Jonathan Taplin’s 21-year career as a film producer includes “Mean Streets, “”The Last Waltz,””Under Fire” and “K-2.”
Taplin’s critically acclaimed, eight-hour series on PBS, “Prize,” ranks as the third-highest-rated documentary in PBS’ history, and he is currently producing a six-hour series, “The Native American,” for TBS.
As president-chief executive officer of Trans Pacific Films, Taplin has recently entered into a production deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment to develop documentary programming for television and homevideo and for interactive media.
As a veteran film producer, how do you approach this new interactive universe?
“I come at it with an incredible sense of enthusiasm, but I also have a little skepticism about Hollywood’s approach. For instance, somebody is selling Sumner Redstone a misplaced confidence that the center of the interactive universe is in film libraries. That’s based on a notion that, as with the video cassette, you’ll be able to sell existing content to a whole new audience in a whole new medium.
“That is a specious premise because if you go into a Blockbuster, 80% or 90% of the stuff is new. The whole back wall is new titles in alphabetical order. It’s only when they run out of new titles that people drift into the center of the store and begin to pick up the old stuff. And if we’re going to have video on demand where you never run out of the new stuff, that makes your old movies even less valuable, especially pre-1960 black-and-white movies.”
What does this mean to a producer for interactive media?
“I think you’re only going to be as good as your new content. That leaves an opening for the new player to stand alongside the old library owner in a fairly equal setting. That to me is a very hopeful sign.”
You’ve made movies and documentaries — which direction will you take in the interactive field?
“Our notion is that nonfiction content is the ideal content. It’s impossible to take an old movie and make it truly interactive. There’s nothing you can do to make “Casablanca” any different — and why would you want to?
“And it doesn’t make much sense, to my mind, to try and make a new movie into an interactive movie. What are you going to do, tell Harrison Ford, after he’s just finished an incredible scene in the “Fugitive,” running with the train — OK, now we’re gonna shoot the interactive version? From my 13-year-old son’s point of view, if you figure out all the different endings in three or four plays, you’re never going to play it again.”
How will your documentaries be adapted to the new formats?
“I did a series called ‘The Prize’ on the history of oil. We’re re-purposing that, so that you can take a one-hour trip through that content and get the highlights. But if you want to know a lot more about John D. Rockefeller and the growth of Standard Oil, you can go off on a tangent. It’s simple to make that content interactive.
In ‘The Native Americans,’ if I just wanted to learn the history of the Sioux Nation, I could follow the route through this materialjust for that. If I wanted to know about the great chiefs, or follow the history of the government’s relationship with Native Americans, I can do that, too.”
Sounds like what some people are calling ‘edu-tainment.’
“I think that’s a decent term. The greatest thing that interactive has to offer us right now is educational. We wouldn’t enter into the game business at all. It’s going to be a blood bath. Too many players out there. But in education there’s a tremendous opportunity.”
What kind of projects are you working on right now?
“We’re doing a series with Sony that is both an animated television series and a CD-ROM game called the “Fuzzles,” which is designed by Laurie Bauman Arnold and Annie Fox, who did the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective series, Fatty Bear and Putt Putt.
“The second area is to take these big history-oriented series and re-purpose them. We’re talking about two platforms: CD-ROM and Laseractive, which is an interesting transitional platform that Pioneer has created.
“Then we’re probably going to do, with Robbie Robertson and Marty Scorsese, the ‘History of Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ which we’ll also put out as a CD-ROM through Sony. We’d also do a Laseractive version. The high-end user has all the bells and whistles, he’s on line and he also likes rock ‘n’ roll.
Will the marketplace ensure a democratic system?
“The marketplace with some guidance. There has to be an activist FCC in this.”
Why go interactive at all?
“I’ve never been a mass audience person. I’m always trying to find stuff that’s a little different. Part of the reason that I love doing documentaries is that it allows you to engage your brain as well as your gut and your heart, and that’s something that this interactive universe could bring more of.
“But the other reason is — it’s here. The technology finally exists. Somebody’s going to do it. I don’t think anybody else has any better idea of how to do it than I do. And so I might as well do it. And because its such a new business I’m on much more equal footing than I am in the feature film business.
“If I’m right, if it is all dependent on how good your new product is, then I’ve got as good a shot as anybody.”
Interviewed by Rex Weiner