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Panel probes producer perils

Studios 'making movies that they know they can sell'

Forget headstrong directors and flaky topliners — today’s producers are facing challenges far beyond those Hollywood perennials.

This mostly grave new world for filmmakers was explored in depth at the Tribeca Film Festival in a panel called “Producing 101” at the Tribeca Grill on Friday.

Daily Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, who moderated, asked producer panelists Killer Films founder Christine Vachon, Paula Weinstein and Art Linson a wide range of questions about their changing role in a business now dominated by NRG test screenings, sequel mania and the $100 million opening weekend. Discussion also touched on where producers find material, the usefulness of agents, digital film and writers.

Linson, in town also for the launch of his book “What Just Happened? Bitter Tales From the Front Line,” reflected on an earlier period of movie-making when the studios were making films that were considered “indie.” But sequel mania, he said, has reached a fevered pitch. “Now, if your movie is a hit, everyone asks for a sequel,” he said. “Even if everyone dies at the end of your movie!”

Weinstein, who is Barry Levinson’s producing partner, said the message she repeatedly gets from the studios is, “Don’t bring your projects to us unless they are a sequel or a tentpole.” She said the chances of getting character pieces made at the studios these days aren’t great.

“I am convinced that the studios are making movies that they personally wouldn’t want to see,” Linson said. “They are just making movies that they know they can sell.”

Creative conflict

All of which can make a producer grumpy. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Bart posited, pointing out his own experience was that a happy set often yielded a boring movie, whereas a set where there was conflict was more likely to result in a successful film. Weinstein agreed with Bart, but Linson said, “I can’t remember working on a happy set.”

Weinstein noted, “What you need to be a producer is not to hear the no. Whether you’re a man or a woman, you have to believe in what you are doing.”

Speaking of the persuasiveness of NRG screenings, Vachon said: “Unfortunately, the test screening process has infiltrated even the movies that Killer makes. It’s a ‘one size fits all’ mentality.”

Weinstein lamented that when a pic gets low test scores after an NRG screening, that necessarily affects its box office. The studios, she said, will reduce their marketing spending based on the numbers.

Digital dilemma

Vachon lamented the quality of many digital films being made and, despite recent high-profile digital pic buys at the Sundance Film Festival, said it’s too early to tell what will happen when these films reach the marketplace.

Vachon, who said the “look” of digital pics is part of the reason their theatrical future is uncertain, emphasized that the medium ought to be reserved for stories that lend themselves to it. “DV is an animal that everyone is still trying to figure out,” she said. But, she added, that’s not stopping people from making more and more DV pics. “It used to be that your parents mortgaged their houses so that you could make your first film,” Vachon said. “Now all you need is one of those digital cameras, and a lot of crap gets made. I know because it gets sent to me.”

(Lily Oei contributed to this report.)