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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What would you do if you ran a movie studio?

I’ve got a piece up over at Film.com running down the top five things I’d do if I ran a movie studio. Number 1:

For every $100 million-plus movie my studio produces, I take another $50 mill; I’d divide it evenly among 10 young, hungry filmmakers based on their scripts, their previous experience, and their passion; then I’d let them go to town, with no interference from me, from my accountants, from my marketing experts or advertising execs. None of these films may be focus-grouped or test-screened in any official way, yet will be guaranteed minimum and equal levels of support (prerelease advertising, scope of theatrical play, eventual DVD release).

It’s not only an investment in the future, it’s a way to jump-start the generation of creative, low-budget hits such as Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and Paranormal Activity. It should also be expected to produce modestly performing films that nevertheless easily turn a profit because of their low budgets.

I may have mentioned something similar before. It’s certainly one of my big pet peeves with the studios: that they don’t cultivate budding talent, which could be done cheaply and with, potentially, quite impressive payoffs; and they don’t seem to see the value in films with small budgets, which is simply absurd. It seems to me that it’s much smarter to bet $100 million on 20 movies than on only a single movie.

But I’m funny that way.

What would you do if you ran a movie studio?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Bluejay

    This suggestion is interesting to me; I love it in principle, but wonder how it could be implemented:

    5) Guaranteed refunds to unsatisfied moviegoers. If you sit through one of my studio’s movies and you think it’s crap — or if you believe the marketing mislead you into thinking the film was something it isn’t — you’ll get your money back. That’ll keep me and my filmmakers honest.

    How would that work in practice? Would there be a line for refunds at the box office itself, or would moviegoers have to write to the studio? (Actually, I like the idea of a “refund line”: if the line is long, it’s bad for the ticket-buyers to see, so helps motivate studios to make good pictures.)

    Would people generally be honest enough (in hard economic times, too) to ask for refunds only if genuinely dissatisfied? Would the refund be given no-questions-asked, or would the customer be asked to fill in a survey to determine if the level and reasons for dissatisfaction merit a refund?

    How well has this worked for other businesses? A lot of snack food companies, for instance, offer “money-back” or “we’ll send a replacement” guarantees to people who write in; do a lot of people take advantage of this, and does it have a measurable impact on how those companies do business? I also wonder if Radiohead’s “pay what you want” experiment was successful–I don’t know what their sales figures were.

  • Bill

    I would put Aaron Sorkin and the Coen Brothers in a room with Catherine Keener, Paul Giamati, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Rock, and Allison Janney and not let them out until art happened.

  • amanohyo

    Bluejay, most people are too lazy/busy/forgetful to fill out the paperwork required to get their money back for “satisfaction guaranteed” grocery items. Since I’m a huge cheapskate, I take advantage of those offers and end up working about thirty minutes just to get a check for a buck or two in the mail four months later (which is still totally worth it for me).

    When I was a movie theater manager, we gave cash refunds as long as the people left within 30 minutes. If they sat through the whole thing and were persistent, we gave them free passes to any other showing which was a win-win for us since we made most of our money on concessions anyway.

    If I ran a movie studio, I would make sure that all of the screenplays only had one writer and give final script approval to the original author of any adapted novel or short story. I just watched I Am Legend, and like the previous movie versions, it’s an insult to Matheson’s original work (maybe he approved the changes, I don’t know). I’d also require at least a 60/40 split (either way) between female and male filmmakers/writers/actors and outlaw intentional product placement.

    Sure, I’d lose millions of dollars on most releases, but my investors would be intelligent people who cared about making great movies more than losing money. There are still some uber wealthy people out there with good taste in movies right? That seems to be the main problem. The people that have the Executive Producer type of personality that drive them to accumulate money, power, and prestige usually seem to have horrible taste in entertainment, or even worse, they have good taste but are willing to produce crap as long as it makes them even more wealthy and popular at celebrity shindigs.

  • Kenny

    Actually.. odd coincidence. I just watched Moon on DVD. It’s going into the ‘proper science fiction’ shelf with Gattaca, Close Encounters and 2001. I loved every second of it.

    The reason I brought that up is that the production budget was $5 million. I found it really amazing what somebody really talented can do with $5 million bucks. (Although he did only need to employ Sam Rockwell and the voice of Kevin Spacey rather than a full cast.)

