Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald on New 'Malala' Doc, Feminist Barbie and a Revived 'Men in Black' (Sans Will Smith)

“It’s really awful as a producer in terms of your ability to control something or feel appreciated in that position. It’s a somewhat thankless job,” says Laurie MacDonald, photographed with Walter Parkes on Aug. 31 in their Santa Monica offices.
Tommy Garcia

The veteran Oscar-winning producers ('American Beauty,' 'Gladiator') on the move into financing (for Tom Hanks' 'The Circle'), the state of their former home DreamWorks and life these days for studio executives: "It's so much worse now."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In 2013, married producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald locked down one of the hottest literary properties on the market: a 14-page book proposal from the still-recuperating Malala Yousafzai, whose story of surviving a Taliban gun attack sparked worldwide attention. But rather than making a traditional biopic about the Pakistani teen, the duo's 12-employee Parkes + MacDonald enlisted Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) to tackle her journey from local activist to Nobel Peace Prize laureate as a documentary. Parkes, 64, and MacDonald, 61, have earned the right to buck conventional wisdom. In 27 years of making movies together, they helped shepherd three consecutive best picture Oscar winners with American Beauty, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind and served as Steven Spielberg's top execs at DreamWorks in its heyday. To finance the documentary, the Santa Monica-based parents of two adult children found a ready ally in their Image Nation Abu Dhabi partners (Parkes + MacDonald launched a $10 million development fund with Abu Dhabi in 2010 that extends through 2019). It's the first film under their partnership that Abu Dhabi also financed. THR caught up with the pair at the Toronto Film Festival, where He Named Me Malala screened ahead of its Oct. 2 release by Fox Searchlight.

When you first acquired the Malala book rights, did you see this as a narrative feature?

MACDONALD Absolutely. It was a 14-page proposal. The book wasn't even published yet. But it had such beautiful, classic, almost mythic narrative elements. I had been following this story so closely anyway, but until I read the [proposal], I didn't know how tragic, fascinating and remarkable this girl's story was. We flew to meet Malala and [her father] Zia for the first time in Birmingham [England], where she was still recovering from the gunshot and was still in physical therapy. We thought there could be a beautiful, small movie like The Kite Runner, which we made. [But] she was a 15-year-old girl at the time. We felt a tremendous sense of responsibility. Looking at someone that young going through this, we said, "Does she really need the added pressure of suddenly there's a movie being made about her?"

PARKES Yeah, I woke up and said, "Is this right?" Once you meet Malala, the idea of casting Malala becomes rather daunting or even impossible.

MACDONALD We went to Davis and asked him, "What do you think of this as a theatrical documentary?"

MacDonald bought this 1920s German sculpture for Parkes.

Was it difficult getting your partners at Abu Dhabi to sign on given the religious aspect of her story?

PARKES We have autonomy, but something like this you want your partners to feel good about. I started telling one of my partners, Mohamed Al Mubarak, why I thought it was a good idea to do the movie, and he literally stopped me midsentence and said: "Walter, you don't have to say anything else. She's everything our country stands for." And they just said yes.

MACDONALD We weren't even calling to say, "Will you finance this?" We were going to raise financing. But they said, "We want to finance it." We have a large development fund with them, but we usually partner with a studio.

PARKES Abu Dhabi had sent the plane to get her out of Pakistan, so there's this very close relationship. They're a very moderate country and very, very desirous of projecting an image of modernism. Our first preview was in Abu Dhabi because we wanted an Islamic audience.

Their dog Otis.

You've produced for decades, but with Tom Hanks' upcoming The Circle, you also are now a financier. How different is that?

PARKES About five years ago, because of the crash, we could see that the range of films that studios would develop was becoming more and more narrow. Our whole business has always been predicated on development. Plus, it was a time where DreamWorks was in an odd place where it wasn't putting out as many movies as could justify our deal. So the idea was, rather than going to Image Nation and asking for equity financing or funding, we got this $10 million revolving development fund, which we could use to acquire projects in partnership with studios. We just started thinking, "Could there be another model where we use those assets, and whatever creative assets we bring, to develop things to a point where you're not giving up all your rights or your control in the studio development deal?"

MACDONALD Then [we] decide where the best home is for it: whether it should be a studio, whether we pull together independent financing. Stay flexible. Malala and The Circle are two examples. Instead of making another studio deal, we decided to stay with Image Nation for another five years.

An actual crossbow from 'Gladiator.' Says Parkes: “A four-barreled crossbow pistol might be just a tad over-the-top, but with Ridley [Scott]’s pitch-perfect taste, it seems as real as it is stylish.”

Recalls Parkes: “Steven [Spielberg] and I were riffing on what to call the new studio. He wrote down “The Teamworks Company.” I wrote down “Dreamland.” He [then] wrote “DreamWorks."

DreamWorks is less active now than when you two ran it. What is your take on why?

PARKES The DreamWorks we helped start existed in a very different time in our business: Home video was booming, cable and streaming services weren't the competition they are now and the industry wasn't so dominated by franchise properties. It's harder for everybody now — but we have three active projects there, and by all indications they are aggressively pursuing an ambitious slate.

Does the fact that Spielberg also makes movies at other studios hinder DreamWorks?

MACDONALD It doesn't hinder it. It just speaks to the fact that development is very hard and takes time. He should be looking for the best material to direct. So the idea that he's directing outside of DreamWorks is not a problem.

PARKES The studio does not have intellectual property. We had to start from scratch [in 1995], and whatever came out of that ended up at Paramount. Right now it's sort of a studio with no library at a time when libraries seem to be the most valuable thing there is. We just did The Ring 3 — not for DreamWorks, but for Paramount [which owns the sequel rights].

Says Parkes, “My assistant/office manager/co-producer Riyoko Tanaka revealed yet another talent in having this mouse diorama of my office made for my birthday.”

You're making a film adaptation of the toy Barbie at Sony. Can she be embraced by feminists?

MACDONALD When she was created, a young girl's only choice was playing with a baby doll — what more says your only reason to be is to be a mother and take care of a baby? Barbie was independent. She was more feminist than we would think. Barbie can have 10 careers. So is that bad? We get Diablo Cody's script in two or three weeks, and we'll go from there.

As former studio execs, what do you think of the studio landscape now?

MACDONALD The stakes are so high. It's so much worse now, so much tougher to be a studio executive who feels they can get things done but also isn't ruffling feathers.

PARKES How about the fact that 70 percent of all their effort, time and money is going into a tiny handful of franchises? That's why we're making The Circle. That's a movie that would be made at a studio 10 years ago, in the same way that we wouldn't be able to make an American Beauty in a studio now.

“Since James Bond novels were pretty much the only books I read as a kid, it stands to reason that these are the only first editions I own,” says Parkes. “The Richard Chopping covers are the real draw.”

You produced Men in Black. Has there been talk of reviving that franchise with the new Sony regime?

PARKES We're in the middle of it. It's very active.

Is Will Smith going to be part of it?

PARKES Most likely no.

MACDONALD It will be reinvented as a trilogy.

“Malala sent us a copy of her Nobel Prize,” says Parkes. “Of all the things we’ve ever received, that was the most amazing."

Sony has Concussion on Dec. 25, but you have an NFL head-injury project at HBO. Is that dead now?

PARKES They kind of beat us to the punch.

MACDONALD It was such a good script. I hate to talk about it. But who knows?

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