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GOING GREEN - Get The Lead Out: Time For Hollywood Pyrotechnics To Light The Way

Posted By Tassilo Baur, Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Lead-based FX work is a problem that’s been hiding in plain sight for many years. It’s old news in Europe, where lead is essentially banned from all pyrotechnics. However that isn’t the case in the United States. Traditional bullet hit/squib production FX, designed in the 1950s and made with lead-based explosive chemicals, are still used almost exclusively here in the United States. It’s an alarming fact considering that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has stated “no amount of lead is safe.” The issue recently gained some long-overdue attention in the Los Angeles Times and in a report by Monona Rossol of Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety. But regrettably, the general response from Hollywood has been less than explosive.

Naturally the initial focus of lead exposure has been on cast and crew safety. However another risk mentioned but rarely emphasized is environmental lead pollution in both private locations and public spaces. Any location where lead-based FX are used could end up contaminated. As a pyrotechnician, I’ve seen these FX used in bars, restaurants, convenience stores, hotel rooms and kitchens, as well as the living areas and bedrooms of private residences.

Because these FX devices are designed to explode, significant amounts of invisible lead dust and contaminated debris are dispersed throughout the environment and remain there indefinitely after filming. Targeted cleanups with trained people, special equipment and testing can help make a difference. But unfortunately, effective cleanups are unlikely.

The EPA considers 40 micrograms of lead per-square-foot or more hazardous in residences. Yet a single, smaller-sized traditional squib can release 28,600 micrograms of lead dust and debris—more than 700 times the EPA’s limit. And that’s just a single one. It’s common to use multiple, larger devices.

It’s 2016—time for Pyro 2.0.

As Flint, Michigan has reminded us, lead contamination poses grave risks. “Green pyro” isn’t a contradiction in terms; it’s just an idea whose time has come. Lead has been effectively removed from paint, gasoline, July 4th fireworks, stage and theme-park pyrotechnics, and theatrical blank ammunition. Why is it still in production FX?

Other departments already get this. For example, grips replaced lead with stainless steel in shot bags a long time ago. Lead is out of makeup, pigments and art materials, too. With respect to pyro, I’m happy to report that New York City, Warner Bros. and a few of my colleagues seem to be on the right path. But apologies are in order: Hollywood’s pyrotechnicians should be leading the charge. Most of us aren’t even following it yet.
No one should have to risk lead exposure, especially when it’s easy to prevent. Unfortunately, like many legacy industries, physical FX is bound by tradition and a reflexive resistance to change. There are many FX, stunt, cast and crew people who want things to change but don’t dare speak up for fear of being branded as troublemakers.

But there are budget-based reasons for hope. While some lead-free devices are currently more expensive than traditional applications, others are actually less so. And all are cost-effective when you factor in potential problems from lead exposure risk, including legal liability. Every insurance policy is different, but lead contamination can be defined as “pollution” and excluded under conventional production insurance. Producers should check with their insurance vendors to make sure they are covered in case of a lead exposure issue.

Don’t get me wrong: FX done properly are a great way to bring visual thrills into your production. They just need to be done responsibly, which in this case means adopting safer, readily available lead-free alternatives that can protect the cast, crew, public and the environment. These solutions have been around for many years. We simply have to start using them.

Full disclosure: I work with some of the companies that offer lead-free FX alternatives to the production industry. I’m doing that because I want people to be safe and personally want to be on the right side of history. These devices aren’t perfect or zero impact. All pyro has risks. But at the very least, we can strive to be lead-free. If you can safely get the same effect in front of the camera without lead, why would you choose otherwise? 


  • Take lead-pollution seriously, speak up and spread the word. 
  • If there’s pyro in your show, make sure it’s done with limiting the environmental impact in mind, and by using lead-free materials.

  • Even if there’s no pyro in your show, but you’re shooting at a rented stage (and especially if your shoot involves minors), ask if there were action sequences with bullet hits shot there previously. If so, bring up the lead contamination concern, ask how cleanup was done, and ask to see the post-cleanup testing report. If they don’t have the right answers, point out that your production is taking an unknown risk, and try to negotiate a discount to offset the trouble and expense of precautions you might need to take in response. This will leave an impression.

  • Please visit for more information and resources.

Tassilo Baur is a state and federally licensed special effects supervisor for movies and television in Los Angeles, and an internationally-recognized author, trainer, expert and lecturer on special effects-related safety.


