2012 SBIFF Producers' Panel: Movers & Shakers

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2012 SBIFF Producers' Panel: Movers & Shakers
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As the presenting sponsor of the 27th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, lynda.com is once again pleased to open the door to four entertainment industry panels that feature some of Hollywood's top talent from the world of producers, directors, and screenwriters. Panelists are carefully chosen during the awards season and include many you'll see on the Golden Globes® and the Oscars®.

Moderated by Patrick Goldstein (Los Angeles Times columnist for "The Big Picture"), the festival lit up the marquee with a panel of Oscar®-nominated producers you'll certainly see on the red carpet on February 26, 2012. These professionals cover a wide range of films, from huge-budget effects movies to smaller, ensemble-casted dramas. Graham King (Hugo), who marks his fourth film with director Martin Scorsese, tells how they worked together to shoot their first 3D film—and their first with kids and animals. Mike De Luca (Moneyball) needed to develop a working relationship with Major League Baseball, who had final cut on his film. Bill Pohlad (The Tree of Life) talks about the 10 years it took to green light his film and the obstacles along the way. Jim Burke (The Descendants) worked with director Alexander Payne to put every dollar on the screen while shooting in Hawaii, known to be an expensive location. Letty Aronson (Midnight in Paris) shares the unique working relationship she has with director (and brother) Woody Allen.

Despite the impressive resumes of all of these producers, getting every one of these feature films to the screen presented new challenges.


There's no movie until there's money

(applause) Roger: Good afternoon everybody! Roger Durling, executive director of the film festival. Welcome! It's a fantastic panel, and let me introduce it right away. Graham King, producer, Hugo, nominated for the Oscar. (applause) Mike De Luca, nominated, Best Picture, Moneyball. (applause) Bill Pohlad, nominated for Best Picture, Tree of Life. (applause) Jim Burke, nominated for the Oscar for The Descendents. (applause) And Letty Aronson, nominated for Midnight in Paris. (applause) And please welcome our moderator for many years, friend of the festival, Patrick Goldstein, who is a columnist for the L.A. Times' Big Picture. (applause) Patrick Goldstein: Wow! Thank you guys very much for coming out to see--we've got obviously a fantastic panel.

We're going to talk a lot about money and art today, and since in the film business there's really no movie until you have the money to pay for it, I'm going to start with a few business questions. So Letty, you're right at my side. I read something really interesting recently about Midnight in Paris, that it almost didn't get made. Letty Aronson: Correct! Patrick Goldstein: And that Woody had written the script, shelved it for a while, and it was because shooting in France was expensive and you actually were waiting for the French government to pass some new-- I don't know what, tax credit or--what happened? Letty Aronson: Well, we were supposed to do this film a few years ago and in fact it got to a--pretty down the road, to a point where I had already gone there and hired some people. But when we budgeted the whole thing out the way Woody wanted to do it, it was more than we had to spend, and we always have a finite amount of money.

We don't have a studio to go back to if it goes over or if instead of 18, it's going to be 22 or whatever. So we did shelve it, and then in the intervening years, France put in a tax refund for working there, and the difference that that made for us made it possible two years later to then be able to do the film. Patrick Goldstein: And I feel like Woody's last six or seven movies have largely been Patrick Goldstein: financed by European--investors. Letty Aronson: Correct! Patrick Goldstein: Tell me, how did that come about? I mean, in the sense did they come to you or was that more of an entrepreneurial idea on your part? Letty Aronson: Well, Woody's films have always done better in Europe than in this country, traditionally. And this country has always been a studio system, although there are independent films, whereas in Europe there is never a studio system; it's always independent films. And they very much admire the filmmaker. There is a big thrust in that direction.

So that given that we do better there and they're interested in the filmmaker, it was easier to go there and try to get money than in this country. We don't work the way the studios work. They wouldn't be comfortable working the way we work and vice versa. We don't give a script to read. Woody doesn't write until the money is in place. Letty Aronson: So, you have to get the money. Patrick Goldstein: I wish I could do that. (laughter) Letty Aronson: So I have to get the money based on nothing, not that Woody's nothing, but I mean it's just based on Woody. Jim Burke: That's producing. That is.

