'Interstellar,' 'Boyhood' Producers on Getting Fired, Toughest Decisions and How to Give Rupert Murdoch Bad News

In THR's annual roundtable, six top awards season filmmakers — Peter Chernin, Eric Fellner, John Lesher, Marc Platt, Cathleen Sutherland and Emma Thomas — open up about why Hollywood's marketing budgets need to get blown up, which one of them found David O. Russell asleep in a bed at his house and why "the movie business has never been great"

This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If you'd taken a snapshot of the men and women who participated in this year's Producer Roundtable about 15 years ago, you'd have seen most of them in very different jobs: Peter Chernin (Exodus: Gods and Kings, St. Vincent, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), 63, then was Rupert Murdoch's right-hand man at News Corp., running one of the largest media companies in the world; Marc Platt (Into the Woods), 57, was president of production at Universal Pictures, capping a long career as a movie executive; John Lesher (Birdman, Fury), 48, was an agent (and soon to become head of the specialty label Paramount Vantage); Emma Thomas (Interstellar), 43, was just beginning her career as a producer following a stint as an assistant to Eric Fellner (The Theory of Everything), 53; and Cathleen Sutherland, (Boyhood), 48, was manning a series of jobs in production. Their very different experiences colored their perspectives and taught many of them how to see the industry from a bird's-eye point of view rather than from the narrow window of one film -- though, as Platt notes, "What's liberating about being a producer is: Your first thought can just be, 'Here's a project I want to invest my time in.' "

What's the toughest decision you've had to make?

PETER CHERNIN [What to] do as Titanic went $110 million over budget. This was when I was running the studio [Fox]. It was surreal because everything that could go wrong was going wrong. I was dead man walking in Hollywood. Everyone said, "That guy's getting fired." On the other hand, we'd seen an hour of footage. It was great. Ultimately, the only decision I ever really made was to say, "Keep going."

Did you have a conversation about that with your then-boss Rupert Murdoch?

CHERNIN I had a conversation. The thing, in retrospect, I did that was smart was: Rupert at that point was living in L.A., and his office was across the hall from me, and I'd get a piece of bad news, and I would run into his office and tell him as quickly as I could.

MARC PLATT He must have loved seeing you!

CHERNIN He was phenomenal. You know, he would have fired me if the movie hadn't worked -- and I'm not sure I would have blamed him.

Have you ever been fired?

CHERNIN I actually have not.

Eric Fellner (left) and Peter Chernin

JOHN LESHER I was fired trusting my gut. [Paramount chairman] Brad Grey would tell me all the time, "You know, someday you're going to get fired." I actually look at it as a glorious achievement. You have to either care about the films or [say], "I really want to stay in this job for a long time." I was always very interested in making the movies.

EMMA THOMAS The interesting thing about this town is that being fired isn't necessarily a big deal. And oftentimes, people are fired right when things are going great.

LESHER I felt bad about it at the time. But it put me back on the path I wanted to [follow], which is [producing]. That plays to my strengths. I'm much better being on the side of the filmmaker than being the greatest corporate executive.

PLATT I've been fired twice, [as an executive at] TriStar and then at Universal, where I've ended up staying for almost 20 years. I loved being an executive, and it taught me a lot and allowed me to develop relationships and really understand how to navigate the corporate structure. [But] I started out in the business to be a producer, to be a storyteller.

LESHER See, I didn't grow up in the studio business. I was an agent for a long time, so mining the politics of a studio did not come naturally.

PLATT I started at a company called Orion, the philosophy of which was, "Our assets are our filmmakers." That's why Woody Allen and John Schlesinger and Jonathan Demme and all these wonderful filmmakers made their films for years at Orion. [But] as the film companies became vertically integrated into larger corporations, the agendas started to compete. As a studio head, I found that my presence in the creative process started to diminish the higher up I went. And my contributions were almost in sound bites. Yes, we decided which films to make. But there were so many other agendas to attend to that it ultimately made me unhappy.

