How I Learned To Be a LA Producer or "When A Man Falls In The Forest"
LA is the mecca for investors looking for glamour, to party with stars, act like big shots and to make a fortune as executive producers. With chequebook in hand, Investors arriving at LAX are ripe for the pickings by hordes of dubious producers, directors and packagers – all offering the inside track to the next Big Thing.
Unfortunately, the temptation to write a cheque before discovering the harsh realities of just how difficult it is in this business to ever recover even a portion of your investment is all too enticing. For those who grab for the dream too quickly, the money often runs dry and the party ends. But for those who stick around, Hollywood remains the stuff that dreams are made of.
For those looking to make deals, the American Film Market is the place to get noticed. AFM is where Hollywood insiders meet outsiders.
Armed with Insight’s production strengths, some industry credibility and partnership with another investor’s funds, in 2005 I took on the role of Hollywood newbie at the AFM.
My First AFM: when you first visit the AFM it’s nothing short of amazing...
The Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel is transformed into the preeminent film industry marketplace. Beds are removed from the rooms turning them into offices; larger rooms become exclusive screening theatres for premier event movies looking for distribution or investment to pay back loans. It’s wall to wall producers selling their dreams, writers desperately trolling the rooms with bound copies of their scripts in tow and packagers – agents -- ready with turn-key movie opportunities that are oh so urgent you need to sign today or maybe lose the deal. And everywhere, dangled like shining lures attached to the end of a direct line to fame, are stars --famous and infamous – each attached to a project waiting for a bite from someone with dollars to invest. Looking back, I have to admit to being completely taken in by the glamour and star power of Hollywood.
Meandering through the hotel taking in the pitches, the atmosphere and the big names dropped at strategic moments during each conversation, I overheard producer, Mary Aloe talking about a film that needed some financing with Sharon Stone attached. I knew Mary from collaboration on an earlier film, “Downtown” so we quickly started a discussion that was something like: great opportunity, great script, great cast – and a Sundance lab developed script.
The script was titled, “When A Man Falls in the Forest” and had been developed through Sundance Festival’s Screenwriters’ lab. According to everyone involved, the Festival was bound to accept this – their own -- film into the festival. I was intrigued because Sharon Stone’s name was attached and she was willing to make this film far below her normal pay range. It was also a big selling point at the time that Sharon was about to shoot Basic Instinct II which would make When A Man Falls in the Forest a sure fire success riding the coat tails of the release of Basic Instinct II.
The writer was also slated to Direct. Mary explained that he was the next Steven Soderbergh and Sharon was on board to support his career. As Mary Aloe talked, I ran a myriad of financings schemes through my mind until I knew I could make the financing work.
Next I spoke to the distributor who had a German film fund interested, plus a new film equity investment fund looking for mid budget projects. Everyone was on board because a Sundance premier offered big profit potential. Financing quickly fell into place and before the close of AFM, I had agreed to finance and produce this film in Canada as soon as Sharon’s schedule permitted.
A week prior, LA Agency reps or Sharon Stone’s agent would not give me the time of day, now they were asking me when I could schedule them into my calendar.
My first production oriented meeting was with the Hollywood Agency’s representative. The agent’s job is to help filmmakers get their films made and to help ensure investors get their money back. Like most agents, ours was very sincere in helping both sides and it soon became clear that Sharon Stone’s experience shooting with Insight in Vancouver would go a long way toward other agents trusting their “A” list clients to Insight for future movies.
Insight and I were moving on up to the big times: “A” list actors, higher budgets and a premier at the Sundance Film Festival practically guaranteed. I really felt like a Hollywood producer. On the horizon, I envisioned myself moving from Hollywood producer to movie mogul with this film a first stepping stone to a brighter future.
Bringing Characters to Life…
Together with the Director, our Agent and I agreed to Dylan Baker as the lead. He was perfectly cast and came to set knowing his character and exactly how to portray him. In retrospect Dylan never received the recognition he deserved for the quirky multi-facetted character he brought to life in this movie. I was on set one day Dylan was in a dream sequence that saw him running naked down a hallway. His commitment to the character knew no bounds.
