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The Painful Death of Hollywood's Producers: No First Class, No Calls Back

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BIZ Producers Deals Illustration P WEB SMALL
Illustration: Ross MacDonald

Even high-flying big names are being treated badly as studio economics mean cutbacks; says one producer, "I feel like Willy Loman."

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

You aren't going to get me to talk about how awful the studios are!" says one veteran producer before launching into a tirade on the subject. "The studios just don't respect what producers do. They'd rather not have them around. … Studios have way too many executives and waste way too much money on that."

Says another producer who ranks among the Hollywood elite: "The bigger the movies get, the more executives feel they're producing them. I believe there are more executives being dispatched to locations than ever before. … When the executive says 'my' movie, it drives you crazy, and it's happening more and more."

With the movie business undergoing a historic realignment as DVD revenue has shriveled and new technology has not yet generated cash to take its place, the issues facing the business are squeezing the top rank of producers, including those who still have generous deals with studios -- on paper. It's trickle-up economics, and those who have long been used to having their voices respected are finding that sometimes -- ouch -- their calls aren't even returned.

Some believe that life has changed forever in the movie business, while others -- noting that studios are making increasingly homogeneous movies -- are hoping that eventually it will become clear that audiences crave something different and that producers are the ones with the experience and skill to develop and execute original, sometimes even great, material.

Evidence of the pressure studios are imposing on big-name producers is everywhere. Jerry Bruckheimer just underwent what he described to THR as the most difficult negotiation of his career with Disney to launch The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer of Imagine have seen their rich deal at Universal cut back and the studio pull the plug on their ambitious fantasy Western The Dark Tower, based on a series of books by Stephen King. A-list producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy just departed from Sony after two years without a green light. Even the industry's ultimate 800-pound gorilla, Steven Spielberg, has had struggles raising money.

Some of the industry's most successful producers say the studios are making them feel, as one puts it, increasingly "irrelevant." And a top executive at one studio acknowledges that in many cases, they have a point. "I wish I could tell you they're wrong or they're being babies," he says. "But [their complaints] are legitimate. And it doesn't feel like it's to the benefit of the movie business. But studios are more involved in movies because the stakes are so high. You get pressure from the bosses to be sure you're managing the projects well -- but that used to be the producer's job."

And that's from an executive at a studio that is considered relatively respectful. Not all are. There seems to be broad agreement among high-level producers that Fox has long been the most contentious with producers, even before the economics became so challenging, largely due to a strong-arm culture created by studio chief Tom Rothman. Disney, with suppliers such as Marvel and Pixar and its focus on branded entertainment, now makes few movies of its own and scarcely seems to need producers. Paramount and Universal also seem largely indifferent, except for a clutch of stars like J.J. Abrams (who, notably, is a filmmaker himself). Sony and Warner Bros. -- in that order -- get the highest marks.

"Even when they're f--ing you, they're apologetic," says one prominent producer. "Fox, Paramount, Universal -- it's simply: 'This is what we're doing. Sorry we forgot to tell you.' "

Says producer Laurence Mark (Julie & Julia): "Sony's the only studio that sort of harks back to the old studio days. Amy [Pascal] deals with the big picture. She's happy to make bold moves. They have great relationships that pay off." Notably, Sony has made The Social Network and Moneyball with powerhouse producer Scott Rudin -- films that other studios would have been unlikely to make. (In fact, one producer says he has heard executives at other studios make snide comments about Sony's decision to take a chance on Moneyball.) But some with ties to the studio say even Pascal has had to trim her sails in the current environment.

"The studios trust a smaller and smaller number of producers," says Marshall Herskovitz, president emeritus of the Producers Guild of America. But he adds that he got that memo long ago. "I don't have a deal anymore," says Herskovitz. "Am I upset? Yes. But there's no point in crying about it." Instead, he says, he and many others have adapted: "Every producer I know has had to learn about independent financing. It may be that these tectonic shifts are finally hitting people who thought they were invulnerable, but most people have adapted. Producers have moved into television and new media and looked for other ways to finance features because that's what producers do. They're coping." (One producer says he has, like many others, sought opportunities in television, but even that is a struggle. "Suddenly you're going from office to office, peddling TV," he says. "There's a little bit of a Willy Loman aspect to it.")

"We can yell our heads off, but we collectively need to adapt to changes in the business," says current guild co-president Mark Gordon. "The world is changing, and we have to change with it."

Perhaps nothing illustrates more vividly the difference between then and now for producers than the Imagine experience. Last decade, Universal was giving Howard and Grazer a hefty $17 million a year in overhead as well as fees of $2 million up front against at least 5 percent of gross (more if Howard was directing). The partners even had two "put" pictures -- meaning they could force projects into Universal's pipeline -- though they never exercised that option. Their deal has since been trimmed to $8 million-plus a year, according to a knowledgeable source, but when the time comes for renegotiation (it runs through 2013), they are sure to face further pressure.