The show must go on, but the Suits aren’t making it easy.
With shrinking margins and rising production costs, studios are losing their appetite for making movies. And getting approval to make them is harder — and increasingly in the hands of marketing and exhibition execs.
“It’s now greenlight by committee,” said one agency topper. “That’s the case at New Line, at MGM and at Universal. It’s all about the head of marketing and the head of international and the head of video. It’s the marginalization of the head of production as chief lieutenant and messenger-giver. No president can greenlight a movie anymore.”
In five years, “Studios will be banks, and production people will have nothing to do,” agreed Jason Blumenthal, a producer of “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”
There are exceptions.
“The way it works at Disney is that someone reads a script and said, ‘It’s terrific,’ and so I read it and I may say, ‘It’s terrific,’ ” said Mouse House chairman Joe Roth.
“Then we give it to our physical production people and figure out the cost, who’s in it, who’s directing — and if it all works out, it goes. Simple as that.”
Roth added that in some isolated cases — notably that studio’s “Armageddon” — the concept alone is strong enough to warrant a greenlight (with management reserving the right to cancel if the cast isn’t right or the production cost becomes unrealistic).
In the ’70s, a handful of creative mavericks consulted only their gut before committing to a picture, and considered the marketing guys an unhip afterthought.
Today, insiders said, the reverse is becoming true.
“I believe all the studios have a financial model governing production decisions,” said vet producer David Brown, a survivor of the days when Darryl F. Zanuck ran Fox as his personal fiefdom. “But they will never come up with the unexpected hit that really saves the company through these models. It will be savvy, luck and a really good instinct that does.”
How did production execs become edged out of the pole position?
“There is no cushion any more,” said the head of a minimajor who feels the process has become too defensive as a result of mounting costs. “You can have a gut instinct about making something cheap like ‘Austin Powers’ and about buying ‘Blair Witch,’ but you can have no gut about studio-level movies anymore, because the risk is astronomical.”
In a world where star salaries, production and advertising costs are uniformly higher, nobody wants to be the one pulling the trigger.
“People are less willing to fly by the seat of their pants,” said Laurence Mark, a producer of “As Good as It Gets.” “When pictures cost $8 million, it allowed you to take certain risks.”
To make the decision even harder, a surge in the importance of foreign markets has helped create a more marketing-intensive path to the greenlight.
“Romantic comedies never did any business overseas,” said one producer. “Now, you have films like ‘As Good as It Gets’ and ‘Jerry Maguire’ making (between) $40 and $50 million overseas.”
Certainly at MGM, which is hoping for a rebirth in an increasingly hostile moviemaking climate, the organizing principle seems to be reliance on all-hands approval before a picture can happen.
Reportedly, execs from all departments must answer an unequivocal yes or no to a picture at the final meeting; hedging of any kind is verboten.
But many producers wonder how much power marketers should wield.
“It used to be that you only needed a good script,” Blumenthal groused. “That’s not good enough anymore. They don’t want to make your movie — they’ve got a million reasons not to. So you have to be able to say, ‘There’s more than just a movie here. There’s the videogame, or the spinoff show or a soundtrack, too.’ ”
At least one high-level studio marketing exec disagreed: “We’re frequently good scapegoats, but that’s just not how it works. The objective of most production heads is to say no to people without them hating you.” The exec then unveiled his version of the standard greenlighting process around town.
“Marketing, distribution, licensing and production all sit around the table, and there is always a lively discussion,” he said. “This studio, like all others, uses a cost-modeling program built off the domestic box office gross to see what kind of opening numbers I need for that time of year. And that helps us decide.”
His company, like other majors, also factors output deals with networks and other media outlets into the decision.
He did caution, “I don’t think we’ve ever greenlit a movie that we thought was marketable but production thought would not work.”
A large chorus of pundits agree that moviemaking is now a group exercise in how to hedge one’s losses, not bet on a winner.
“When Dick Zanuck and I were working for Lew Wasserman at Universal 20 years ago, Lew would simply say, ‘Go make the movie,’ ” David Brown recalled. “Lew did that when we brought him ‘The Sting,’ he did it with ‘Sugarland Express.’ Those days are over.”
Reflecting contemporary attitudes, New Line’s prexy-chief operating officer Michael De Luca said, by way of instruction, “We’re very marketing-driven as a company. I’m instructed not to greenlight a project if I can’t articulate how to sell it.”
De Luca does acknowledge, however, that even if a movie ends up looking risky, the creative group may still commit to it. “You have to know the rules so you know when you’re breaking them,” he explained.
He pointed to David Fincher’s “Seven” as a dicey example of a situation where the numbers didn’t line up, but the company punched the greenlight anyway.
Since the pic carried a pricetag of $33 million and starred a not-yet-established Brad Pitt in an edgy story, everyone took a real gut chance on the most expensive movie for the studio at the time.