The next subject was casting Sharon's husband. We all wanted an actor with some name recognition to help bolster the film’s sales. All kinds of major star names were thrown around, but finally we secured Tim Hutton who took the role in part to work with Sharon. This made my wife very happy; as I soon discovered she had always had a major crush on Tim.
It was a bit of a struggle to find the right actor for Tim Hutton's best friend and through this process I really learned to appreciate the value of casting. We secured Pruitt Taylor Vince who may not have been a big name, but he was the ideal actor to breathe life into the complex character of Travis.
The production’s schedule had to fit Sharon's availability so we were going to camera February 20th 2006. Sharon wouldn't able to stay for the entire shoot which meant we needed to condense her shooting days by reworking the script. It was a challenge, but the Writer/Director made it work.
The Actor's Craft...
As the first day of principal photography loomed, rumours began to swirl around town about Sharon’s on-set attitude. The biggest warning I received was that she would take over directing the film once she arrived. I tried to let the warnings slide off my back. There was little else I could do anyway. But it was to my great relief that none of the rumours proved valid. Sharon could not have been more professional and very respectful to everyone with special support for the Writer/Director’s vision.
She sincerely wanted to help him create his film and to do her part to launch his career. I too respected their creative space and often stood back watching Sharon, Tim and the other actors approach the film and their characters with honest respect for each other’s craft.
I have to make a special mention of my favourite Canadian actor, Michael Ekland who played the store clerk. Michael’s been in about half dozen movies or series of mine and from playing an incompetent deputy to a suave demon worshipper, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed each and every one of his performances. His ability to take the words and description from even the smallest character in a screenplay and then transform himself into a memorable – sometimes scene stealing –on screen performance constantly amazes me.
Insight's Great Crew…
Shooting When A Man Falls in the Forest was a great opportunity for Insight’s crew used to working on Insight’s low budget TV productions. Now with top cast and a slightly expanded budget level, the Insight team was able to shine which went a long way toward Insight gaining a name in Hollywood. I was very proud of the way everyone stepped up for the film -- especially when Sharon was on set. Many visitors remarked on the level of professionalism demonstrated by Insight’s loyal crew.
My most loved memory of production actually happened when I was leaving a meeting at the Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver. As I was waiting for the valet to bring my car to the entrance, Sharon's car pulled in. She had just left the set after a long day. Sharon shot me a smile and then walked over to give me a kiss on the cheek. There was nothing said during this impromptu encounter and then she quietly went into the hotel but I knew she was thanking me. I was on cloud 9 and childishly thought about not washing my cheek for a couple of days.
Post Production: Transforming a Film into a Film:
Production finished with few issues. In post, the Director had six weeks to deliver his vision. The Director’s cut he turned in was 120 minutes. Although tremendously thought provoking, the length was simply too long and pace too slow for North America commercial success. The other investors and I needed the film to be somewhat commercial to have any chance of returning our money. This forced Insight to be more active working with the Director for the next cut of the film with notes from all stakeholders.
I am not sure who suggested this, but we were introduced to Lisa Fruchtman who was Francis Ford Coppola's editor on Apocalypse Now and Godfather III. Lisa came on board as a consultant for the next cut. Her skill really showed me the magic of editing. We were given a crash course in how story can be shaped and existing footage manipulated through editing into something quite different than was originally envisioned in the screenplay. I brought Lisa back to help us with another film two years later, “Christmas in Wonderland,” starring Patrick Swayze.
Sundance Here We Come...
In the end, the final cut of the film was much improved, but the reality still lingered that this was an existential art house film. Fingers crossed and with high hopes, we shipped our pride and joy off to the Sundance Selection Committee for the slam dunk acceptance.
The news that the festival selection committee didn't like the movie and refused it deflated my huge bubble of anticipation and erased all the dollar signs I imagined waiting for Insight a few months down the road. I felt like I was hit in the gut. How could this happen? Poor me! Poor investors!
Stunned and in disbelief, everybody who was anybody associated with the movie got on the phone to talk Sundance into accepting the film. If they don't support their completed films, how will future investors trust the Sundance Festival to support movies coming out of their own Sundance Screenwriting labs? In addition to phone calls from producers and agents, the writer/director tried his best to communicate with the Sundance committee to improve the film. All to no avail.