 - This article originally appeared in the October/November 2016 issue of Produced By magazine

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STORY IS EVERYWHERE - The Multi-Platform World of Caitlin Burns

Posted By Justine Neubarth, Tuesday, November 29, 2016

There is a moment in my conversation with transmedia producer and PGA member Caitlin Burns when I wonder whether she might know… everything. It is after she has walked me through the intricacies of treating acute childhood malnourishment in developing countries but before she has explained the mythology of the video game Halo. “Pretty much everything I talk about is somewhat complex,” Burns tells me when she sees my slightly-awed expression. “But that’s because the world we live in and the ways audiences engage are complex.” 

Burns’ task as a transmedia producer is to tease simplicity out of complexity, ensuring that the multi-platform products of a narrative project or franchise—video games, social media content, animation, novels and everything in between—are produced as part of a cohesive story. She began her career at Starlight Runner Entertainment, where she worked her way up from intern to full-blown producer on big-budget projects for the Walt Disney Company, Microsoft and Coca-Cola.

After 10 years there, she is now an independent creative producer, serving clients both small (like Serial Boxes, a company that releases serialized novels digitally) and large (Disney). She also serves as the Vice Chair of the PGA’s New Media Council and the Co-Chair of PGA’s Women’s Impact Network, and this summer was awarded the PGA’s Mark Levey Distinguished Service Award.

The term “transmedia” may have a tech-y, futuristic ring to it, but whether the product is books or virtual reality, Burns is adamant that her work is about how humans interact with technology and not the other way around. This belief bleeds into her side projects too—this fall she and her husband will be launching an online magazine, titled Pax Solaria, which focuses on humans in a high-tech future. “The real key is that all of my work is centered on the story,” she says. “Even when I’ve worked in nonfiction, it’s thinking about the ‘story- world’ and how to execute it as part of the narrative.”

Currently much of her attention goes to her role as the Entrepreneur-In-Residence at the US Fund for UNICEF, where she is a narrative designer and consultant for UNICEF Kid Power—an ambitious project aimed at increasing activity among American children while also fighting childhood malnourishment abroad. Burns describes it as a “21st century Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF.” Children wear a pedometer around their wrists, which is synced with an app, and the steps they take unlock funding for ready-to-use, therapeutic food packets around the world. Burns is responsible for the in-app content, as well as the social media, digital initiatives and live events.

Complex indeed. “As a transmedia producer, I am intimately aware of the challenges of explaining what I do,” she says after explaining the layers of the UNICEF project—just one of many that she has a role in. As it happens, she is very good at explaining things. Listening to her thread together ideas and cultural references is like watching someone stitch together a giant quilt, and it seems only fitting that before she was one of the first people to be formally credited as a transmedia producer, she studied costume design as a drama major (and environmental systems minor) at NYU.

When it came time to look for a professional internship to fulfill her major, she initially focused on costume design. “I went through all of these rigorous you-can-work-for-me-for-free applications and no one wanted me to work for them for free,” she says, laughing. “Through a series of twists and turns,” she ended up at the newly-formed Starlight Runner, which had only just begun its experimentation with multi-platform storytelling.

“When Caitlin came in to sit and talk with us, she just blew us away with this encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything,” says Jeff Gomez, founder and CEO of Starlight Runner. I share how my mind had similarly been blown.
“Ah,” he nods sagely. “So you’ve experienced the Burn.”

He clarifies: “She literally could talk about any subject you brought up with a degree of authority, and if there was something she didn’t know that much about, within a matter of hours she would come back knowing everything.”

Soon after Burns joined Starlight Runner, the Walt Disney Company walked through the door with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, looking for some help in managing the books, games and upcoming films that were unspooling from their unprecedented 2003 blockbuster. Burns was immediately hired as the company’s first employee, “and all of the incredible nerdy skills that I had brought in with production design and systems science suddenly clicked with the work we had to do with the Walt Disney franchises.”

For many of the franchises they work on, Starlight Runner produces a “mythology” of the story world: an honest-to-God book that is passed on to executives, game designers, writers and anyone else working on the project. Burns wrote large swaths of the first one the company ever produced—an 11” x 16 “ leather-bound tome imprinted with a skull and crossbones, a compendium of all things Pirates of the Caribbean. Some of the research Burns did on piracy—especially on pirate codes of law—ended up feeding back into the films, as well as fueling a blog about pirates that she wrote for seven years. Now, she adds, “I know more about ransoming than anyone who’s not directly involved with that really needs to know.”

Since then, Burns has produced “about 16” mythologies, including an ethnography of the Na’vi for Avatar. More broadly perhaps, her time at Starlight Runner taught Burns how to use transmedia to engage fans and build a community. Gomez says that Burns truly understood from the beginning that “fans were going to play a pivotal role in the success and the sustenance of entertainment properties.”

