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Oscar-Nominated Producers Compare Notes at Santa Barbara Panel

The shepherds behind each of this year’s best picture Oscar nominees, as well as one of the animated feature contenders, broke down their projects’ various challenges at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s annual producers panel Saturday.

But for a category that set a record this year for female producers nominated (five of the panelists were women), gender parity was a notable topic of conversation.

“I view it as a responsibility to support female voices,” said “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz. “In front of and behind the camera, it is a stated goal of ours to make sure that we are trying to represent stories told by women.”

Hidden Figures” writer, director and producer Theodore Melfi concurred, noting that it must be viewed as a responsibility for all if the industry status quo is going to change. “Everyone has to do it,” he said, pointing out the minuscule percentages of female representation across various disciplines in the business.

Added “Moonlight’s” Adele Romanski, “When you have a majority male interest in Hollywood, it’s not surprising that men hire more men. It’s a conscious decision to really question each hire you make and try to bring in people that don’t look like you.”

Each of the producers had stories to share about the long roads many of these films weathered before becoming a reality on the big screen. In the case of “Fences,” for instance, Todd Black spoke about the various incarnations that stalled over the past 30 years, with talents like Eddie Murphy and Barry Levinson attached along the way.

“A movie gets made when it’s ready to be made,” Black said. “They don’t happen quickly when they aren’t obviously commercial. The studios want obvious because it is a business and they have to make money, and most of these movies up here, they aren’t obvious.”

Hacksaw Ridge” has seen a longer journey. Hollywood titan Darryl F. Zanuck even wanted to tell the story of conscientious World War II objector Desmond Doss on the big screen, but the only problem was Doss didn’t want to be heralded as a hero. He rebuffed Hollywood’s advances for decades.

Producer David Permut first heard about the project 16 years ago, and one early curve in the road came when the original financiers wanted the movie to be rated PG-13. “We didn’t want to homogenize it and make the film anything other than what it was and maintain the honesty,” he said. The film was ultimately produced independently.

Lion,” meanwhile, came together relatively quickly. It began with a local newspaper in Tasmania telling the story of Saroo Brierley finding his family in India. That led to a Vanity Fair article and eventually a book from Brierley, but the entire journey began in early 2012 when he first located his home village via Google Maps.

Producer Angie Fielder and her team optioned the rights to the book in early 2013, had a script ready to finance by the end of that year, struck a pact with the Weinstein Co. at Cannes in 2014 and were off to the races after that. But that’s not to say the film didn’t have its own built-in hurdles. “We knew we were setting the first third of the film up as a foreign-language film that was being carried by a 5-year-old child,” she said. “But we wanted people to be with Saroo the whole way.”

Movies like “Fences” and “Hidden Figures” can sometimes be saddled with labels that immediately limit the potential reach of the work, Black noted. But in screening “Fences” around the country, he said he’s been heartened by the way it has connected with different people, regardless of race or the film being considered an “African-American film.”

“The label we put on these films is not good for the business,” Melfi, whose film has grossed $120 million domestically with three female African-American leads, added. “Hopefully we evolve to a place where we don’t call something a ‘black film,’ we just call it a film.”

Similarly, Kimberly Steward — the second African-American woman ever nominated for best picture — found something universal within “Manchester by the Sea,” a white working class drama set in Massachusetts. “I could see my uncle, who lost his son at a very young age and saw his life spiral down after that and tried to pick himself back up,” she said.

To Black’s point about films coming together when they’re ready, “Hell or High Water” producer Julie Yorn mentioned that though her film was pressure-cooked in a mad dash to the finish due to star Chris Pine’s “Star Trek Beyond” schedule, this was precisely the time for it. “With everything that was going on politically in this country, I thought it was now more than ever,” she said. “We really wanted to get it out prior to the election.”

On that note, “Kubo and the Two Strings” producer Arianne Sutner noted the challenge of maintaining that kind forward thrust when you’re working on something like stop-motion animation, which comes together at a much slower pace.

“When you need that momentum and you’re literally shooting one frame at a time, it’s laborious,” she said. “Five years is a long time to be driving something that is being shot one frame at a time. And we have a very strict aesthetic. We’re creating everything from scratch and we have to adhere to that, so when you have a lot of people working for a length of time, it’s a trick to be rigorous in keeping to style and tone and just the whole look and feel of the movie.”

Moonlight” came together at a time when Romanski and director Barry Jenkins were looking to move to then next step in their careers. “We were both dissatisfied with what we were creating,” she said. “Having known Barry for so long, he was an obvious first phone call for me when I was ready to change what I was making.”

FilmNation’s Aaron Ryder, who said early on that his definition of a producer is “an accomplice,” noted the challenge in pulling a science-fiction story like “Arrival” together at a tight budget of $47 million. “You always have to get a little bit lucky,” he said. “I said that if we could do it for under $50 million — and the trick of that was in the visual effects — then I could see a clear path to going forward.” The movie has grossed nearly $200 million worldwide.

And finally, “La La Land” — the year’s persistent awards darling — was a passion project from the word go, just like each of these projects. But Horowitz considered that the secret ingredient in keeping the movie alive as it transitioned from a tiny budget at Focus Features to something Lionsgate would ultimately finance at the number all involved thought was necessary to pull off director Damien Chazelle’s vision.

“There’s a line from the movie that Emma [Stone] says: ‘People feel passionate about what you’re passionate about,'” Horowitz said. “That was the driving force for us with Damien, his clear-eyed vision and passion. He wanted to do a modern musical, shot in Los Angeles, with songs by his college roommate [an unknown]. In spite of all of that, and really because of all of that, Fred [Berger] and I just jumped in. I like things that are challenging, but you’re in love with the challenge, and this was right in that box.”

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