Studio refugees learning indie-prod rules

Call it post-studio stress disorder.

It’s a familiar syndrome these days. Unless you’re among the top-tier of fortunate writers, directors and actors with studio deals, development funds and financing, times are tough.

Arguably hardest hit are producers who grew up on big-studio largess and now find the gravy train has moved on without them. Producers and directors once accustomed to pitching a project at a studio and getting easy development money are stymied. Now they need to build muscles and an arsenal of skills they never exercised at the well-greased, slow-turning studio wheel.

Some are adapting to developing material themselves, attaching elements like stars, director and writer, handling legal questions and hustling for new financing sources, often with the help of agency packagers. These days you can’t get anywhere without a movie that’s just about ready to go.

“It’s almost impossible to make a living off being a producer,” says Endeavor agent Brian Swardstrom. “You have to be rich or lucky or you end up out of the business. You have to hustle to eke out a living. You can’t just sit there like the old days when you could call your friends and get a kickback. That’s long gone. Some like Scott Rudin and Imagine and Working Title are doing their own thing. Everyone else is hustling their ass off.”

Several ex-studio execs have made moves into the indie sphere. Participant production chief Ricky Straus is funding both modest studio pics (“North Country”) and indie fare like Errol Morris’ $5-million Abu Ghraib documentary “Standard Operating Procedure.” Participant also partnered with studio refugee Michael London’s Groundswell on “The Visitor,” starring character actor Richard Jenkins, which Overture picked up out of the Toronto film fest.

“Studios are asking for more and more,” says ICM lit agent Ron Bernstein. “Everything’s hard today. Difficult serious material, people used to take a gamble on. That gamble is getting rarer and rarer. You compensate.”

Some adapt and some don’t to this natural law of selection, says Innovative Artists agent Nancy Nigrosh. “Some people have an old-fashioned view of reality and stay frozen in time. Creatures who don’t adapt to their new environment die like dinosaurs. No studio wants to spend enormous amounts of money to support everybody with their content. It’s like ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’ The glaciers have melted in Antarctica.”

Still, some resist the tide of change.

“A surprising number of people want to do it the old way, but now people won’t pay what they would pay four years ago,” says Film Department’s Mark Gill. “They don’t want to dig in and do the work. What it takes now is the ability to get your fingernails dirty, take full responsibility to try and produce the movie: financing, law, talent, development, do it fast.”

Some are making the transition better than others.

Producers who were once exclusively in biz with the majors are increasingly rubbing shoulders with the indies at events like the Spirit Awards, from Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald (“The Kite Runner”) and Laurence Mark and Scott Frank (“The Lookout”) to Kathleen Kennedy (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Persepolis”). If they want to get their more difficult projects made, going the indie or specialty division route are the only ways to get it done.

But moving from big-studio luxury to more modest expectations can be tough. When the producing team of Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner, freshly arrived at United Artists, put together the political talkie “Lions for Lambs” with Robert Redford directing himself, Cruise and Meryl Streep, its $35 million budget probably seemed modest. But it was too expensive for what it was. Its $15 million domestic gross (of which less than half is returned to the studio) didn’t cover its marketing costs. (It also earned $42 million overseas.) The just-launched DVD will have to help bring the movie into the black.

Many filmmakers are taking their trickier projects to the studios’ specialty labels, but things are not any easier in that universe, where only top-name directors or projects with stars attached need apply.

Writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana developed “Brokeback Mountain” for years before they resubmitted it to Ang Lee, who was finally ready to direct it. “Reservation Road” only got the go-ahead at Focus Features after Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix and writer-director Terry George were on board.

“A producer today without money is a man without a country,” says Bernstein. “People are working harder than ever and wondering why they are working so hard.”

And with studios continuing to watch their bottom lines, more and more producers will be looking for keys to the kingdom.

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