If this all too real experience had been a movie, we would certainly have gained a last minute -- third act – reprieve delivering us from this all is lost moment. But reality seldom mimics the three act structure. “When A Man Falls in the Forest” starring Sharon Stone and Timothy Hutton would not be in the Sundance Film Festival.
Timing isn't everything, but it sure can ruin sales…
As my Hollywood Producer aspirations crashed and burned, I learned a valuable lesson. Sharon Stone’s name is certainly bankable in a sexy thriller, but not as it turned out in an existentialist art film – especially one Sundance passed over. Once the film lost the cache of being a Sundance Film, millions of dollars in possible sales revenue evaporated. This left the marketing of the film relying solely on the star power of Sharon and Timothy. Adding to the misery, the over-hyped Basic Instinct II had just flopped at the box office and the market was not much in the mood for another Sharon Stone film at that moment.
Berlin… Here We Come…
As a fall back, our attention switched to the Berlin Film Festival. We reasoned a European audience would
better appreciate this genre of film. I actually don't know how the film got into the Berlin Festival, I suspect it took some calls from Agency and more importantly a deal with Sharon to confirm she would attend and act as auctioneer at a Cinema for Peace gala event. Likely some sort of quid-pro-quo deal allowed the film to be enthusiastically accepted into Berlin.
Regardless of the reasons behind its acceptance, "When a Man Falls in the Forest" was one of the first indie films without distribution to get into the competition. The film actually pioneered changing the existing landscape by influencing the future types of movie accepted into the Competition section.
All filmmakers are excited and thrilled when their film is accepted in any film festival, but naturally the more prestigious the festival the higher the excitement. However, as a producer gambling money on a film that already didn’t sell, I was adding up in my head all at the added costs of flying and housing the film’s stars and writer/director. The costs of attending were staggering. “A” list actors don’t’ travel cheap they need their assistants, hair and makeup people and sometimes family too. However, the opportunity to walk the red carpet with Sharon Stone was more alluring than the mounting costs, I still held on to the dream of foreign sales and theatrical release. Although some costs are picked up by the distributor, these are then deducted from future sales so either way they came out of the producer’s pocket.
Ich Bin Ein Berliner…
I loved Berlin and especially the hotel we stayed in since it was near what had been Checkpoint Charlie – the historic setting for so many spy exchanges in film and in reality.
The first event for our movie was a cocktail reception hosted by our foreign distributor, John Laing -- from Rigel Entertainment -- for Berlin dignitaries, filmmakers, actors and foreign buyers through an event paid for by a sponsor.
An hour into the reception, all eyes turned to John Laing as he entered the room with Sharon on his arm. John is a British gentleman and I guess as such was born with the grace needed to be completely natural and charming as he guided Sharon around the room. John skilfully introduced her to the people -- mostly buyers -- whom he wanted Sharon to meet. Certain interested buyers also got their photo with Sharon.
Together John and Sharon were dazzling as they ever so gently manoeuvred through the maze of people. From years of grooming with the Hollywood studios, Sharon too was the perfect movie star, poised, graceful, funny and every bit as glamorous as a Hollywood icon should be. Although I didn't get a photo, I did receive another kiss on the cheek.
As quickly as John and Sharon arrived, he whisked her away to the safety of her hotel suite. Of course I was totally jealous of John’s quality time with Sharon.
Don't Trip on the Red Carpet…
The next day was the world premiere of our film. Grand arrangements were made to organize the cars driving us to the theatre and who was in which car and would arrive in which order. In this organizing nobody really cares who the producers, distributors, investors are. (Often too the writer or Director silently makes their way along the red carpet.) I was paired with Tim Hutton so I knew we would receive some attention.
It turned out that Sharon has a huge following in Germany and there were thousands of people lined up ten deep along a very long red carpet walk to the theatre. By nature I avoid the spotlight so I lingered allowing Sharon and Tim to take the lead. I watched them respond to their fans. It looked to me like Tim was actually
amazed and unprepared for the swarms of fans while Sharon was a natural speaking with some fans and a few of the press. John Laing joined me with Sharon just as the Berlin Dailey Newspaper photographer snapped our photo. The next day’s edition showed a front page with Sharon perfectly framed on either side by John and me.