Perhaps that’s because Burns is herself a fan of the projects she works on. Speaking about her time working on Pirates of the Caribbean, Burns said she had to watch the 143-minute film 45 times “in quick succession” to make sure they had gotten everything right. “And I was exactly the kind of nerd that really, really, really loved it.” More recently, she worked as a franchise strategist for Disney’s Descendants, and spoke enthusiastically about reading the books with her daughter.

Growing up in Arizona, the first thing that Burns was ever a true fan of—“hands down”—was Jurassic Park. Her fandom is very much alive. In 2012, she and co-producer Steele Filipek launched a feature-length parody of the film, set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and titled McCarren Park. Made for $3,500, the film was released via app; viewers could “go from location to location and see another scene.” The app launched at the Tribeca Film Festival. Overall, she marvels, “It came out much better than it had any right to.”

Burns puts fan development front and center in her work, but sees transmedia as far more than a marketing tool. “A lot of people, when they’re thinking about [the transmedia] part of the producing team, they’re thinking about it as, ‘How do we reach the audience and engage them in a promotional way or in a simply outreach way?’” she tells me, “as opposed to thinking about the real power of what you can do […] when the narrative is building out into all of these platforms so that people can find it. And that sort of creativity ends up paying off hugely in fan development, rather than just audiences.”

Jenni Magee-Cook, an executive producer on the Descendants franchise, echoes this. “You don’t have to go practical anymore. You don’t have to do ad campaigns and marketing in the same way,” she says. “To me, [Caitlin] opened my eyes to accessing how millennials and younger actually consume information, and how you can actually speak to them and communicate with them. I think Caitlin had so much awareness of that.”

“Caitlin understood fairly early that transmedia storytelling was going to be important,” Gomez tells me. “Not just in terms of making more money for big movie studios, but in terms of how the world was changing in terms of communication.” That understanding has allowed Burns to apply transmedia techniques to not just entertainment, but social justice projects as well. That passion is currently manifested in her work at UNICEF, but it began at Starlight Runner, where she and Gomez worked on community development and population activation projects in Mexico and Colombia. Doing that kind of work “gave me the opportunity to work with cognitive scientists and ethnographers,” Burns tells me. “And that’s something that feeds into the work that I do today very strongly.”

And when it comes back to the entertainment industry, diversity is a priority for her. She’s excited about her involvement in the PGA’s Women’s Impact Network but also sees transmedia itself as a way to address Hollywood’s diversity problem. For one, franchises can be ever expandable with the help of transmedia. “The canvas is bigger,” Burns observes of the current landscape. “We don’t have to be stuck.”

She encourages her clients to test more diverse characters in ancillary novels and games, just to see how well audiences respond. “As attitudes toward diversity and representation have changed, they can also be supported by less high-budget experiments where [one] can see: ‘Is a female character going to be interesting?’ Yes, she is.” Later she adds, “It’s not just better business to think in terms of diversity, it’s an inescapable reality. Ignore it at your peril.”

A transmedia producer is an inherently forward-thinking role—the PGA credit itself includes those who have worked with “technologies that may or may not currently exist.” So I ask Burns what she thinks is next. “Honestly—I’m so excited about immersive theater,” she answers immediately. She begins painting a future where immersive theater experiences like Sleep No More will incorporate virtual reality technology. “We’re going to hit people with emotional and exciting and transcendental experiences in a very physical way, both in virtual universes and the real world, in theatrical experiences. And that’s when we’ll really have something cool.” She pauses. “And after that, I have no idea.”

And so for now, Burns is back to focusing on what she enjoys most: storytelling and combining the basics of narrative with the cutting edge of technology. “For me, the most interesting things happen when we connect people and technology and stories. That means I deal with new stories on old platforms, and old stories on new platforms,” says Burns. “I’m lucky I’m curious.”


- This article originally appeared in the October/November 2016 issue of Produced By magazine

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2016 Employment Rights Of The Producing Team

Posted By Administration, Monday, November 14, 2016

Eleven years ago the Producers Guild of America published a popular pamphlet titled "Your Rights as an Employee".  It was a clear and concise resource that addressed legal questions facing many producers, on subjects like overtime, discrimination and employee classifications.  The 20 Q&A's were a direct response to member concerns and inquiries as to their professional status and working conditions.

This year, we have refreshed the pamphlet, updated to reflect current federal laws, as well as state laws in California and New York.  Consolidated in one easy-to-reference guide, the 2016 "Employment Rights Of The Producing Team" is now available to all PGA members and non-members alike.  Producing can be the toughest job in showbiz and the Producers Guild is here to help you along the way.

