The Producers Guild of America holds its second annual “Produced By” Conference this coming weekend at 20th Century Fox Studios. At the same time, PGA president Marshall Herskovitz’s tenure is coming to a close this month. (Mark Gordon and Hawk Koch are running unopposed as co-Presidents.) Herskovitz talks to Deadline freelancer Diane Haithman about the PGA’s new “Transmedia Producer” credit; a new Producers Wiki website to be unveiled at the conference; plans for a PGA feature film competition in 2011; and the reality of today’s Hollywood producer:
DH: What was the reason for establishing the Produced By Conference?
MH: My goal when I became the president four years ago was to continue our mission of a cultural shift in Hollywood so people in the industry have a better understanding of what producers do. We had found, and it’s sort of amazing if you think about it, that there was a lot of ignorance, even among the executives who run the companies, as to what role producers play in the generation of material, in getting things made, and in making sure they are made in the right way.
One of the reasons the producers’ credit has been so weakened in recent years, and given to people who didn’t deserve it, was that people didn’t understand what producers did. The idea of doing a conference came out of our educational intent. It also had this function of bringing together our own community, helping us further an identity in terms of creating a future for ourselves as a profession. The goal was to promulgate the message of what it is producers do, and why they are central to production. And I think the result was way beyond what people even imagined.
DH: What are the big issues on the table for this Produced By conference?
MH: The conference is extremely comprehensive. It’s covering every aspect of film and television — how you get projects made, how you get them financed, how you deal with executives. The conference exists primarily to serve producers and what their needs are. So it’s not like we take on issues so much. Instead, we really try to provide value to working producers, whether they be veterans or people just coming in. (Believe me, I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I learned a lot.) It’s really an attempt to bring together the acquired knowledge of hundreds of people who’ve been doing this for many years.
There are certainly new trends that we’ll be talking about. Certainly transmedia is being paid a lot more attention this year and last year because it’s finally becoming more real. People have been talking about transmedia production and multiple platforms for a long time, but it’s just beginning to happen.
DH: Just to define it a little more. It’s possible that you could have someone who produces a film and then another person translates it into some transmedia function. Or does it have to be the same person?
MH: Sure. First of all, production companies and networks and studios have been attempting to exploit product across different platforms for years now; we are not just talking about reuse like, say, taking a movie and putting it on TV. One of the first instances of real transmedia is when Lost created new episodes just for cell phones, for instance. That’s creating product for different platforms, and sometimes that product will be different based on the needs of that platform. Or we are going to create a game at the same time we are going to create a movie. I think that was experimental for a long time. It was ancillary. It was secondary. Now we’re beginning to see some projects really created on the basis of the notion that they are going to exist in different aspects of the media at the same time. We decided this year to acknowledge that there are a certain number of producers who do that for a living, and that this is worthy of a new credit. This is the first new credit we’ve had for a very long time: Transmedia Producer. This weekend, we have a couple of sessions devoted to what are the complexities, opportunities, and difficulties of that.
DH: What else can you preview for this weekend?
MH: These last two years we’ve been lucky enough to have some interesting and well known people show up to give their thoughts: Clint Eastwood, Ted Turner, Marc Cuban, as well as the top people in the industry themselves. The part that we couldn’t quite predict and we were so happy to discover was how exciting the weekend is. There is this energy created by the coming together of all these people who are so excited and jazzed by what they are hearing. We got literally hundreds of e-mails thanking us for something that was transformative for them. Listening to a story about how someone handled an impossible situation, got a film made, pulled the funding out of a foreign company when it looked like the project was going to collapse — that sort of thing. What I felt I learned was seeing just how inventive and persistent people can be, and some of the particular pathways they used to make happen what they felt needed to happen.
The other thing we’re very excited about, and we’re announcing at the conference, is something called the Producers Wiki. It’s like Wikipedia, and Wiki really means something that is generated by its users. The Producers Wiki is a website that we hope sooner rather than later will become a compendium of all the knowledge out there about the producing profession. You’ll be able to go on the Producers Wiki and learn all about budget, locations, cameras, tax breaks. Learn who’s available. Learn who the good ADs are. Again, this is part of our overall mission to bring producers together and to make the profession of producing easier and more effective.
One of our sessions that I’m really looking forward to is what we’re calling the Live Wiki. We’re going to have a panel of 10 or 15 of us, and the audience can ask any question they want to about any aspect of producing and we’ll try to answer it. And there are going to be screens there where the answers are going to be entered live into the website. It’s going to be a live demonstration of how we are going to build this data base.
Part of the conference is something called the Producers Challenge contest, essentially a competition for short films. Next year, we’re going to expand that to feature films, and I believe that’s going to have a huge effect. What I’d love to see is people who have made films independently come to the conference and find distribution for their work. We’re trying to make the conference into something really useful for producers, and again I’m looking ahead to next year. But I think we’re really laying the groundwork for that this year.
DH: I suppose you run the risk of creating another film festival, where the motivation for attending really is: Can I sell my movie here?
MH: Exactly, and I think that ‘s a balancing act. It depends how people accept it, that’s all. But I think the idea of taking some elements of a film festival, but at the same time aggregating all of the talent in that profession to talk about how we do what we do, is quite unique.
DH: Is it only members of the Producers Guild who would be able to submit a film?
