The Rundown -- Producers Weigh in on International Markets, Crowdfunding and More
We asked six producers from various backgrounds to share their insights on development, finance, distribution, what they love to hear on the job, and more.
Louis G. Friedman – Production Logistics
Riva Marker – Red Crown Productions
Grant Cramer – Landafar Entertaiment
Armen Aghaeian – The Genre Company
Caspar von Winterfeldt – Fortune Films, LLC
Charles B. Wessler, Producer
For bios of our panelists, go here.
Note: The following answers have been edited for brevity.
On Development and Finance
Will we see studios increase or decrease their output of branded content and franchises? If there's an increase, when and why?
Cramer: Studios will continue to release more and more branded content and franchises as they are increasingly realizing the tentpole business is the arena they’re most comfortable in. At the same time, more and more mid-sized films that used to be considered studio films will continue to be outsourced to independent producers.
Friedman: Not unlike the diminishing middle class in America, the mid-range movie is also disappearing from the landscape. Feature films under $5M and tentpoles over $100M now begin to dominate the landscape. Millions of small screens are omnipresent via desktops, tablets and smartphones, creating new and bold opportunities to exhibit directly to the viewer via internet productions. Such projects can be made cost effective with unknown talent, exposing investors to little risk – and if only one or two out of ten hit big – ROI is achieved.
Von Winterfeldt: Increase. Effective immediately. Example – Lionsgate’s Power Rangers.
When InkTip launched in 2000, reading scripts from online sources was a novel approach. How has the immediacy of finding and sharing scripts online changed the development process?
Friedman: It certainly gives thousands of writers, no matter where they live, the potential platform for discovery by a seeking producer. However, sheer quantity does not equal quality. Where there were once 50,000 poorly written scripts - now there are hundreds of thousands.
Wessler: Over the past five years, I’ve actually taken a slower approach to the development process, so InkTip has made part of that search easier. Having people send me scripts through the internet has been a clutter saver. I read almost everything on my iPad. On the other hand, I no longer have that pile of scripts staring at me in the face saying, “Come on, time to read.”
Von Winterfeldt: It widens the scope of material to filter, but you still have to read them, evaluate them, and develop them. The hard work has not changed in finding a great written story.
Aghaeian: It provides an additional channel for finding the next project. When a certain topic comes across as interesting source material for a film, it's a lot faster for me to search on InkTip for a writer or script relating to that subject matter. If I don't find what I'm looking for specifically, chances are I'll come across a writer that will appeal to me because of his or her writing style.
Cramer: It’s changed the development process in that quality scripts and writers that very often used to fall through the cracks now have a very real chance at being discovered without the need for agents and middle men finding them first.
Is Hollywood keeping the door wide enough for newer writers?
Cramer: I’ve always believed that a good script is a good script, regardless of whether or not the writer is young or new.
Wessler: Sure. Nothing has really changed in terms of “the town” searching high and low. Very few good scripts go un-read or un-noticed. That is just a myth.
Aghaeian: Online services and content platforms have opened the door wider for new writers and directors. If your project gains traction online, chances are it will circulate into the right hands and get you on a producer's or agent's radar. I've reached out to writers in the past whose work I've enjoyed reading online.
Von Winterfeldt: Always! Overnight success comes to no one in the business “overnight.” Work hard and it pays off. Attrition – stay in it to win it.
Most important quality in a great script:
Aghaeian: I know a script is good when I find myself turning the page to find out more about the protagonist. I also enjoy details in scripts that help paint the picture.
Cramer: A great story. Structure, character development and great dialogue are all incredibly important, but it all starts with a great story.
Friedman: Developing a believable, fully-dimensional character we care about, in a story we haven’t seen before.
Von Winterfeldt: The story has to have a Zeitgeist that resonates with its current intended audiences.
Wessler: Character. Everything in storytelling revolves around the characters. A good story is easy. Second most important: truth and honesty…even in a goofy comedy.
How do you see crowdfunding evolving, and will we continue to see more notable figures involved (i.e. David Fincher, Zach Braff, Spike Lee) in crowdfunding part or all of larger projects?
