Going back to the basics

H'w'd producers back to the fundamentals

It was a case of the more things change, the more things remain the same for some producers at the “Movers and Shakers” seminar Saturday afternoon at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

Faced with the proposition from panel moderator and Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart that the Hollywood mindset may have changed a bit since Sept. 11, the insiders on hand countered that, while some filmmakers may have discovered a heightened sense of purpose during the past six months, the vast majority of execs and producers are anxious to resume business as usual. They believe that the customary subjects remain the dominant concerns — marketing, star salaries, tentpole pictures and franchise, protecting the downside, runaway production. In a word, money.

“I’ve gotten three calls recently from people who have wondered if enough time has passed that they can revive some scripts that they had in development before Sept. 11” that involved heavy explosives and the kind of thing that everyone thought might be distasteful in the wake of the terrorist attacks, confided producer David Hoberman (“Bandits”).

Back to ‘normal’

Fred Baron (“Moulin Rouge”) suggested that, “As far as business goes, it’s all going to go back to where it was,” agreeing that Hollywood is trying to get back to “normal” as quickly as possible.

Putting things in somewhat larger terms, Ed Zwick (“Traffic,” “I Am Sam”) said that, as always, “It’s all about the intentions of a filmmaker. There are those whose motivations are genuine, and there are those whose motivations are cynical.”

The divide between those driven primarily by the desire to do interesting, worthwhile work and those for whom the bottom line is all-important was clearly drawn. On the subject of using (and affording) big stars, for example, three of the panelists — Baron, Barry Mendel (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) and Bob Balaban (“Gosford Park”) — told the audience that the major-name actors in their films worked basically for scale, albeit with favorable backend arrangements.

Mandel said that on “Tenenbaums,” putting together such a strong cast on a budget “was pretty tough, but it was a domino effect. Wes Anderson approached them about two years earlier and basically told them that he was writing the parts for them. Then we sort of strategized who would say yes first, and on this one we had a real softie in Gwyneth Paltrow. Then we could go to the others and say, ‘Well, Gwyneth said she’d do it for scale.…’ Hackman was obviously the last one.”

Explaining how he ended up in one of the significant roles in “Gosford Park,” Balaban said that for Capitol Films, the picture’s major British investor, “It was a big deal that we didn’t have a big American star in it. I had the part that logically could have gone to a major star, but as the start date grew nearer, Bob (Altman) called and said, ‘The day is obviously drawing close that you’re going to have to get on a plane and do it.’ ”

‘Voices’ and ‘shooters’

When it comes to the new generation of directors, Zwick divided the group into two types: “There are the brilliant ‘voices,’ like Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson, and there is the other strand who are kind of ‘shooters,’ and they seem to have equal weight in the industry. But I look at one group as the inheritors of the old tradition of creative storytellers, and I look at the other as the Antichrist.”

Faced with Balaban’s theory that most directors “have a life cycle of 10 to 15 years,” Zwick said, “What determines a career is the ability to shape or create good material. It’s also possible to luck into a great story or script and shoot it well. But if you understand how to tell a story, the chances are you’ll have a real career. But what the studios are interested in is the one-off, an exceptional event that they can luck into as a one-time event.”

Runaway production

There is also an industry divide when it comes to the vexing problem of runaway production, particularly shooting in Canada. Bart remarked, “A picture called ‘Chicago’ is shooting in Toronto, and that’s a metaphor for the whole situation.”

Hoberman said, “It’s deplorable that we’re going to Canada as much as we are, but the problem is that it’s so easy to cheat.” With such advantages as a 20%-30% savings in production costs, tax rebates, an enormously favorable exchange rate and the fact that actors don’t get the same U.S. residuals, many companies insists upon shooting north of the border.

Balaban said, “I’m beginning to worry about employment in the United States.”

Baron explained, “I’m trying to keep production here, but the pressure on us is very great. It’s really hard.”

Zwickallowed that, “We’ve taken political positions on four of our TV shows that we were going to make them in Los Angeles. Most of the TV you see that’s made in Canada is worse, and the shows we make in L.A. are better.” The other panelists subscribed to this view and agreed that the more powerful the producer, the better chance he or she has of keeping a production in the U.S.

With the participants concuring that the story and script are the most important element in a film, with the actors and then director taking second and third positions, all were upbeat about the chances of a worthy screenplay getting noticed and very likely made, even if it takes a long time. “If there is a great script, it will be read and it will find its way,” Zwick maintained. Revealing that the whole town basically sees the important scripts making the rounds at any given moment, Mandel said, “Every year there are five or 10 scripts that really strike a chord. So we kind of know what the good movies of the next year will be.” He added, “When I started, I didn’t think the people who were reading the scripts would be that bright. But I find the reading in Hollywood is more sophisticated than I thought it would be.”

“But then it depends on who decides the film will be made and how it will be made,” Zwick warned. “I think something will endure if it has intrinsic value, whereas if something is corrupt, people will find it out.”

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