become more analytic. He examples that Netflix, despite its entry into the workspace, is an MSO whereas Showtime, as a comparison, is not in 22 million homes. This thereby creates the notion of content becoming ubiquitous. Through these kind of elements, Lionsgate is able to test certain aspects. Burns concedes this fact saying that they have equity in Roadside Attractions. This allows them, especially in the VOD space, to test releases (like with “Margin Call” last year) or give an early jump to a film like “Abduction”. This propels Burns’ thought from a studio perspective: “Don’t rush it. Wait”. It also plays into his idea on development. Lionsgate is more likely (in all points) to buy a finished script (or for that fact, a film) and not a pitch or outline. He uses the example of “Crash” which won best picture saying that “we were the only bidder). Some films do disappoint. He really liked “Warrior” but it couldn’t find its audience. Lionsgate put 30 in but it only made 13.
Franchise Building Finding the right angles in order to make something popular over and over again holds a lot of its power to the instinct of mass appeal and anticipating certain elements of all demographics. Lorenzo di Bonaventura, like fellow panelist Nina Jacobson, has seen the aspect from both a studio exec side (The Matrix, Harry Potter) as well as from the producer side (Transformers, GI Joe). Di Bonaventura starts off with a joke about when Warner made “The Perfect Storm” with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. he had a discussion with then-studio head Alan Horn that “maybe one guy should live”. In terms of finding that perfect “alchemy”, he textures that “tone is the divining rod”. That said, he says that you also have to have someone with the right vision at the inset. He mentions that he had lunch with Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) a week or so prior to the conference and they discussed that Chris Columbus (who directed the first two “Potter” films) “doesn’t get enough credit” for the work he did in establishing the world. In the past couple years though, from di Bonaventura’s perspective, the scrutiny on the industry has changed because there is “a different value system”. He chuckled remembering when he was on a whitewater rafting trip in Idaho that people were talking there about box office receipts which was never the case before. But, he quips, not everything is a sure bet. Di Bonaventura says that “Transformers” was passed on by his home studio 5 times. The key remains though in terms of these types of films is “don’t forget to kill somebody” because “you need to have stakes”. People discussed this when he was asked if Morgan Freeman was coming back for “Red 2”. His point is do not mess with the alchemy because the longer a franchise goes, the more it has to evolve and “if you are going to change, you have to be bold with what you are going to do”.
Nina Jacobson, who is one of the main producers responsible for the hit”Hunger Games” says that “at the heart of any franchise are characters that people want to see again”. In terms of “Games” coming together, she says that director [Gary] “Ross understood tonal bandwidth”. Getting into the larger story definitely, she says, makes the syndrome more acute. When the idea of “Games” in 3D is brought up, her response about kids killing kids in 3D: “distasteful”.
Todd Phillips, one of the other panelists, slightly watching from the outside because his “Hangover” franchise is not based on some pre-ordained property, says that he is “interested by this whole conversation”. He recalls a meeting he had with di Bonaventura, when the previous was still an exec at Warner Brothers, regarding the aspects of a writer saying “with 120 pages of writing, you have your say” continuing that the execs tend to speak at writers and not to them at that point. In terms of why his current franchise works, he replies that “people have hangovers all over the world” though he specifies that “The Hangover 3” which they are starting work on currently “turns into an entirely different movie” because “it is not a forgotten night” but “still takes place in the real world”.
The elements of producing and making the ideas stick and flourish in real world big-budget situations is the cornerstone of what Produced By as a conference celebrates but it also allows those execs in power to pass on needed advice to those who might follow.
Showest is always about showing the evolution of the movie theater experience. Whereas two years ago, the worry was that home theaters would take away the element of going to movies, the advent of 3D in the past two years has completely turned that angle on its ear. Last year’s argument involved the greater thought of how to afford to fit the current theaters to have 3D capabilities but the realization with “Avatar” is that there is always possibility. This motivated a new level of capital involvement because the films opening now do not have enough screens with audiences screaming for their inclusion. The paradox is quite humorous in its overall irony. This jolt of energy reflects in the intent of the studios and the inclement of star involvement which in recent years had been waning. The business is cyclical as ever.
Toy Story 3, Big 10 Award & Disney Opening Day Luncheon For the opening of Showest proper, Disney brought, through the voice of John Lasseter, the next installment in the Toy Story saga. While not directed by him, but rather by his longtime editor, his thought was that he wouldn’t give the films he made to anyone. After accepting the award from NATO for having 10 successful films at Pixar in a row, Lasseter introduced a new 3D short, “Night & Day”, shown for the first time outside the studio which he is says is the most creative piece he believes they have done to date. After this short, which uses Master Image 3D as an alternative to Real D, the producer and director of Toy Story 3 came out. Reflecting an earlier sentiment from John Lasseter that this screening would be in 2D and not 3D because post still had 5 or 6 weeks to go, illicited some questions. They also spoke that there was still temp score and that some shots near the end were not fully completed. Afterwards Disney held a luncheon in the main ballroom lining up the posters for all the Pixar Films side by side while Nathan’s served hotdogs and an 80s band worked the crowd. Buzz and Woody were present for pictures before the day moved on.
