We recently had a great opportunity to interview Hollywood movie producer Rick Schwartz. He's worked with Scorcese on THE DEPARTED and was a producer on THE AVIATOR and GANGS OF NEW YORK. We talked about the writer's strike, the future of movies, his upcoming projects, and all the ways that fan boys like us try to break into the biz with their own "next amazing blockbuster."
MPb: How long do you see the writers' strike lasting? Is it currently impacting any of your productions?
Rick Schwartz: I think that both sides are dug in pretty deep at this point, so I don't see it ending any time soon. Unfortunately, like most labor disputes, it's more than just the issues that need resolution. In Hollywood - more than probably any other industry - ego and perception plays a huge part in everything. It's not just whether you win or lose, it's how you win. That doesn't bode well for a quick or amicable ending.
As far as my own projects are concerned, there are a few that are affected; I'm literally not allowed to discuss any script with a member of the writer's guild, and they're technically not supposed to be writing. Luckily, I have several movies which are either headed into production with "locked" scripts or involve writers who are not part of the guild.
MPb: With the writers' strike, can we expect to see non-union talent filling the void, or no? Like the baby boom that occurs nine months after a city-wide blackout, will there be a noticeable amount of "new" material popping up in the next year?
Rick Schwartz: I'm hesitant to compare writers to a citywide sex spike (especially since they so rarely have sex), but... what the hell. I don't think non-union writers will fill the void, as most of the ones who haven't yet joined are either inexperienced or afraid of being labeled scabs. What we'll see, I believe, is a bunch of movies being rushed into production to fill the studios and distributors needs. The machine needs feeding: actors, agents, managers, publicists, executives, therapists, drug dealers - they all survive around those pictures we see in the theatres - so they can't stop putting them out. I'm concerned that the movies we'll see next year might not be of a certain quality, but then again, most people would probably argue that they're not such good quality to begin with. It's a familiar refrain, strike or no strike...
MPb: Can you give us a teaser on the project that you and Gareb are cooking up?
Rick Schwartz: Gareb knows a lot of large men through the IFL, so I feel like I'm risking my life, but I have very powerful lawyers - guess I'll take my chances. Gareb has built an enormous audience with Wizard and his other publications, a following which is loyal and smart. They've been with his team for a long time, and he has such an intimate relationship with his readers; I've never seen a guy care more about his audience than Gareb. I've built a few relationships of my own over the years, with actors, writers and directors. Many of the people I work with are either comic book fans or graphic novel afficianados, so we're going forward with the logical evolution - and also marrying our two areas of expertise. I'll bring in Movie Star X, for example, and say, "what world do you want to live in?" It doesn't have to be a guy in tights, nowadays it can be anything - certainly 300, ROAD TO PERDITION and SIN CITY proved that. Once we identify the genre, we'll tap into Wizard's vast resources of writers and illustrators, and emerge with a very focused plan. It will literally be both a great published work which the actor will own with us, and at the same time, a terrific blueprint for a movie. From a studio point of view, there's nothing better than seeing it this way - in the most fundamental way, it's a script with pictures, already blessed by the star.
Of course, I hope it comes out that easily when I pitch the concept to Jessica Alba. I figure if I keep my head down and don't look directly into the light, I might make it through the meeting...
MPb: We'd also like to hear about "The Lucky Ones."
Rick Schwartz: THE LUCKY ONES is a movie I'm really proud of - it's directed by Neil Burger, who did THE ILLUSIONIST, and stars Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins and Michael Pena.
The story centers on 3 soldiers who are on leave from the war and are thrown together on a road trip from New York to Las Vegas. It's a really funny, touching movie - there's no mention of the word "Iraq" - and what's going on in America today. Red states, blue states, all the colors of our great country are shown in the movie. It was a challenge to make because we didn't build a single set: if the script called for a scene in a national park in Colorado, we went to Colorado. We shot it last summer, and it was like a traveling road show - with three great actors and a really game crew; I think the fun and chemistry everyone had making it is reflected in the movie. The film will be distributed by Lionsgate, the folks who released CRASH, some time next year.
MPb: As a film producer, what is your exact level of involvement in getting a project started, and then once [film] is rolling, what is your day-to-day involvement like?
Schwartz: Those factors change from film to film. It all starts with material, so I read a ton of scripts, graphic novels, manuscripts, plays and articles, while also watching old or foreign films for remake ideas. Once I find something I like (which is rare), I option the material and find a screenwriter. I then work and rework the script with him/her until it's as good as possible; once I feel somewhat secure, I try to package the ideal director and actors for the movie. Until now, I've been very hands-on during the production and editing process - on set virtually every day to solve the millions of problems that arise during the daily miracle of film production. I love what comes next: post-production, where you watch every frame of film you've shot, try different music for each scene, add sound effects, etc. Some producers find it laborious and time-consuming, I feel like the best movies are actually created in the hands of great editors and directors. Then again, I've been fortunate to watch one of the all-time great teams at work during 3 separate movies - Martin Scorsese and his amazing editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.