(applause) Letty Aronson: There is no script and there is nobody attached to it and there is no anything and he doesn't write, as I say, until there's money. So they have to agree. Even when there is a script, they don't get to read the script. They don't get any input on the cast. They don't come to dailies. They don't see a rough cut. You pay your money and you do get a film and it's always on budget and it has good actors, and Woody has directed and written it, but it's the only way that he can work, or will work, and that doesn't work in this country with the studios.

Patrick Goldstein: We have two producers here on the panel who often invest their own money into their films, so I'd like to go get their perspective as well. Graham, I know you went looking for a studio partner for Hugo and you would have--we knew it's going to be an expensive undertaking but what happened when you had Marty Scorsese doing a great film about the history of the film business, what happened when you made the rounds, looking to see if you could find a partner? Graham King: Right. I actually didn't do that because Marty and I were going to make this movie after Departed, after we did Departed together at Warner Brothers, and the script wasn't quite right and Warners wasn't that into the movie at a time.

So Marty went up and did Shutter Island and I did some things, and I actually had about five or six filmmakers come to me during that time saying we'd love to getting on Hugo and do Hugo, but for me I had to do it with Scorsese. If it wasn't Scorsese, I don't think I would have done it at all. And then I changed my business strategy during that time, and I left Warner Brothers a did a deal with Sony where it's not me but my investors put up the money and Sony releases the movie, and Hugo fell into that category. And so after Marty had finished Shutter Island I went back to him and I said, "Let's do this movie together," and that's how it all started.

But it's a big undertaking. It was a huge movie. We had no idea what we were getting into, budget-wise, schedule-wise, with the 3D; it was all new to everybody. Marty has a team that are really some of the best in the business, with Bob Richardson and Rob Legato and Dante Ferretti, and when the set designer doesn't talk to the DP about this new camera showing up and the camera was four times bigger than what would he imagine and the set is already built, you're starting off in trouble.

So Marty shot this, kind of went out of window on the first day's shooting because he saw all these new toys to play with in 3D. And he loves to do these tracking-camera shots through the book shop, and it would take literally four hours to set up a shot because the angle he wanted, we had to take half of the sets down and then rebuild again. So that's how it started. But it was, as far as financing goes, when you go into a movie that big and that ambitious, you're always going to face hurdles. But regardless, when you come out at the other end, to me anyway and to my investors, it's not just about the dollar, I think, that Scorsese made a masterpiece on this movie I think -- (applause) So I think it's about longevity and that that revenue stream can come back now and it can come back in twenty years time.

Patrick Goldstein: You started in the business in international sales at Fox, and obviously you know the international market really well, and I'm curious. So, you will sell off some of the foreign territories? How does that work in terms of your strategic idea of how much of the movie you want to?-- Graham King: Right! Well it's all down, international is all down to relationships, and I had guys in UK, France, Italy that wanted to buy into Hugo at an early stage, so at the screenplay stage.

So I did set off some territories, those territories, and the rest then goes to Paramount for distribution. And it's always a tough decision to make whether you presell a film to a certain market or you wait and let the studio release it. Sometimes you roll the dice and sometimes you don't. On this one, because we saw where it was going budget-wise, that's when I decided we better lay off some risk. Patrick Goldstein: Bill, a Terrence Malick film definitely doesn't fit the big-studio economic model.

Did you always know that you would end up handling the financing? Bill Pohlad: I suppose so. We didn't do it by ourselves, of course; we did go out and sell foreign territories and things like that and had some good partners on it. But generally yeah, River Road was doing it, and again I kind of heard the story from Terry, working with him back ten or twelve years ago. So it wasn't like some snap decision, but I had a lot of time to think about it. He talked about it, as I said, yeah, about ten years ago.

He was still evolving it in his mind, so by the time it came back around and he was ready to do it, I was more prepared. I knew how Terry worked, I knew how his scripts worked, and I knew what his vision was. Patrick Goldstein: Well, I was going to ask you about that, because I know you told one interviewer that when Terry first pitched you the idea, you thought it was crazy. And I'm kind of curious, how does it go from, "This is crazy," to "I'll produce the movie"? Bill Pohlad: Well, crazy in a nice way. I didn't mean crazy like-- (laughter) No, I mean it was unusual. Hopefully most of you've seen the movie and so you can imagine what the pitch was, or what his description was; it was out there.