Letters from Juliet & Summit Dinner After a one/two punch last fall with “New Moon” and with a newly minted Best Picture Oscar in the form of “Hurt Locker” only a week ago, Summit is occupying the slot once beheld by Dreamworks. The key now is the types of films they present which is always in a general sense across the industry a crap shoot. This year they brought “Letters To Juliet” starring Amanda Seyfried set in Verona Italy which releases in the next couple months. The dinner following highlighted the Italian essence while the intermittance of Budweiser motivated conversation with theater owners on the pros and cons of restaurant integrated theaters and the hope of their return to major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles.
Lionsgate Reception, Kick Ass & Dinner The essence of Lionsgate this year rests in their progression of “Kick-Ass”, their take on the superhero genre. Lionsgate and the distribution team presented the screening to packed house along with a test consumer audience which allowed for a more organic interaction. It was proceeded by a new trailer of “The Expendables”, the new action movie directed by Sylvester Stallone and starring nearly every action star on the planet. The day before at the Bellagio at a private reception, Stallone interacted with the theater owners which is always important in terms of extending goodwill on the basis of the film. Crown shots and Patron Screwdrivers swirled with fondue as guests could take pictures in a green cape where their heads are photoshopped on top of one of the “Kick Ass” characters. The dinner proceeding the screening featured a great performance by all-female string quartet Phat Strad who played everything from “Moon River” to “Live & Let Die” as the character banners of “Kick Ass” flowed behind. With other films coming this year whose titles flew by on the party screen including “Killers” starring Ashton Kutcher and “Buried” (acquired at Sundance) starring Ryan Reynolds, Lionsgate as evidenced by the speech of one of its executives at the screening, is moving to evolve to the next level but realizes that the motion picture division is still what motivates the entire ancillary market whether it be digital home distribution, on demand or home video.
Back-Up Plan & CBS Films Luncheon CBS’ first foray into feature films plays into the aspect of its strengths but also in highlighting from possibilities in its TV archive. The first film “Extraordinary Measures” showcased Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser but in a structure more suitable to a TV movie. “The Back-Up Plan”, the second outing in more in structuring with a formative genre outlay. This romantic comedy stars Jennifer Lopez in a role both truthful for her but also formative as her comeback vehicle after taking some years off to be with her twins with husband Marc Anthony. Joining her in the film is Alex O’Loughlin who starred in the Joel Silver vampire series “Moonlight” and then the short lived “Three Rivers” both on CBS. It speaks to cross medium interaction which will be key to the introduction of new talent. With Lopez guesting on “How I Met Your Mother” in advance of the film opening, this kind of symbiotic element is in congruence of a new way of reaching audiences.
Post screening at the luncheon, Lopez took the podium, poised and business-like as she has always been, knowing the product that she is selling but also the importance of the business. She indicated her love of the genre and that it was the correct film to return in as she moves back into her movie career after her maternity break. Amy Baer, the head of the film division, seems to understand the aspect of demographic but also the necessary breakdown of different ideas at play.
“Beastly”, CBS’ next film, keys into the teen demographic but understanding that the young population is more adept to needing more stylistic substance as “Twilight” has shown. Stars Vanessa Hudgens and Alex Pettyfer approached on stage but not to be undone by Neil Patrick Harris, who after hosting the Tonys and the Emmys, knows how to control a room. His humor spoke to the fact that Vanessa was hot but that Alex cannot be denied. In seriousness after showing a clip, Harris says that the key is giving this young person’s story the slickness of an ultra Hollywood production. He enjoyed watching it beyond being in it which speaks to his taste.
Aside from announcing the film adaptation of “Gunsmoke” which has not yet set its cast or director, Baer and her crew brought forth Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Billy Bob Thornton straight from the set of “Faster” which is only two weeks into production. They showed a quick clip reel of what has been already shot which looks like a return to hard action form. Johnson spoke that after doing the family films, it was time to return to the genre he loves. He understands the balance needed. Thornton, a little thinner with dark hair, plays to the fact that these types of films are cool but that having the right studio behind you is necessary.
