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Producers, distributors, film commissioners and other Hollywood decision-makers gathered Thursday morning for a brunch honoring the industry’s top physical production pros.
The first-time event — a joint effort between the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI), a group made up of more than 300 commissioners on six continents, and The Hollywood Reporter — saw a turnout of more than 115 senior production execs from the major studios. The brunch, held at the W Hollywood, effectively kicked off the newly launched AFCI Week, a multiday networking event put on by the organization from Feb. 28 through March 3.
As the production insiders chatted over coffee, fruit platters and eggs Benedict, THR editorial director Matthew Belloni took the stage to moderate a 45-minute panel with a handful of the production execs at the top of their field. Among them: Warner Bros. president of physical production Bill Draper, Bad Robot head of physical production Cory Bennett Lewis, Amazon head of physical production Mary Ann Marino, Paramount president of physical production Lee Rosenthal and Annapurna head of physical production Jillian Longnecker.
The conversation during the brunch — which marks one of the first key initiatives AFCI has put on since hiring L.A.-based execs Rajiv Dalal and Jess Conoplia — largely revolved around how the physical production job has changed in recent years, the effect new technologies have had on the execs’ day-to-day responsibilities, the secret to maintaining strong relationships with filmmakers and the ways in which financial incentives impact filming.
“The last 13 years I’ve been in this job, I feel like the pictures we’re making in the studio space have gone to extremes. They’re either extremely big or these niche, smaller films — and the movies in the middle are tougher to greenlight now,” said Paramount’s Rosenthal, nothing that those middle-tier films are getting made on other platforms, like television. He explained that a lot of his job has become about “how to make really big visual effects movies,” adding, “although, small movies seem to take just as much energy.”
For companies such as Amazon and Annapurna, however, the focus has been on lower-budget independent films. “We just greenlit out first big visual effects movie,” said Marino, who last year oversaw Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck for Amazon’s film division. Annapurna’s Longnecker, for her part, acknowledged that a lot of her job is about finding ways to “stretch the dollar” and finding the right people for the team.
Another substantial difference in recent years the execs could all agree on is how much filming has spread out. “When I started at Warner Bros., we made a lot of movies in Los Angeles and California. You could go onto the lot and stages and have conversations easily,” said Draper. “Now, we make the majority of our movies not in the state.” The shift has meant that the production heads must have more trust in the team they hire, given that the executives are often multiple time zones away from where the filming is taking place.
But anyone who’s been involved in a film shoot knows that they rarely go as planned. So when unforeseen issues inevitably arise, it’s important to be able to problem-solve. Rosenthal recounted a story about the production issues that plagued 2013 Brad Pitt thriller World War Z. With Paramount execs and filmmakers unable to see eye-to-eye on some of the creative choices and the budget already overrun, Rosenthal made the decision to freeze the visual effects work in an effort to stop bleeding money. The $8 million to $10 million saved was then able to be applied to a new ending for the movie that execs liked more.
Bad Robot’s Bennett Lewis found herself having to improvise on Star War: The Force Awakens when director J.J. Abrams had to reshoot 10 minutes of the film in the company’s offices in Santa Monica. “We do a lot in-house and if we need to shoot something, we will do it there. We have a small theater that turns into a stage. We’ve shot on our roof, in our parking lot — we’ve turned offices into apartments,” she said. Joked Rosenthal, “You could point out on the DVD, ‘And that’s actually J.J.’s office!'”
Because of the influx of shows and films from fast-growing streaming services — most notably, Netflix, which plans to make around 700 original series in 2018 with its $8 billion budget — the cost of making content has ballooned in recent years. “And we don’t necessarily get more money to make movies,” remarked Rosenthal. Even with attractive financial incentives, the cost of filming in certain territories outside California and New York state — namely, Georgia and England, where Atlanta and London, respectively, have become robust production hubs — has grown steep.
Alluding to the fact that Netflix is seemingly willing to pay top dollar for projects that don’t necessarily require large budgets, Belloni asked about the Will Smith movie Bright, which reportedly was passed on by most major studios that didn’t think the David Ayer-directed fantasy film merited a near-$100 million budget. “Right,” said Draper as he smiled and nodded, drawing laughs from the crowd, to which Belloni added, “We’ll just leave it at that.”
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