Oscar Roundtable: The producers

Six producers of some of the year's most ambitious films debate their profession.

What, exactly, does a producer do? Besides supervising the production schedule. And hiring and firing talent. And managing the financing and the budget. In short, besides everything. Heading into awards season, The Hollywood Reporter's Matthew Belloni gathered six producers of some of the year's most ambitious films -- Brian Grazer ("Changeling," "Frost/Nixon"); Dan Jinks ("Milk"); Michael London ("The Visitor," "Milk"); Rob Lorenz ("Changeling," "Gran Torino"), Frank Marshall ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") and Marc Platt ("Rachel Getting Married") -- to debate their profession, making good movies in a bad economy and all the different jobs they do.

The Hollywood Reporter: What is it in a piece of material that says to you, "All right, this is a movie"?

Rob Lorenz: A story that stays with me after I put it down. Pretty simple for me. I don't delve too much beyond that.

Michael London: For me, it's usually a character that I can engage with. And the voice of the writer. Once or twice a year, at the end of those 90 minutes or two hours of reading, I just feel it.

Brian Grazer: In the case of "Frost/Nixon," I read the play and I had no idea if it could be a movie. I just knew that I liked it and I thought it was smart. More often than not, it's whether some world or subculture captivates me. If it does, then I dig inside and later it gets determined if it will be a movie.

THR: How involved are you in that "digging" process?

Grazer: I don't just say, "Go write this." (The digging) is the part that's personally fun for me. I like to be involved and meet interesting people. Science, medicine, politics, religion -- people who are experts in fields outside of my own. That just helps inform the subjects and informs my sensibility. But I get very involved because it's time-efficient. The more involved I am at the beginning in understanding the subject or the dynamics of the characters, the fewer drafts I have to read.

THR: How much does taste account for a successful producing career, or is it the ability to get things done?

Frank Marshall: I think it's a little bit of both. Making movies is hard. You have to be passionate about it. What am I going to be passionate about 24/7, and is that a story I want to see on the screen?

THR: How have these requirements changed in the past 10 years?

Grazer: The talent part of it -- creating a foundation (for the film) -- might be slightly easier because of the economics of the business, which have gotten worse. From my perspective, it has made more talented people available. Since there's less money, the studios are more brutal toward talent. By redesigning the backend or the frontend of their compensation, they are more aggressive. So by tearing that wall down, it has made it easier for me to approach A-list directors or A-list stars that I wouldn't have been able to approach 10 years ago.

THR: Or afford on a budget.

Grazer: Everyone understands that they have to adapt now to the new financial climate of the movie business. So stars are willing to take less money to make something that they care about. It has probably forced talent to look more inward toward the subjects and themes that they care about, as opposed to personal compensation.

London: Actors and directors are so hungry to do movies that matter to them because most studio movies -- not to say there aren't great studio movies -- but studios are getting more and more conservative. A lot of them are not great; they're not about the acting. On "Milk," it was extraordinary. Once Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn were attached to the movie, we almost didn't have any negotiations. It was actors simply saying, "I'm there. Pay me as much as you can under your budget, but nothing is going to stop me from participating in the story."

Dan Jinks: There are some talented executives at major studios that want to do interesting movies. They don't want everything relegated to their independent division, if they still even have one. We have a project we're working on at Universal right now. It's a movie that, sure, there's a $60 million version of it, but they don't want to spend $60 million on it, and they shouldn't have to. They won't in this environment. We're trying to do a studio movie on close to an independent-sized budget, and that's an interesting challenge. But thank God that's happening, because it's allowing studios to still make interesting movies.

London: Brian, with "Frost/Nixon," which was made in the studio system, is it something like what Dan is talking about or does the movie, because it's high-profile, wind up becoming a "full-retail" movie?

Grazer: No. Ron (Howard) did something that was aberrational. He shot it in 42 days. Of course, Clint (Eastwood) shoots everything in 40 days (laughs). But Ron is used to shooting movies in 80 days. He shot this one in 42 days and got paid very little. Frank Langella -- everybody did.

London: What was that like for Ron?

Grazer: He was excited about it, but it was hard. "Frost/Nixon" involved many sets and a lot of people talking. He shot more footage on "Frost/Nixon" than he did on the sequel to "The Da Vinci Code." It's a lot of film. It was hard for him, but I think he also felt a sense of triumph.

Marc Platt: I had a similar experience with Jonathan Demme on "Rachel Getting Married." Though he had made big, big studio movies before, "Rachel" was shot in only 30 days. And I think he actually felt invigorated and liberated as a filmmaker.

What I have found with the studios is that there's this diminishing of the middle class. Studios are interested in boxoffice stars, to the extent there are any left -- there are very, very few who are truly bankable -- or franchise-able films that have big stories and concepts. Or they're interested in a "Frost/Nixon," where there's a new filmmaker or a filmmaker willing to work for nothing and a cast that isn't full of movie stars. You struggle the most when you're in the middle, in that $40 million, $50 million, $60 million range. That economic profile seems to be disappearing.

THR: On the smaller movies, do top producers have a responsibility to diminish or defer their fees?

Platt: My answer is yes. I'm doing a movie now that has many movie stars, and it's impossible to pay them all what they get, so I have to go to each of their representatives and say, "I'm deferring X% to make this movie happen." It makes the conversation undeniable.

Grazer: None of us wants to, but I think we've all produced movies that are very hard subjects. I produced a movie about a schizophrenic, and they don't want you to take your full freight to do that.

Jinks: The first movie that my partner, Bruce Cohen, and I made for our own company was (1999's) "American Beauty." Because it was our first thing, we had an extremely low quote. Then DreamWorks came to us and said, "You have to lower your fee." We said, "Well, it's really low right now." But they said, "This is the philosophy of the movie. We can't go to people like Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey and ask them to lower their fees if you haven't lowered your fee." So we did.