It was like--at that time it was half creation and half this small town in Texas and the family growing up. So it was an unusual--it's like you're--let me get this right. So what happened there? Patrick Goldstein: So Jim, The Descendents. Now, it had Fox Searchlight behind it, your filmmaker, Alexander Payne, had a relationship there and made his last movie there. Your economic challenge, I would think, is you're making roughly a twenty-million-dollar movie and you're shooting it all on location in Hawaii.

I've spent a lot of time in Hawaii. I know that gas costs more there, food costs more there. Pretty much everything except papayas costs more there. So, how do you stay on budget? What are the kind of things you did to find--the ways you found to stretch your budget as far as it could go in a place that's notoriously expensive? Jim Burke: Well, we worked with a lot of local people, for two reasons. One, the actors. We wanted to keep the authenticity of the place alive and present in the film, so we hired many, many local people in the parts. And the crew, which was a great crew and many of them lived there, so it saved us money.

You're right, it's very--everything costs more. So to make our movie, what we wanted to do was to shoot for the most amount of days for twenty million dollars. And then everybody, including George, they all sacrificed a little bit of their compensation for the love of the film. Patrick Goldstein: So how many days did you get--did you have-- Jim Burke: Fifty-two. Patrick Goldstein: Fifty-two? And lets--I'd love to hear some comparisons.

I think that might be interesting. So by your standards, twenty million dollars, fifty-two is a lot of days. Jim Burke: It's a whole lot of days, yeah. Patrick Goldstein: Right. So, Letty? Letty Aronson: No, we always shoot for seven weeks because that's all the money we have, and it's usually seventeen, this was eighteen million. Patrick Goldstein: Mike? Mike De Luca: It's about fifty-two days, and I'm not saying a number. Patrick Goldstein: Bill? Bill Pohlad: Actually, I honestly don't remember the number of days, but Terry was on all things right on budget.

In fact, I think we finished like a day early or something like that, so we were-- Patrick Goldstein: And Graham how is your memory? Graham King: Brad Pitt said to me the other day. (laughter) I think we could have shot all these movies and still be shooting our movie. It was a long shoot, a long tedious shoot, but I'm just saying it's the hardest I've ever produced, but also I think the best one. Patrick Goldstein: Letty, I was going to ask you, because the challenge here of when you don't have a lot of money.

So, how do you make it go as far as possible and get what you want? Letty Aronson: Well, first of all, after Woody writes the script and wants to go ahead with it, we budget it. If it budgets out much too much, we don't do it, and he writes something else. If it budgets out a little bit too much, we hope there will be savings, but our situation is that anything over what I've raised from the investors, if it's important to Woody to have it in the film, he pays for himself.

So that if we've got eighteen million dollars and he needs three days of re-shoots that we can't afford anymore or rain or something special, for him, the project is more important than anything else, so he then will pay for it. Mike De Luca: Woody Allen is better at Moneyball than we were. Like in terms of that doctrine, he really is an example of it. Patrick Goldstein: And how does that apply to-- has anyone had a similar experience? I mean, Jim, did you always know you were going to come in close to budget or did you-- Jim Burke: Yeah, we didn't have a--I'd say as filmmakers we were kind of conservationists. We have a general feeling that a film kind of costs too much to start with. And like Graham's movie, Hugo, that's a big movie, and so I'm not talking about that, or even Tree of Life, but I think you can make a really good movie and it doesn't have to cost that much.

So that's our sort of attitude when we go into things, and we kind of question-- and then it's not just me. In this case, it was Alexander, as a filmmaker, he would always say, "Do we need all that?" We shot a scene out in, off of Waikiki, in a boat. We had to have like two barges and all for a little canoe where people throw ashes off the side. And he stopped everybody and said, "Who doesn't need to be here and what like else can you be doing to help the movie?" And we got a lot more accomplished that day.

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