” ‘Seven’ was a real borderline case,” De Luca said. “We bet on the upside, and it worked out. The economic model on that one had us barely breaking even but topping out at $50 million domestic. Luckily, it grossed $100 million here and $250 million internationally.”
Using both the model and his gut, De Luca pointed to the kept-under-wraps “Magnolia” as a project that satisfies both the passionate and pragmatic sides.
“It’s reasonably priced, it’s (Paul Thomas Anderson’s) first movie after ‘Boogie Nights,’ and Tom Cruise is in the ensemble,” he said. “We just use the model as a guideline,” De Luca concluded.
Over in Burbank, the WB/Village Roadshow Gulf War pic “Three Kings” is an unusual example of a story-driven movie that largely ignored research in favor of story.
During the reign of outgoing co-chairmen/CEOs Bob Daly and Terry Semel, insiders say, Warners was known for allowing creative execs to steer the greenlight process, leaving the final call in the hand of Semel, who came from a strong distribution background. According to several sources, the marketing department only provided input after the decision had been made.
That appears to be changing.
“Because the marketplace is so crowded, it’s become so hard to make room for new product,” said WB worldwide production prexy Lorenzo di Bonaventura. “That’s why it makes sense to incorporate every part of a company in the decision-making process.”
Universal co-chairman Stacey Snider also admits that the greenlighting process is heavily influenced by how much the marketing gurus support a picture.
“We want to know if it’s going to be a platform release, or a big summer picture; if it’s going to be 1,500 prints or 2,500 prints,” Snider explained, stopping short of saying that Universal puts the cart before the horse. “Those objective indicators inform (the final decision), but they don’t determine it.”
A former studio head attributes the added reliance on marketing to the short shelf life awaiting any release.
“You have got to get out of the box in three to four weeks now, as opposed to 12,” the exec said. “Even with a decent movie, it now plays off so fast.”
Producer Jim Jacks, a partner at Alphaville (“The Mummy,” “Michael”), agreed.
“They’re not evil people put here to (ruin) your movie,” he said. “All the marketing people I’ve ever worked with wanted to make the film better; after all, it’s (the studio’s) money.”
One recent example of making a tough script choice easier to digest is the WB project “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” from “Being John Malkovich” scribe Charlie Kaufman; the story concerns the alleged spy activities of erstwhile “Gong Show” host Chuck Barris.
There was talk of co-financing the picture, but now that Mike Myers is interested, the studio is less likely to consider that cushion, according to producer Andrew Lazar.
According to Ross Grayson Bell, a producer on Fox 2000’s “Fight Club,” getting the greenlight had everything to do with an A-list director overcoming the studios’ creative queasiness.
“Their coverage said, ‘Don’t make this movie, because it’s unconventional and it will make people uncomfortable,’ ” Bell said. “Then (director) David Fincher became attached and Brad Pitt was interested. Once (Fox 2000 prexy) Laura Ziskin saw that it was basically the creative team of ‘Seven,’ things came together.”
Certainly, for all their power, the marketing whizzes aren’t always right.
Insiders note that WB marketing research showed the ultimately disappointing “Wild Wild West” to be so profitable that studio toppers didn’t want to share the expected windfall with a co-financier. In another case, the studio let Village Roadshow go Dutch on the less-than-sure-fire pic “The Matrix,” the success of which proved all the marketing people wrong.
Some producers say that the best way to get a greenlight on a tough call is with a smaller budget.
“Is it harder than it’s ever been? Well, yeah. When they made ‘A Simple Plan,’ there was no easy hook,” said Par-based Jacks. “But they’ll certainly let you do it for a price. Everything with them is risk versus return.”
Marketers also exert a strong influence over a negative pickup — a film made and financed outside the studio, which releases it in exchange for a piece of the profits.
Jacks points to “Boondock Saints,” a finished picture budgeted at $6 million that stars Willem Dafoe, which has been shunned by marketers around town.
The thriller, about two sociopathic Irish brothers who go on a vigilante killing spree in Boston, has yet to find a distrib, and Jacks contends that’s largely because no one knows how to sell it in the wake of the recent round of lethal school shootings.
“I don’t think there’s any question that if (the producers) had made it a year ago, they’d have a deal by now,” Jacks said.
“Boondocks” producer Chris Brinker has raised cash himself and said he will take the film on a limited major market release sked next year.
So is the greenlight a creative or a marketing question?
“It’s a little bit of both,” said a former studio marketing head. “But I think we’re never as cynical as ‘we can do Burger King cups on this.’ ”
For all the attention paid to demographics and research, some players still rely on what their gut tells them.
“When we decided to make ‘L.A. Confidential’ (at Warner Bros.), we knew it was a very hard concept to sell and market,” said New Regency prexy/ CEO David Matalon. “If we had relied on marketing, we would never have made it.”