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Producing Features

Producing Features

Articles - Directing

Writer/producer/directer Paul
Schuyler with actors Mia Crowe, Yannis Bogris and Jan Schwieterman
on the set of Wasted.

You can get a good idea of what most people working
in film do just by their job title. Boom Operator. Second Unit
Director. Editor. But so many factors affect a producer’s job
that it’s not as easy to come up with a pithy definition of the
producer’s role in the moviemaking process.

"Being a producer is not like being a doctor
of psychiatry where you have to get a bunch of degrees to prove
you can do it," says Larry Kasanoff of Lightstorm Entertainment. "The
term varies because the job varies."

Jesse Bradford in Steven Soderbergh’s King
of the Hill

"A producer’s job is never the same," notes
Cary Woods, currently in New York producing Copland, starring Sylvester
Stallone and Robert DeNiro. "You wear different hats on different
movies. Overall, you do what it takes to get the movie you want

For a first-time independent filmmaker, producing
means wearing different hats every day. For Paul Schuyler, it meant
putting an ad in Dramalogue and Backstage for auditions on a "no-pay
feature" he’d written about suicide, called Wasted. It meant
maxing out his credit cards to finance the film, which he shot
on weekends so he could keep his day job as a graphic designer.
Now, as he’s trying to edit the film together, it means arguing
with a lab company that’s withholding the last of his film until
he pays them what he owes. He’s also being sued by a car rental
agency for an RV that was accidentally smashed during shooting.

"Producing is not something you can go and learn," says
Schuyler. "There’s no course you can take. The key, I think,
is how you deal with people, and the tactics used to make them
feel they’re getting something out of it, too. It’s about making
mistakes and having the self-awareness of learning from what you’ve

Geena Davis with producer Mark

Kathryn Arnold produced The Coriolis Effect, which
won the 1994 Venice Film Festival’s award for Best Short Film.
Now she’s getting ready to tackle her first full-length feature,
Nevada, about a small desert town run by women, and the dynamics
that take place when a mysterious female passes through. Getting
the project off the ground took years of stops and starts. A foreign
company agreed to finance the film, then went bankrupt. A domestic
distribution company agreed to put up the money, but wanted casting
approval. It insisted on "A-level" actresses, but to
Arnold’s dismay none of them would work for less than her regular
fee "with an unknown director on a $5 million-dollar movie." So
that deal, she says, "kind of faded away."

Various producers and directors drifted in and out
of the project before Cineville, an independent production company,
optioned the script. The casting process began all over again,
this time with a budget in the $2-3 million dollar range. "This
time the level of actors didn’t have to be as high," says
Arnold. She cast Amy Brenneman, Gabrielle Anwar, Angus McFadden,
Kathy Najimy, Bridgitte Wilson and Karina Lombard.

Cineville then worked with a foreign sales agency,
Storm Entertainment, that deals with distributors around the world.
The agency set up an office in Cannes during the film festival
and pre-sold Nevada to different territories.

"A lot of foreign sales distribution companies
have what they call ‘output deals’ with each distributor," explains
Arnold. "A distributor from Germany, a distributor from Japan
and a distributor from the U.K. will agree to buy four films from
the sales agent at, let’s say, a total of two million dollars.
Then the agent divides the money among the four films. If several
of these sales can be acquired, you’ve got the budget for your
film. You usually cover about seventy-five percent of your budget
from foreign sales, and once you have those contracts from the
sale, you bring them to the bank. And if you have a good relationship
with the bank, the bank will then give you $2 million dollars based
on $1.75 million in foreign sales. Then they do what they call
‘gap financing,’ which means they’ll give you the additional $250,000
to gap the difference so you have a complete budget of two million

Paul Schuyler directs Erica Howard
in Wasted.

"This means your whole budget is covered from
six foreign sales. When our film is completed, we’ll have the rest
of the world to sell it to. The domestic market is wide open, so
if we make a great movie, the potential to make a huge sale and
have everything become profit is very likely."

With financing and a cast in place, the next step,
says Arnold, is getting bonded, which is "like a protection
policy that low-budget films take out. Usually the banks require
it because if anything should go wrong-if you’re behind schedule,
or over-budget, printing too much film-the bond company can come
in and take over the production. Basically it acts like a policing
force to make sure everything will be delivered on time and on

Arnold hires key department heads, the director of
photography, the production designer, the editor, the line producer,
the unit production manager. These people, in turn, hire their
own department workers, while Arnold works closely with the director
and talent in the day-to-day filmmaking, all the way through to
post-production, marketing, poster design, and release.