At this point in my career, I need to cut back on the daily involvement and take a more macro approach to producing. My company has 4 films prepping for production in the next 6 months, so there's no way I can possibly be everywhere at once (nor would I want to be). Luckily, I have smart people who work with me, and I'm looking to other producers to help carry some of the load. As they say in Hollywood, it's a high-class problem to have. I'm very aware that if not for some lucky turn of events, I could be spending the next few months watching my Bar-Mitzvah video over and over. (I was short but effective, as my mother always reminds me.)
MPb: What can an aspiring producer do to get into shoes like yours? What did you do to work with the likes of Scorsese?
Schwartz: People think it's complicated, but it's really not. You simply show up at Scorsese's office (or your own favorite director) and tell him that you want to produce their next movie. That's what I did, and it worked really well. No, that was a joke; if you try that, you'll probably experience serious bodily harm...
I've been very lucky in my career. I grew up in New York and didn't want to leave my family and friends by moving to LA, so I was fishing in a very small pond. I was fortunate in that the very first person I met in the film business -Harvey Weinstein, the co-founder of Miramax - hired me to work for him. I spent more than 6 years learning how to develop, produce and market movies with Miramax, just as the studio was in its heyday. Here's a partial list of movies during that period, which I think is pretty amazing coming from one company: GOOD WILL HUNTING, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, SCARY MOVIE, THE OTHERS, CHICAGO, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, ROUNDERS, SCREAM, THE CROW, BAD SANTA, FARENHEIT 9/11. It was pretty cool to see these hits from start to finish. There was a real sense of "we-can-do-anything" there, and it paid off more often than not. Harvey and Bob were the best teachers a producer could have.
Once I decided to leave - after working on GANGS OF NEW YORK - I hung up my shingle and just trusted my instincts. It sounds corny, but I always try to be straight with people - no matter how high up on the A list they are - and stand by whatever I promise. I believe people remember that quality, and when they have a choice of projects to which to commit time and effort, they'll want to work with someone the know is honorable.
I get a lot of people calling me to try to break into the business, and it's definitely a tough one to enter. But you probably need the same things to produce as you do to have a successful career as an actor: perseverance, passion, luck, more perseverance, thick skin, talent, a willingness to pay your dues and a ton of hard work.
If your last name is "Bruckheimer" that probably helps too.
MPb: Do you find it more preferable producing TV or film? Can you describe some type of benefit of one or the other that might not be immediately obvious?
Schwartz: I'm literally just getting into TV production, so I'm learning as I go. The most important differences, though, have become immediately clear: you get answers much, much faster in television and you spend a lot less money getting those answers. For instance, I have scripts that I've been developing for years, and all those costs come out of my pocket - the writer, the re-writer, traveling a potential director to meet with a potential leading actor. After all that, I still don't have a movie - I just have a lot of receipts and some explaining to do to my accountant. You still need a studio to say yes, we'll finance and distribute your movie.
In television, the networks pay for development once they like your idea. They bankroll the whole thing, whether it's shooting a pilot or putting together a reality show. They also tell you really fast - sometimes in the room after you've pitched it - whether or not they want to proceed. On the feature side, everyone loves you in the room and is desperate to make your movie. Then you go home and wait. And wait some more. I'm still waiting in some cases - 2 years later. Either people are afraid to say no, or they're afraid that someone else will say yes and make a hit out of something they've passed on - so for them, the trick is to keep stringing you along just enough so that you don't give up or go elsewhere but not enough where they actually have to make a decision. This, needless, to say, is my favorite part of the film business.
Now you know why I'm getting into TV.
MPb: What's the biggest problem in Hollywood right now? Do you have a solution in mind?
Schwartz: Besides all the labor disputes, I think there's a real schism in the movie business - more so than ever before - between what the big studios are making and what the independent producers are creating. The studios are extremely focused on franchises that can play around the world - in other words, they're only swinging for the fences. I presented one package to a studio recently and the executive came back to me a week later and said, "my marketing and distribution guys ran the numbers and they think this will make between $25-35 million dollars. So we're passing." It literally wasn't worth their time and effort to get behind a movie that had that kind of cap on it. I think that actors are valued less and less by the studios, since they've come to the conclusion that people go to see either big concepts, hardcore effects or known franchises; very few actors (and even fewer actresses) get people into the theatre on their own. It's why Daniel Day Lewis doesn't get paid that much but ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS grosses $45 million dollars on its opening weekend...
Then you've got all these new sources of money coming into Hollywood - private equity, hedge funds, etc. - which is a wonderful boon for filmmakers. A lot more independent films are getting made, with cool material and great casts. Just because it's being made independently, though, doesn't mean it's good; it's just as easy to make a pretentious piece of crap for $5 million dollars (insert your own title here) as it is to churn out THE MASK 2 for $125 million.
