While in Deauville to receive an homage and present his James Brown biopic “Get on Up,” Hollywood producer Brian Grazer shared thoughts and wise advice on moviemaking with French producers during a discussion hosted by the PGA, the French Producers Guild (APC), the Ile de France Film Commission, and backed by Variety. Grazer, who was in an upbeat mood, spoke candidly about the business before a captive audience of local producers. His latest movie,”Get on Up,” directed by Tate Taylor, will come out in France on Sept. 24.
Here are some highlights from this conversation:
What drives your inspiration as a producer? What do you look for in a story?
Many of the movies that I’ve produced have a common denominator: They’re usually about self-worth and they’re often about men who have drive and talent but are emotionally handicaped and they have to solve or work to mend that emotional injury throughout the movie.
I just wrote a book about curiosity (actually titled “Curiosities”). I feel that it’s curiosity that’s given me the opportunity to be in the entertainment business, whether it’s through TV, film or documentary. After making “Splash” I realized that I could apply my curiosity to create a bridge between me and other people who are experts in other fields and other worlds. So I developed that discipline where every two weeks for about 27 years I meet a new person who is an expert in something that is not entertainment — whether it’s politics, medicine, religion, sports, literally all art forms. Through these meetings, I’m exhausting that curiosity and entering different worlds that become the subjects of movies that I produce.
How do you deal with studios and what arguments do you put forward to get them on board?
Moviemaking is such an intangible experience that I try to stay out of a quantitative equation. I always keep it pretty emotional. I try to make them feel like the story that I’m telling lives inside of them somewhere and that’s often persuasive.
Whatever the subject of the movie is, you tell them that it’s being done by somebody else and say “we’ll do it first.” That’s what happened with “Splash.” I was trying to make that mermaid movie with no competition for years and out of nowhere the biggest producer on the planet said “I’m doing a mermaid movie with Warren Beatty and Jessica Lange.” So that further set my movie back and I was already 5 and a half years into the struggle of getting this film made. So I convinced Disney that I would be beat (the other project). I said “I will beat them, I’m more desperate, I’m tougher, I’ll do whatever it takes: I’ll make it for substantially less money and embarrass them.” To be a producer you have to be a case builder.
Where do you look for funding outside of the studio system?
You have to be resourceful. When we started, if we didn’t get one of the studio we’d say “Forget it;” but now there are different financing options — there’s the digital world that’s participating in making movies whether it’s Netflix and Amazon… There are sponsors who will put up some of the money. There are so many different combinations.
If you have a vision and are moderately intelligent and articulate there are many ways to patch up financing to make a movie. It’s still very hard and you might have to make your movie for a lot less like we did with this James Brown movie (“Get on Up”) but there are different sources.
What about raising the financing from international sources?
I do think about it but I start off at the studios because I feel that it’s going to end up at a studio anyway. Someone has to distribute the film. So it’s going to end up at a distributor and I’d rather go first to a studio.
How do you factor in the international market and foreign audiences in the choice of films and TV series you produce?
A show like “24” is huge internationally. In fact, it turns out of to be a very profitable show because it has so much international appeal to it, especially in Western Europe and some parts of Asia. So I do think about international when I do television. If two ideas or perspectives are equal on the same subject, I will chose the one that has the most international appeal. And that thinking also applies to talent.
Right now I’m doing a show about a 13th century executioner (known as “Bastard Executioner”) and that’s interesting to me because I like violence with a social message. I Like complex morality. This executioner series, which I got Kurt Seller to be the creator of , will have a lot of international appeal.
Do you always keep the final cut?
Sometimes I share it with the director. I shared it with Ridley Scott, Ron Howard of course. The truth of it is that you don’t want to enforce final cut. It’s good to have it because it keeps everybody on their toes but the second you start enforcing it you’re basically saying ‘you’re fired.’ I did do that once but the director was on… was highly medicated.
How challenging is it to make a film that really has an impact on popular culture nowadays?
I was talking to Ron about this. Basically a movie that was successful used to have a tremendous long-lasting impact on the culture and I don’t think that exactly holds right now. Because life experiences have such huge impact, all these different things you discover, because of technology. If you look at movies of the 70’s and the 80’s that were impactful, and compare them with the same kind of movies like “Argo” or “Zero Dark Thirty” that are being made today they don’t have as much impact. Even movies that were huge hits this year don’t provide the same emotional experience.
What’s your team like, how do you organize yourself and how do you decide what property you should focus on while you keep developing the other eight or nine properties?
I haven’t solved that. It’s completely subjective. I think of it as a target, there is a room with a target and I’m hoping the people who work for me are at least aiming at the target.
My target is a little more personal because I feel that I’ve earned it. So sometimes like this James Brown movie, I wish it had made more money in America but it’s not going to devastate me. I like the movie, I think it’s really good. And I’m sure Mick Jagger, who I partnered with on this movie, has the same discipline. He likes the movie and he’s not going to live or die based on that. We’ve afforded ourselves the luxury of picking the subjects that we really want to see come to life. Now, I don’t want to do this all the time because that’s a very dilettante approach and it’s a collaborative medium and one that costs a lot of money so you have to be responsible. So I do like to aim for the target as much as I can and I definitely expect the people who work for me to aim for the target otherwise I hope the target becomes the door.