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Peter, would you buy a studio today? There's been talk.

CHERNIN First of all, I'm not looking to buy one. Would I buy a studio? Sure. I actually think the long-term economics of the studio business is pretty positive. I'm probably a little bit of an iconoclast: I think the movie business is in some ways healthier than the television business right now. [In] television, fundamentally, there is too much product. And with the exception of subscription video, on-demand, most of the backend is disappearing. So you're seeing the economics of television getting squeezed. And the movie business -- you're seeing ongoing continued growth internationally and seeing digital growth. There are pretty decent tailwinds for the movie business.


Emma Thomas and Marc Platt

And yet it's said that return on investment is something like 7 percent a year for a studio.

CHERNIN Well, it's never been great. If you look at studio economics as a whole, studio margins on average are probably about 7 or 8 percent. You have a couple of guys doing it at the 2 percent range; you have a couple guys, historically Warners and Fox, doing it in the high-teen range. High-teen range is not a bad return on investment.

Did investor Daniel Loeb make the right decision by pulling out of Sony?

CHERNIN I'm not convinced that these things lend themselves well to activist shareholders. They're hard to manage, and Dan's view is purely quick financial gain. [But] the fundamental financials are pretty decent, [and] the film business also has one huge advantage: The technology [elsewhere] has tended to disaggregate products. Technology disaggregated the album, and the music business [previously had] made most of its money by [saying], if you wanted to buy one song, you had to go buy an album. The movie business doesn't have anything to be disaggregated. People don't want to watch one act -- they want to watch the whole movie. And so that economic value is there. Costs are an issue, but I actually think the industry has done a pretty good job on production [though] a terrible job on marketing costs. The industry needs to drastically improve the efficiency of its marketing.

How?

ERIC FELLNER By being braver.

CHERNIN There's an enormous amount of data available that wasn't available five or 10 years ago. Most people are buying tickets online, watching trailers online, purchasing DVD copies online. You can identify who those people are. And the business could be much more efficient identifying a core group. We're all spending marketing [dollars to get] 90 percent awareness, and 70 percent of those people are never going to the movies.

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Steven Spielberg and George Lucas warned about massive investments in franchises. Are the studios right to make all these franchise films?

PLATT They seem to be, because so many are working, and it becomes the culture of filmgoers: "I want the next one and then the next one and the next one." Look at something like Fast & Furious at Universal. I don't see any end in sight. But if they keep delivering to an audience, it seems like a smart business.

Emma, would you go back into a franchise film?

THOMAS If it was the right franchise film. Everyone puts their franchise movies into one box and treats them as if they're all the same thing, but the future of the franchises is allowing them to be their own thing and not all trying to imitate each other. That's the true danger for the theatrical experience.

CHERNIN We certainly had that experience with Planet of the Apes, which was sort of a loony concept, and we didn't know whether it would work when we did the first one. But the studio gave us enormous latitude to try and do a different kind of franchise movie. It's a reasonably thoughtful franchise movie. It's got issues involved -- really hard to pull off. When we did the first movie, we spent the entire budget before we knew whether it would work. We had yet to see a shot of a CG-photo-realistic ape that could walk and act. And so we took this enormous leap. We edited the entire movie down from three hours and 40 minutes to two hours and 10 minutes without seeing a single shot of an ape. Just guys in gray pajamas with dots on their faces. No one had ever done photo-realistic, sentient animals.


Cathleen Sutherland and John Lesher

You've done St. Vincent, which is a low-budget, very independent film. You've got Exodus, which is not. Is the role of the producer the same on both films?

CHERNIN Sure. The role of the producer is to will these things into happening and then to protect them and to make them as good as you possibly can and to package them appropriately. Particularly, I spent an enormous time on marketing, which I think is a real producer's role.

Marc, what was your toughest decision as a studio head?

