You Too Can Be a Producer!
In David Mamet’s “State and Main,” a spoof about a Hollywood movie company that invades a small town in New England, a young screenwriter is listening to the film director trying to hire a horse for a scene. One of his assistants tells him: “The horse is booked.”
“Tell the guy, get me the horse,” he says. “I’ll give him an associate-producer credit.” The screenwriter turns to a production assistant and asks, “What’s an associate-producer credit?” The assistant replies: “It’s what you give to your secretary instead of a raise.”
And that, in a nutshell, is why the issue of producer credits has become one of the longest-running comedies in Hollywood. Take the example of “The Caveman’s Valentine.” The film, due out March 2, has one director, one costume designer, one director of photography, one composer--and 17 producers.
It’s hardly a freakish exception. “3000 Miles to Graceland,” the Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner heist picture opening Friday, has 10 producers. “The Mexican,” the Julia Roberts-Brad Pitt film also opening March 2, has eight. A number of other films have had 10 producers, including “Face/Off,” “Deep Blue Sea” and “G.I. Jane.” “Assassins,” a 1995 Sly Stallone movie, had 17 producers, tying “Caveman’s Valentine” for the modern-day record.
Everyone takes producer credits these days, starting with movie stars and anyone on their payroll, including managers, brothers, wives, college roommates and ex-bodyguards, along with various financiers and production company executives. Too often film studios use producer credits as the grease that smooths the often balky process of prodding a film into production.
It’s as if I had to share my byline with my wife just because she brought me a sandwich while I was writing this column. There’s even a Hollywood producer-credit joke: How many producers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Twelve--one to screw in the lightbulb, 11 to take credit for it.
How did this happen? Here’s the simple answer. In the old days, movie studios put up all the money to make a film, so the producer was generally the person on set overseeing the production. In today’s world, with studios relying more on outside financing, movies are put together in more complicated ways. The “producers” might be the people who found the material, raised the money or delivered the star. So when you read producer credits, what you’re really seeing is the film’s back story, as if you were an archeologist peeling back layers of debris trying to find a buried city.
“Producer credits really offer a chronology of the movie,” explains Tony Ludwig, who was one of eight producers on last year’s Nicolas Cage film “Family Man.” “What it really tells you [when you see a lot of names] is that the movie was put together through a series of deals rather than from one person developing a piece of material.”
Producing Isn’t Quite What It Used to Be
There are still a few powerful producers in the old sense of the word, notably Jerry Bruckheimer, Brian Grazer and Scott Rudin, who have so much clout and access to top-drawer material that they rarely need to share credit with anyone. But as a rule, the more difficult it is to put the movie together, the longer the list of producers who end up sharing credits.
All this has watered down the value of the producer title. In recent years, various producer groups have unsuccessfully lobbied the studios to help stem the tide of unearned producer credits. In the past year, the Producers Guild of America has stepped up its efforts to establish a strict arbitration process that would award an on-screen certification mark identifying up to three producers who actually performed the key producer functions on a film. The guild has recruited a number of heavyweight producers to press the issue, including Gale Anne Hurd, who is co-chairman of the guild’s credit committee. Several low-profile films have been through arbitration, though none will reach theaters till later in the year.
Studio support for producers has been lukewarm. Only three unidentified studios have agreed to participate in the certification process, and even they won’t become actively involved until the remaining studios sign off on the new system.
“We’re simply trying to force people to define what the job is that goes with the credit,” says “Spider-Man” producer Laura Ziskin, another guild activist. “Everyone is diminished when there’s 17 producer names on a movie. The implication is that no one did the job. It may not change until long after I’m retired, but by slow, incremental steps, we’re starting to make some progress.”
Still, many believe it’s a pipe dream. Having your name up on screen is a powerful aphrodisiac. “Quiz Show,” which earned a best picture Oscar nomination in 1994, originally had 13 producers. Two of the film’s key producers, Mark Johnson and Barry Levinson, were so embarrassed by the credit sprawl that they took their names off the film, hoping to shame some of the others into removing theirs.
“No one budged,” says Johnson. “All they said was, ‘Great, now there’s two less people.’ ”
Studios not only routinely give managers producer credits, but pay them producer fees out of the film’s budgets (which go against their manager fees) in return for the manager’s help in securing top-name star talent. I can still hear the late producer Marvin Worth bellowing his displeasure over having to share his credit on “Diabolique” with star Sharon Stone’s manager. “The bum never even came to the set,” Worth fumed. “In fact, when there was a problem with Sharon, he sent someone else to talk to her--and he still took a credit.”