Not all producers remain with a film from conception
to inception. "An executive producer can often be a ‘godfather’
to a project," says Albert Berger, who produced Crumb. Often
you’ll see smaller movies that are executive-produced by the likes
of Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese or Robert Redford. Although these
producers may not have physically produced the film, their names
help to open doors for the filmmaker.

Crumb (1995).

Berger and his partner Ron Yerxa, at Bona Fide Productions,
were producing the Steven Soderbergh-directed King Of The Hill,
a film based on the novel by A. E. Hotchner. They took the project
to Redford’s company, Wildwood Enterprises Inc., who agreed to
executive produce the project. "With Redford attached, we
took King Of The Hill to Universal Pictures and they financed the
film," says Berger.

Redford’s name also came in handy when contacting
the author to obtain the rights to turn the novel into a screenplay. "Redford
had a personal relationship with the author of the book," Berger
explains. "For twenty years, Hotchner had refused to option
the book, and the fact that Redford knew him, coupled with his
stature in the film community, opened that door that allowed us
to option the book and finance it."

Executive producers aren’t usually involved in the
day-to-day process of producing a film. "They often don’t
sit on the set," explains producer Jim Jacks (Tombstone, Dazed
and Confused). "Their function can be as little as just getting
the money. When I executive produced the Coen Brothers’ Raising
Arizona, basically all I did was bring them to Circle Showcase,
who put up the money."

Bill Paxton, Kurt Russell,
Sam Elliott and Val Kilmer in George Cosmatos’s Tombstone (1993).

Berger and Yerxa are currently executive producing
Spree, an MGM/Showtime thriller now in pre-production. "In
this case, we found the script and helped develop it. However,
since we’re working with producers that have a deal with MGM and
Showtime, they’ll be directly responsible for the day-by-day production
of Spree. Once the film starts shooting in Vancouver, we won’t
be there." They could have insisted for a straight producer
credit, but Berger says, "On some things, you recognize that
if it’s gonna take a lot of work and you’ve got four or five other
things going on that you’re more connected to, sometimes it’s better
to take a back seat."

"An associate producer credit is like a tip
of the hat, something you give to a person because they’ve done
good work on your movie," says Jacks, who gave cinematographer
William A. Fraker an associate producer credit for his work on
Tombstone. "He’s been nominated for six Academy Awards, and
we asked him to do the movie for very little money compared to
his normal fees, so we gave him an associate producer credit for
helping us out."

"When you get into producer credits like president
of a production company, producer, co-producer, executive producer,
associate producer," explains Larry Kasanoff, "sometimes
it varies by function and, quite frankly, sometimes it varies by
the deal."

Kasanoff is president and co-founder of Lightstorm
Entertainment, a production company he started with director Jim
Cameron. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was their first producing project
together, and even though Kasanoff helped produce the film, he
didn’t get a producer credit.

"All the producer credits were in place contractually
when I came into it," he says. "The film was already
packaged when we started our company, but I spent every day, all
day, seven days a week, for a year, doing anything I could to help
get that movie done on time. I helped oversee production, dealt
with the press, managed the cross-promotional efforts like the
toy line and the other spinoffs we had from it."

For Kasanoff, producing Terminator 2 without a producing
credit was "worth it just to get the experience of making
a movie like that." With T2’s success, he’s never had to go
without official producing accreditation. Kasanoff executive produced
True Lies, produced Mortal Kombat and is now working on Mortal
Kombat 2.

"The credit you receive on a film depends on
what your relationship is to the company you bring it to, how important
it is for them to make this movie, and what you’re in it for," says
Berger. "Whether you’re trying to get a career in producing,
or looking to make some money by getting a finder’s fee, or just
doing someone a favor. Sometimes you’re a producer by virtue of
the fact that you either found the material, or you brought something
essential to it that helped get it made."

The day-to-day production responsibilities belong
to the line producer, who is not usually involved in the development
of the project. "A line producer most typically would get
involved in a project when it’s already financed and needs to be
manufactured," says producer Marc Boyman (The Fly, Dead Ringers).

"He’s more involved with the nuts and bolts
of a movie," adds Berger, "like being responsible for
the budget, working out deals with the unions, stuff like that."

Just as producing credits vary, producing deals vary,
too, depending on a person’s producer status. "There’s a wide
variety of independent producers," says Berger. "There
are producers who do business all over the place and are free to
work with whomever they want. They don’t have a strong allegiance
to a specific place. Then there are producers who have studio deals,
either ‘first look’ or ‘exclusive’."

