The Producers Roundtable
Playing studio politics, solving problems, telling actors about bad box office -- top players talk about their typical day at the office
What’s the secret to becoming a top film producer? The Hollywood Reporter invited six diverse and accomplished producing talents -- Iain Canning (The King’s Speech), Christian Colson (127 Hours), Michael De Luca (The Social Network), Graham King (The Town), Mike Medavoy (Black Swan, Shutter Island) and Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter) -- to Siren Studios in Hollywood on Oct. 25 for a discussion moderated by THR’s Matthew Belloni and Stephen Galloway.
The Hollywood Reporter: What’s the toughest decision you’ve made as a producer?
Michael De Luca: Telling the truth about how poorly we were going to do [at the box office] to someone who was really involved in a movie that I produced on the weekend it was bombing. Do I have to say what movie?
De Luca: I have to take the fifth. But one of the hardest things I had to do was tell the truth about what was going to happen on Monday morning. That’s not fun.
THR: It was one of the performers?
De Luca: Yes, who had multiple roles. You know, two years of someone’s life can springboard into greatness on Monday or really come to a screeching halt. It’s a lot of responsibility for everyone involved, but having to be the bearer of certain reality-based bad news I find really hard to do.
Mark Wahlberg: At least you’re willing to tell them. I’ve gotten a call on Friday afternoon: “Listen, we’re doing great in the matinees. I’ll call you after 11 o’clock.” And the phone never rings again. That’s why with me, as an actor or as a producer, you always want to go out there and make the best possible movie you can, and you have to simply let go and move on to the next thing.
THR: Which matters to you most, acting or producing?
Wahlberg: In this case [with The Fighter], producing because the only way I could get the movie made was by taking on that responsibility.
Mike Medavoy: And the risk, by the way.
Wahlberg: And the risk. I just felt like it was a movie I had to make. I made a commitment and a promise to the person I was portraying in the movie, to their family. And the most difficult thing for me to do was say: “You know what, I tried to be open to everybody else’s ideas and input. [But] going down that path, it just wasn’t working, so I just needed to take over the whole thing.”
THR: Why did The Fighter take four years to make?
Wahlberg: There were so many different challenges. We had a different filmmaker; we had a different cast. The studio only wanted to make it a certain way, with certain co-stars with a certain budget. When those things kind of fell apart, we started going down a road with different filmmakers, and those things weren’t working out either, so I just said to them, with [producers David] Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, “Let’s go and take this out of Paramount and find independent financing.” There were times [the studio] was offering the part to a guy who wasn’t necessarily right for the part, but he had another hit movie and he just had success at the box office. And I said: “This isn’t really that kind of movie. You have to have the right guys in the right part, and I think we can make something special.”
THR: How much are you prepared to fight a studio?
Wahlberg: I’ll fight them as long as I don’t push them over the edge and they’re not on your side anymore. I took the movie out of Paramount, and the movie ended up back at Paramount. It’s just as much their movie as it is my movie, and we want them to be as enthusiastic about the project and have their full support.
THR: What was your toughest day on that film during the four years?
Wahlberg: Actually shooting the fight scenes in the three days that we had to shoot them. We were so down the road with one filmmaker, and we were literally ready to say, “OK, you got the job,” and he was like, “Listen, I know we only have 33 days to shoot the movie, but I think we need 30 days to shoot the fights, so let’s just start the movie and we’ll figure that out.” I was like, “You had the job -- what are you doing?” But I always felt that we could shoot the fights in one day, so I went to HBO and used my relationship with them [from producing Entourage and Boardwalk Empire]: “I want to shoot the fights like you guys shoot a pay-per-view fight. I want all your cameras, your operators.” HBO was kind enough to lend us their support. We obviously wouldn’t have been able to make the movie if we didn’t.
THR: Graham, you come from a different background in finance. How was the job of producing different than what you expected?
Graham King: I think it [gave me] a big leg up because even now, when I read a script, I think, “How much can this do in Japan or Germany?” I’m not just making the movies, but I’m financing them as well. I’m not waiting for the studios to greenlight.
THR: Have you ever financed anything you thought would not make money?
