Produced By conference talk covers film history, future of biz

Hollywood producers need to step up their game to survive amid the overriding challenge of connecting with the audience amid fast-changing circumstances.

That mantra emerged as a constant theme over the weekend during the Producers Guild of America’s third annual Produced By conference at Disney Studios. PGA exec director Vance Van Petten said the two-day event drew more than 2,200.

In one of the best-attended sessions, Harvey Weinstein and PGA co-president Mark Gordon grappled with the question of maintaining focus on making the best film possible rather than helping the director fulfill his or her vision. “I always feel a sacred trust with the audience,” Weinstein said.

Gordon cited an NYU film school professor who told him, “If you put the movie first, you can’t make a mistake.”

Weinstein stressed the need for producers to adjust quickly and cited the decline of the DVD market — plus the uncertainty over revenues from VOD and other digital delivery — as increasing the pressure on producers. “It’s become much more of a theatrical business because the movie has to work in theaters,” he noted. “There’s no second chance.”

By way of comparison, Weinstein noted that “Rounders” grossed $23 million when released by Miramax in 1998 but then became a solid hit in ancillary markets — so much so that he’d like to develop a sequel with Matt Damon and Edward Norton. “I never make sequels but it’s something I’d like to revisit,” he added.

Saturday’s “Raising Your Tentpole” sesh provoked reminders of the high stakes derby for the big six studios.

“Studios are spending up to half a billion dollars so the pressure is enormous,” said Ralph Winter, whose resume includes the “X-Men” and “Star Trek” franchises. “You’re a cog because they’re the ones risking a tremendous amount of money.”

Marvel Studios prexy Kevin Feige told the audience that Marvel’s latest projects — “Thor” and the upcoming “Captain America” — had to balance the concerns of the core fan base with the need to succeed financially on a worldwide basis. He noted that the movie “Thor” was preceded by 600 issues of the comic.

“So you often have an extremely loyal and hardcore fan base but that’s a very small percentage of the people who are going to see your movie on its opening weekend,” Feige said.

Lauren Shuler Donner, whose “X-Men: First Class” opened Friday, issued a caution against opting for 3D. “I believe there’s a little too much 3D right now,” she said. “Especially in this economy, parents don’t always want to spend that extra money.”

NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt spoke about the challenges facing the Peacock in a candid and wide-ranging one-on-one sesh with hyphenate Marshall Herskovitz, a former PGA prexy. “I really believe NBC’s woes over the past few years have been partly because they haven’t been adventurous or innovative enough,” Greenblatt said.

Broadcast TV in general has ceded a lot of ground at a time when cablers have been focused on delivering edgy and bold series. “I still believe the audience has been lulled to sleep in broadcast,” he said. “That’s the reason why (viewers) are going to cable in droves.”

Greenblatt said he and his boss, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, are looking at a four- to five-year time frame for turning around NBC’s fortunes. “It’s going to be a difficult road out of fourth place,” he said.After starting at NBC in January, the midway point of pilot season, there was no time for a methodical transition or making changes to the operation — he had to jump in and start making pilots.

Burke understands NBC’s need for major R&D in programming. “He’s said ‘Involve me as much as you want but don’t let me slow you down. You’re here to make pilots. Just go,” Greenblatt said.

Herskovitz quizzed Greenblatt about his seven-year tenure at Showtime and how he generated so many distinctive series to make it a player in original programming. Greenblatt said his experience at Showtime taught him that a network’s brand identity is shaped over time by the shows that connect with viewers, not by image campaigns.

“The brand helps define itself once you start to make the programming,” he said.

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