Producer Roundtable: 6 Power Players on Delivering 'The Hobbit' and the 'Nightmare' of Making 'Les Mis'

This story first appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

During the '90s, when producers Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan's Working Title Films was owned by PolyGram, the company heard a bold pitch for a planned two-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings from an unknown New Zealand filmmaking team led by Peter Jackson. Working Title loved the project but was unable to justify the enormous financial risk. Still, the early interest "meant a lot to Pete," Jackson's longtime co-writer/producer Philippa Boyens told Fellner at The Hollywood Reporter's annual Producer Roundtable. Boyens, 49, who co-produced the $3 billion-grossing Rings trilogy and is back with the first of three Hobbit prequels, joined Fellner, 51 (Les Miserables), Bruce Cohen, 51 (Silver Linings Playbook), Grant Heslov, 47 (Argo), JoAnne Sellar, 49 (The Master), and Stacey Sher, 50 (Django Unchained), on Dec. 6 in a private room at The Palm restaurant in West Hollywood for a discussion about studio politics, movies they wish they had produced and how to say no to Quentin Tarantino.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Eric, like at many studios, your company's film projects are now run through a computer to see if they make sense financially before you give a greenlight. How does that work?

Grant Heslov: Yeah, how does it work?

Eric Fellner: Well, I hate to sound like a boring old geezer, but we've been doing it since the PolyGram days in the 1990s. It's really useful because it helps you not make giant mistakes. Sometimes it's wrong, and you've got to fight it because the people who are doing the numbers will come at it with way less passion or understanding of what the material is than we, the producers, do. But it can guide you in terms of what scale of budget you should be working on for that particular kind of material. There's a film now that we're looking at that's in a foreign language, and it's going to cost $15 million or something. So we're really second-guessing it, thinking twice about whether we should do it.

Joanne Sellar: On a Paul Thomas Anderson film, it's always trying to find someone who's very passionate about the film because they never make sense. We were so lucky with The Master to find Megan Ellison, somebody who's really, really passionate about Paul's work and wanting to get the movie made. But it's always an uphill battle.

Heslov: I don't think we would ever get a movie made if we worked with computer models because none of our movies make sense.

Stacey Sher: Mine neither.

Heslov: Except for the one I'm making right now. [Laughter.] That makes sense.

Philippa Boyens: We had that, strangely enough, with The Hobbit, which everyone thought was a no-brainer, but it wasn't greenlit for the longest time. Guillermo del Toro was in place, and part of the problem for him was how long that process was taking. He'd been in place as the director for 18 months, and it just was going to go on forever. Peter had to step up and direct it for it to start making sense in terms of those financial models. That's one of the reasons that I think he stepped up to the plate and did it.

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 THR: You mean that if Guillermo had directed, the money wouldn't have been there?

Boyens: No, Pete was especially committed to seeing Guillermo's film vision of The Hobbit happen. But when the film was just not getting greenlit, Guillermo said: "OK, I can't do this. I can't hang on any longer." People say it's a no-brainer. But nothing's a no-brainer really, is it?

Sher: And nothing's a sure thing. You find movies that look perfect on paper, and then they just don't work at all.

Bruce Cohen: For each project, you have to decide: How much are we listening to projections, and how much are we ignoring them? I mean, on the one hand, they can be very helpful because if you know -- we really need an element, from a director or star or something, or we don't have a shot to get it made -- then, of course, that's good information. But a lot of us, if we listened to those projections or took no for an answer, then we wouldn't get our movies made.

THR: What has been your most painful experience on a film?

Sher: It's every time somebody says no, and you just start from square one again. I'm starting a film at the end of February that I've been developing for 12 years. It's called A Walk Among the Tombstones. Scott Frank wrote the first draft 12 years ago, and Liam Neeson's starring in it. We finally have the right element, and Scott's directing it. There was another director. There was another star. But they come in, they go out, and you never give up if you care about them.

Sellar: The most tragic thing for me was, I was producing this film called Dark Blood that River Phoenix died on. I spent two years putting it together, and we shot for six weeks and -- I mean, obviously the tragedy of River dying was really, really awful. George Sluizer, the director, has actually just -- 18 years on -- finished compiling a film from the footage. I didn't want to be a part of it because I don't think River's family was behind it, and I don't think there was any point in bringing that all up for them again. So I haven't seen it, but I'm sure I will.