King: I’m never going to say that. (Laughs.) I hope I’m not working two or three years or even four with some of the directors I work with to have that happen. But I’m in the hands of the studio. Mark was just saying how important [the studio relationship] is. It’s even more important when you’re writing the check and letting them release it. I’m extremely hands-on for every poster, TV spot, everything, because at the end of the day, that’s what the success of the movie is going to come down to: Is it marketed right? Especially when you’re spending $100 million or $125 million on a movie.
THR: How much does each studio have its own brand in terms of personality and taste?
Medavoy: I’ve probably been here longer than most of you, and I’ve seen all the changes that have occurred over the years. When I first started, Warners was almost out of business. Even as we’re sitting here, I’m sure there are changes that are going on that will determine which way this all will go. But in the final analysis, every picture that I’ve been involved with that won an Academy Award -- and there are seven of them -- only one of them was a picture that everybody didn’t turn down. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was turned down by everybody, in particular because of the ending.
THR: Could you make that film today?
Medavoy: You probably could. I think people would go see it. You make a really good movie that hits the zeitgeist of the moment, they’ll come. But then it goes to the other issues, which I’m sure all of us share: What’s it going to cost? How much is going to be spent on P&A? We pretty much know what the metrics are. It’s $12.5 million [in marketing budget] per quadrant. So if you got a four-quadrant movie, you got [to spend] $50 million.
THR: Is there one passion project you haven’t been able to get made? Mike, you have that shelved World War II movie, Shanghai, that was made but hasn’t been released by the Weinstein Co.
Medavoy: The Shanghai project. I sold that 12 years ago to Harvey. He gave me so much money. He said, “Hey, I’m going to give you all this money to do it.” Then I watched him do some stuff that made me cringe. He had Johnny Depp to do the movie but wouldn’t pay him the money. He basically made enemies out of all the Chinese people. It’s hard to make enemies out of a billion people. (Laughs.)
Christian Colson: I’m selling my current passion project to Harvey, so keep talking.
Iain Canning: He has my current project! (Laughs.)
Medavoy: I have a lot of good things to say about Harvey, which include the fact that I really think he loves making movies and telling stories. But that’s not my issue in this particular case. Because I was raised in Shanghai at this period, I always thought it would make an interesting picture. We’re all only making movies; we’re not curing cancer or anything like that.
THR: Iain, how involved has Harvey been with The King’s Speech?
Canning: In terms of day to day, we got on well with him and just made the film.
THR: Did he finance it completely?
Canning: No, he bought North America and select territories but was a big part of the film. People were telling us it shouldn’t be made because [period films are] too expensive. We just really believed in that story.
THR: What was the biggest challenge in getting that movie made? Did you have to compromise on the budget?
Canning: Yes, absolutely, but we also had scheduling excitements in the sense that we had four weeks to close the financing because Geoffrey [Rush] was in a play, so he had to be shot in 3 1/2 weeks. And we only had Helena [Bonham Carter] on weekends because she was doing Harry Potter.
THR: Mike, did you think The Social Network was a commercial movie?
De Luca: Dana [Brunetti] was nice enough to bring me The Accidental Billionaires proposal, and upon reading it I don’t think either of us saw commerciality at first. We thought: “Wow, we like this story. It’s about two college kids who managed to revolutionize communications and become billionaires but really put their friendship through the ringer. That seems like really rich, dramatic, fertile territory.” [Sony’s] Doug Belgrad and Elizabeth Cantillon also saw the potential in the proposal. Then Amy Pascal said: “Scott Rudin, who is also working with Aaron Sorkin, is trying to find material on that subject matter. Would we all want to team up?” And we said, “Absolutely.” It’s hard to say no to Rudin and Sorkin falling into your lap.
THR: Scott and Harvey are 800-pound gorillas. How do you define your role as a producer when you’re working with someone like that?
De Luca: I took a deferential position. I respect Scott’s pedigree. He’s worked with this kind of material for decades. Even though I have been in the business for a long time, I’m just beginning my producing career. He brought Sorkin with him, and they had a very close working relationship, so we kind of let Scott do his thing with the screenplay. Then, in a ridiculously short amount of weeks, Aaron produced the first draft that was sort of a product of Sorkin and Rudin.
Medavoy: Who dealt with David [Fincher] every day?
