Panel a bright spot at film festival

Five of last year’s most successful producers gathered to swap stories at a panel Saturday that was one of the bright spots of the Santa Barbara Film Festival’s rainy opening weekend.

With the writers’ panel having been canceled due to multiple illnesses, it was left to the producers to inject some spark into the proceedings. Moderated by Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times, “Movers & Shakers” featured Oscar nominees Daniel Lupi (“There Will Be Blood”) and Lianne Halfon (“Juno”); veteran James L. Brooks (“The Simpsons”); and partners Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (“Hairspray,” “The Bucket List”). The producers held forth on issues including budget, casting choices, the importance of tone, test screenings and marketing.

Having both helmed and produced pics like “As Good As It Gets” and “Terms of Endearment,” Brooks was the sole panelist who could speak firsthand for the writer-director. “The dream is to have a producer who will die for you,” he said. “I haven’t found anyone save myself who will do that yet.”

Longtime Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Daniel Lupi came off as a close approximation of Brooks’ fantasy. Along with producing partner JoAnne Sellar, Lupi was able to offer Anderson total creative freedom and full protection from studio interference, provided he stay on budget — a condition with which Anderson had always complied. “The studios have less to say if you’re financially on track,” he said of their strategy.

A smaller budget also worked well for Halfon, who said that “Juno” was initially projected to cost double its eventual $7 million pricetag. But the producers managed to slash that budget by casting largely unknowns, yielding a huge payoff (domestic B.O. stands at $100.2 million to date) and affording sophomore helmer Jason Reitman the creative control he craved: “A more modest budget,” Halfon said, meant “less group filmmaking.”

From Halfon’s perspective, Fox Searchlight was “like the promised land” in terms of its marketing approach to “Juno.” She recalled a marketing meeting that went so well she was astonished to discover she had absolutely no objections or corrective advice to the studio’s plan.

Zadan and Meron credited their experience with Harvey Weinstein on “Chicago” with teaching them everything they needed to know about how to market a musical. Working with New Line’s marketing department on the “Hairspray” campaign, the producers insisted that they “would never disguise the fact that it was a musical,” said Zadan, but instead opted to use the genre as its selling point. By contrast, “Sweeney Todd’s” trailers had consciously played down the singing, a move that apparently left filmgoers confused.

Determining its precise tone was crucial to “Hairspray’s” success. Along with helmer Adam Shankman, the team opted for “heightened reality,” said Zadan, “rather than campy and over-the-top,” which worked on Broadway but would have been distracting onscreen. All agreed that tone was the most essential and sometimes the most ineffable element of a successful production. “Nothing bedevils me more,” said Brooks. “Tone is everything. But sometimes it’s elusive right up to prost-production.”

Often a film’s tone falls into place as a result of casting. Such was the reason, Zadan and Meron said, that they fought for John Travolta to star in “Hairspray” over initial studio objections. Anderson, for his part, penned “There Will Be Blood” with Daniel Day-Lewis is mind; certainly the project is unimaginable without him.

The same is true of “Juno.” Without Ellen Page’s sensitive and sardonic performance, it’s virtually impossible to conceive of it as remotely the same film. Finding the perfect tonal balance was key, Halfon recalled. She described fighting to include a scene in which Juno weeps alone in her car, a moment that balances the teen’s otherwise ironic approach to her unexpected pregnancy and overturned life.

Halfon said that research screenings had been instructive: “sometimes they confirm your instincts; sometimes they prove you wrong.” Zadan, Meron and Brooks concurred. Lupi, on the other hand, told a different tale. Never one to go the conventional route, Paul Thonas Anderson holds out for a more gratifying, if perhaps less scientific, sort of test screening. He’ll complete his film, said Lupi, “and then he will show it to the people he likes.”

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