New Visions & Corner Spots Outside the ballrooms and screening theaters in the corridors of the Paris Convention area, the halls are covered with posters and standups providing trailer looks at new material to entice the theater owners. “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” [Fox] tells of the return of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) as he seemingly draws in the young Shia Laboeuf who is involved with the former magnate’s estranged daughter. The poster is seemingly reminiscent of “Devil’s Advocate”. “Knight & Day” [Fox] by comparison in its trailer has paradoxes that can be effective and interesting depending on how it plays out. There are some feelings of a “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” though Cruise’s performance seems to play a bit broader with his comedy. It is actually refreshing to see him in this form. At one point he places on sunglasses and you see that glint of Maverick. Cameron Diaz is playing more to a bumbling form of physical play but you don’t get to see as much of the character persona in this short look but the action seems less CG motivated and more practical based. “The Other Guys” [Sony] involves a cool teaser where both Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell are vaulting through the sky in slow motion but ends with them in the rigging that they use in the actual production so it is uncertain in terms of what the plot will revolve around. “Takers” [Screen Gems] plays to the dealer incentive and boasts an interesting street cred cast including Paul Walker, Matt Dillon, Idris Elba, Michael Ealy, Hayden Christensen and recording star TI but gives no true indication of the narrative flow.
When in Las Vegas, it is always nice to get away to essential regulars and a new transition. Hidden on the other side of the 15 on Charleston, Frankie’s Tiki Room shelters itself from the knowledge that it loves what it is. The drinks have a verve of possibility from the Mutiny to the Bender Ender. Off Strip spots cater to the locals and understand the vibe. From the ultra grooved decor to the chilled bartender and specifically the sound appropriate set up, the cool spot to be was here. Not to say, that evenings don’t evolve. Always a place of infinite fun, especially when talking back to the girls behind the bar, Hogs & Heifers is a mainstay in downtown. Michelle Dell’s transplanted roughhouse from New York is the original inspiration for Coyote Ugly. Tequila shots go down every which way and balance especially on top of the bar received applause. With Fremont Street reaching South ever so succinctly, The Griffin Bar shows it dark coolness late into the evening. The Irish purmutation of the night requires Irish Car Bombs post Jameson with the pouring reaching generously into the night even as the signal light remained dim.
Warner’s Big Picture 2010 Warner has always been known for pulling out the stops at Showest. In a return to form, many studios understand the power of bringing talent out to meet the exhibitor since it shows an essence of enthusiasm on the part of stars themselves. This of course is buoyed by some script writing of course but the reality is that you can see when Alan Horn, head of Warner, believes in something. He gave the go ahead to “Harry Potter” when he became the top dog at the studio and the franchise has performed with flying colors.
Dan Fellman begins the presentation by bringing his distribution staff on stage. Warner has always been about making sure the right angle hits the screen. It is a very specific process which has become more and more refined over the years. When Horn comes onstage, he speaks of the record breaking year Warner has had and speaks to the success of “The Hangover” as a good example of cooperation between the studios and the exhibs as the longer it played, the more money it made everyone. He also hails the extreme success of 3D and that most of their films will be upgraded to the format to meet demand. This intrinsically painted the structure for “Clash Of The Titans”.
Director Louis Letterier who spoke of being an inherent fan of the original at the age of 8 also made reference of the man who they would all ask their 3D questions to in the form of Sam Worthington, the star of 2009’s monster hit “Avatar”. The 3D footage of “Clash” shown represents a cross section of what was completed in advance of the film’s anticipated release date. Christopher Nolan then came to the stage, professional, cut in a suit that has become his trademark. He explained that he wanted to give a little more of a glimpse into “Inception” without giving too much away so the exhibitors could have some sense of what they would be playing. He summarized the gist with Leonardo DiCaprio being a type of investigator who is able to enter other people’s dreams. The extended footage speaks to the more noir specifics of this perception.
John Patrick King next unveiled a more worldly approach with “Sex & The City 2” speaking of the essence of Morocco and the absence of Kim Catrall as his lovely ladies approached the stage with finesse in the form of Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon and exec producer Sarah Jessica Parker. Catrall he speaks was starring in a production in the West End of London and could not be there. Zack Snyder, deep in post on his new “Sucker Punch” movie, presented his “Guardians” animated family picture. He admits that his kids wanted to know why they never saw his films which motivated him into this space at the motivation of Animal Logic whom he had worked with on “300”. This angle for him seems like a natural extension though the edginess needs to be maintained.
“Life As We Know It” brought director Greg Berlanti to stage in a romantic comedy format starring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel in advance of his next directing duties on “Green Lantern”. Heigl spoke of her love of the genre and doesn’t intend to slow down though Duhamel seemed a little uncomfortable on stage rather letting the material speak for itself. Todd Phillips, who brought “The Hangover” to Showest the year prior, precluded the volleying daredevil antics of Zach Galifinakis and Robert Downey Jr.as they perpetrated their new comedy “Due Date” which keeps the “Road Trip” mentality clear. Zach and Downey’s seemingly easy prankish carefree idealization in no small way helped by the smoked-out coolness of Phillips himself who knows how to keep the ball rolling.
