Awards Watch: Producers Roundtable

Six top producers share war stories, casting tips and the best way to fire a director.

What gives a producer clout? To find out, The Hollywood Reporter's Matthew Belloni and Stephen Galloway gathered the men behind six of the season's most buzz-worthy films -- Lawrence Bender ("Inglourious Basterds"), Jon Landau ("Avatar"), Laurence Mark ("Julie & Julia"), Bill Mechanic ("Coraline"), Mace Neufeld ("Invictus") and Ivan Reitman ("Up in the Air").

The Hollywood Reporter: What's the toughest decision you've made as a producer?

Bill Mechanic: To become a producer.

THR: Was that a decision?

Mechanic: No, I got fired. And then, what else are you going to do? Someone making that decision today, that's a much more difficult decision. It's not a great environment out there for producers.

THR: Your goal when you left Fox was to raise a couple hundred million dollars. That didn't happen. Why?

Mechanic: Different things. The collapse of the credit markets. The first thing that happened was the collapse of Silicon Valley, which brought down the outside money.

Ivan Reitman: We actually got some money (for his Montecito Picture Co.). But it's a double-edged sword. When you're a producer it's useful to have cash, or to co-finance a movie, but the rules are fairly complex. You can't just decide you're going to make this movie because you really believe in this movie. At least our rules are, we can only come up with 50% of the budget. We have to be in partnership with a major studio. So it can't be anybody, it's five guys you have to convince. So you're in much of the same problems you always have as a producer in terms of getting a green light and getting things going.

THR: Where does your money come from?

Reitman: It was the last of the hedge fund money. Tom Pollock, who's my partner, really saw the writing on the wall about four years ago and started working at trying to raise the money. It took about two years. And this was when the DVD business was still a pretty good business. One of the ways we always got screwed as a producer was: we were only getting our portion of 20% of the income. We thought the only way to get 100% of the income is to be a co-investor -- until about a year ago, until the whole business took a turn.

THR: How has that turn affected you, Larry, because you don't have funding for your pictures?

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Laurence Mark: I'm lucky enough that I've had a studio underwrite me for many years -- and luckier these days than ever before. In 2000 there were 290-odd overall (studio producer) deals and now there are less than 200. Studios are also making less movies, so the odds are against you. You just have to fight harder to get something to happen. Also, you have to do more packaging. You have to come in not just with a great script but, by the way, I also have Meryl Streep, I also have Nora Ephron, whatever it is.

THR: Is that what happened with "Julie & Julia"?

Mark: "Julie & Julia" happened, without question, because of Meryl Streep. We all know it, Meryl knows it, Sony is certainly happy to say it.

THR: I was surprised a major studio financed that.

Mark: So were we. Seriously. It was (producer) Amy Robinson's idea to put the books together, it was Sony's idea to have Nora Ephron (write and direct). And then Nora ran into Meryl Streep at some New York function. Meryl said, "What are you up to?" And Nora said, "I just finished a screenplay about Julia Child," and in about two seconds Meryl did 10 seconds of Julia Child. And so we got Meryl the script and she committed. We made the movie for $40 million.

THR: Back to the original question. What's your toughest decision?

Mark: Jennifer Hudson. Toughest decision. Because if you go wrong there, you go wrong on that movie ("Dreamgirls").

Jon Landau: Ultimately it goes back to casting. There was a film I was on several years ago where we had to fire our second supporting actress. That was a very tough decision to do a couple weeks into the shoot, but you have to because ultimately that's what movies are about. There was no chemistry.

Mark: It's hard to say goodbye to someone, but you almost always should.
Reitman: If you're thinking about it, you better do it.

Landau: That applies to cast or crew or whoever.

Reitman: I've been doing this for about 40 years and I've produced about 50 movies and I think in that process I remember only firing one director. And I've worked with about a dozen first-timers. I'd say the toughest decisions have to do with firing people, but in particular firing the director.

Landau: Thank God Jason is talented! (Reitman's son, Jason, directed "Up in the Air.") (Laughs)

THR: So you're making a big movie, probably in excess of $200 million, the director is out of town, and the budget is spiraling out of control. From both the studio and the producer's perspective, what do you do?

Mechanic: If he was raging out of control for the wrong reasons, you have one decision to make. If he's raging out of control trying to make the best movie, then you're in a business decision. At some point, even as an executive, you fuse with the production to try to make the best movie.

THR: So, real life: You were running Fox when James Cameron was making "Titanic." You drive down to Baja to see Cameron and you say what?

Mechanic: We had some lively discussions.

Mark: But you become a collaborator, don't you?

Mechanic: From Jim's point of view, a collaborator (that) you shoot. (Laughs.) But when I would deal with (Rupert) Murdoch, I felt like in some ways I wasn't doing my job because I wasn't just clamping down the cost. If you clamped down the cost, you couldn't finish the movie properly.

THR: Did you think of shutting down the movie?

Mechanic: Yeah, because you have a $100 million movie that's going to cost $200 million.

THR: From a producer's point of view, how do you handle the director when your budget is spiraling out of control and your director is larger than life?

Landau: You've got to keep everyone's focus on making a good movie. The one thing that Fox did, no matter what else happened, they supported making the best version of that movie. All the way through. That goes back to release-date decisions, casting, visual effects. No matter whether it's a $200 million movie or a $40 million movie, nobody remembers a bad movie that came in under budget. And I don't mean to be cavalier about money, but people like Jim and Ivan, when they're directing movies, have a unique ability to identify a bull's-eye at the end of a very long journey.

THR: But people do remember movies that go way over budget. "Heaven's Gate" killed Michael Cimino's career.