Fellner: Did they create a digital character, or …

Sellar: No, they've cut it, and they've done voice-over. It was a three-hander with Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis, so it's like there wasn't a lot they could do.

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THR: Have you ever completely resurrected a film that was absolutely dead?

Heslov: George Clooney and I wrote Good Night, and Good Luck to do as a live television show for CBS originally. We'd worked on it for a long time, and it was right when Janet Jackson had her top taken down [during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show], and that was CBS, and they just didn't want to do anything live. So we sort of took our lumps for a while, and then we said, "Well, screw it," and we just rewrote it as a feature. We brought it to Warner Independent at the time, and it was a $7 million film, and it was black and white. And they couldn't make the numbers work because black and white has no value. It was a whole nightmare. So we ended up having to go and just cobble the money [together] ourselves.

THR: JoAnne, for The Master, how many people did you go to before Megan Ellison said yes?

Sellar: Well, originally, Paul wrote on spec for Universal, after he'd done There Will Be Blood. And then, after he'd written it, it was obviously not a Universal picture, and with all the places like Miramax, Warner Independent, Paramount Vantage [gone], we had like five different financiers involved. Then Warner Bros. was going to come in for distribution, then we had a bunch of other different foreign financiers. And then Paul, quite rightly, didn't feel the script was in the right place, and we were racing to get into production because Philip Seymour Hoffman had to go off and do a play in Australia. So we decided ourselves to pull the plug. And in that interim period, I met Megan, and she said: "Well, I want to do it, and I don't want any other financiers. I just want to do it on my own." And I was like, "Oh, my God." [Laughter.]

Heslov: Yeah, nice gift.

Fellner: The man in the moon.

THR: You all work with top filmmakers. How does someone like Quentin Tarantino react to casting suggestions or other tweaks that might help a film sell overseas, take advantage of tax credits or things like that?

Sher: Well, we didn't have that situation. I did hear that I was making a black Western a lot, which is not something that looks very good in a computer. But it's a Quentin Tarantino film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx and Sam Jackson.

Fellner: I don't think anybody would have any trouble financing that.

Sher: But by the way, Quentin's very sensitive to all of those things. He's an accessible, commercial filmmaker.

Heslov: But he's also a star in his own right.

Sher: In the same way Peter had to direct The Hobbit for the numbers to make sense, Quentin and Peter Jackson are brands, as is George.

Boyens: The funny thing with Peter is that he sees himself as an independent filmmaker. SHER So does Quentin.

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THR: Except Peter owns New Zealand! [Laughter.] There have been a lot of reports about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey being given about $100 million from the New Zealand government. All of you were …

Boyens: No. This is such a myth. Peter brought a lot of money to New Zealand, and in exchange, they -- New Zealand, quite rightly, I think, because this is a competitive industry -- had to figure, "Do we want to make this an environment where you can make these kind of movies, or do we want to give it up?" That money would not have come into the country -- the taxes that were paid on that money, just through the 3,000 people who were employed on the film; the exposure it gives; the tourism. Pete truly doesn't own New Zealand. No one is harder on us than the Kiwis. You have the tall-poppy syndrome: They cut your head off if you get too big for your boots. It's a Kiwi thing.

THR: Was doing a third Hobbit movie your choice, or was that Warner Bros. saying, "We'd really love a third film"?

Boyens: That was absolutely our choice. The relationship with the studio has been really good. They're really upfront, which allows Pete to be upfront, too, and that was one of those upfront moments where, you know, they weren't just buying into it. They weren't just going, "Oh, yeah, third film." It was: "OK, what's the story? How do you want to do it?" They really wanted to know and understand why a third film.

THR: How do you say no to your directors?

Boyens: You never turn up with a problem. You turn up with …

Heslov: Choices.

Boyens: We turned up for a set [Beorn's house] that was in the wrong place. Literally, it was not where Peter had said.

Sher: We had this crazy situation where it didn't snow in January in Mammoth for the first time in 100 years.

Cohen: Of course. That always happens.

Sher: And we needed snow, so within five days, we all came together with a plan to present to Quentin, who had already scouted Wyoming, and it became this great happy accident. We had to pick up our set that we built in Mammoth and move it to the Grand Tetons and figure out how to get into all the places we needed to on very short notice to not stop filming.

Cohen: A pretty standard joke among producers is any location you go to, they're always saying: "It's never rained this much before in this month. Last year, the weather was exactly what you wanted."

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