We waited back stage in the green room for our turn to be introduced on stage. I walked up, accepted the applause and then was forgotten as were most of the rest. But once Timothy came on stage there was an ovation only surpassed by Sharon’s entrance. The theatre was wild with anticipation. We all took our assigned seats as the lights dimmed. I sat next to Timothy Hutton in the darkened theatre with 1000 others to watch our film. I felt this moment was what it was all about – sitting in the audience was the emotional pay off for producing movies.
Tim Hutton's Performance Wows…
There is a moment in the film when Tim's character phones Sharon to leave her a deep heartfelt message of hope on her answering machine. Sharon’s character then accidentally deletes the message without hearing it. Collectively the audience let out a gasp of emotion feeling deeply for Timothy’s character. Tim was actually shocked and pleased by the audience reaction. He even whispered to me that he had never witnessed such a reaction to one of his performances. This reconfirmed to me how all the characters were perfectly cast and worked perfectly for the script.
The Critics Chime In…
“When A Man Falls in the Forest” is a slow thought provoking emotional character study and never tried to be more than it was. Watching the film in a full theatre viewers can't help but reflect on their lives and be charged by the emotion on the screen. But as emotionally touching as the performances were, the critics were not particularly kind to the overall film. Many commented on the wonderful work of the actors, but most felt the film as a whole was a letdown.
The next day there was luncheon schedule for buyers. Once more Sharon’s charm and grace worked the room with John Laing guiding her, but this time the attendance was slightly off and the previous shine had dimmed. It was our hope buyers would beat a path to our door. But there was no beat and the door barely opened.
Sharon Make's Headlines
That night Sharon hosted a fund raiser as the guest auctioneer at the Cinema for Peace Gala. Sharon
certainly knows how to work a room and get men with money to dig into their wallets. Her charm, charisma and sex appeal -- teasing male donators – made them quick to pay up. She took control of the bidding, implementing a “you talk, you bid” system. Followed by a “you look at me wrong, you bid.” Sharon closed out the auction by calling her audience “naughty, nasty little Germans.” She added, “That’s why I keep coming back, ‘cause you’re naughty. Nasty. I like it!”
Needless to say this didn’t go over well in the press. Interestingly before the gala auction, Sharon had spent the day with Leni Reiffenstahl's husband, Horst Kettner. No doubt discussing the film rights to Leni's life story since Leni herself had expressed that she preferred Sharon to play herself if a movie was ever produced about her life. I’ve always wondered about the impetus for her choice of words that evening.
School of Hard Knocks…
Returning from Berlin it was clear there would be no US theatrical release. I learned a great deal from producing “When A Man Falls in the Forest.” It was a hard knocks course in theatrical filmmaking 101. We eventually sold the film to a US DVD distributor who shortened the title to “When A Man Falls” and packaged it as a thriller which was a real stretch, but at least it got a DVD released in the US. The foreign distributors that pre-signed contracts asked for a reduced price. France wanted a 60% reduction and I don't even know if the film was ever sold to Germany where Sharon was so revered.
A true professional, the Director was keenly concerned about the investors recovering their money and let any criticism roll off his back. He knew the movie he was making was a commercial risk, but his vision had been fulfilled in the Berlin theatre.
Following When A Man Falls in the Forest, I returned to AFM every year since making deals and producing several features and each time the doors were always open for me. For that I thank Sharon Stone, Timothy Hutton and all those who helped make When A Man Falls in the Forest a reality.
Judging success and failure in the film industry is a judgement measured only in retrospect. On this film, all of the investors lost money. For me, I came to Hollywood and I certainly did not conquer. I do, however, count myself among the survivors since Hollywood didn’t chew me up and spit me out. I had gained some respect and proved I could deliver a film with an “A” list cast. “When A Man Falls in the Forest” started as a dream. We all came together to make that dream come true. What better judge of success is there?
Hollywood is the stuff that dreams are made of...