“It’s not the time to come in to the movie business to get rich quick,” Wagner said during the conversation with Variety Group prexy Neil Stiles.
Wagner, the former head of Cruise/Wagner Prods and former head of United Artists, said that compared to the 1980s and ’90s, when creative talent could count on rich upfront paydays on projects, the new ethos of austerity calls for talent to work more “on spec” in exchange for participation in success.
“Big dollars are not flowing from the creation of product” anymore, she emphasized. The dealmaking and development process needs to change and become much more collaborative with the goal of getting the best possible product on the screen.
“Let’s make movies, not deals,” Wagner said. “Let’s write movies, not scripts.”
One of the toughest aspects of the biz these days is what Wagner, who recently launched her own shingle, Chestnut Ridge Prods, called “the middle” tier of pics.
“Studios are about brands – safe, comfortable – only hit movies. They don’t want to touch the middle,” she said. “Studios will make a movie out of Tide (laundry soap) if they think it’ll work.”
A big problem for a pic budgeted in the $35 million range is soaring P and A costs.
“If it’s not a brand or a franchise, you’ll spend probably more money to market it” than on production, she said, adding that everyone involved in film needs to “scrutinze” marketing costs.
As an indie producer, Wagner said she’s very focused on finding the best way to deal with the exponential growth in distribution options for pics.
“The real issue now is distribution channels,” she said. “We need to know what size screen we’re working for.”
The movie biz has always faced dynamic changes – from the dawn of talkies to the 1948 breakup of the majors and their exhibition holdings – but the transformation underway in the present day are staggering, Wagner said.
“We are in a seismic revolution in the movie business,” she said. But the good news is, as domestic B.O. approaches the $10 billion mark, the aud’s appetite for movies shows no sign of slowing down.
“More people are going to the theaters,” she said. “Something is being done right.”
Thesp Joe Pantoliano was among those in the aud for Wagner’s chat. He got a laugh out of the room in asking why studio execs aren’t taking pay cuts at a time when actors are facing huge drops in income compared to just a year ago. Wagner reiterated her earlier statement that “everyone” in the film biz needs to get used to more modest paydays in order for the biz to thrive.