The Film Business

It’s Easier to Say No! But there are Risks!

Every job in the movie business is about finding and securing material and talent (creative elements) for a project; securing funding, and supervising the creative, logistical, and financial execution of the project; finding a way to get the finished project in front of an audience or finding a way to get an audience n front of the project. Depending upon the exact title of the executive, the responsibilities vary but in general all the jobs are there to support or lead the process of development, funding, preproduction, production, postproduction, sales, distribution, marketing, or publicity.

The Players

Studios are publicly owned entities. Almost anyone can call a stockbroker, put down some cash, and buy a (very) tiny share of the corporation that owns Universal or Fox. As a stockholder, you want your investment to make money. The Board of Directors of the corporations that own the studios know that if a film costs $100 million to make, it must show a profit of two and a half to three times the investment, otherwise the studio and the stockholders won’t make money. (This two and half to three times the production budget formula is in part because the cost of effectively marketing and distributing a film is so high). If the studio doesn’t make money, the shareholders don’t make money. The president of production loses his or her position and sometimes the other executives are out of a job when the new president arrives, because that person wants to be surrounded by his or her own people. The “business” of the parent corporations is not only movies: Universal is NBC Universal, Warner Bros. is part of Time Warner, Disney is Disney/ABC, Paramount is part of Viacom, 20th Century Fox is owned by News Corporation, and Sony Pictures Entertainment is owned by Sony, the electronics corporation. For some of the stockholders in these entertainment conglomerates, movies are just a single aspect of a complex web of media investment and no one invests their money intending to lose it. Critical acclaim is nice but the dollar is king.

Film Investors

Image by: Borman818

The dilemma of the studio executive is that the shelf life of his or her position is extremely limited. A few bad calls and he or she is out of the game. The probability of maintaining an executive position at the same studio or major production company for several years is so low that experienced executives have their lawyers negotiate their “exit packages” as part of their arrival signing and bonus contracts. The job is fraught with peril. No matter how much the production executive might love your project, if it’s going to be a hard sell it will be an uphill battle. Nobody wants to spend the time and energy it takes to shepherd a project that won’t get made, or worse, to get a project made that no one wants to see. The easiest response to a project is a “Pass,” which means “No.” Executive compensation (paychecks and bonuses) is lavish by ordinary standards, and so is the lifestyle that kind of compensation affords. Why risk it to make a movie just because you think it might be good? Then there are the perks (short for perquisites). These are the bonus benefits, like tickets to playoff games, traveling first class, the right tables at the best restaurants. Why give them up if you can avoid it? Few films are profitable. An entire career can be built by someone who consistently rejects almost all pitches, scripts, or acquisitions. Pass, and the risk is minimal.

Of course there is always the possibility that the project will be picked up by another company and become a smash hit. That’s another kind of risk, and it’s happened. Home Alone was passed on by Warner Bros., made by Fox, and ended up with ticket sales topping $534 million and a series of sequels. My Big Fat Greek Wedding was an independent film that struggled to find financing for a $5 million budget and eventually earned $369 million. Slumdog Millionaire almost didn’t get made at all. But $362 million later, the film was a runaway hit and won eight Oscars in 2009, including Best Picture.

Excerpted from Make Your Movie by Barbara Freedman Doyle © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved

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