The closer of “Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows” involved some unfinished sequences and shots that showed some of the darkness coming forth buoyed by the fact of Alan Horn’s announcement of the continuation of the 3D proliferation within their biggest franchise. Warner keeps the pace going understanding that the necessary is a nice cross section filled with energy and star power.
Prince Of Persia & Showest Awards Dinner Jerry Bruckheimer, in town to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award, introduced his next big screen outing in the form of “Prince Of Persia”, being released this summer starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Post screening, the press interaction before the awards brought through three of the ensuing recepients. Jerry Bruckheimer spoke of “Pirates 4” which is set to start shooting in June but unsure if the film would be done for 3D. The market, he says, is saturated but what allows him to keep going at this level is his executives. In terms of “Persia”, he describes it as a romantic adventure, albeit one set in the 6th Century and says that is the kind of fun “Pirates” was but clarifying that it is much more plot driven. He also spoke of a new project entitled “Horsehunters” set in Afghanistan which was based on a NY Times article.
Comedy Director Of The Decade Jay Roach, best known for “Austin Powers” and whose “Dinner For Schmucks” comes out later this year, says no one knows what is funny. You tend to find it in the uncertainty. Steve Carrell, for example, he says, has a way of playing off-center delusional characters. In the end it all becomes about casting. Next, Katherine Heigl, recently a mother, came out with a new black hairdo which was seen earlier at the Warner function. She says she didn’t understand before what Showest really was about but now realizes that the theaters are trying to keep it current. She says that the hairdo is in anticipation for a role she is hoping to get off the ground which is Stephanie Plum, the heroine of Janet Evanovich’s “One For The Money” which is part of a franchise of books. She doesn’t she doesn’t feel like her native German/Irish with this hair. She also laughingly talks that she is beating comedies to death but that she loves them. She said also her next film which is in the can (“Life As We Know It” spotlighted at the Warner presentation) allowed her to “learn on the go” for her new role as mother.
With Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood” hosting, the dinner sped by with chicken, salad and asparagus leading the way. Jerry Bruckheimer accepted first speaking of the point that the Lifetime Achievement Award is usually given when somebody is approaching the end of the career. He says though that his mother lived to be 104 so by that standard he has over 48% of his career still ahead of him. He also referenced his roots as a Detroit boy. Jay Roach balanced his perception as Comedy Director Of The Decade saying that “comedy is about exagerration so this is a very funny award”. The young in play were highlighted in the stars of tomorrow in Vanessa Hudgens and Alex Pettyfer, both of CBS Films’ upcoming “Beastly”. Hudgens says that in this business she already feels old while Pettyfer gave his props to CBS Films Head Amy Baer who picked him from obscurity though he did have the lead in Weinstein Company’s “Stormbreakers”.
Amanda Seyfried, who received the Breakthrough Star Of The Year Award for her roles in “Dear John”, “Chloe” and the upcoming “Letters From Juliet” which also screened at Showest, maintained a humble structure calling the award “encouraging”. Katherine Heigl, picking up Female Star Of The Year, seemingly set her dress aflutter as one strap came undone as she was walking up to the stage. Billy Bush then became the designated holder as he tried to keep from breaking into a laugh on-camera. Heigl’s first comment revolved around “Thunder Down Under”, the male revue show in Vegas describing that the advertising couldn’t be any more obvious. Drumroll.
Sam Worthington, honored with Male Star Of The Year, said the honor was “embarassing” but also “gives you a shitload of confidence” adding that he has “the best job in the world” despite starting off as a bread maker in Perth Austrailia. Zach Galifinakis, with a newly forming beard collecting his Comedy Star Of The Year Award, seemingly went off script without even knowing the venue he was in which made his act all the more surreal and applause worthy. His “Hangover” director Todd Phillips, who nabbed Director Of The Year, accepted in perpetuity admitting “I am a moron” while simultaneously telling stories of loving movies in youth particularly encouraging movie theater attendees to buy “Ice Pirates” and see “Star 80”.
The darkness of the desert speaks to the evening even as the wine flows beyond the tables. The last year of Showest at Bally’s showed an increasing return to form after years retained of less stars returning to the confab in the desert. The companies realize that especially with the new advent of 3D, the exhibitors are essential to the formula especially with the riveting performance of “Avatar” in 3D. With its translation into Cinecon at Caesars Palace next year, the new decade will begin in earnest, hopefully with many new surprises and advances ahead.