Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Inside the development process of one production company

I think that every blogger who's out there anonymously has to be aware in the back of his mind that the day will come that their identity is known.  From the beginning, I've been cognizant of not putting something out there that I'd be afraid to stand behind one day.  Obviously there are plenty of employers who don't look kindly at all on the idea of their subordinates running a blog and that's the main reason I've hidden behind this pseudonym.  I didn't want there to be one day where the mere existence of this site would be an obstacle to getting a job.

Because of this, I've generally refrained from the sort of gossipy stories that frequently dominate these kinds of insider blogs.  Yes, it would be fun to talk about how an agent was a dick to me, or how some assistants need to be stabbed in the front for their treachery, but at some point, the information will be out there to allow people to connect the dots on what stories match with which people, and I don't want to put something out there that will embarrass anyone.

This has forced me to be extra vague when discussing the particulars of my employers, past and present.  I've long wanted to go a little more in-depth on how certain movies got made, but that often entails discussing failures as well as successes.  I'm leery of that because it's one thing for me to write a review saying why I disliked THE PURGE. It's quite another for a former boss to read an underling's diatribe about why a movie they had a relationship with sucked.  So try to be understanding that I'm not particular to whip a deceased equine, even if I'm not naming the specific film.

I want to discuss a little bit about what goes on in production companies.  When I go onto other screenwriting sites, I see a lot of people who've never gotten near L.A. speaking with seemingly great authority about how Hollywood works.  I hear them talk about "Hollywood" as if it was one monolithic collective - usually with zero insight or self-awareness of their own workings.  Some of these bitter types even act as if Hollywood deliberately is trying to piss them off with what they do.  I don't think it's helpful or accurate to let these misconceptions stand, and so I'm going to try to peel back the curtain a bit by using one of my employers as an example.

Let's call this company "Miracle Pictures," and we'll say the CEO is "Roger Bergman."  I'm going to draw on my pre-recession experience with them, because this came at a time when the company was successful enough that few decisions were made out of fear.  Pre-strike, pre-recession, it was a different place and I think there's something to be gained from examining what people choose to make when their jobs aren't riding on their next film.

Miracle Pictures output could generally be spilt among four different buckets.

The Passion Project That Was Also a Prestige Picture
If it was a Harrison Ford movie it would be: Regarding Henry, Sabrina, The Devil's Own, Extraordinary Measures

There's a reason I'm bringing this division up first - to show that Roger Bergman always put his heart and his passion behind a story that meant something to him.  I won't claim to have loved all of these films.  Indeed, they didn't speak to me as a young man in my mid-twenties, and to be honest, the young ladies in the office didn't really relate to them either.

One day we were talking about a run of films in this realm and noted all the similarities.  Most of all of them were dramas.  They tended to have prestigious casts, but centered around an older male.  The directors were solid and the scripts tended to be thoughtful, if generally light on visceral action.  You could probably dismiss some of them as "Oscar bait," but usually of a particular breed - by and large, they focused on men of a certain age.  This similarity was initially cloaked by the fact that they were usually cast with stars, and you just accepted that some of those box office draws were going to be older white males.  It wasn't until we really looked at it closely that it was apparent the real draw for Roger Berman was that these stories were about people who were dealing with the sorts of questions in life that he himself was exploring.

You're certainly free to call that self-indulgent, but if each of us had the means, what kinds of stories would we back?  When you're looking at a dozen scripts, which one is going to stand out as the story that will fuel you for the year-plus you'll be working on the film?  Ultimately, it was Roger's money and resources and I can't really fault a guy for getting excited about a tale that reaches him on an emotional level.

Every producer I've worked for has had some films that fall into this category. They don't always turn out as great films.  Honestly, a lot of them end up being more forgettable and inoffensive than bad.  As you'll see, these aren't the only movies these guys make.  The "one for me, one for them" principle was in effect back then and you'll still see it play out now, though perhaps less often.  At their core, people want to make good movies and they want to tell meaningful stories.

The "Elevated Genre" Picture
If it was a Harrison Ford film it would be: Frantic, Presumed Innocent, What Lies Beneath

This is a film with genre trappings, but generally played more grounded and dramatic than typical. You'll almost always have very accomplished, serious actors, little gunplay, a lot of tension and occasionally some supernatural entries.  These were a little more to my tastes and were largely the sorts of films I thought of when the company came to mind.

