Filmmaking: The Rush Remains, But the Hustle’s Tougher

Hollywood’s retrenchment makes greenlights scarce, but the euphoria endures

"Little Miss Sunshine"

There’s a memorable moment from the largely overlooked but eminently entertaining 2008 film “What Just Happened.” Producer Ben (played by Robert De Niro) is driving home from a disastrous screening, with the preview cards calling to him from the passenger seat of his Mercedes. Suddenly, he pulls over, idling in the emergency lane, and there in the emptiness of the night, he has to read what he already knows: The news is not good.

The scene is about that glorious but frightening apex where passion and fear intersect. Anyone who has birthed a movie from development through production can relate. Sadly, those experiences — the elation of a great audience response — are happening less and less, because there are fewer movies being made. Ask any working producer and, to a man/woman, they will tell you this: It’s tougher than it’s ever been and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

What just happened, indeed? There are a number of reasons for the slowdown and we’ve all heard them: With more choices for entertainment, the target audience (young males) is simply not as movie-oriented. Marketing costs have soared, so it is not uncommon for studios to spend $50 million to sell a movie; as a result, they’d rather make fewer originals and rely on franchise titles, which are fraught with their own peril.

Perhaps toughest for those of us in the trenches: The cost-cutting and reduced fi lm slates mean that every step — the pitches, the books, the scripts, the development — is proceeding with far fewer housekeeping deals, meaning producers are forced to hustle even harder.

Still the passion burns. Throughout my career, strangers have asked me what producers really do. “Isn’t the producer the one who puts up the money?” is frequently asked. In the not so distant past, when we did our jobs well, we were the incubators and the overseers. We marshaled our creative energies and turned ideas into scripts, which then became movies.

But the job description is in flux.

As I like to tell my producing brethren, we can adapt or complain — and I choose to do both. Producing is a privilege. When you get a movie into production, it’s the greatest gig in the world. Some years ago I got an idea from a magazine cover at my local newsstand: warring divorce lawyers who fall in love. It was titled “Laws of Attraction.” When 200 people show up on the set and start shooting your idea, that feeling is tough to top. I still remember the moment I shut my door at lunch and tore into a script with the unfortunate title “Born Jaundiced” that became the movie “My Girl.” And my fi rst read of “Little Miss Sunshine” (pictured above) similarly announced to my subconscious that a movie was coming (even if it took six years to arrive).

Sure, the circumstances are tougher now, the odds are slimmer for success and god knows how young people can even consider the notion of a producing career. For me, it just means I have to rededicate myself each day. I have to read more, see more movies, meet more upcoming writers and directors and generally just juggle more balls in the air. Another old saw, “I’m just pushing the boulder up the hill,” remains truer than ever; it’s just they made the boulder a hell of a lot heavier and the hill that much steeper.

The other afternoon, as I was contemplating these degrees of difficulty, the phone rang. It was Evelyn O’Neil, a veteran manager and an old friend. She was calling to say she had read one of my comedy projects “Drunk Parents” and she thought it might be right for one
of her clients.

As I hung up, I experienced a surge of adrenalin and found myself brimming with second-wind energy. It fed into other projects and suddenly I was going through my project list and checking on all my “kids.” Gotta get Joe Cohen at CAA on the phone to talk about “Queen of the South.” Need to touch base with Craig Flores at Voltage. What’s happening with Andrew Garfi eld and “I.T.”? Just like Ben, I was back on the creative freeway. Where’s there’s hope, there’s an open lane.

Guest Columnist: David T. Friendly was Oscar-nominated for best picture for “Little Miss Sunshine.” He has produced or executive produced more than 25 movies.