Cramer: Crowdfunding and similar ideas are the way of the future. They allow the actual ticket-buying audience to participate and have a say in what gets made. And, from an independent standpoint, where movies are put together in financial pieces, it can often be the difference in whether a movie gets made or not.
Aghaeian: I'm an advocate for crowdfunding. It's an incredible tool for independent filmmakers to raise financing and get their project produced. It also allows the individual funding the project to be part of the filmmaking process and for the producer or director to find an audience earlier on. Artists are able to create riskier projects that a traditional film financier may pass on. I hope to see more recognizable names get involved with crowdfunding as it can only help the community grow.
Von Winterfeldt: Possibly, if audiences are satisfied by the content they are underwriting and the benefits and bonuses they receive for their contribution. It is very inexpensive, if not “free-money,” for the filmmakers. Celebrity brands will be effective for the raises as long as abuse does not occur, but ultimately it will be measured on the quality of product and may be a little early to determine its long-term direction. Undoubtedly though, any filmmaker who has the passion, knowledge and determination should examine the use of the crowdfunding model.
Wessler: I have donated to at least five of these [crowdfunding] projects. But I think that the vast majority of the films will be made with traditional studio funding or private investors. Just like with any filmmaking tool, you must get the invitation in front of the right people.
When you read a script, how much does international appeal play into your decision-making?
Cramer: A huge difference, as the international marketplace has now overtaken the domestic marketplace by a large margin, and foreign pre-sales are often vital in the financing of independent movies. If a script I’m reading doesn’t have broad foreign appeal, I most likely won’t be able to get it funded. There are exceptions of course – urban films being the primary example – but not many, and it makes a producer’s job much more difficult.
Wessler: Considering that MORE than half of your potential gross profits come from markets other than the United States, I think about it quite a bit. The world is a fast changing demographic nightmare. Those who can move quickly in making films that appeal to the broadest audience will make the most money and therefore be able to do more films that they would like to do later. BUT (big but) rarely do films or books or TV shows cross all cultural borders.
Friedman: The appeal to the growing 1.4 billion Chinese market must affect any international play. We are in a global marketplace where 1 out of every 5 humans is Chinese.
Aghaeian: When packaging a film, I always take into account the international market. It allows us to pre-sale a certain percentage of a film in order to reduce the exposure of that project. In order to do this, you need a package that's attractive (i.e. recognizable director and actors) to a foreign sales agency.
How does online distribution such as Netflix affect your distribution strategy?
Friedman: Netflix invented this remarkably fresh and unique business model. With a 50 million monthly subscriber base at $8/head and the option of binge viewing whenever and wherever you are, a powerful new paradigm was born. Build a better mousetrap and they will come!
Marker: It gives us more options, which we find an exciting part of the shifting landscape. We have a microbudget arm of the company that primarily focuses on comedy and we like that there are emerging distributors looking for smart content. It feels fresh.
Cramer: Online distribution is now an ingrained part of my strategy.
Wessler: I don’t give that too much thought, as producers and filmmakers have very little control over specific distribution methods. I try to concentrate on the bigger picture. To be clear: the studio distribution executives think that the filmmakers are idiots so they tend to just give us lip service and do what they want to do anyhow.
Von Winterfeldt: It doesn't. It merely adds layers of recoupment waterfall avenues that only serve to benefit the economics of the film. Ultimately, if you have the ability to control copyright in a library of content and are able to self-release or use services like Indiegogo, it essentially puts the ability to control a revenue stream directly in your own hands – which with the help of tools like social media buzz and building a fan base for the product, could ensure a very long-tail of income downstream.
How soon will day-and-date releases or diminishing theatrical windows be considered the norm?
Wessler: Not VERY soon. It will only be relevant to smaller pictures. And when everyone has stopped going to the cinema to see movies – 20 years from now. If I were a theater chain, I would stop showing movies if the studio was offering the same film to everyone at home during the same opening weekend.
Marker: It's already starting to be the norm. Releasing day and date no longer carries the tarnish along with it that filmmakers feared. At its best, it exposes your film to different audiences simultaneously.
