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.