The problem, however, is the crowd. There are so many movies being made that the theatres can't show them all and people can't get to see them. It's Darwinism out there at your local multiplex - you have weekends where 12 new films come out and odds are most of them are going to be sent to the morgue a week later to make room for the new ones. I'm not smart enough to know what the solution is, but I think that new methods of distribution are necessary. Maybe it's the web, or what's coming next, but I can't tell you how disheartening it is to work your ass off every day for months (and this includes everyone from the lead actors to the caterer) and then have your movie disappear in 7 days - especially if it's good.
Something's gotta change.
MPb: Off the record, Blu-Ray or HD-DVD ?
Schwartz: Laserdisc. Trust me, it's going to make a comeback - and I have over $12,000 worth of equipment riding on it...
MPb: What is your dream project? Who would you like to work with?
Rick: I've fulfilled a lot of my dreams already, having worked with many of my idols - Daniel Day Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Robert Benton, Jack Nicholson, Guiseppe Tornatore, Tom Cruise, Jerry Seinfeld - the list goes on. I'm also extremely lucky to be living in New York City and making movies, since I get to see my family, friends, and people who do things other than talk about movies 24 hours a day.
One of the nice things about Hollywood is that there always seems to be a new crop of cool actors, writers and directors. They come out of nowhere and suddenly they're everywhere - spotting these people early on is very rewarding. I remember doing a tiny movie years ago which called for a high school kid in the lead. We read every single "hot" young actor in town - there were more chiseled cheekbones in one room than should be legally permissible - but one quirky kid just blew everyone away with his audition. It was clear that he was not only right for the part but was going to be a huge talent. We cast him - despite the protests of many - and today Shia LaBoeuf is starring in some pretty big movies. That kind of stuff keeps my juices flowing - when I read a JUNO or see a NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN - it makes me want to be a movie producer. Which, um, I believe I am. (It's always in doubt whether or not you'll still be working after your most recent movie comes out.)
I also love comedies, so I really want to make a flat-out hilarious movie, something in the vein of Broken Lizard, National Lampoon, those types of films. I've read a lot of comedies, and unless you're Judd Apatow, it seems really, really hard to make something funny. Plus I don't have an actual "sense of humor", which I'm beginning to sense might be holding me back.
MPb:Can you offer any advice to the aspiring writers in our audience? Consequently, what's the weirdest story you have about someone finding out you're a producer and trying to pitch an idea to you? Does it happen a lot?
Schwartz: I get pitched movies all the time, in every imaginable situation. Weddings, funerals, family gatherings, holiday parties, doctors offices - it's amazing how many people want to talk about the movies they've just seen (and blame me, naturally, if it sucked). I don't think people stop and think that maybe, just maybe, a) I don't want to talk about movies every second of my life and that b) a circumcision isn't the proper place to examine the potential of a movie about aliens invading Iraq. Oddly, I've discovered that most people who pitch me ideas are really reflecting things from their own life. My dentist (in whose office I'm unfortunately a total captive audience, albeit in a more heavily sedated state than usual) got all worked up about a thriller set in the future with all kinds of set pieces. Clearly, he'd spent a whole lot of time thinking about this, and got more excited as he rattled on. The punchline, unsurprisingly, was that the hero of this amazing tale turned out to be a really smart, cool... dentist. I've heard similar storylines from my accountant, therapist and rabbi. At least nobody in my life lacks for confidence.
I used to stay at the same hotel in LA a lot, and after about 2 years, it got to the point where I'd have headshots slipped under the door. Even the staff would ask me about the grosses for my last filmand, of course, if there were any roles for them in an upcoming one.
Ultimately, I do try to listen to people because you never know where the next great story will come from. But I reward people who've done the work - if someone wrote a script (and hopefully registered it with The Writer's Guild), I'll usually take a look. This sounds obvious, but it should be written using professional software, such as "Final Draft" or "Movie Magic", and thoroughly checked for typos and editing mistakes. The best writers write and rewrite until they're really happy with it; if I read a new writer's work and it's either unprofessionally done or complete crap, the odds are extremely minimal that I'll ever engage them again. I know it's all glamorous and that people think my life is one long episode of ENTOURAGE, but c'mon folks, it's a business. Additionally, if someone has an idea, and thinks it would "make a great movie" - but hasn't done anything else - then I won't waste my time. It puts all the onus on me to take their "idea" and do all the hard work. Which happens to be one of my least favorite things to do.
As for how to get stuff to me, just send it to Gareb at Wizard first. It's about time he came out of retirement and did some real work...
We'll keep you posted on the future of Gareb and Rick's secret project, and THE LUCKY ONES as we get closer to its release. You can read more about Rick's films on his IMDb page.
Rick Schwartz, Rachel McAdams, director Neil Berger, and Michael Pena