Producing vets say business getting tougher

PGA panelist says he feels like 'whipped puppy' doing job

Lawrence "Larry" Gordon got his first producing credit 37 years ago. His productions have included such blockbusters as "48 Hrs.," "Die Hard" and "Watchmen," so he was a natural to fill in when a panelist dropped out of "Producing Blockbusters," one of more than two dozen panels at the Producers Guild of America's Produced By 2010 Conference during the weekend at Fox Studios.

Gordon was joined by industry veterans Mark Johnson and Richard Zanuck, who noted they were in an auditorium named after his father, legendary studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck.

It soon was clear that when producers talk among themselves, the conversations get candid. A frustrated Gordon said it's rougher than ever before being a top Hollywood producer.

"I've had some really bad experiences on the last two or three movies," he said. "I've just about had enough. It's pretty tough. I don't like it."

Gordon stayed afloat on "Waterworld," when studio bosses ordered him to ax the ocean for budgetary reasons, and stood his ground when a week into shooting "48 Hrs.," he was told by the studio to fire Eddie Murphy because "he wasn't funny." But Gordon, Zanuck and Johnson agreed that in the last few years things have gotten much worse. Today, fewer bigger movies are made and studio financiers take greater control.

"Do you think it means anything when you're so furious at the studio you hope your own movie fails?" Gordon asked.

He told the story of being in preproduction at Paramount on "Watchmen," having already spent $9 million, when Brad Grey took charge and put his movie in turnaround. But Gordon never gives up: "A script to me is like a bar of gold," he said. "I just keep putting it out."

He set it up at Warner Bros., but on the eve of its release last year, Fox sued over rights and won a settlement. An unhappy Warners later tried to collect legal costs from Gordon.

"Enough," Gordon says. "Every time I make a movie, I feel like a whipped puppy. I don't want anybody to be rude to me anymore."

Zanuck broke the mood, saying, "Is this the point in the proceedings where we pass the hat for Larry?"

When asked how he got his start, Zanuck said, "I was born."

He described growing up as the son of Darryl F. Zanuck, who created 20th Century Fox, becoming the youngest studio head, then a successful producer. He said one difference these days is that "you can outlast a studio head because they come and go quickly. You couldn't do that when a Zanuck or Warner was in charge for decades."

"When I grew up, the producers were the heavyweights on the lot, more important than the executives," he said. Zanuck noted that everyone knows David O. Selznick produced "Gone With the Wind," but few recall director Victor Fleming.

Johnson said today the producer's job mostly is to support the director's vision, which on a big movies like his "The Chronicles of Narnia" series can be a constant test. That means picking one's battles.

"You have to prioritize and pick which one will be the battle you have to win," he said. "Do you make creative sacrifices? Of course, every single day."

Such were the tales at the second annual Produced By conference. PGA executive director Vance Van Petten pronounced himself pleased with the turnout of just more than 1,100 participants, who between panels wandered among 45 vendors from Breakdown Services to the Irish Film Board, who was there for its second year.

"It's absolutely been worthwhile," said Jonathan Loughran, who runs the Irish Film Board L.A. office. "There's been an obvious payoff. Last year, we brought a couple producers from Ireland. This year, we returned with 13 producers."

The group had a pre-event dinner the night before with about 30 Los Angeles producers, agents, financiers and others for what Loughran said was "a speed-dating-type seminar."

It also was the second year for Jill Simpson, director of the Oklahoma Film and Music Office.

"We actually strategically budgeted so we can come to this conference because last year it translated into tangible production leads, which is the name of the game," she said. "It just seems like it's professionals with projects that often have funding, and that's what we're looking for."

Ted Turner came to make a plea for producers to incorporate such themes as the real cost of war, world hunger and the need to save the environment into movies and TV shows. He appeared on behalf of the United Nations Foundation, created nearly 14 years ago with a $1 billion gift from Turner.

Was it worth giving that money, Turner was asked.

"I'm happier than I would be just buying stuff for myself," says Turner, adding that he didn't need a yacht anyway.

Newly elected PGA co-president Hawk Koch introduced Bob Pisano, interim head of the MPAA, before the blockbuster panel. Pisano made a plea for help in the fight against piracy, specifically to counter what he called " 'the copy left,' people who feel content in the digital era doesn't deserve the same protection as it did in the analog era."

He called on attendees to "engage the creative community," and "speak up and help us engage this directly. There's nobody better positioned than the people in this room."