Feature directors see growing job descriptions
When money problems threaten to derail a project, savvy directors are embracing the delicate art of film financing to get their movies to the big screen.Just a few years ago, Jason Reitman was an unknown, a would-be director whose entire canon of work consisted of two short films. That was when he came across Christopher Buckley's "Thank You for Smoking." It was 1998, and the novel had already been in development for five years at Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey's Icon Prods., when Reitman heard about it and pitched himself to Icon.
"I said from the outset that this had to be a movie so cheap, it never has to apologize for itself," Reitman recalls. "They originally had been developing it as a movie that would have cost five times as much (as its eventual $6.5 million budget). But you couldn't spend that money and say the kinds of things my movie needed to say. What made the book fantastic was that the main character (a spokesman for the tobacco industry) did not apologize for his beliefs. And that was not PC."
It would be seven years before Reitman's film got made, but now, thanks to the final product -- which sparked a bidding war when it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2005 and was eventually acquired and released by Fox Searchlight -- Reitman is a go-to guy for sophisticated comedy, one of the young turks often cited as proof that original voices are alive in Hollywood.
If Reitman's story proves just how hard a director has to fight to get his film made today, it also is indicative of something else: the blurring of the lines between what might once have been considered a director's role and that of a producer. "As an independent director, you can't simply wait for a job to come to you," Reitman says. "You have to create the work yourself. I see producing and directing as one and the same."
Today, directors like Reitman are key players in almost every aspect of getting their films made -- from sweet-talking actors and developing business strategies to wooing financiers and even overseeing marketing campaigns.
"It is so hard to get a movie made that the idea of sitting back and waiting for somebody to put it together for you is just a pipe dream," says Neil Burger, the director of Yari Film Group Releasing's "The Illusionist." "Nobody is going to believe in something as much as you do or have the real passion to push it through -- which isn't to say there aren't good producers who work really hard. But it is naive to think anybody is going to do it all for you."
Producers usually develop several projects at a time, Burger notes, leaving it up to the directors to do more of the hustling. "Producers have their fingers in many pies, whereas a writer-director tends to have just one major project that is his labor of love," he says. "It is his job to make people believe that it is indispensable for this movie to be made."
Even established directors who don't have to push so much to launch their movies find themselves taking on much more of what would classically be considered the producer's work -- as was the case with Phillip Noyce's "Catch a Fire" from Focus Features. "'Rabbit-Proof Fence' (Noyce's 2002 feature) took a year and a half to make," he says, "but I spent two years marketing it in Australia and around the world."
Noyce frequently takes a producer's credit on his films, partly because it gives him added control and financial benefits -- especially if he has an ownership stake in the movie -- but also because he knows he will have to handle much of the producer's workload since he largely works in the independent realm.
"I wouldn't have needed to do this within the studio system," he says. "The studio mechanism is very efficient, and it sells the film for you. But then you feel like you have given your child up for adoption. You have to put the same kind of effort into making a film for the studio system as independently, but this way, you get to be with your kids your whole life."
If Noyce expanded his role to assume the producer's mantle, others have gone the other way -- including Irwin Winkler, who turned to directing after decades as a top producer with credits like 1976's "Rocky."
Winkler says that having producer skills allowed him to make smart financial choices for his latest film, MGM's $10 million Iraq War drama "Home of the Brave." "If an actor or member of the crew demands something that is unnecessary, I have got the experience to point out why there is another way to do it," he says. "Always, it gets to be about the money. I am very surprised when a director says, 'I never see a budget, I don't know where it goes.'"
Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron says he decided to serve as a producer on Guillermo del Toro's upcoming Picturehouse release "Pan's Labyrinth" while directing his own Universal film, "Children of Men," for more personal reasons.
"There is a very clear reason why I do this, and Guillermo does it," Cuaron says. "Growing up, we lacked a certain mentorship, and we wanted to provide that for other filmmakers. But there is also a selfish aspect to this: After all these years of trying to learn from old masters, there is a point where you had also better connect with the young masters! It is a survival tool: You want to be in touch with a younger generation. The energy of a first-time director is something it is very difficult to come back to, and to have the opportunity to be involved with that is really fantastic."
Todd Field, the helmer behind New Line's "Little Children," takes a moment to bask in the notion of being a gun for hire, brought onto a project by a major studio and given all the money and artistic freedom he might like. "How different is that?" he says of such a dream scenario.
