Marshall lore

Heads of the PGA talk about the challenges facing them

For Producers Guild of America president Marshall Herskovitz, the difficulties facing producers are stacking high.

The guild weathered last year's writers strike, only to face more uncertainty -- along with the rest of Hollywood -- over the impasse between SAG and the AMPTP, the bargaining arm for the major studios and production companies. The economic crisis has added to their woes, resulting in fewer financial backers for projects. And then there's the fact that the producer appears to be a dying breed.

"Each week, we read about very prominent producers losing their deals with the studios because the studios don't think it's worth having those deals anymore," says Herskovitz, the producer of such films as 2000's "Traffic" and 2006's "Blood Diamond." "It's the rejection of the idea of research and development, which is really short-sighted. If you look at the movies that have won or been nominated for best picture in the last three years, so many came from outside the studio system. So many were long shots that somebody had to love and shepherd for years."

Herskovitz's goal, as he enters the last 18 months of his second term as president of the 4,000-member PGA, is to show how important the role of a producer is and protect that position. But reaching that goal could be compromised in the event of an actors strike.

"We very much feel caught up in the middle, and we're trying to keep this business working and get them to an agreement," says PGA executive director Vance Van Petten.

But the PGA talks have not included SAG president Alan Rosenberg.

"I was much better informed about the Writers Guild strike and had several conversations with (WGA president) Patric Verrone before the strike," Herskovitz notes, with a twinge of exasperation.

"I've been much on the outside from the beginning (with SAG)."

Noting that the PGA isn't a party to the negotiations -- though many tend to generalize AMPTP members as "producers," which irks Herskovitz -- he adds, "The Producers Guild is not a union. However, in general, our sympathies are with the creative community. We consider ourselves part of the trade community. So every time some publication refers to the 'producers,' we have to write them a letter and remind them: They're (the AMPTP), not the producers. They're the giant companies; we're the independent producers trying to make movies and shows and provide entertainment."

Among SAG's sticking points is residuals for new media productions, an area Herskovitz is all too familiar with, having been the producer and co-creator of the Web series "Quarterlife." The series found success on the Internet, but was canceled on TV after the first episode when NBC bought the rights earlier this year.

"What we're seeing, first with the Writers Guild and now with SAG, is that while everybody agrees there is no money in new media yet, if they make an interim agreement in new media, it could turn into a permanent agreement, and that's not a good idea," he says.

Still, Herskovitz hopes there isn't a strike.

"It's not a good time for anybody in the community, including the companies, let alone the actors and other people who support the film industry," he says.

Van Petten notes the economic downtown has added to the industry's uncertainty.

"The huge economic problems that have affected our entire country greatly reduce the financing opportunities for our producers," he says. "By next June, we'll obviously have a much better scope on what's going on and where you can raise funding."

Despite the Hollywood labor unrest, the PGA is pushing forward in its mission on several fronts, including hosting in June a weekend producer confab on the Sony lot in Culver City and monitoring producer credits to make sure those who get the credit did the work to earn it.

Over the last several years, the PGA has worked closely with the Academy and studios in determining producer credits.

The most high-profile case involved producer Bob Yari, who challenged the PGA and AMPAS on their decision to make him ineligible to receive the 2006 best picture Oscar for "Crash," which was awarded only to producers Paul Haggis and Cathy Schulman. Yari sued those involved, including the PGA, over the process, and the case went up to the California 2nd District Court of Appeals, which ruled last spring that the guild was within every right to not award him a producer credit.

Van Petten says the PGA's "Truth in Credits" campaign and the "Producers Code of Credits" protect the producers' function and role in the business. "There are some people who are not performing the producing functions, and they are not going to get the Oscar or our award," he says.

The system isn't foolproof. The producer credits on films that studios and producers intend to submit for awards consideration are likely to be scrutinized more closely than those on other productions. But overall, Herskovitz has seen a cultural shift in both the process of allotting producer credits and the understanding by those involved in projects that it's not just something that should be so easily given away. Van Petten's office gets daily calls from producers seeking help in determining who should get the credit.

"The producers are the ones who generate the ideas and shepherd the ideas from the beginning of the process to the end of the process, and it's important to know who is a producer and who is not," Herskovitz says.

On the TV side, the PGA has tried to mirror its efforts in film and work closely with the television academy to stop the proliferation of producing credits on programs. But television is a little tricky.

"Over the last 25 years, television has been the realm of the writer-producer, which includes me," Herskovitz says. "The reason why you have 15-to-20 producers on a show is because they're all writers."

But he cautions the PGA is not looking to take away credits from TV writer-producers.

"The PGA has no interest in damaging someone's career or taking away opportunities that are previously available to people," he says.

But eventually, the guild wants to take the reins from the studios and control the credit process.

"It's inevitable and essential that the PGA be able to control who gets a producer credit and who does not," he says. "In the meantime, we have used the indie pulpit and have worked very closely with the academies to educate people about what that credit means."