So you're a producer? What exactly do you do?
EmptyProducer perspective: Although everyone knows what writers, directors and actors contribute to making a film, exactly what producers do is confusing because it varies greatly.
While producer credits have proliferated in recent years as a way to reward investors or accommodate those who own the rights necessary to bring a property to the screen, there still are so-called "working producers" who actually shepherd films through all the challenging stages of development and production it takes to get a movie made.
A case in point is Jon Shestack, who with Brad Epstein produced the comedy "Dan in Real Life," directed by Peter Hedges and starring Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche, which opened in second place last weekend via Disney. Written by Pierce Gardner and Hedges, it was executive produced by Noah Rosen and Darlene Caamano Loquet and Marijo Winkler-Joffreda.
For some perspectives on producing films these days I caught up recently with Shestack, a movie and television producer with a first look deal at New Line Cinema. Earlier in his career, Shestack worked on the studio side of the moviemaking fence as president of production at Artisan Entertainment and as executive vp, production and development at Beacon Communications. Among his producing credits are Beacon's "Air Force One," October Films' "The Last Seduction" and Beacon and MGM's "Disturbing Behavior."
Shestack's upcoming productions include "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" for New Line, starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner, and for the Weinstein Co. "Escape From Planet Earth," the animated follow up from the writer-directors of TWC's "Hoodwinked." He also was the production executive on such films as "Family Man," "End of Days," "Bring It On" and "13 Days."
"There really are several types of producers," Shestack explained, "but the type of producer that I am is the person who finds the material, who starts always from a script or an idea and then bit by bit starts adding the pieces (like) a studio deal and an actor and then a director and ultimately a green light. The sad thing is by the time all that is done sometimes many years have passed and really your essential work is done. The real thing a producer does is bring talented elements together and give them, hopefully, a big loving push and then someone else can take over."
How, for instance, did "Dan" come about? "For me, 'Dan' is unusual because I've been involved in a lot of movies and every one of these (other films) started out as a pitch," he told me. "This is maybe only the second (time) that I've ever been involved in a movie that started out as a spec script. (Another) new thing was that even though I'd known the writer, I'd heard about it from an Internet script tracking board. A lot of the younger development executives trade information with each other on these limited membership boards. It's a group of six people, 15 people, 20 people (or whatever), self-selected by interests, temperament and what generation they are and they share information. One of the things they share is information about what scripts are good, available or coming out that week from the agencies. 'Dan in Real Life' was a script that we heard about on a tracking board in the morning. By the afternoon we had called (about it).
"Even in the one line synopsis it sounded adorable. It just sounded like it was a sweet, positive movie. It probably said, 'A young widower on a family vacation falls in love with his brother's girlfriend.' It was something as minimal as that, but there was something that (was really appealing about it). I think it was initially set at the Jersey Shore and since I grew up in Philadelphia and spent many happy summers at the Jersey Shore, I felt like I had to read that. So that night we read it and submitted it. At the time it was Warner Bros. where our deal was. They passed. It seemed small for them. The very next day we submitted it to Disney to (then senior vp, production) Brad Epstein -- who when he left Disney became my producing partner on the movie -- and they bought it within a day. That's a very exciting experience, but truly in many years of doing this it almost never happened to me."
Usually, Shestack told me, "I start with a pitch that I refine for a long time and then we go in to the studios and make the rounds and the first place to buy it is (typically) the last place where you pitched it. And then you take it from there. But this movie moved very well. Disney had a deal on the table then with Peter Hedges to do a rewrite that was unfilled. Brad had worked with him before and was on that account. We gave the script to Peter with the hope that if he did a small rewrite on it he would fall in love with it and eventually want to direct it. That was the grand plan and, actually, it worked out. It's exactly what happened. It spoke to all the issues about family life and romance and the ability to chart a place for yourself that has integrity in the world. It spoke to everything that Peter cared about as a writer and as he worked on the script, he fell more and more in love with it and then ultimately said he would direct it.
"We were ecstatic because he had deals in other places. There was a picture he was supposed to do at Focus and in return for him not doing it they took foreign (distribution rights) on the movie. Nina Jacobson, who was the president of production (at Disney), loved Peter's draft and then we started going out to actors. It's not like we were geniuses, however. Steve Carell has been talented for a long time, but when we started talking to Steve 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' had not come out yet. We had seen the trailers for it and you could tell from those trailers that Steve had many different colors than what we had seen in 'Liar, Liar' and 'Anchorman' (and) that he clearly was a sweet and dramatic leading man. And then we went to the very early press screenings (of 'Virgin') and it was immediately clear that they were great. Peter took the train up to Boston and spent a long afternoon with Steve Carell and each of them left that afternoon feeling convinced that they should do this movie together."
After that, he added, "it was just easy as pie. I mean, the hardest thing was working out the schedule with 'The Office,' which kept changing all the time. Ultimately, Steve joined our show with no time for rehearsal and barely enough time just to work with the costume designer. He arrived on a Saturday in Rhode Island and we were shooting on Monday. This movie really was charmed. It is just a sweet movie and everyone involved in it sort of took their cue from that and had a wonderful disposition. Steve was exhausted for the first couple weeks, but it really worked out pretty well and happened quickly. I mean, the script was bought about three years ago and really the reason it took as long as it did is because we had to wait six or seven months for Steve."
On the other hand, he pointed out, "We have a movie we're doing at New Line with Matthew McConaughey and Jen Garner and Mark Waters directing that has taken just about six years to get off the ground."
