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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Notes and quotes from the PGA's 2010 "Produced By" conference

It was a real treat to be invited to speak at the PGA's "Produced By" conference this weekend; I was on a panel moderated by Emerging Cinemas' Ira Deutchman called "Smashing Windows: DIY and the New Hybrid Distribution."

I took some notes throughout the day Saturday on things that struck me as worth remembering, during panels on transmedia, digital cinema, "The Simpsons," and the producer's role. (I had to fly home Saturday night, so didn't stick around for the second day of the conference.) The subtext of most of the sessions I went to was this: we acknowledge that new stuff is happening and new technologies are emerging...and we know audiences want to interact with content in new ways...but it's unclear how we'll make anything approaching decent money in this new world.

I got a chance to ask noted producer (and onetime United Artists chief) David V. Picker whether he felt worried or energized by the changes technology is bringing about. "I'm curious," Picker said. "No one knows how they're going to make their money back. No one has figured it out." But it seems obvious, he added, that "you just can't keep making $100 million movies."

Picker moderated a panel of producers talking about the relationship between producer and director. (The panel was supposed to feature Brian Grazer and Ridley Scott, but both were mysterious no-shows. Not too eager to dwell about "Robin Hood," maybe?)

Larry Gordon, who produced "Die Hard" but also "Water World," said that anything can happen to a project (mostly bad) as you're trying to package together the screenplay, actors, and director. "You're not shooting until you're shooting," Gordon said.

Gordon said a lot of a producer's job is "protective work," mentioning that he once had to battle to keep Paramount executives from firing an actor on one of his films that they deemed unfunny. (The actor was Eddie Murphy, and the film "48 Hours.")

Douglas Wick, producer of "Gladiator" and "Working Girl," said that "creative alchemy [mentioned in the title of the panel] is an interesting topic, because it rarely occurs. A good movie is a miracle. There are so many ways things can go wrong." Producers, he added, are called upon to solve every imaginable problem that comes along.

Bruce Cohen, producer of "Milk" and "American Beauty," said that Spielberg told him on his first producing gig that the producer's job is to "get the director's vision up on the screen." Cohen said that is a "great mantra to start from," but that it's also important to figure out where a director may need help — on creative issues, sticking with the budget, or organizational stuff, to "keep them from getting in their own way."

Cohen had some funny stories about being reluctant to give notes to Tim Burton while he was shooting "Big Fish." He observed that Burton "paces back and forth very fast on the set, which makes it impossible to have a conversation with him, which is the point."

Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner Entertainment moderated a panel on transmedia storytelling, with an impressive group of execs that included "Avatar" producer Jon Landau and "Battlestar Galactica" producer David Eick. Gomez mentioned that the PGA is forming a think tank on transmedia.

Gomez started by showing some slides to explain his view of transmedia. Some of the benefits: transmedia can create intense loyalty, long-term engagement, lifespan extension (of the property, not the viewers, I presume), a desire to share the experience with others, and increased revenue.

Landau talked about writing Pandorapedia, a "definitive version of the world" of "Avatar," by getting a dozen people in a room for a few days. That helped others who were building content related to the film.

Cary Granat of Bedrock Studios talked about the way Walden Media has created educational programming for school kids around movies like the "Narnia" series and "Holes," through a program called "Reel Thinking."

Larry Tanz of Vuguru mentioned "The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers," intended to start on the Web and then move to TV.

Landau was asked why there weren't more transmedia tentacles extending from "Avatar." He said they'd pitched some that Fox hadn't wanted to fund. "Trying to get a big studio to embrace new ideas is never easy," Landau said. "No one ever got fired for not trying something."

"All these extensions cost money," said Tanz. "And not all of them generate money. You may only be paid for the TV show of the movie... Some of the pieces can be liabilities on the balance sheet."

Transmedia needs to come from an authentic place, Eick cautioned: "Once the audience starts to feel manipulated, you're dead... and maybe not just the off-shoot, but the mothership, too."