A "first look" deal with a studio means
the producer is usually given office space on the studio lot and
fees to cover expenses such as script-development money. Any time
the producer finds a piece of material he wants to produce, he’s
obligated to bring it to that studio for a first look. Should the
studio pass on the project, it puts the script in what’s called "turnaround," where
the producer can take that project back and bring it to another

An "exclusive" deal differs in the sense
that the producer is tied exclusively to that studio, produces
only for them, and receives a lot of money to be affiliated with
them. On the downside, if the studio passes on the project, the
producer can’t take it anywhere else and the project dies-or gets
picked up by a different producer for a different studio.

Lauren Shuler-Donner and her husband Richard Donner
have a first-look deal at Warner Brothers. Their office is on the
Warner lot, and they not only receive money to develop new ideas,
or option novels and spec scripts, they also have access to screenplays
already bought by the studio. "If you’re an independent producer
floating around out there, it’s hard to get access to that material," she
says. "So I very much like being attached to a studio."

At one time her company had an exclusive deal with
Disney, but she vows never to be exclusive with any studio again. "At
Disney, I brought them Dave and they didn’t want to make it. Then
I brought them Mississippi Burning and they didn’t want to make
that, either. That’s when I realized I was not cut out to be exclusive."

After her three-year contract with Disney expired,
Shuler-Donner was able to set up Dave at Warner’s, but lost Mississippi
Burning to producer Frederick Zollo.

Jim Jacks says his company, Alphaville, with partner
Sean Daniel, has an exclusive deal with Universal. Unlike Shuler-Donner,
he’s very happy with the setup, which appears to be more like a
first-look deal.

"Universal’s been relatively generous about
letting us make movies elsewhere. For instance, Tombstone was made
with Cinergi and Disney. Michael, which we just wrapped shooting
on, was made for Turner. In both cases they were scripts we developed
at Universal. With Tombstone, writer Kevin Jarre came to me and
said he wanted to make a movie about the real story of Wyatt Earp
and Doc Holliday. So we got financing from Universal for him to
write the script, but when Kevin Costner announced that he was
gonna do Wyatt Earp, Universal decided they did not want to race
or get into any kind of battle with Costner and Warner Brothers.
They backed off and let us have the project back in turnaround.
We took it to Cinergi, an independent production company, who put
up the money.

"With Michael, it was a disagreement between
the director and the studio about casting," says Jacks of
their Nora Ephron-directed film starring John Travolta and Andie
MacDowell. "So in both of these cases, Universal was generous
enough to say, ‘If you can set it up elsewhere, go ahead.’ They
could have been really difficult and just said, ‘Look, we insist
on you changing the casting, so either make it this way, or no
way at all.’ Since we’re exclusive with them, they don’t have to
give anything back in turnaround if they don’t want to. They paid
for the development of the script; they own it. They’re the owners
of Michael."

It is this kind of ownership that frightens many
independent producers. Ross Bell and Joshua Donen of Atman Entertainment
(The Great White Hype) are determined to have the best of both
worlds. They produce studio pictures and use their own the money
to fund smaller, independent films.

"If you do a film for a studio, you never own
it," says Bell, who along with Donen is producing a remake
of Tarzan for Fox Family Pictures. "The joy of making independent
films is that you can end up owning the copyright. Eventually Josh
and I want to have our own film library, and that will give our
company value." This value would come when Atman sells the
films from their library to "television in Poland, or cable
in Argentina," thus prolonging the film’s shelf life and putting
money in the company’s pocket.

On one hand, being tied to a studio is financially
rewarding and, as Marc Boyman says, gives you credibility because "it
portrays you in a light to others that says you’re established." On
the other hand, there’s a trade-off. Albert Berger says, "We’re
starting to get a couple of projects at the same studio now; when
that happens you think that maybe there’s a way to forge an ongoing
relationship with them, but once you start on that path you don’t
make culturally provocative films like Crumb anymore. You have
to decide what’s best for you."

What’s best for Lauren Zalaznick is to stay independent.
She’s had success producing the independent features Kids, Safe,
and this year’s Sundance Film Festival winner of the Filmmaker’s
Trophy and Special Jury Prize, Girls Town. "It’s tough to
balance the corporate with the creative," she says. "I
think I would probably have less control over projects that I physically
produced if I was with a studio."

The need to have control over their art is why many
actors start up their own production companies and produce projects
they feel compelled to see on the screen. Robert Duvall recently
produced A Family Thing with his company Butcher’s Run Films. Jodie
Foster produced Nell and Home For The Holidays with her company
Egg Pictures. And Mel Gibson’s most recent producing credit was
Braveheart, through his company, Icon Productions. Tom Cruise,
Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Bette Midler, Denzel Washington,
Drew Barrymore and Alicia Silverstone are among many actors who
are now producing through their own production companies.