Asked how that project came together and why it's taken so much longer than "Dan" to reach the screen, Shestack told me, "It was sold as a pitch by (screenwriters) Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. Nina Jacobson bought it (at Disney). When it came in it was recognized as the best first draft they had had in a long time and was pretty immediately green lit, but it was green lit with Ben Affleck and later Betty Thomas came on to direct. And at a critical moment, the studio decided that it was becoming an expensive comedy to make and they declined to go forward. We tried to put it back together several different times with many different actors (and) many different directors (but) we could never come up with the combination that worked out perfectly in terms of everybody's desire, budget and schedules. And yet it was clearly a charming script that was attracting (good talent). The people who flirted with us made us convinced that we were, indeed, attractive.
"It was at Disney all that time (but) never quite coming together. And then finally with extreme graciousness Disney let it go. New Line, who had been keeping tabs on it really for three years, snapped it up immediately for Matthew McConaughey, who's perfect casting, and for the director Mark Waters, who had wanted to do the movie five years ago and was always the perfect choice for it. And in the end, Ben Affleck is not doing it -- he's directing very good serious movies and, in fact, his very talented wife (Garner) is going to be co-starring in it with Matthew McConaughey. We feel pretty fortunate to have gotten that pairing."
What's the project's status at this point? "I was just scouting (locations) in Boston," Shestack said. "It's going to start (shooting) at the end of February. It's ridiculous to be proud of a movie before we've shot a single frame of film, but what I am so happy about is that the original writers who wrote the script, Lucas and Moore, are back on the project and ultimately they will be the only writers of record on the movie. I think that's really great because it was their initial vision that got everybody excited. Whenever possible I think it's better for the movie to stick with the original writers. I know there are other producers -- much more successful than I am -- who say, 'I make the best movies because I use the most writers.' But with the exception of bringing people into a roundtable (where comedy writers spend a day coming up with jokes), I think the movie stays closer to the initial vision that got everyone excited if you can try to (stay with) the original writer."
As another example of how he's worked as a producer, I asked Shestack to tell me about the origins of "Air Force One," Wolfgang Petersen's 1997 action thriller starring Harrison Ford as a U.S. president whose plane is hijacked while he and his family are on board. The film grossed about $173 million domestically and was the year's fifth biggest picture.
"'Air Force One' was a pitch with a story pitched by my friend Andrew Marlowe, who's a great writer ('End of Days,' starring Arnold Schwarzenegger)," he recalled. "It was really simple. It was like, 'Let's do a movie set on Air Force One where the president is not a stealer, is not a cheater (and) is, in fact, the president you wish you had, which is to say, a real hero.' I had just gone to Beacon at the time working for (chairman) Army Bernstein and we picked it up in a second. Early in the development process Army had said, 'This is a great idea. Air Force One is great. But can't we make it into the vice president? No one will ever believe it if it (is) the president.' And, happily, we talked him out of it. It was a pitch that we sent to Pat McQueeney (Patricia McQueeney, Harrison Ford's longtime manager, passed away in September 2005 at the age of 77), who read it overnight and knew within an instant that it should be Harrison's next movie and, indeed, it was. And that movie started production almost a year after it was initially pitched. It was amazingly fast. That was the fastest I've ever seen a movie go from an idea into production."
Asked how he feels about the issue of people being given producer credits who don't do all the things that Shestack, himself, does and that other leading producers do, he replied, "I have a somewhat contrarian feeling about it. I feel it's very important that people who deserve the credit get it, but I don't feel a stake in keeping people away from it. There are many ways who might deserve the credit and I don't feel we should be cheap about it. At the end of the day, it's really all about getting in the Academy, getting those DVDs sent (during the awards season) and it doesn't cost anything for there to be another credit. It costs $10 in typography costs. I'm much more concerned for the people who really deserve credit (and) who didn't get it than for the people who, perhaps, got a full producer credit when maybe some would say they shouldn't."
There are, of course, a number of high-profile producers who've been highly vocal about how producer credits should be doled out much more sparingly and who have influenced the Academy to restrict how many producers can come up to accept an Oscar should their film win best picture. It's not, however, a view that Shestack shares.
"I've got to say," he observed, "it's so much work to get a movie into production and to actually get a movie nominated and then into the Oscars that it just seems mean not to let everybody come up and wave to their mother."
Filmmaker flashbacks: From Feb. 16, 1990's column: "'The marketing and distribution of a picture today means more than ever before,' observes 20th Century Fox marketing and distribution president Tom Sherak. 'It's a cruel world out there. We've talked a lot about being in a different business sometimes than exhibitors. They're looking to move people through the theaters and we're looking to hold a picture on the screen. You have to be able to market and distribute pictures properly because you only get one chance at it...'
"'You know, computers are a wonderful thing. But we believe to be really part of what you do in this business you have to care about the films once they get released. What we do whenever we open a movie is, on Friday night all of us -- anybody in marketing and distribution who wants to take part, it's usually about 20 or 30 people and we invite the producers and directors -- have a vigil. We bring in food and we sit there and wait for our branch managers to actually pick up the grosses from the theater. We're either very happy -- the feeling of jubilation is incredible -- or if the picture doesn't work, and that happens, we're all there to console each other. We're in it together. And that's the feeling that it's very important to me to have wherever I am.'
"I asked Sherak how important it is for stars to get out ... and help promote their movies: 'You cannot put a dollar value on what kind of publicity you get from the stars working on their movie. It's a vital part of what we do. There are some people who won't work and there are others who really understand what it means to the movie.'
"It's necessary, therefore, for movie marketers to be able to relate not only to the media, but also to their filmmakers. 'You have to make them feel comfortable in what they're doing,' says Sherak. 'The one thing they don't want to be -- and I don't blame them -- is they don't want to be pitchmen. They're promoting a movie and their performances, but you can go just so far because the one thing you don't want them to feel like they're doing is pitching or overselling. You want them to be proud of what they do. And they are and it shows ...'"
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.