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‘Mr. Banks’ Producer: Movies Will Thrive in Internet Age

Alison Owen explains why movies are different from rival forms of entertainment

LONDON — The producer of Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks,” Alison Owen, has delivered a heartfelt defense of the art of movie-making, two days before the film world preems in London.

Owen kicked off her keynote speech at the London Film Festival on Friday with a quotation from novelist Philip Pullman: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the things we need most in the world.”

She went on to reject the notion that the internet is going to kill off movies.

“The internet is a container, not a substance. To say the internet is the death of books and movies is like saying someone invented a new, more efficient kind of cup and it heralds the death of coffee. A new improved form of carrying something, which is essentially what the internet is, should be helpful to our business,” she said.

She added that the problem is not technology per se, but the management of that technology, and the lack of a viable business model.

“People still want good stories,” she said. “As digital comes of age, there’s going to be more and more demand for content.”

She quoted Evan Williams, co-founder and former CEO of Twitter, who had said: “Here’s the formula if you want to make lots of money. Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time… identify that desire, and use modern technology to take out the steps to getting it.”

She added that if this was correct, then filmmakers should be able to look forward to a bright future.

“Well, the desire to tell and hear stories is as old as time itself, so if Williams is right, if we can make the technology work for us, far from getting our (pink slips), filmmakers are about to make millions of dollars.”

She argued that films did not have to compete with the rivals for consumers’ time, such as vidgames, talent shows or YouTube videos, because do things that those forms of entertainment cannot.

“They don’t scratch the itch that drama does. They don’t go to the places that only cinema does,” she said.

Movie-watching is a communal experience, she said, in a way that these rivals are not.

“We prefer to go to the movies with a friend, with our family, with our partner. Even at home, we’d rather watch with someone else, given a choice. It’s a different experience to watching a YouTube clip, or playing a videogame, or watching (TV reality show) ‘Come Dine With Me,’ ” she said.

She then asked how producers, writers and directors get their audiences to want to watch a film.

“It’s all in the power of story,” she responded, adding a quotation from writer Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Owen identified a number of elements that helped create a great movie.

“The very essence of story, the thing that keeps us gripped, is the same thing that keeps us gripped in our own lives — it is ‘what happens next?'”

Owen said that studio executives often talked about characters being “likeable” or “sympathetic,” but it was more important that characters should be “interesting,” she said.

“The most interesting characters keep us hooked. Not likeable ones! Iago, Shylock, Darth Vader — are they likeable? Do you want to invite them to dinner?”

If you get the chemistry right, Owen said, it’s a pleasurable experience for the audience.

“The story unfolding on the screen elicits a powerful response and brain chemicals of well-being and yumminess like Oxytocin floods your body and you float into the realm of the imagination. Oxytocin is sometimes called the ‘love hormone’ or the ‘connection chemical,’ and it is the job of the storyteller to get this stuff flowing round your body and ambushing your responses.”

She closed her keynote by explaining why she had been drawn to “Saving Mr. Banks.” During pre-production, she had realized that she was “making this for my dad,” she said.

“It was no coincidence that as I began to develop the film more, I also started to re-examine my relationship with my father and it, too, began to change,” she said.

Her father had fallen very ill just as she went into pre-production on the movie, and his condition deteriorated as the film was lensing.

“While we were filming the young Pamela Travers gazing at her father with adoration, I was suddenly struck with the need to jump on a plane to go back to him. He died in my arms six hours after I arrived back, and we had never been closer. I was able to put my head on his shoulder and tell him I loved him, and he squeezed me and said ‘you’re a good kid, Ali,’ and died in my arms,” she said.

She concluded: “‘Saving Mr. Banks’ is about fathers and daughters, but it’s also about storytelling itself. It shows how not just audiences, not just producers, but writers use art, stories, movies to make sense of their own lives, provide order, provide meaning. And how that helps others to do the same.

“I hope we can all keep movies alive, as I believe this is a very necessary job that other innovations cannot match. Movies give people breathtaking dreams of other worlds, and intimate glimpses into the private spheres of lives beyond their understanding. Movies are where they keep the magic.”

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