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

 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."

"Even Imagine is going to get cut back severely, and Imagine is at the top of the heap," says a source familiar with the production company's dealings. "Universal used to do everything Imagine wanted. Now they don't."

On paper, producers like Grazer and Howard still have enviable deals. But such pacts are now hollow shells. Even top producers are told that if they want a green light, they will have to accept reduced terms. "[The studios] behave like it's a gentleman's sport, and if you were really classy, you'd refuse to be paid," says one. "They feel more comfortable than ever saying, 'We're going to make the movie, but we're withholding 60 percent of your fee, and if you go over budget, we have the right to use [that money].' " Compare that to the good old days of first-dollar gross, adds this producer, when "you'd get unexpected checks for a couple hundred grand for a movie that bombed."

"By the time you get a movie made, they've beaten you back on your deal [and] taken control of the script," says another well-known producer. As for managing the film while it's in production, he adds: "They don't care if you show up or you don't show up -- until they get into trouble. Then the executive turns to the producer and says, 'Solve it.' "

One studio chief says that picture seems exaggerated to him, but he understands that life certainly has changed. "There are few things harder than having something and watching any piece of it taken away," he says. "But it's happening because the reality of the business is extraordinarily complicated and difficult right now. Regardless of what it was like 10 years ago, you have to adjust your expectations to reflect the current reality."

A-list producers have lost more than clout: They have lost those delectable perks that are the stuff of industry legend. There are no more lavish budgets for decorating offices. "Once upon a time, they insisted you travel first class because you were, in some way, representing the studio," says one veteran. "Now, fine, you can go on a pogo stick. You can go JetBlue. I'm not saying it's a horrible hardship, but 10 years ago, it wasn't happening."

Marshall, who is producing The Bourne Legacy for Universal, says many producers are getting squeezed in ways that affect more than their lifestyle. Without backing from the studio, acquiring and developing material is far more difficult. "That is completely different from four or five years ago," he says. "The studios are trying to develop stuff inside and not involve the producers. And that may be a mistake because we're the ones who have to make it work."

But many producers feel that the studios don't care if it is a mistake because they are so averse to risk. One well-known producer says he has a top screenwriter working on spec because if studio money were involved, there would be too much pressure to turn the material into something that is "middle-of-the-road and as marketable as possible." In the past, the producer might have been able to shield the writer, but now the studio gets heavily involved.

In many cases, he adds, the producers enjoying the most success with studios are those who don't challenge the system. "They have no talent in the making of movies," he says bitterly. "They go out with executives; they woo executives; they party with executives. They can be counted on not to cause any problems. They'll do the dirty work."

But Michael Shamberg, who produced Contagion with his partner, Stacey Sher, for Warners, says he finds those comments "offensive." Producers are making a mistake, he argues, if they take an antagonistic approach to executives. "You've got to be very sensitive to their needs," he says. "They're risking their jobs. The idea that studios are adversaries is bullshit. Producers who don't think the studio is their partner have the wrong equation."

Shamberg continues: "The gravy days are over, and if you can't do the heavy lifting, you shouldn't be a producer. You can still get your stuff made ­-- you simply have to solve the problem of finding money to make your films. It's just a more complicated formula. But in success, you will be well rewarded."

A studio executive echoes Shamberg's point. "If we have a hit movie, I'll get a nice bonus, and I'm grateful," he says, "but the producer can make $30 million." A producer counters, however, that rewards of that type are rare to nonexistent these days, and he often has to lay out money to acquire and develop material but doesn't get paid unless a movie gets made. And that might take years, if it happens at all.

Some producers hold out hope that the pendulum might be swinging back a little -- if not in terms of money and perks, then at least in terms of respect. They say the studios' desire to minimize risk has led to a string of increasingly safe -- and uninteresting -- films. Studios have noticed with alarm that young people under 25, who are critical drivers of box office, seem to be rejecting Hollywood movies -- with some exceptions, such as the Transformers films. Without them, grosses are diminishing. Some in the industry are joking grimly that a $20 million opening is the new $60 million opening.

"We could be at this point where the movies are so terrible that it's almost like the centralization is now strangling creativity," acknowledges one executive. "Either it's going to get to the point where things improve, or we'll just get a reality-TV version of the movie business, aiming for the lowest common denominator."

To Herskovitz, passion is the key to getting a response from the audience, and producers have that passion. They should use it to their advantage without necessarily expecting that the studios will help achieve their vision. "Most producers are on their own and have to be pragmatic about how they get their movies made," he says. "For the last 10 years, there's been a lot of bad news for producers. The profession has taken great steps to turn that around, and I actually see things getting better. The real story is this amazing adaptation and growth and perseverance. That's what I see going on."

But another producer admits it's hard not to look back. "We try not to talk about the good old days because that's not serving us," he says. "The good old days are gone."

This article originally appeared with The State of the Studio Deals: Who's Doing What Where.

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