Aghaeian: Image technology for home viewing needs to catch up. Once 4K televisions and streaming is the norm, day-and-date releases will be the norm. The distribution company may decide to keep the film in theaters for a weekend or two to market the picture but this method will eventually diminish once televisions and streaming is equal to theaters in regards to quality.
Friedman: When more money can be made non-theatrically, worldwide day-and-date releases will make economic sense. With more than seven billion humans on the planet, the issue of digital piracy, however, will likely increase exponentially.
Von Winterfeldt: Isn't it already?
On the Job
Best part of your job?
Wessler: Love it all. Working with writers on the script is maybe the most fun.
Marker: Working with people I love and talking about art and creativity and finding new talent.
Cramer: The creative process and actually being on set making a movie.
Von Winterfeldt: Lifestyle, creativity.
Aghaeian: Arriving on set on the first day of production and watching the cast and crew set up. It's an incredible feeling to see a group of talented artists (from the director to the craft services department) come together and bring the project to fruition.
Friedman: The realization that hard work and having a good time do not need to be mutually exclusive. When these elements are harmoniously in-sync with a talented cast, crew and exotic location, making movies is truly The Greatest Show On Earth.
What’s a skill you’ve developed over time that’s made your job easier?
Von Winterfeldt: Delegation and becoming an expert at trimming the fat – off everything.
Friedman: Nothing beats experience: “Been there, done that” gives one the confidence of clear, collected thought, to push the envelope and make the impossible … possible.
Cramer: Financial modeling. I was going to say understanding story, but truthfully, understanding financial modeling is what, in my opinion separates producers who actually get movies made from those who spend most of their time in development.
Aghaeian: As a producer, I need to understand all aspects of filmmaking from the business end to the production end. The skills I've developed over time are my knowledge of the tools used to film and edit a project. I enjoy filming and do so any chance I get. It helps keep me up-to-date on the latest cameras, gear, editing systems and software. This allows me to carry a conversation with my director, cinematographer and editor.
Wessler: Not a skill, but age. I have become less frantic about things happening immediately. I’m not saying one should stop pushing, just stop freaking out about every roadblock you run into.
Best advice heard or wisdom gained on producing?
Friedman: “I want to be fair and reasonable, but I hope it won’t come to that.”
Marker: “All a film needs to succeed is 3 great scenes and no bad ones.”
Cramer: “Get everything in writing then get it all in writing again.”
Aghaeian: "Don't take what you do for granted, at the end of the day, we're in the business of telling stories."
Wessler: Never forget that this is a 100% collaborative medium. It takes a great writer, great director, amazing actors and talented crew to make a movie. You are only one element – an important element for sure, but always surround yourself with smart, creative people.
Von Winterfeldt: Advice – Do your due diligence and insist on everything in writing where possible. Wisdom – No is a very powerful word in Hollywood.
Best word or phrase you like to hear?
Marker: “Let's do it.”
Cramer: The bond is closed!
Aghaeian: When my investor says, "Let's make it happen."
Wessler: “Yes” and “We are happy to pay you whatever you feel is fair.”
Hardest word or phrase to hear or say?
Friedman: “It can’t be done.”
Marker: “It's not working.”
Aghaeian: We've got a problem.”
Wessler: “NO. Every producer will tell you this. I hate the word NO.”
Von Winterfeldt: Hear – "trust me." Isn't that implied and are you merely reassuring yourself? Say – Yes, because I wish I could say it more frequently.
Your Three-word advice to filmmakers:
Friedman: Learn Your Craft.
Marker: Always be brave.
Cramer: Watch your back. ;)
Aghaeian: Enjoy The Ride.
Wessler: Never Give Up!
Von Winterfeldt: Best of Luck!
Your Three-word advice to writers:
Friedman: Less Is More.
Marker: Again -- Always be brave. Don't self-censor or sanitize. Be bold.
Cramer: Know your world.
Aghaeian: Do Not Compromise.
Wessler: Write, Write, Write.
Von Winterfeldt: Story, story, story!!!
Interviewer: Michael Kim
Additional Contributor: Chris Cookson