Saturday, September 17, 2011

who the *!%& do you think you are...?

Ten days to go before we start shooting, and the production teeters constantly on the brink  of chaos. I should stress this is not unusual. If Parkinson’s law states that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’ (which it does FYI), a film production operates thus: “the amount of crap you have left to do will inevitably expand beyond the start of principal photography in inverse proportion to the amount of money you have to make the film, so as to generate the required adrenalin and general sense of hysteria which is the only way anyone would be crazy enough to make a film.”

Pithy, huh?

The question any producer gets asked most often is... well actually it’s “can I have more money”, but for the sake of argument, let’s focus on number 2 on the list which is “what does a producer actually do?”. This can be phrased in many ways - during production it is most likely to come from the crew, and involve liberal use of expletives - but sometimes it is asked from a genuine curiosity about how we fill our days.

The role changes according to the stage of the film, and roughly breaks down as follows:

Development: The Fantasist.

As a producer you are not actually qualified to do anything. You may have graduated from Oxbridge with a triple first in medicine, law and alchemy, but as soon as you decide to go into film production you are reborn into the world naked, (and possibly leprous). You must sally forth fuelled only by a wildly misguided self-belief, and a gnawing sense of your parents‘ disappointment at your squandered education. Inveitably, unless you are sitting on a trust fund, or discover an oil well in your garden, you are going to spend a lot of the next four years staring at a wall, alternately wondering if you couldn’t be doing something rather more constructive with the best years of your life, and praying for some kind of miracle.

The key is the idea. In truth I think a Producer stand or falls on his instinct - the ability to spot an idea that could turn into a movie that people might actually want to go and see. Ideas come from all over the place. Books are the obvious place. However, every book that sells more than eleven copies is immediately snapped up by Scott Rudin, so the indie types are looking for the overlooked gems, which carry the spine of a magical story within. (I should say here and now that books are a terrible starting point for a movie. They tend to be long, emotional, complex, and often completely lacking in exploding trains. Often a friend says to me - you should make this book into a movie. Being an indulgent kind of chap, I always ask why, and if the reason is: ‘it’s so beautifully written’, then I’m sorry it will inevitably make a horrible movie).

Short stories are better as the narrative is concentrated and focussed, and they tend to be structured much more like a film script. Remaking other (usually foreign) movies are best because most of the hard work has already been done by someone else, and you can get to a shooting script armed only with a rights agreement and google translate.

The studios have now exhausted every single property they own, and remade and rebooted them to such an extent that no-one will ever be able to make another version, so they are looking for even more ‘high concept’ material. Hence Peter Berg’s “Battleship”, based on the game and Ridley Scott’s “Monopoly” (I’m not quite sure how I am going to contain my excitement until 2014 for that one).

I am currently in a bidding war for the movie rights to ‘Ketchup’, ‘Trees’, and the ‘Dyson Triple-Cyclone Vac’.

The reason why I call it 'The Fantasist' is that it's going to take a hell of a long time to get from idea stage to script stage, and you will spend so much time trying to convince people that your coming-of-age tale about a young woman finding her spiritual nirvana in India is the definitive Zeitgeist-capturing tale and very different to the 8,674 Indian becomingvegetarian-doingyoga-dabblinginlesbianism movies currently in development, that you will seriously start to doubt your own existence.

I couldn't tell you how many companies turned down the original scripts for Last Passenger, but lets just say if I had a dollar for every one, I'd have 116 bucks. Development producing really is all about keeping the faith in the face of rejection. It can take several years to get a movie from development to financing, and that's why you can't hope to make anything unless you really love the material and believe it absolutely must get made. 

That and a pathological fear of having to get a real job...

[Shit, looks like time’s got away from me, so let’s just say ‘To Be Continued’. 
In the meantime here are the rest of what I'm now calling the 5 Ages of Producing...

Financing: The Snake Oil Salesman
Shooting: The Therapist / Politician
Post Production: Gone Fishin’
Sales: The Pitch Man]

Monday, September 12, 2011

from the beginning... pt. 1

In 2008 our script for British thriller Last Passenger was named on the Britlist, a secret film industry list of the best unproduced screenplays in the UK. It appeared next to the script for The King’s Speech, getting the same number of votes. It was a huge moment for us. Little did we know that it was going to take us three more years and pretty much all of our sanity to get the film up and running. What we didn’t know then is that we could have fixed it all for £500.

We first met Omid Nooshin in 2007 and offered him a chance to direct his debut feature, a different project developed by our production company NDF. The project wasn’t for him, but it just so happened he had another script in his back pocket. 

Last Passenger was sensational. It was Hitchcock fused with Spielberg and after a few months ironing out the kinks with Omid and his collaborator Andy Love we thought we were ready to go.

The day the list was published the phone started to ring. On the other end of the line were some of the top distribution companies in the UK. A few hours later L.A. woke up and Hollywood started calling. Ironically, this was where the wheels started to come off.

In an industry where a runaway hit like ‘Paranormal Activity’ can bring a 12,000% return on the cost of shooting, film distribution is an extremely competitive business and the penalties for missing out on a hit are severe. The pressure is on to grab the hot projects, or at least make sure your rivals don’t.
With all the buzz around Last Passenger, the studios were dangling superstar names in front of us. As a result the budget also started to creep up, and before long we were at three times the original starting cost. And while playing fantasy casting was fun, we needed to find the cash to make the film and went out into the marketplace full of optimism, armed with a hot script and a list of some of the most elusive actors in the industry.

But the flames that burn the brightest also burn shortest and buzz can die as quickly as it comes. Two years later we had been rejected by more than a hundred companies, reluctant to fund a picture with a budget size that no longer made sense for a director’s first feature film. All of the financiers and distributors who had been so enthusiastic about the script slowly melted away, but not before leading us up the garden path and back again, pausing only for a brief fumble in the gazebo. We were out of options, low on energy, and out of money. 

It looked like the film was going on the shelf.