THR: There is a story that Elliott Kastner got Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando to do "The Missouri Breaks" (1976) by telling each of them that the other was in. What are the ethics of that kind of a situation?

Grazer: To ignite a movie, to make it happen, every single (time) I've made somebody mad. You try to do it with the most amount of elegance. Often, in order for a star to say yes, they not only have to like the piece, they also have to believe that other people want to do it.

THR: And where's the line on that?

Grazer: You have to be honest and direct. So you start with an actor, your first choice. Maybe they express interest, but they put you off and they continue to put you off, and then you tell the agent or tell the actor that you're gonna have to talk to somebody else. That makes them mad or they believe that you shouldn't do that, and then either they commit or you're stuck with the second choice.

Jinks: It is our job to say, "This movie is happening no matter what. If you want to come on board, you're coming on board."

Marshall: If you have a good script, that's half the battle.

Lorenz: Clint (Eastwood) says everyone's replaceable and doesn't blink when I say we can't get him or her. He says, "OK, let's move on." It's actually very enjoyable to have this kind of freedom.

THR: What's a specific mistake you've made on a film?

Marshall: We had (1987's) "Innerspace" in the early Amblin days, which had one of the highest testings Warner Bros. had seen for a summer movie in a long time. So we said, "Oh, OK. Great!" and kind of let it go. But you have to follow it every step of the way. I learned that from Larry Gordon. The studio has 12 other movies that they're worrying about. So you have to get in there and fight for your movie. We were complacent about it, and it didn't open.

London: If you reach a point -- and I'm thinking about casting, in particular -- where you know you have a gut feeling about something but you choose to ignore that instinct and rationalize it, it's almost a guarantee that 12 months later, you'll be sitting in a research screening with 400 people, smacking yourself in the head because that choice of an actor wasn't right and you didn't fight that fight. It's OK to be wrong if you follow your instincts. That happens all the time. The worst thing is to not follow your instincts and realize you were right.

THR: Brian, when you and Ron Howard disagree, who triumphs?

Grazer: When we really disagree, then I lobby other people. I go to his wife. And when his wife doesn't work, I go to his kids. If that doesn't work, then we test it over and over again. On "Night Shift" (1982), there was a scene that I said wasn't funny, and he said, "Well, I do think it's funny." And we did this back and forth. He said, "Look, if you can come up with a better scene, then I'll shoot it." So then I went over to Michael Keaton's house and worked with Keaton, and he basically created this scene. Ron shot it, and Ron preferred it. Now, that's where I've won. ... (Laughs.)

THR: Rob, do you keep trying when Clint says no?

Lorenz: No. (Laughs.) For the most part our tastes are so similar -- that's why we work together well. It's what we thrive on.

THR: When you're making such films as "Milk" or "Changeling" or "Frost/Nixon" that are based on real events, how much are you willing to sacrifice historical accuracy in service of an emotional story?

Lorenz: The priority is being emotionally true. Being historically accurate and all those other types of accuracies that go along with it are kind of secondary. But you have to respect that people are going to scrutinize things, so we spend a lot of time checking everything. "Changeling" was pretty much all true, and that's what made the story even more powerful.

Jinks: There was a whole group of people who were only in their 20s when Harvey Milk was running for office who are now alive and working in San Francisco and they're in their 50s. They were hugely helpful to us. Some of them would even come by every day because they were so excited this story was being told. So we felt a tremendous responsibility to tell the story as authentically as possible.

Platt: It's a slippery slope. It's the intention you have and how you present it to the audience. If it's a dramatization, then drama is drama -- it's not a documentary.

Marshall: We bought the Lance Armstrong book. I told him, "I want to make 'Raging Bull,' not a '60 Minutes' puff piece." I said, "In your book, you're kind of a jerk when you were young." He said, "I was. And if it's in that book, then you can put it on the screen."

THR: What would you guys do if you weren't producing?

Lorenz: I studied art and architecture, and that's something I really enjoy. It's somewhat related to organizing the big picture and carrying something through from beginning to end.

London: When I got out of college, I wrote for the L.A. Times. The thing I loved about journalism is that you have this card, and you could show up at anyone's doorstep and say, "I want to talk to you about what you do," and it could be in any field and any world. I missed that for a long time. The great thing about producing -- it's not quite as pure, because you can't walk up to someone's door and say, "I want to do an interview with you" -- but it gives us access to worlds and people and stories that otherwise would be walled-off from us.

Grazer: My dream would be if I could do some version of what Charlie Rose does. Some on-air journalism like that where you can meet anyone you want to meet and interview them.

London: Have you ever tried to do anything like that?

Grazer: Well, when (Rose) had heart surgery, I went on as his guest host and interviewed Malcolm Gladwell.

Jinks: I started my career working in the theater world in New York, and I think if I somehow could no longer produce movies, I would probably go back to something in the theater.

Marshall: I think I'd be playing guitar in Jimmy Buffett's band.

Platt: I think I would teach. I love kids and communicating.

THR: What's the most shocking thing that you guys have seen in the business?

Marshall: We don't have enough time. (Laughs.)

Jinks: People are not always honest to us, and you almost become numb to it. You become used to the fact that an agent might say one thing to you and then you find out a week later that they were being completely dishonest and using you in some way. When it happens enough, you develop a thick skin. You have to, or else you won't survive in this business.

Marshall: The most shocking thing happened on (1982's) "E.T." (when) M&M refused to let us use M&M's for E.T. to leave as a trail. That's why Reese's Pieces are now what they are. And that person is not working at M&M anymore.