Typically, though, he says a director interested in edgier fare must develop those kinds of projects himself -- as he did with his first film, 2001's "In the Bedroom," which he presented to 50 different financing entities before one committed to back the movie, which, of course, went on to earn a best picture nomination.
"You get sent stacks and stacks of material, and when that first happens, it is very exciting because you think, 'Something terrific is going to cross my hands, and I am going to be able to make it and be on the floor working,'" Field says. "The problem is, the stuff that arrives has typically been developed by so many hands that it is covered with fingerprints, and only the kernel of something interesting (is left)."
There are, of course, disadvantages in taking on too many aspects of the producer role. Doing so not only leaves less time for directing -- it also can mean spending months and even years developing material that never gets made. Field invested untold hours in two projects he hoped to direct in the wake of "Bedroom's" success, neither of which ever came to fruition.
Burger, too, labored to bring "Illusionist" to the screen -- unlike Field, he did not have the benefit of an Oscar-nominated picture on his resume when he tried to launch the film. With producers David Levien and Brian Koppelman on board, Burger wrote the script for the film about a magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna and then discovered just how hard it could be to raise $16.5 million in financing.
"We started taking it around to the studios, and because it is a period piece and it is not a high-concept movie, people didn't know quite how they were going to bring something like that into the marketplace," Burger says. "They weren't sure whether it was an art house movie or a commercial movie."
After Burger and his partners decided to go the independent route, he remained active in trying to pull together the funding. "I took a year out of my life (as a commercials director), exclusively working on this," he says. "As a director, it was my baby. I was picking up the phone and calling people, strategizing about how we could get somebody interested and how we could get to them, then going in and sitting down with these people and putting together a visual presentation of how the movie was going to look. I sat with half-a-dozen finance guys, maybe. Whenever someone expressed interest, we would go and meet with them."
In doing so, Burger learned how to navigate a world largely alien to him -- that of the American Film Market and the other major markets, where deals are brokered and individual territorial rights bought and sold.
"It was interesting to learn the foreign financing formula, in the sense of people trying to make the movie by selling it in international territories, and it was interesting to learn what actors were appealing to those territories and bankable," he recalls. "What was surprising was, the actors that the international markets wanted were almost always slightly behind the ones the American market wanted."
Finally, financier Bob Yari agreed to fund his "Illusionist," and shooting got under way in Prague in late 2004.
Arguably, though, no director this year has gone through as much to get a project made as has Emilio Estevez, who for years pushed and jostled and shoved to get his multithread narrative "Bobby" made. Estevez believes it was his passion that convinced others to come on board the film, which is being distributed by MGM/The Weinstein Co. "I think that no film can be made without some measure of passion, whether it is from a producer who drives the project from its inception or from a writer-director who has been with it from scratch," he says.
But even with his passion, Estevez still had to learn about finance and the practicalities of what he could get on the big screen for a limited amount of cash.
Estevez was both lucky and unlucky in drawing the immediate support of British producer Stewart Till -- lucky in that Till's backing gave him the credibility he needed to go out and meet actors; unlucky in that Till's company, Signpost Films, collapsed before shooting commenced.
"Toward the end of that summer, it became clear that the company was failing," Estevez notes. "Their funding was in question; later in the year, the rumors turned out to be true. They were out of business by the end of the year."
So was the $20 million Signpost would have put up for the movie. After that, astonishingly, Estevez chose to behave in a most unproducerlike way: "I wanted to be very careful and not continue to meet actors, saying I was making the film when I didn't have funding. There are a lot of people in this town who will get actors committed under false auspices and then take that film to a studio. I didn't want to play that game."
That kind of dogged perseverance is necessary to get almost any film made, but it's essential for projects of a riskier nature. Reitman, of course, toiled for years to get "Smoking" made on his terms, after it was passed over by every studio (and studio subsidiary) in town. But Reitman never let go, and miraculously, Internet millionaire David Sacks found the script just as he was planning to move into the movie business.
It took a year to pry the rights loose from Warner Bros. Pictures, which owned the project through its deal with Icon, and turnaround costs swallowed $1 million of Reitman's $6.5 million budget. But in the end, his movie was a go -- on his own terms. "After that, it all happened very fast," Reitman says. "I would go through all of it again if I had to because it has given me the career I have always wanted."