The Producers Guild threw a lively party over the weekend and handed out its annual awards, but finding myself sharing a table with 10 producers triggered the inevitable question: Why does it always take 10 producers to produce a movie?
The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. Indeed, producers are fighting a war about the ludicrous proliferation of credits. It’s a worthy fight because a growing number of people are demanding credit for a shrinking number of movies.
Every movie begins with a succession of four or five company logos (why isn’t there an award for best logo?) followed by a long list of producers and executive producers. I can understand why an offbeat film like “The Help” needed co-financing (its credits look like a United Nations treaty) but even a genre thriller like “Contraband” billed eight producers plus logos for six production entities. (My personal favorite is Mark Walhberg’s Closest to the Hole Productions.)
The Producers Guild is starting to win its battle to single out those producers who actually perform production services on a film. Some studios have agreed to put the “PGA” mark adjacent to the names of those producers. I am sympathetic with this campaign: I personally have received production credit on five films, only two of which I actually worked on (I didn’t even request credit on the others).
The credit issue is tied to a broad problem: The diminished status of the producer in the filmmaking power pyramid. The great Sir Laurence Olivier complained in his memoir that his producer, Samuel Goldwyn, was constantly nattering at him over his performance in “Wuthering Heights’ and that he rarely heard from his director. A great producer like Hal Wallis not only had sole credit on his films but, on a picture like “True Grit’ (the first one) he supervised the cut instead of his director.
The decline of the producer began in the ’70s when obstreperous young filmmakers seized many of the responsibilities of producers. Most of the films that emerged from this epoch were low-budget — and most went over budget. Long forgotten is the fact that renegade producers like the late Burt Schneider fostered the best of those films — “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces,” for example.
It takes a range of packagers and financing entities to bring a film to life these days and they deserve credit for putting their bucks — and their butts — on the line. But do they all have to be producers?
One admirable trait among producers is that they know how to deliver a gracious acceptance speech. This is a dying skill, judging from the bizarre acceptances at the Golden Globes. The normally serene Meryl Streep mumbled a profanity, blew off her speech and claimed she’d lost her glasses. Octavia Spencer delivered her laundry list of agents and acolytes. Dustin Hoffman started thanking his wife and agent even though he was just a presenter. George Clooney, normally a master at this, was so generous to his friends and colleagues (and to the ubiquitous Brad Pitt) that it seemed as though he’d forgotten that he’d actually won something himself.
Part of the problem, of course, is that winners want to remind everyone that they know it’s just the Globes — it’s a big show but it’s not the main event. For that reason, it’s imperative to be at once grateful, yet humble — and that’s a major test for any superstar.
In a couple of weeks Tom Sherak, the president of the Academy, will deliver his annual speech at the Oscar nominees luncheon, where he will plead for concise, even eloquent, acceptance speeches. “This is your moment in the sun,” he will remind them. It is an opportunity to inspire young talent, to summarize lessons learned and traps avoided. It is a rare chance for actors and filmmakers to display the smarts that are obscured on the red carpet. There’s no need to rattle off lists of parents, press agents and proctologists.
Sherak himself will deliver a good speech. His admonitions will be ignored.