I hesitate to call any of the films in this bucket a "home run."  A lot of them were solid B+s, with the occasional project dipping below it.  You probably weren't going to rush to own these films, but you'd see them a lot on TNT.  (About half of them would make you think, "Okay, I recognize these actors, so I know I saw this. I just can't remember much about the movie.")

With these, you could feel the producers trying to please studio commercial sensibilities while trying to tell stories that they found unique in some way.  Sometimes this meant mixing genres in ways that didn't always payoff, but in general, I'll salute the noble failure over a film that doesn't have any ambitions and came to life in a cynical way.

The "IP Farm" Genre Pictures.
If it was a Harrison Ford film it would be: Cowboys & Aliens, Ender's Game.

Let me explain those comparisons a bit - not all of the films in this subcatagory were the debacles that the listed Ford films were.  The similarity is largely in that a number of projects were clear attempts at starting franchises.  To be fair, they got a couple sequels made, but the false starts out-number them.

The chief difference between this category and the previous one is that the genre films in that list were generally one-offs.  It was pretty clear that the way most of those films ended, a sequel would be difficult to justify. In this category, most but not all of the films were either efforts at franchise launching or came from existing intellectual property.  While passion played a decent role in the other films, this category seemed to put commercial concerns first.

These are the pictures that helped keep the lights on for the previous two categories.  Roger Bergman and his fellow producers at Miracle Pictures were intelligent people, but I'm not sure they were the audience for these films.  When you're not the audience for the films, you either have to employ people who understand those genres or you have to second-guess the audience.

My opinion was really only sought out with regard to one of these pictures.  It was a genre film targeted at a teen audience, so I have to give them credit for trying to capture that market ahead of Twilight.  But the script... look, I was not the audience for it.  I wrote a long memo wherein I invoked Buffy and attributed its success to how the series used metaphors to relate the supernatural to everyday trials teens face.  The monsters would somehow personify an insecurity or an issue that was emotionally relevant to the teen viewing audience.  This was something the feature script lacked, and the result was a story short on subtext.

My notes were politely accepted, but that was pretty much the end of it.  I can't really say if that was because I was pushing them in a direction they weren't interested in or if they didn't consider the suggestion to be of much weight.  This was also a project with a number of producers, so it's possible compromises were made.  When you've got a lot of voices in the project, it can become a challenge to maintain a consistent vision.

As I look at the post-recession films that Miracle Pictures made, I can see a heavier tilt that favors this category.  That's not terribly surprising.  Priority one is going to be staying in business.  But I can't help but look at that and think, "Well, I sure hope Roger is finding ways to feel as fulfilled by these films as the ones he made when I first worked for him."

The Favor Catagory

Honestly, this is a hard category to define.  It produced one of Miracle Pictures' best films and also one of its.... not-so-best.  From time to time, we would be involved in co-productions where we were largely a silent partner.  I always kind of likened it to co-signing a loan or an apartment lease for someone.  Sometimes we were partners, but with limited creative involvement.  Other times, I get the sense our contribution was largely financial.  I separate this out because there were a few pictures that would not have ended up on our resume otherwise.

These are the four basic buckets for projects that came into Miracle Pictures.  At the time I was there, the company was taking on a pretty wide diversity of genres, at least comparatively speaking.  There are some companies that focus only on horror, or on action, or on high-concept thrillers.  What I liked about Miracle Pictures is that any of those sorts of films could get traction there so long as the people making the decisions either had a passion for it or couldn't resist the commercial lure.

Commercially, I think they fared better when they were sticking to the films they loved and understood.  They were more likely to have a misfire when they stepped outside their box, but that's true of anyone.

Would I have made the same slate the Roger Bergman did? No, not in a lot of cases.  It's only with hindsight that I can look back on that whole experience and realize that the most important education was not second-guessing and saying "This is what I would do."  The real learning experience comes from understanding why they made the decisions they did.

I've had a number of bosses since then.  Some of them would never have touched the films on the Miracle Pictures slate.  But they've all had success and there's been a different method to each of their madness.  Some of them are extremely business-minded.  They'll follow the market and be rewarded for it commercially even if the artistic results are inconsistent.  Others will take big risks that are further outside the box and find a way to make those projects work.

If everyone in Hollywood was purely commercially driven and thought the same way, then Miracle Pictures would be indistinguishable from my subsequent employers.  I can assure you I'd never mistake one for the other.  They're very different people with very different passions.  The only thing they all have in common is that they've made a lot of movies and the good ones are flicks that people recognize when you list them.

If you take nothing else from my post, let it be this - people are the ones who make decisions in this town, not "Hollywood."

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