PLATT A film called Philadelphia. The movie is about homophobia and about AIDS; the epidemic was a very forbidden topic. And I made it at TriStar, a company that's owned by Sony, and there were many cultures in the world, particularly in Asia, where homosexuality was in the closet. I was told it wouldn't get distributed at all in Asia because of the subject matter. [The film did make it into some Asian markets, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.]

Could you make the decision to ignore China today?

FELLNER The market isn't at a point yet where you can go, "We know we're going to be able to generate X revenue from this," because you may not get a release. You may not get a slot. It's fool's gold. It's got to be icing, not the cake.

THOMAS I completely agree. In all of our conversations [about] marketing, we spend more and more time talking about China, and there's less and less certainty, frankly, about whether we're ever going to get released there. They might pull your movie two weeks into your run for all sorts of reasons that don't have anything to do with your film. Inception was released there and was very successful. The Dark Knight was not released there; there were some sensitive story issues that we knew were going to get cut out, and we didn't want to put out a film that had been cut to shreds. You know, you have no control. It's not like you make the cuts; they make the cuts. We had a piece of the story set in Hong Kong, and we knew that would probably come up.

FELLNER The only film we made that could have been a huge hit in China was Johnny English, because they love Rowan Atkinson. But we stupidly set the story in Hong Kong, and it wasn't very pro-China, so it never got a release there.

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Has Boyhood been released in China?

CATHLEEN SUTHERLAND I believe so. We did actually get banned in a couple of Middle Eastern countries because we weren't family-oriented enough. Kuwait was one of them. A little too much underage drinking and all of that.

PLATT But what's liberating about being a producer is: Your first thought can just be, "Here's a project I want to invest my time in." You're not shackled by, "It has to perform here or there."

I can't imagine that Into the Woods was an easy film to get financed.

PLATT It wasn't because it's a sophisticated musical that isn't well-known. But when there's a challenging film like that, what I say to the head of a studio -- in this case, [Disney's] Alan Horn -- is: "Give me a box. Tell me the people who have to be in it and name the price. If you give me the box, I at least have the opportunity to try and deliver." And that's what happened. The box was a very limited budget. It had to have certain castmembers -- Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. And what I [also said] to Alan was, "There is no way you want Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk to go to another studio, particularly a studio that has a theme park." And they stood by it and were wonderful partners.

What's the conversation when you have a film like Interstellar, which is roughly a $250 million investment, including marketing? You've got three different companies involved.

THOMAS It was an amazingly smooth process. Originally the project belonged to Paramount. And we had a great deal of loyalty to [Warners]. So when we became involved, we asked Paramount if it would be possible to share the project with Warners. On this film and on Inception, we were on a very tight schedule, and so what we were saying to them was, "Look, we haven't done a budget yet. We know what we think this film should cost." And we gave them a number. We said: "This is going to be the worst-case scenario. We're going to try and [make it] for less." I don't know if Paramount would have done that, but luckily they had Warner Bros. saying, "It's OK. They said that to us on Inception too, and they came in significantly under."

You were in an unusual situation, working with your husband. At what point can you say no?

THOMAS It's definitely a collaborative process. I don't think I ever say, "No, you absolutely can't have that," because he's Chris Nolan, and I'd be crazy!

FELLNER A lot of us work with big directors. And this idea of telling them what to do, I mean, it's kind of ridiculous. Of course you have opinions, and of course you have to have ways of disseminating them. But our job is to make it happen and have it be as brilliant as it can be. And then do all the other stuff that they don't want to do, the marketing, the distribution, the financing, all of that stuff. [But] the thing that I love about being a film producer is that when Tim [Bevan, Fellner's partner] and I decide to put all our attention onto something, we can make something happen. And at the end of the day, there will be something onscreen, all around the world. And that is kind of gorgeous.

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When you're in those marketing stages, do audience previews help?

THOMAS We don't [use a company like NRG Research for] screenings, but it's a massively important part of our process, screening the movie for an audience [of family and friends], sitting in a room with 200 people, feeling where they're shifting in their seats and when they're going to the bathroom. Once you have more than 50 people in a room, they become a sort of unit.

