Fest points to efforts of pic producers, scribes

Hollywood heavyweights toplined a pair of panels at the Santa Barbara Film Fest’s opening weekend, with Saturday’s scribe and producer lineups a virtual Who’s Who of Oscar and critics’ favorites.

Moderated by Daily Variety‘s Elizabeth Guider, producers panel “Movers & Shakers” repped four of the five best picture nominees while “It Starts With the Script,” moderated by Academy prexy and scribe Frank Pierson, featured eight-tenths of the nominated pics’ scribes.

Movies repped ranged from micro-budgeted arthouse fare (“The Woodsman”) to studio blockbusters (“The Incredibles”) and from the traditional (“Ray”) to the quirky (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). Speakers ranged from tyros (Zach Braff, “Garden State”) to veterans (John Logan, “The Aviator”).

Producers held forth on their respective films’ biggest challenges, financing strategies, marketing and distribution patterns, and the merits of working with studios vs. studio-owned specialty labels.

For “The Aviator’s” Graham King, the biggest hurdle was keeping to a tight shooting schedule, a mere 90 days compared with Martin Scorsese’s years-in-the-making “Gangs of New York.”

Stuart Benjamin (“Ray”) said it took years to get a studio greenlight. Benjamin noted that before Universal agreed, Miramax, Disney, Sony and Warner Bros. had all passed on the Ray Charles biopic, fearing a tough sell at home and abroad.

For Michael London of “Sideways,” the trick was getting support for a film that was deliberately devoid of stars in keeping with Alexander Payne’s vision. Fox Searchlight eventually ponied up the cash.

And Lee Daniels of “The Woodsman” joked that his film about a recovering pedophile was “an easy sell.” (Newmarket took over the job.)

Finding right fit or rights

Totally different challenges beset “Finding Neverland” and “The Motorcycle Diaries.” The former’s biggest hurdle, according to Richard Gladstein, was getting a director attached. In the latter case, Michael Nozik said the biggest struggle was securing the rights to the property, which involved multiple meetings with Che Guevara’s widow in Cuba.

For “The Incredibles’ ” John Walker, meanwhile, the toughest part came in convincing Pixar to work with the relatively untested Brad Bird (“Iron Giant”) over its longtime director, John Lasseter.

Most of the producers agreed that with the depletion of the once-flush European financing entities, the best bet was finding independent investors like “Ray’s” Philip Anschutz — at which point they all looked eagerly at King.

Catch and release

Producers had various thoughts about their films’ marketing and domestic release patterns as well as ancillary prospects.

Positioned as a fall release, “Incredibles” earned $257 million domestically. While Walker was not complaining, he noted that Disney/Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” had raked in an additional $120 million as a summer release.

Universal’s “Ray,” still in theaters, is set to go up against its own DVD shortly, a move that could prove lucrative (domestic gross hovers around $73 million).

Oscar noms have dictated the release strategy for “Sideways.” After four months playing in a few hundred theaters, Searchlight is only now taking the critical favorite wide, a strategy London acknowledged, that had been expensive and risky.

And of course the noms will have a B.O. impact: Gladstein suggested that “Neverland’s” domestic gross will increase $10 million in the wake of the nominations.

Struggles of scribes

Naturally more concerned with artistic issues than business ones, the writers held forth on their creative struggles and writing practices.

“Aviator’s” Logan said he had to put out of his mind competing Howard Hughes biopics, noting that when he wrote “Gladiator” there were four other sword-and-sandal epics in development. Logan wrote with Leonardo DiCaprio attached and firmly in mind, and the thesp was an integral part of the development process.

But though “Sideways” without Paul Giamatti would have been a very different film, the actor came onboard long after the script was done, co-scribe Jim Taylor said. Bird, for his part, joked that he had development meetings with cartoon characters who laid out their demands.

Thesp-scribes Braff (“Garden State”) and Julie Delpy (“Before Sunset”) wrote parts expressly for themselves, though Braff quipped that DiCaprio and Brad Pitt had auditioned to play him.

Delpy remarked that the writing process with Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater was easy but that when it was time to act she was cursing Delpy the writer. Displaying her character Celine’s abundant neurosis, Delpy gushed nervously that being on the panel made her feel like she was both “inside and outside of my head,” to which Braff and Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine”) nodded assiduously.

Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby”) spoke admiringly of working with efficiency expert Clint Eastwood, who he said had shot what was essentially Haggis’ first draft, “ragged edges and all.”

Logan, Bill Condon (“Kinsey”) and Jose Rivera (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) shared the challenges of adapting a real person’s life for film. Rivera noted that his real reward came at the Cannes screening when he sat beside Guevara’s daughter, moved to tears.

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