Tribeca: Ron Howard on Embracing Technology, Returning to Acting

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Ron Howard

The legendary director told Brian Williams that amid a changing film business, he welcomes the opportunity to tell stories in new formats, including as one of the people in front of the camera.

Ron Howard has accepted that the film industry is mostly focused on big movies, but he believes smaller stories still have a place, even if it's in fewer theaters or on other platforms.

Brian Williams opened his Saturday Tribeca Film Festival talk with the legendary director by alluding to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas' recent comments about an "implosion" in the film industry that could lead to ticket price variances and fewer movies.

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Howard said that he agreed that the film business is changing, noting that Lucas told him almost a decade ago that he thought the theatrical experience would be more like Broadway but smaller films would continue to survive.

"[Lucas] was telling me this eight or nine years ago. We're definitely moving toward the theatrical experience, he said, being a little more like Broadway in that the big movies coming out on 3,000 screens are playing in better and better theaters all the time to compete in 3D or whatever other format that can be devised are going to be those four-quadrant movies that draw a lot, a lot of moviegoers, whether that's families taking their kids, whether it's the dating crowd wanting to go," Howard recalled. "But, he would hasten to add, there's still a place for A Beautiful Mind or The Paper or a character piece. It may be fewer theaters theatrically, immediately to TV or other mediums and those stories are going to continue to have an audience and continue to be viable."

Furthermore, Howard thinks that while studios will survive, content creators have to be willing to work in different mediums.

"At the end of the day, I am a storyteller, and if I think the story has value, if I think it's interesting, then my next job is to try to understand how to tell the story and then, what format," he said. "Because there's no shame in turning around and saying, 'Yes, I love to make movies, but you know where this should really live? The Internet. Wouldn't this be great in three-minute segments or something? Or television, especially television.' Oh, my God, what's happening in series television and especially cable is pretty stunning. It's truly, I think it is, maybe the high point ever in television quality."

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And the longtime director added that he's not fighting technology: "The audience is always going to tell you what they like best, and you as a storyteller [are] going to be required to adjust to that."

Still, that doesn't mean that Howard wasn't annoyed when he recently saw someone watching Rush on a plane and fast-forwarding through the movie as the plane was starting to land.

"I thought, 'That son of a bitch is gonna claim he saw the movie.' So, yeah, I was having to hold myself back a bit," he said before later admitting that when he told his wife about that, she pointed out that he watches a fair amount of things on television that way.

And what TV shows does Howard watch? He revealed he likes House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, NBC Nightly News, which Williams appreciated, and The Daily Show, a pick Williams agreed with, joking, "I have to see where my raw material ends up."

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The former child actor also told Williams that he would like to return to acting. After he segued into directing, he said, he would initially do a few small projects, including some acting gigs, between films, but when his kids were young, his wife asked him to spend that downtime between directing gigs with his family.

"Now the kids are all grown -- empty nest -- and she can't wait to get rid of me," he said. "'Hey, you wanna act?'"

But seriously, he's gotten offers for acting roles in films from the Coen brothers and Martin Scorsese, which he said he had to turn down because he was directing, but he plans to ultimately take someone up on their offer.

"Because I do move from film to film, I've never had the time to commit, but one of these days, I am going to make the time," he said.

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Howard also talked to Williams about his experiences as an actor working with Don Knotts and John Wayne; told stories about his parents' wedding and his dad, another actor who recently played Bruce Dern's character's brother in Nebraska; and revealed his favorite directors, foreign films and thoughts on the state of America today.

He also shared anecdotes from working with Bette Davis on one of his first projects as a director, in which she gave him a hard time as he tried to do his job, which he said taught him to be brave.

"If you're going to direct, you know, do your job. You have to be prepared, and you have to be fearless," he said. "A couple years later, when I was directing Cocoon, feeling similarly intimidated by this esteemed group, having the Bette Davis experience behind me was very helpful."