The panelists were honest about the current state of transmedia: it can still be hard to figure out where to invest to actually generate good returns (whether that means ticket sales, TV viewers, or game buyers/subscribers.) "It can be hard to understand if webisodes actually have any impact on box office," said Granat, but he pointed to Disney's recent "Tickets Together" experiment in selling advance tickets to "Toy Story 3" on Facebook as something that may point in an important new direction.

Landau agreed that embedding transactions into media, whether virtual goods or ticket sales, is likely the future. He also suggested that some of the spending studios do today on traditional TV and print advertising might be better invested in transmedia projects.

Granat added, "The big studios are not going to continue [investing in transmedia] until they understand the metrics."

But Granat mentioned an interesting transmedia example toward the end: Disney's decision to create a Broadway version of "The Lion King." The studio took a risk in hiring Julie Taymor to reinterpret the film, and wound up creating a stage franchise that has since surpassed the movie in revenues by playing for years in theaters the world over (at a much higher ticket price than the film, of course.)

During a session on "Digital Cinema and You," Cinedigm Entertainment executive Michele Martell trotted out some stats about the industry. Of about 39,000 movie screens in the U.S., 8,400 have digital projectors today, and 3,700 can show 3-D content. Of 100,000 screens worldwide, 15,000 are digital, and half of those can show 3-D, she said. Also, she referred to a survey that found that one in four Americans say they plan to buy a 3-D TV. (But when?)

On 3-D television broadcasts, Fox Sports exec Jerry Steinberg said, "It is still a technology in search of a business model. People will have to pay extra at home, or for theater tickets." But Steinberg is a believer that it'll happen: "What 3-D does for sports is recreate the experience of being in the premium seats, and we as an industry haven't sold that yet." He said his expectation is that 3-D TV, just like high-def, will be an 8 to 10 year transition. "We're two years into it," he said.

Jonathan Dern, a Cinedigm executive and a long-time producer of animated TV shows and movies, said, "I don't intend on producing anything from now on that isn't in 3-D. [That way,] you have an archive that is the future."

In our panel on "DIY and Hybrid Distribution," I tossed out what I've found to be four essential truths of the new media world producers are living in: "Distribution is free. Choice is infinite. Demand is instant. Noise is unprecedented." You can either develop strategies to address those shifts, or you can try to ignore them. (I've found that many studios and more established producers are doing the latter.)

"Simpsons" writer-producer Tim Long moderated a panel of his colleagues, including "Simpsons" creator James L. Brooks, that was a hoot, as you might expect. They talked about some of the guest stars with whom they most enjoyed working (Michael Jackson, Dustin Hoffman, Mr. T) and some with whom they had problems (the late Gary Coleman apparently didn't want to say "Whatchu talking about, Willis?" on his episode.) They agreed that Conan O'Brien is one of the funniest people they've ever met, seeking to entertain anyone who'll make eye contact with him, at any moment. They said that the reason that Homer and Marge have stayed together after so many years is that the sex is great. (Apparently, this is Julie Kavner's explanation of the secret of their marriage.)

"The show is a labor of love, but it's also a labor of work," said "Simpsons" executive producer Matt Selman. More seriously, he added, "we try to cram the maximum amount of awesomeness" into every episode.

I only caught the end of Mark Cuban's conversation with LA Times reporter Dawn Chmielewski, but he made the comment that "if anything, the studios have gotten more power [over the past few years], not less."

He also talked about the EBIF standard for developing interactive applications on TVs, and said that as new Internet-enabled cable boxes crept into American homes, we'd start seeing more applications layered onto TV shows, like the long-heralded ability to click your remote and buy an outfit that a character is wearing, or dive into more data about a documentary. Cuban said that there are already about 20 million cable boxes deployed that support the EBIF standard.

So those are my notes. You can read tweets from the conference here, and hopefully the PGA will post audio or video at some point.

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