De Luca: Once Fincher came aboard, Fincher has a partner, Cean Chaffin, so between Scott presiding over casting and Dana and I -- I know, it’s so silly -- our notes were, “This is great; let’s just go make this.” That was our contribution to the script.
Medavoy: If you think [Rudin is] a 400-pound gorilla, David is an 800-pound gorilla.
De Luca: Because it was such a dream team, David agreed to do the movie for the price that Sony felt comfortable with, and everyone agreed to reduce [their fees].
THR: Was the budget $40 million?
De Luca: Yes, is that what they are saying to you? Because I’ll back that up. $40 [million]-ish. (Laughs.)
THR: Does that mean $50 million?
De Luca: No, it doesn’t mean that.
Wahlberg: It means under $80 million. (Laughs.)
THR: Speaking of Fincher, we’re in an environment where the director is the auteur. Can a producer put a stamp on a picture?
Wahlberg: Oh sure. First of all, I worked with David [O. Russell] twice, and I knew by working with David I would be able to control a lot of the creative elements in the movie, as opposed to working with someone I had no relationship with. He had a clear understanding that I knew that world better than anybody -- those characters, that world. It was basically, how can he help me make the best possible version of the movie? What he brought to the table is what I think he does better than most people: He brought humor to dark subject matter and an emotional level that I don’t think many other filmmakers could have captured. A lot of people were very interested in doing the movie, but I think it would have been very one-dimensional. Originally at Paramount, it was a $40 million budget. We probably spent half that.
Canning: I think your taste can be the most important element of that. And what you choose to do and choose not to do.
Wahlberg: It’s also [being] willing to take all the responsibility if the movie is not a success, and I don’t think too many people want to do that.
THR: Responsibility because you’re starring, too?
Wahlberg: Because I’m starring in it, too, and I’m kind of the one pushing all the buttons. I basically went and begged, please allow me, when John Lesher, at the time, was at Paramount. And Brad Weston. John had been one of my agents for a long time. I was like: “Dude, we worked together for a long time. You were so responsible for all the success I’ve had. Please allow me to make the kind of movie that I want. And by the way, you guys aren’t financing it anymore, so please let me make this with David and Christian [Bale].”
Colson: Going back to that question of producers putting stamps on movies, I think you have to earn your influence. Certainly most of the directors that we’re working with have final cut. So if you are to have an influence, you have to earn it. You earn it through trust, transparency, good notes. Not stupid notes.
De Luca: A lot of times, influence happens when things are getting put together, like your vote on what draft goes to the studio. Your vote on what director to select and go to has an influence. That becomes the DNA of the eventual project.
King: It depends on the studio, like Mark just said, giving you total freedom. I had this script sitting on my desk, and [Ben Affleck] comes in and says, “I want to rewrite the script, direct it and star in it.” It was something I hadn’t foreseen him doing. I hadn’t worked with someone who directed and played the main lead. [That was my] biggest worry on that project by far: Can Ben direct this movie and star in it? It’s not a movie about guys sitting around a room; it’s huge set pieces.
Medavoy: There are some studios, by the way, that are easier to work with. Sony, for example, will allow the filmmakers to make the movie they want to make.
De Luca: I was a student of Mike’s history -- at Orion, certainly. The idea of collecting filmmakers you trust and have gotten you home from the dance before.
THR: Iain, to get King’s Speech made, how much did you have to trim the budget from your ideal?
Canning: Millions from the ideal. It was a $13 million film. That’s what we made it for.
THR: What did you have to lose to make that?
Wahlberg: Trailers. (Laughs.)
De Luca: It’s always a race against time.
Medavoy: Black Swan was the same thing. We had a $30 million budget. We brought it down to $16.2 million. You know, it’s amazing how sharp you get when it’s a question of whether you are going to get it done or not. Quite frankly, Darren Aronofsky is the guy who really made that movie. We bought the original material, we put the pieces together with him, and after that, it’s his movie. I just happen to have my name on it.
THR: Christian, where did you and Danny Boyle have disagreements? Did you want him to bring Simon Beaufoy in as a co-writer?
Colson: It was a joint decision. He didn’t really want to write it. He’s never written anything before. [But] so much of the approach to the movie was in his head. Simon said, “Danny, you’re going to have to write the first draft because I can’t see your vision yet.” So he had a miserable summer. He called me every 10 minutes to say nothing.