Landau: It's not about reining in, it's about making the most prudent and fiscally responsible decisions. When you attack a movie like "Titanic," you can't have all the answers in preproduction. So, as you go through, you make compromises to individual events and activities, but you have to do that without compromising the overall movie.

Reitman: That's what makes this such a wonderfully crazy business. And why large corporations tear their hair out. There are no rules because it was right to support Jim Cameron as he was going wildly over budget because he was a genius and he had the right idea. There's a constant battle, but there are no easy decisions.

THR: Lawrence, did the financing ever look perilous on "Inglourious Basterds"? At some point you brought in Universal so that it was no longer just a Weinstein Co. picture. Was that because Weinstein had money problems?

Lawrence Bender: Quentin is extremely loyal to Harvey (Weinstein). He's like a father or an older brother. I think Quentin felt like "Let's support Harvey," but Harvey doesn't have a foreign distribution arm so "Let's bring in a great distribution arm." And David Linde at Universal really made Quentin feel comfortable. There was a lot of talk during the making of the movie and even now about Harvey and his money. It was a bit of a distraction, honestly, but Harvey was always very clear in a little room with Quentin and me: "Whatever everyone's saying, whatever those bankers are saying, whatever everyone in the world is saying, that money is set aside for you guys."

THR: Could you make "Pulp Fiction" today with the same people?

Bender: It's a tough question because, in a way, "Pulp Fiction" was great for independent cinema and in a way it was bad. It made everyone understand that you could make an independent movie and make lots of money, but everyone is expected to make a grand-slam hit.

Mechanic: Every movie that succeeds beyond expectations in some ways hurts everybody else.

Bender: it changes expectations. Back then, we made the movie for $8 million, and we had that cast. John Travolta used to laugh about it: By the time he paid for his own hotel room and this and that, his fee was lower than his expenses.

Mark: It was money well spent.

Landau: A lot of the product you're talking about, it's all unique.

Mechanic: Which is the antithesis of what the corporations want. They're after the same, because that's more predictable.

Mark: The top priority of a studio is "Let's make a movie that does not depend on execution. A movie that will do well no matter how awful it is." Which is why branding is going on. If you had a movie called "Kleenex," I'm sure I could sell it.

Mechanic: Do you have the rights yet?

THR: Mace, how have you thrived in the studio system?

Mace Neufeld: That's past history now. I was exclusive to Paramount for 12 years and then four years at Sony. Creatively, the studios were not being run by Wall Street. And the marketing department was given a movie and told to sell it. The tail, at the moment, is wagging the dog. But going back to your original question. I had to fire an actor because the director didn't like the toupee he was wearing. The actor didn't want to change his toupee and the director didn't want to fire the actor. (Laughs.) And on "The Hunt for Red October," we started shooting without Sean Connery: We were two weeks into the shoot and Klaus-Maria Brandauer was supposed to play Markus Ramius, and he wouldn't sign his contract. He said, "I need 10 days in the middle of the schedule because I've directed a film for a friend," and I said, "We can't give you 10 days." Connery had turned the part down because he thought he had throat cancer and I got a call from (his agent) Marty Baum and he said, "What about Sean for that part?"

Mechanic: We shot for 30 days on "X-Men" without Wolverine, without Hugh Jackman. It was originally somebody who got very big and dropped out, and literally we went off an audition tape. He was doing Gaston (in an Australian stage production of "Beauty and the Beast") and he looked like a young Clint Eastwood. We flew him in and said, "If he's got charisma he's got the job."

THR: Jon, how has your experience with Fox changed between "Titanic" and "Avatar"?

Landau: For "Avatar," the originality of the piece -- not being based on material, not having a star -- that was the biggest hurdle in getting going. The day-to-day production is pretty much the same, from a studio-funded perspective.

Mark: Do you find the studio is watching you a little more now?

Landau: I don't think "Avatar" is a good case to judge that. Overall, absolutely, studios want to control and control and control. The studios have lost an appreciation of how to work with producers, and what role a producer can play to benefit them.

Reitman: It's a role that has been totally discounted over the last 10 years. It really started with the rise of the managers and the agencies. For a while, when it was all about the package, and the agencies got the control. When managers took over as producers, they were more into packaging. So there was a discount of what a good producer does. We have a lot to contribute in terms of development of the story and balancing the creative and fiscal responsibilities. (In) the studios, even today, during a time of recession, there are too many development guys with nothing to do, and they're really taking over the job, and they're not as good.

Bender: Most directors do want to come in on budget, most directors don't want to look irresponsible. Especially in these times. So a producer is a good partner. If you're going to steal from Peter to pay Paul, you've got to know who you're stealing from.

THR: Ivan, how is the relationship different when the director is your son?

Reitman: I have to stop being his father, I have to be his producer, which is a subtly different job. I'd say the biggest disagreement we had was over Vera Farmiga, who is a wonderful actress but she was eight months pregnant about two months before he started shooting. He said "Look, I wrote it for her, I think she'll be perfect." And she was as big as a house! As a producer, I have to say to him, "I know she's a great actress, she's going to be great in it, but she's got to be someone George Clooney is going to fall in love with." There were all kinds of actresses who wanted to play this part, bigger names than Vera was at that moment, so I kept saying, "Well, how about her?" But he just hung in there. I had to really defend his decision, and I know he agonized about it enormously. There were a couple rough opening scenes -- first days -- that he reshot at the end of the schedule to give her a little more time to get into shape. Apart from that, there was really no downside.

THR: Who had final cut on that picture?

Reitman: I technically had it by virtue of my contract. And I said, "It's all yours." (Jason) didn't want to get hassled. He got hassled a little bit on his earlier movies so I said, "I'm going to tell you what I think, but you're going to have final cut." I had to fight with him a little bit. There