MH: No, anyone could. We still have to work out the details. But the short film competition has been in effect for two years, and some of the same guidelines will apply. You do not have to be a member to submit; that would be counterproductive. The idea is to honor good filmmaking.
DH: What do you think the general perception on the part of the average consumer is about the producer?
MH: First of al,l you always have to remember in this business that the public doesn’t care about us. It’s very important to keep that in mind. If there is a public perception at all, they see the producer as a big old guy who smokes a cigar and has lots of money and lots of power. That’s not what a producer is and, if it ever was what a producer was, it certainly hasn’t been for a long time.
If you look at the makeup of our guild, I would say that half of our producers work in television in some form, and half work in film. But the vast majority of our film producers are independent producers who live hand to mouth trying to get projects made that they love. They are not owners, they’re not money people, and in fact, those who just have the money don’t always get a producer credit. You can finance a film, but, according to our arbitration panel, if you didn’t perform enough of the functions as producer, you don’t warrant the credit. So it’s not about having money. It’s not even just about securing the financing. That’s one of the important things a producer does, but there are many other things that a producer does to warrant a producer credit.
DH: How would you define today’s producer?
MH: I would say the producer is the person who is there from the beginning to the end of the project. Either the person who creates, generates, or discovers the project, the person who performs many of the functions that are necessary to getting that project to the point where it is financed and then where it is in production, finished, marketed and released. That sort of comprehensive oversight really defines a producer. By the way, there are many directors who are producers. There are writers who are producers. And that’s fine: we recognize that people from other guilds are performing other functions on the movie and who are also acting as producers, and that’s great when they actually do the work. I myself am a writer-director-producer. Ed Zwick, my partner in the production company Bedford Falls, is a writer-director. There are a lot of people like that, and that’s great. But, when you are the one who is there from the beginning to the end, you are the producer, even if you are also the director.
Remember, the average gestation period for a film is about 7 years. For us, I think our record was 12 years. Who is the idiot who bangs his head against the wall for 7 years to get something made? That’s somebody who really cares. That, I think, really defines producers — that passion, that commitment, that doggedness. Otherwise, movies wouldn’t get made.
DH: That redefines the fantasy that the producer has a lot of money.
MH: It’s very hard to make a living as a producer these days. The reality of the business is the studios have cut way back on overall deals for producers and cut way back on development. The fee for developing a project has not changed for 20 years, and a producer can’t live on it. You get maybe $25,000 to develop a project. Spread that out over 7 years – and that ain’t a lot of money.
DH: How far along does the project have to be before you get that meager $25,000?
MH: Remember, the $25,000 is a development fee, and that’s assuming there is development. In today’s world in Hollywood, there is actually very little script development: it’s way diminished compared to where it was 10 years ago. It’s rare to go in and pitch an idea to a studio and get them to give you a development deal. That process really doesn’t happen anymore. Most scripts are either written on spec or come from preexisting properties that the studios have acquired: comic books or old movies, that sort of thing. That $25,000 is for development of the script. To get a project to the point where the studio commits to making the film, that usually means you have to put several very important elements together: you have to have a screenplay the studio is willing to bank on, you usually have to have a star, and you have to have a director, before you get a greenlight for a film.
DH: In TV these days, the writer-producer, or showrunner, is considered king. Obviously there still seem to be names attached as “producer” along with the showrunner, but that represents a change.
MH: It started to change in 1980 with Steven Bochco and Hill Street Blues. I was part of that revolution. You went from having non-writing producers, like Aaron Spelling and David Gerber, to writing producers like Steven Bochco and John Sacret Young and Ed Zwick and myself and a lot of other people. That was a huge sea change in the industry, for sure. And it is true that in television, 80% of the producers now are writers. Of course, you have Jerry Bruckheimer, who is not a writing producer but has certainly been successful. But, for the most part, producers are also writers in television. That is not the case in movies. And, while the notion of pitching an idea is almost dead in the film business, it still exists in the TV business.
DH: Has the criteria changed for becoming a member of the Producers GuiId?
MH: I am not an expert; in general you need two credits as a producer. There are circumstances that can change that. In some areas we have broadened the criteria. For instance, that is very difficult in the independent world where people make films and don’t always find distribution for them. How do you define distribution? We’ve actually allowed an exception, having to do with certain film festivals, to honor the fact that some people have become quite experienced as producers, but don’t have two films that have been distributed according to the criteria that we’ve laid down.
DH: The Producers Guild also has training programs, right?
MH: We have mentoring programs. We have actually a really successful diversity program, which helps people find their way through doors that might have been closed to them because of the longstanding institutionalized prejudices that exist in any business.
DH: I guess that’s always been the downside of that old saying about Hollywood: it’s all about whom you know.
MH: It’s funny, because I think our business has a good record in some areas, and a bad record in others. There are many well-intentioned people trying to change things. The Producers Guild has been committed to this for years now, and I think personally does more than any other guild to give opportunities to people who come from outside of, I guess you’d call it, the expected avenues for advancement.
DH: Is that coming out of the fact that there is as increasing demand for material that can appeal to diverse audiences?
MH: It’s amazing how that hasn’t been a motivating force. When you look at what studios and networks do, I honestly think that public relations has been a much bigger motivation; they don’t want to look bad. I hate to say it, but I’m just being honest — when you look at what the studios and networks have done, and the programs they’ve put in place, it’s mostly for show. We can only hope that over time that will change.