Screenwriters such as Bob Gale, who wrote all three
Back to the Future films, also produces through his company, Big
Wind Productions. "I became a producer as a way to keep my
hands involved in the scripts I wrote," he says. "I never
had a producing credit on anything where I didn’t have some kind
of involvement in the writing." Gale sees producing as a way
of protecting his writing. "It’s like raising a child and
then suddenly turning it over to strangers," he says. "You
don’t want to do that."

No matter what kind of producer you are, or what
motives fuel your producing ambitions, film festivals are always
important to a producer. Whether it’s finding distribution for
their independent films or making contacts and possible partnerships
for future projects. It was at the Sundance Film Festival where
Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa first met Steven Soderbergh, a meeting
which, years later, resulted in King of the Hill.

"We stumbled into the first screening of sex,
lies, and videotape and there were only fifty people in the audience," recalls
Berger. Following the screening, they approached Soderbergh and
made arrangements to meet with him two days later for coffee. "Each
time his film showed during the festival, more and more people
showed up at the screenings. By the end of the festival, agents
were chasing him down the street and people were throwing scripts
at him left and right. By stumbling into that early screening,
we were able to start up a relationship that four years later resulted
in a film."

"I go to Sundance to keep up on who’s coming
in and coming up," says Jacks. "After seeing Clerks at
Sundance, I went up to Kevin Smith. [I’d] been involved with Raising
Arizona, Dazed and Confused, and Tombstone, so Kevin was complimented
by my interest in his work and said he’d be very interested in
doing business with us." Jacks and Daniel ended up producing
Mallrats, Smith’s follow-up. Jacks also became familiar with Richard
Linklater when he saw Slacker at Sundance. Months later, when a
critic friend of Jacks mentioned that Linklater was trying to get "this
American Graffiti in the ’70s" off the ground, Jacks got in
touch with Linklater and "we paid for him to come out here
and tell us what he had in mind. Then we got the studio to finance
it, and that resulted in Dazed And Confused."

Every producer hopes either to be or find the next
Soderbergh, Linklater or Smith at film festivals. Kathryn Arnold
plans on submitting Nevada to Sundance. But even when she’s not
entering her films in festivals, she still makes a point to attend
them because "as an independent producer, you usually don’t
have money to spend on acquiring materials. You have to rely on
your relationships with writers and producers who have the projects."

On remakes and sequels, a producer has other factors
to consider. "The advantage of doing a remake or a sequel
is that there’s an original to look at, which gives you a sense
of what it was, and what the new one could be," says Boyman,
who’s now in the process of remaking Morgan! a 1966 British film
that starred David Warner and Vanessa Redgrave.

When Boyman produced the remake of The Fly with Jeff
Goldblum and Geena Davis, he had to make sure his version not only "appealed
to the younger generation, but to the generation that had been
familiar with the previous one. The original instantly gives you
a known quantity that you start with and that can help give a focus
around which to tell the new story. You use it as a benchmark to
measure against the new one, and you hope that what you’re creating
matches or exceeds the previous effort."

The benchmark factor can either be an advantage or
disadvantage, says Larry Kasanoff, "Even though you have a
basis to start with, your challenge is: ‘How do I give the audience
what it wants, but also give it something new?’" Kasanoff
says that with a sequel, if "you don’t show people a movie
that’s close enough to the first one, they’re gonna say ‘What did
you do?’ If you show them a movie that’s too close, they’re gonna
say, ‘I’m bored, we saw that already.’"

Proper casting is also important to a producer for
several reasons. "At the moment at which I know exactly what
actor I have," says Boyman, "that will dictate, to a
certain extent, the budget I’ll get, which affects the level of
filmmaking. One wants to match the project with an actor who’ll
not only help make the film work, but who’ll give comfort to the

A name actor can help in more ways than one, especially
for a nonstudio picture. "You try to use everybody’s machine
to your advantage," says Kathryn Arnold, who’ll be doing just
that with actress Amy Brenneman and Nevada. "Amy’s gonna be
coming out in a Stallone movie this November, and when she starts
doing press for it, reporters will say, ‘So what are you doing
next?’ And she’ll say, ‘Nevada,’ which is great publicity for my

"In addition," continues Arnold, "By
the time my film comes out people will recognize her, and my potential
for making a great domestic deal skyrockets."

More than anyone else in film, a producer’s job really
does vary from project to project. In the end, though, certain
qualities are evident in the best ones.

"You need the ability to stand back and see
the big picture of what you’re doing," says Lauren Shuler-Donner. "Which
actors will make the right cast, how to market the film, and how
to pull all those pieces together. You also need a sense of humor
because a lot of things go wrong. You have to have a certain motherly
quality too, because you end up taking care of everybody." MM

Zorianna Kit recently moved from Toronto to Los
Angeles, where she writes for The Hollywood Reporter and other
entertainment publications.

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