  • Paul

    I’d have a writing staff of four: Charlie Kaufman, Joss Whedon, Sophia Coppola, and me. I’d let the other three direct their own movies, but I’d hire Peter Jackson and Ang Lee to start turning my script adaptions of my own novels into movies. Assuming they each did a movie a year, that keeps me busy for the first decade.

  • amanohyo

    Almost completely off topic, but I just thought of a way to scam the “money back if you hate the movie in the first half hour” system. I can’t believe I never thought of this when I was still working at the theater.

    Person (or couple) A buys a ticket for their movie (ideally the last matinee showing) and watches it. Person B who is a friend of Person A buys a ticket for a movie that starts close to when Person A’s movie ends. Person B gives Person A their stub inside the theater, and Person A goes to the box office and asks for a cash refund for Person’s B’s movie, which is just starting.

    On a busy day, no one can remember who bought what tickets. It could only be pulled a few times before the manager would start to recognize you (although this could be avoided somewhat by switching “roles”), and it requires a bit of planning and schedule coordination, but it’s very doable. In fact, I’ve never been to a theater that won’t give you your money back if the movie hasn’t even started. Maybe people did this at my theater and I didn’t even know? Person A still has to pay of course, so really it’s just 50% off, but hey, that could be more than $10 for a couple.

    The alternate method, which I have seen pulled, is the person who hangs around after their movie is over and tries to scavenge new stubs that are dropped on the floor or left on the concessions counter. This is obviously easier to spot.

  • Bluejay

    When I was a movie theater manager, we gave cash refunds as long as the people left within 30 minutes. If they sat through the whole thing and were persistent, we gave them free passes to any other showing which was a win-win for us since we made most of our money on concessions anyway.

    I’m curious what reasons people gave. I imagine the walk-outs had visceral reactions? Movie too violent, couldn’t stand to be in there any longer? What about those who sat through the whole thing: did they complain about bad acting or predictable plot twists? :-) Or was it more about the theater environment: bad sound system and obnoxious patrons and such?

    I just thought of a way to scam the “money back if you hate the movie in the first half hour” system.

    I’m taking notes. :-)

  • I would call Joss Whedon. Immediately.

  • RogerBW

    Encouraging small filmmakers is like training employees: it doesn’t make you as much money as the big stuff, and as long as someone else is prepared to do it for you you can just scoop their talent later on.

    In other words what you absolutely need to do with this studio is make sure it is not a public company. Then you can get away with doing something other than making as much short-term money as possible, without the shareholders sueing you.

    My own small suggestion for this: preferentially hire unknown actors. There are lots of them, and they are often surprisingly good; even if they aren’t as good as the Name Talent, they have the huge virtue of not being a recognisable face and therefore not hauling the audience’s preconceptions into the role.

  • amanohyo

    I agree with your auggestion RogerBW; it saves a ton of money initially, but what’s the first question the average American moviegoer asks when you tell them about a movie you just saw? 95% of the time, the water cooler banter runs something like:

    “Oh really, who’s in it?”

    “Tanning Chaytum, Bulla Sandreck, and Jorge Hoonie”

    “Oh, I love him/her! Did you see,(other movie they’re in). (exchange favorite movie quotes/scenes)”

    Most people play it safe and base their movie choices almost entirely on the actors and the genre without even considering the director and the writer(s), which has never made much sense to me. If you’re going to cast only new faces, be prepared to lose money, even if the movie turns out well, and sadly even if the director and writer have a proven track record of success with big name stars.

  • Miss Sunshine

    I’ve often fantasized about running my own little studio.

    I think that Robert Rodriguez has a nice set-up in Austin, Texas but I would probably run something closer to an artists commune. Everyone would receive a basic wage, and receive a cut of the profits.

    It’s too bad Hollywood often treats their writers badly. I agree with the posters above that a strong vision and excellent writing are basic to good movies.

    OT: I would love to see what Joss Whedon had planned for the Wonder Woman movie. Too bad the money guys had no faith. Idiots.

    Sometimes an exceptional actor can make the best of weak material, but “Name” actors are often not the best choice for a movie.

    I’m going to go back to Robert Rodriguez and say that at present, he is one of the smartest guys making films on his own terms. I think he is setting up the blueprint of the independent studios in the coming years.