What did you change in Interstellar based on their reaction?

THOMAS Mostly pacing.

LESHER Or if something is confusing.

PLATT Sometimes tonally there's a shift somewhere that you weren't aware of.

SUTHERLAND We were looking for a title, because in the beginning we really weren't sure what our title was going to be. We were always called The Untitled 12-Year Project [until] I pulled out my iPhone and there's some movie called 12 Years a Slave in production. The film could have been Motherhood, but Boyhood was also our company name. I wouldn't know what else to call it now.

Cathleen, you had the opposite situation from Interstellar: You had very little money. SUTHERLAND The commitment was there from IFC, and it wasn't a huge amount of money. In the end, they were risking $2.4 million. We had a $200,000 budget every year that never increased, even with inflation. Our biggest challenge was just keeping that going. It was kind of a surprise when we finished.

LESHER Did you edit it as you went along?

SUTHERLAND Yes. [Director Richard Linklater] did an edit every year, and then he would occasionally go back and do a re-edit. It's not like you're handed one script; it was, "Hey, next year, what's the scenario going to be?" Everything was in Rick's head.

FELLNER Were there set times every two years to shoot?

SUTHERLAND That was another issue. Patricia [Arquette] was on [NBC's] Medium. Rick had other films in between. Ethan [Hawke] was doing tons of projects. The kids were the easiest thing, 'cause they were just kids. We had a small crew -- probably 45 a day, you know?

FELLNER Like on Titanic!

With Birdman, what was the toughest decision?

LESHER No one wanted us to cast Michael Keaton, who we absolutely thought was the only person with whom we could make the movie. He just had the authority and the ability to navigate between comedy and drama in a very unique way, and fortunately we cast a great ensemble.

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What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given in terms of film?

THOMAS I used to be Eric's assistant. I don't know if they ever gave me any advice, but I got to watch the way they worked, and that was all I needed. They've always trusted their material. And they spent a lot of time making the script right.

LESHER As an agent, all the advice I learned was about how to be a good agent. But when you're working on a movie, it's like, put the best team together. Put the best band together so that they can challenge each other and do it with love. You know, I made this film at Warners. The executive there, Greg Silverman, said right before we started shooting, "Take some chances and be bold." I love that.

CHERNIN The funniest advice I ever got was when I took over the studio, and I didn't know what I was doing. I'd come from the TV business, and everybody's like, "Oh, this TV idiot," etc. And Thom Mount, who had been a really big executive at Universal, called me up and said: "The key to whether or not you're successful in this job is whether you get lucky with somebody else's movie in the first year, because it's going to take three years for your own movies to be ready. If you don't get lucky with somebody else's movie, you'll get fired before you get there." It's actually great advice about running a studio, because it takes three, four years to put your stamp on it. And you get fired before you get a chance if something lucky doesn't happen. And then Home Alone 2 came out like six months later.

FELLNER I heard it was your movie.

CHERNIN It was not my movie! Absolutely not my movie.

Last question: There was a Japanese film called Afterlife, whose premise is that you're allowed to take one memory with you to the next life. What would it be?

THOMAS My one memory goes way back to when we made a film called Following, which we made on weekends over the course of a year. During the week, I was at Working Title, and Chris had a day job. And it was super-low-budget, $6,000. It's locked away, but this was the first proper film we made, and we managed to get it into the San Francisco Film Festival. We had to raise this other $6,000 for the print. And the first time we ever watched that print was in the cinema with the audience. And I will never, ever forget that screening.

SUTHERLAND Mine is being at Sundance and just the whole vibe of everybody around you. I was sitting there, crying.

LESHER I remember David O. Russell came over to my house. My girlfriend at the time made dinner for us all, and halfway through dinner we couldn't find David. And he was tucked away, sleeping in our bed.

FELLNER My first film, Sid and Nancy, got selected for Cannes. And about 500 punks came down from Paris, and they rioted and smashed all the windows and the doors, and the riot police had to be called. And I thought, "I love the film business!"

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