Nurturing pics quite a production

PGA noms from varied backgrounds have hard work in common

"Producing is not a privilege. Producing is a profession," Vance Van Petten, executive director of the Producers Guild of America, said as the sixth annual PGA Nominees Breakfast panel got under way Saturday at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

The confab, which united producers from the five films nominated for the PGA's Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award, illustrated his contention as each of the nominees described the time, money and effort spent bringing their eclectic group of spotlighted films to the screen.

The producers represented a cross section of the film industry. David Friendly, representing the five producers on "Little Miss Sunshine," appeared as a studio-based producer making a foray into the indie world. Graham King, an established producer of big-budget indie fare, took on a studio project with Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed." Laurence Mark, producer of "Dreamgirls," described himself as happy to be a studio guy. Steve Golin of "Babel" represented an indie producer who in this case turned to a studio specialty division along with international financing. And Andy Harries — a television executive with Great Britain's Granada — spoke of moving into film production with "The Queen."

In a discussion led by Paula Parisi, vp and executive editor at The Hollywood Reporter, which sponsored the event along with ReelzChannel and Lufthansa, each man described how they nurtured their projects to life.

In the case of "Queen," Harries said inspiration struck him as he watched how the actors at the first read-through of Granada's last episode in the "Prime Suspect" series approached Helen Mirren as if she herself was royalty. Harries had served as executive producer on the 2003 telefilm "The Deal," written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears, which documented Prime Minister Tony Blair's rise to power in his party, and he immediately suggested the idea to them about doing a film about Queen Elizabeth, starring Mirren. "Queen," he said, is part of a trilogy about the Blair era that the filmmakers would like to make, though they haven't identified the subject of the third installment.

From the start, Harries, along with fellow producer Christine Langan, saw "Queen" as a film rather than a project for TV. With backing from Granada Film Prods. and Pathe Pictures International, which took most world rights though not North America, the $10 million production did alert the palace of its intentions. Harries, who insisted "we didn't set out to make an anti-monarchist film," spoke with the Queen's press office, where a representative told him, "We don't have a comment to make at all. It's just not of any interest to Her Majesty."

The filmmakers, however, did take advantage of the fact that the Queen's Balmoral Estate in Scotland rents out holiday cottages, and so they actually spent time there while researching the project. The film ultimately was acquired for U.S. distribution by Miramax Films, whose new head, Daniel Battsek, quietly approached longtime acquaintance Harries about the rights even before being officially installed at Miramax.

Underscoring the importance of relationships, Mark attributed his involvement in "Dreamgirls" to a "lucky Rolodex." When he learned that friend Bill Condon, hot off his Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Chicago," had long harbored an interest in adapting the Broadway musical "Dreamgirls" for the screen, Mark set up a lunch with DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen, who owned the rights.

The film initially was set up as a DreamWorks/Warners co-production. But when the budget came in at $74 million, Warners, which only wanted to go as high as $60 million, dropped out, and Paramount Pictures entered as co-producer. When Paramount subsequently beat Universal Pictures to buy DreamWorks, Mark breathed a sigh of relief that only two companies would be involved in the film — and not a potential three. "I already felt like the head waiter at Morton's," he joked.

The changes at Paramount also figured in the fortunes of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel," which Golin and his business partner John Kilik assembled through their Anonymous Content. "We wanted to get a U.S. distributor straight off the bat," Golin said of the $25 million production. He found a receptive buyer in Brad Grey, who had just been named chairman at Paramount, which took rights to English and Spanish-speaking territories. (Summit Entertainment sold the remaining territories.)

As the production proceeded, Inarritu's agent at Endeavor, John Lesher, was named president at Paramount Vantage, which released the film domestically. Describing Inarritu's unorthodox approach to casting — the director, for example, decided to cast a tech guy who came in to service the office computers as the tour guide on the bus in the movie's Moroccan section — Golin said, "One of our biggest challenges was making sure the casting got done in all these different parts of the world."

Casting, on the other hand, was one of the easiest aspects of mounting the crime thriller "Departed," King said. The project had been developed at Grey and Brad Pitt's Plan B production company, and after "The Aviator," Martin Scorsese decided he wanted to film it as his next movie and invited "Aviator" collaborators King and Leonardo DiCaprio aboard. Matt Damon was the next to join the team, and, according to King, both DiCaprio and Damon went to Scorsese together and asked him to decide which of the two main parts they should play. "Casting a Scorsese film is a charm for a producer," King said. "All the actors come to you."

With backing for the project from Warners, where he now has a deal, King also bought several territories himself so that he could keep his hand in the international sales game.

Friendly became involved in "Sunshine" when producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa bought him and his Deep River Prods. partner, Marc Turtletaub, the original screenplay by Michael Arndt — they later also would introduce him to the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

The producers took the screenplay to every studio and specialty division in town but found no buyers even though the screenplay was enthusiastically received. Over and over, Friendly said, they were told the screenplay was "execution dependent," leading him to ask, "Well, what movie is not execution dependent?"

Ultimately, Turtletaub, who had started a new company, Big Beach Films, with partner Peter Saraf, provided the financing for the off-beat comedy, which cost less than $8 million and was acquired at last year's Sundance Film Festival by Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $10.5 million.

"When you keep getting rejected, the hard part is keeping up the drive to get the movie made," Friendly said, summing up the perseverance that producing requires. "The ability to trust your own instincts and believe in your taste is difficult to face in the face of rejection."

The payoff in his case: "Sunshine" has grossed nearly $60 million domestically and, on Saturday night, its producers were called to the stage at the PGA's awards dinner to accept the Producer of the Year award.
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