  • RogerBW

    amanohyo: you may not lose money – particularly if you make most of it from DVD sales rather than multiplexes – but I agree you certainly won’t make the sort of huge profits that big studios sometimes manage.

    On the other hand you’ll be making a small profit with a greater proportion of the films… and the trick will be to build a studio brand (“we take a chance on stuff that isn’t the same as everyone else is doing”) rather than a director or actor brand. Then when your talent goes on to make Big Money working for Sony you’ve got someone else coming up…

  • Brian

    If I ran a movie studio, I would make sure that all of the screenplays only had one writer and give final script approval to the original author of any adapted novel or short story.

    I think you would have a lot of trouble getting the best screenwriters and directors to work for you if you did that. I know I would not appreciate knowing that there’s someone looking over my shoulder as I try to make an adaptation that will work on film, and many writers of fiction are notoriously bad at knowing the difference between effective prose and effective filmmaking. (Nabokov, for instance, infamously wrote a 1,000 page screenplay for Kubrick’s Lolita.)

  • RogerBW

    I’d treat adaptations slightly differently: don’t take on any that are just a matter of buying the name and then attaching a generic script to it. Take them on only if the director and screenwriter seem actually to like the property.

    Since I won’t have the money to pay for the rights for big-name adaptations anyway, this shouldn’t be a problem. :-)

  • amanohyo

    Brian, I’d make sure that the director and writer were compatible, willing to communicate, and open to compromise before they started working together. Wait… crap, I just eliminated 99% of my talent pool didn’t I?

    I’m just giving final script approval to the author. In my mind, the director still has a ton of wiggle room during shooting and editing. Of course in my mind, the whole filmmaking process is kind of murky. Maybe the CEO was right – it was a bad idea to make me president of the studio after all. I demand that the board fire me immediately.

  • I’d start production on the long-awaited–by me, at least–film versions of Bronx Cheer and Cat and Mouse

  • Bluejay

    Some things I’d do:

    1) Remake The Golden Compass with all the controversial ideas put back in, and finance the sequels.

    2) Convince Peter Jackson to sign on, drop the miniseries idea for Temeraire, and make the movie versions instead.

    3) Get the ball rolling on the first installment of The Young Han Solo Chronicles–screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, directed by Irvin Kershner, and zero involvement from George Lucas.

    4) Get the movie rights to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels and do them justice.

    5) Godfather III reboot.

    Of course I’d be filthy rich and finance all of this personally. I’d expect to lose millions of dollars this year, and next year. At that rate, I’d have to close the studio in… 60 years.

  • Martin

    I’d remake Little Shop of Horrors with the original ‘unhappy’ ending. If Frank Oz is willing to be on board for it (and I’m sure he would, given his love for the lost ending) then all the better.

    I’d give Joss Whedon creative freedom (but no unlimited funds, I’d say that a tight budget makes you more creative).

  • Spencer

    Totally agree with the Joss Whedon comment above. Damn it! You stole my idea!

    Although I would approach something of his a la Lord of the Rings. Joss simply has a very hard time compressing his genius, and I’m fine with that on the whole. So, if I were a TV exec I would guarantee him 3 seasons, prime time placement, and minimal interference. If I’m a movie exec, I’m giving him 3 movies, filmed back-to-back-to-back, with total creative control.

    Then I just enjoy the movie when it comes out. Screw box office receipts — it’s my fantasy, and I’ll do it like I want.

  • Chris

    I’d hand over enough money neccicery for Gendy Tartakovsky to complete the long-discussed feature-film climax to Samurai Jack. Then fund a new Firefly trilogy. Then a Dr. Horrible feature adaptation. Aside from funding my own projects, I’d also reach out to young filmmakers I like and have yet to really start and get original projects running. Finally I’d find where Harvey Kietel and Rick Moranis went after 1997 and make a musical buddy picture.

  • Miss Sunshine

    Yes to starting up Firefly again. I’m still bitter it was canceled.

    And yes to a remake of Earthsea. It was a beautiful series, and the made-for-tv movie was horrible.

  • Paul Hayes

    If I was given it lock, stock and barrel, to do with as I pleased? I’d make television dramas until the money ran out, just ‘cos I could.

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