Producers discuss ways to survive hard times

An economic recession, like a great white shark, does only one thing: eat anything in its path. This man-eater of a recession shows no signs of slowing down. So how recession-proof is the biz?

Several current PGA nominees for the Darryl F. Zanuck Award have pondered the risks of producing films in the jaws of this unpredictable economic climate.

“The state of the economy is going to make it more challenging for you to raise as much money,” says Chuck Roven (“The Dark Knight”). “We’re going to have to be a little more clever in how we make the deals. I don’t think it’s going to get tough. It is tough. The good news is that theatrically the business has remained pretty solid. The end of the year was quite strong.”

“I know this recession is horrible, but the truth is many of the movies that I have produced have had enormous setbacks,” says Brian Grazer (“Frost/Nixon”). “‘American Gangster’ was canceled before it was started; it had a gigantic economic lien against it.” Sometimes you just have to “make it cheaper, make it faster,” says this producer. “You have to conform to a new economic paradigm.”

Grazer sees the day when he’ll probably be forced to make movies that are one of two types: “Under $25 million and over $100 million movie,” he says. “The middle is the hardest.”

Dan Jinks (“Milk”) thinks there has been real belt-tightening everywhere. “The studios are certainly in a much more conservative time,” he says. “Riskier material, more than ever belts before, is harder to get made, and, if it does, will need to be done for the right price.”

Bruce Cohen (“Milk”) adds: “Both the recession and Prop. 8 came up after we were finished shooting ‘Milk.’ So, on the recession, it was just a hope that it wouldn’t affect the release or the distribution plan or people’s willingness to see the movie. Up until we were in the editing room, there wasn’t any Prop. 8. We just watched in astonishment as history literally started repeating itself.”

The recession hasn’t affected the decisionmaking of Eric Fellner (“Frost/Nixon”) with regard to putting films into production. “We believe very strongly in making a film at the right budget for the potential commerciality of the material,” the producer says. “We’ll continue to make a broad range of films. If you create a slate like that and keep the costs low enough, you can make three, four, five films a year. Ultimately, we’ll try and make them cost less. That’s just common sense.”

For Cean Chaffin (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), the filmmaking formula is straightforward regardless of the economy. “I always ask the same questions,” she says. “Is it a good script? Is there a marketplace? Is this the right thing to do at the right time?”

Chaffin, however, remained unconcerned with “Benjamin Button” coming out in the midst of a recession: “I went by past history. People like to go to movies. They still have a desire to see entertainment.”

Christian Colson (“Slumdog Millionaire”) likewise believes the public has an appetite. “The major studios here in the U.K. are still going to be greenlighting product. There is a little less money around. Fewer films will get made, but the best ones still will,” he says.

His “Slumdog Millionaire” is a tough movie with some very tough truths depicted within it. “Yet it is an optimistic movie. In that sense, it’s a movie that people are ready to see,” says Colson.

But while people like to be entertained, Fellner doesn’t think in the present climate they’ll look for the meaning of life in movies. “I don’t have any great belief that this is the moment that great culture will be born,” he says. “I wish that could be true. The business is too corporatized for that to suddenly happen. I fear that the marketability of a piece of material might now become the governing factor rather than, ‘Let’s take a risk!’ ”

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