THR: So you’re close friends?
Colson: I wouldn’t say we were friends. We don’t hang around each other’s houses. We’re close working friends. And we were super in-the-trenches for Slumdog [Millionaire]. That was a tough movie to make.
THR: What is the worst thing you’ve done to get a movie made?
King: Can we get these [cameras] out of the room? (Laughs.)
Medavoy: I don’t think that question is a good question.
Wahlberg (to De Luca): I was thinking back to Boogie Nights. Did I have to do something to get that part? (Laughs.)
De Luca: The studios seem like they want to see you act like you’d fall on your sword to get something made, because they respect that kind of passion. Half-measures don’t really work. I was a little unprepared for how often I have to look like I’m going to fall on a sword in today’s environment, but I think they want to see the passion and advocacy and the feeling that there’s no going back for you.
Colson: You don’t have to do anything actively malevolent in order to prove that.
THR: Mike, how did being an executive help you prepare for the job of producer?
De Luca: I have a sense of how tortured the decisions can be on the other side. I always try to keep in mind that someone’s job is on the line if the movie doesn’t work. It’s not fun to sit around those tables with profit-and-loss statements and having to go through your flops.
THR: Would you go back to being an executive?
De Luca: Now that I have a child, the idea of having a steady paycheck interests me more than it did two years ago. So I’m not saying I wouldn’t entertain it, but no one ever looked at me as a corporate type, so I don’t think I make it on those lists [of potential studio execs] anymore. Maybe when I’m 60, off in my private vineyard, someone will call me.
THR: Mark, what are your goals?
Wahlberg: I want to run a studio. (Laughs.) I want the jet, man. No, I found producing through making television, and I thought it was the best thing I ever discovered aside from acting. This is what I want to do.
THR: What’s the long-term plan?
Wahlberg: Every day, I don’t know what side of the bed I wake up on. I want to continue to produce films, find the right material and make movies that I think people will want to see me in or that I think people would want to see, period. Having four kids now and being away on location -- I’m going to do two movies at the beginning of this year. I hadn’t made a movie for over a year, so it’s kind of weird saying, “OK, I’m going to move to another city again for that length of time.” My family will travel with me, but I like the idea of controlling my own destiny. Now the things I do, if they don’t work out, I don’t have to blame anybody but myself.
THR: Would you give up acting to produce full time?
Wahlberg: Possibly. It depends. I think after not working for a year, I’m anxious to get back out there and to act again, but after going and making two films, I look forward to being at home and minding my business.
Medavoy: Would you try directing?
Wahlberg: I’ve thought about it. I would definitely not want to direct a film that I was acting in. I was watching Ben closely when he did Gone Baby Gone. His wife mentioned he was interested in me doing it, and I said: “Well, it’s his first movie. I don’t know.”
Medavoy: Clint Eastwood has done it. Burt Reynolds did it.
Wahlberg: [George] Clooney’s done it.
King: Angelina Jolie’s doing it right now.
THR: The films Clint has directed are so different than the image he created as an actor.
Medavoy: He started out in a television series and then he couldn’t get a job, and the only way he worked was when United Artists started to make movies in Europe. Westerns. Think about that.
De Luca: Wasn’t Dirty Harry going to be Frank Sinatra?
Medavoy: It started off with Steve McQueen. Then it went between Marlon Brando and Sinatra. And Terry Malick, who had rewritten the script and had gone up to see [original director] Irvin Kirshner and Marlon said, “OK, I’ll do the movie.” They were so excited, and then I got the phone call saying, “Listen, we’re going with Clint.”
THR: How are people going to perceive this era of film in 20 or 30 years?
Colson: It will be the era of animation.
Medavoy: Pixar has changed the face of movies. They operate exactly the way we used to operate at UA and Orion. They basically work in-house. They have a campus.
De Luca: We are looking at an era of the superstar director, I think -- James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg.
Medavoy: I’ve heard it at Paramount, where they say, “Either bring us an A-level director or someone who’s unknown.”
THR: What’s the single most important thing that makes a superstar producer?
Medavoy: Is there such a thing?