John Travolta manager Jonathan Krane regularly takes an executive producer credit on his client’s films; likewise for longtime Keanu Reeves manager Erwin Stoff, who is one of six producers on “Sweet November,” Reeves’ new film. Stoff insists he only takes a credit when he’s made a significant contribution to the picture. He points out that his company developed the script for “Sweet November” and he spent months on location in San Francisco with his wife, Deborah Aal, who shares credit with Stoff, Steve Reuther (who financed the film) and Elliot Kastner, whom Stoff says he has never “met in my life,” but who received a credit because he owned the film’s remake rights.
On the other hand, Stoff has taken executive producer credits on films such as “The Matrix” and “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” where his biggest contribution was participating in the marketing of the films. Stoff says he won’t take a credit on either “Matrix” sequel. “Let’s face it, they need me like they need a hole in the head,” he admits. “If all you’re doing is making a deal for your client and going to the premiere, it’s ludicrous to take a credit on a film.”
Everybody’s Getting Into the Act
It’s amazing how quickly producer credits can work their way into double figures. In the case of the Samuel L. Jackson-starring film “The Caveman’s Valentine,” it took a number of complex financial alliances to find its way to the screen. The movie’s odd-couple production team represents as unlikely a pairing as Elton John and Eminem, combining Jersey Films, the classy producer of “Erin Brockovich,” and Franchise Pictures, the Elie Samaha-run company behind such forgettable fare as “Battlefield Earth” and “Get Carter.”
Based on a George Dawes Green novel, “The Caveman’s Valentine” is about a half-mad ex-classical musician who tries to solve the murder of a young drifter he finds hanging in a tree outside his makeshift cave in Central Park. Screenwriter Scott Frank discovered the book browsing in a mystery bookshop. Impressed by the unconventional drama’s vivid images, Frank took the book to Jersey, which had hired him to write “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight.” Jersey bought the book and took it to Jackson, who as it turned out, had been a fan of the book himself.
The Jersey-Jackson alliance alone gave the project seven producers: Danny DeVito, Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg, the three Jersey partners; Frank, who found the book; and Jackson, who took an executive producer credit along with his managers, Julie Yorn and Eli Selden. Jackson earned his credit: He introduced the Jersey team to “Caveman” director Kasi Lemmons, who’d directed him in “Eve’s Bayou.” At the behest of Yorn and Selden, who helped arrange financing for the film, Jackson also agreed to work for a fraction of his $9-million fee.
While Green was adapting the script from his novel, the credit list expanded even more, with Stephanie Davis, Lemmons’ manager, taking a co-executive producer credit along with Jonathan Weisgal, a then-Jersey Films executive who helped the company set up financing for the picture.
Even with Jackson attached as the star, the project was turned down by virtually every studio in town. The movie was briefly at USA Films, which dropped out after disagreements over script revisions. With the project close to falling apart, Jersey took it to Franchise’s Samaha, who was eager to be in business with a star of Jackson’s stature. Samaha financed the film by selling off foreign territories; Universal Pictures agreed to distribute the film in the U.S.
To keep the budget at roughly $20 million, Franchise put its own line producer, Michael Drake, on the film, even though the picture already had Michael Bennett, Lemmons’ line producer from her first film. “If you don’t have your own pit bull on a movie, all kinds of bad things can happen,” says Samaha. “If I didn’t have Michael [Drake], we could’ve gone $5 million over. I had my own guy on ‘Battlefield Earth,’ and it still went from $50 million to $62 million.”
Drake ended up with an associate-producer credit along with Tracee Stanley, Franchise’s president of development. Bennett received a co-producer credit along with James Holt, Franchise’s vice president of operations, and Pamela Abdy, a Jersey production executive who helped oversee the project’s development. Finally, three more Franchise executives were added to the bulging producer roster: Samaha, Franchise President Andrew Stevens and Nicholas Clermont, a Samaha financing executive, who took an executive-producer credit.
The result: one movie, 17 producers. “When you spend a lot of years trying to get a challenging film off the ground, you end up with a lot of partners,” says Jersey’s Sher. “It just shows how hard it is to get some movies made.”
Samaha puts it more bluntly: “This is Hollywood, so you have to kiss people in. I make 15 movies a year, so I don’t fight it. I’ve got too many movies to make.”
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