In a letter to the membership National Executive Director, Vance Van Petten, expressed the following:

Producing is a unique job. Of all of the major creative positions in Hollywood, producers have the longest job descriptions and the fewest protections. Sometimes producers function as employees, and sometimes we work as employers. No matter which role you’re filling on a given project, a working knowledge of the basics of employment law is essential. It’s not hard to get taken advantage of in this business, nor is it rare to find yourself suddenly liable for issues that you didn’t know were your responsibility. Don’t let either fate befall you. Know your rights as an employee. Know your obligations as an employer. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll be in a position to tell the stories you want to tell and safeguard the career you’ve worked so hard to build.


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WILLIAM HORBERG - Cover: The Audience Always Has Final Cut

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, November 8, 2016

How does a would-be producer achieve mastery of something like stories and how films tell them?
Well, a start would be spending two formative years of your life—seven days a week and 52 weeks a year—running a cinema that screens double- and triple-features of every stripe, from Hollywood golden-age classics to foreign, art-house fare to grindhouse cult favorites. Follow that with a solid year as a freelance script reader covering 12 screenplays a week to pay the rent and put food on the table, and it turns out you can develop a pretty good instinct for what works onscreen and what doesn’t. That’s what we’re taking from William Horberg’s example, at least.

Before his producing career came to life, Horberg founded the Chicago revival house Sandburg Theater with high school friend (and today, fellow PGA member) Albert Berger. But it was an unsuccessful pitch at Paramount that provided his career’s essential break. The studio didn’t buy the project, but it bought Horberg himself, offering him an entry-level development job just as it embarked on its fantastic late 1980s/early ‘90s run, including releases like Fatal Attraction, The Naked Gun franchise, The Hunt for Red October, Ghost, Wayne’s World and The Godfather: Part III. Working alongside execs like Ned Tanen, Lindsay Doran and current PGA President Gary Lucchesi, Horberg rose through the studio ranks to become a senior vice president.

When he finally left Paramount in 1991, it was to follow mentor Lindsay Doran to Mirage Enterprises, run by consummate filmmaker Sydney Pollack. Working alongside Pollack for over a dozen years, Horberg finally earned his first “Produced by” credits on films like Searching for Bobby Fischer and Sliding Doors. The duo nurtured the career of Anthony Minghella, who later joined the company as a partner, writing and directing two of its signature releases: The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain. In 2005 Horberg took a job as President at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, supporting such distinctive films as Lars and the Real Girl, United 93, Milk and Synecdoche, New York, and personally producing the adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s bestseller The Kite Runner. Since leaving Kimmel in 2008, Bill Horberg has produced through his own Wonderful Films banner, this year releasing The Promise, starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, directed by Terry George.

In other words, it’s a career that encompasses a staggering range of classic, innovative, elegant, weird, powerful and deeply-felt films. Many were acclaimed, some were derided, but each one of them carries some stamp of Horberg’s sensitivity, innate decency and profound love of story.

I know. I guess it makes me an exhibitionist of some kind. [laughs] My passion was really books and music before film. I went to school at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. For a while I lived in a house with my high school best friend Albert Berger, who was going to Tufts and running the film society there. There was a fervent sea of cinephiles and 16 millimeter prints coming in and out of the house every day, with screenings on weekends. So I got caught up in that fever. Practicing scales all day, going to watch movies every night.
I dropped out of music school for various reasons and moved back to Chicago. But I was coming off the high of this Boston smorgasbord of cinema. There wasn’t anything like it in Chicago. And I just had this idea, “Why not? Wouldn’t it be fun to open a theater like those Boston theaters, the Orson Welles and the Coolidge Corner?”

There was a movie theater that had gone out of business, called the Sandburg Theater. It had originally opened as a Playboy theater—the Playboy Corporation, for a time in the ‘70s, went into the film business—and the theater still had its bunny logo carpeting, and kind of a disco ball. It looked like a brothel design.

Well, we didn’t have much capital to remodel the place. I mean, I was 19 and Albert was 21. We happened to know a few people and we raised a small amount of money, just enough to turn the lights on and open the doors back up and vacuum the place out. But that turned out to be my undergrad education. Making popcorn, killing rats, lugging huge 35-millimeter prints around and negotiating with the projectionists union, which in Chicago had been founded by Sam Giancana and still carried some of that legacy.

I worked seven days a week, 365 days a year and saw all these movies, got to experience them with an audience. I guess from that point of view, exhibition served me well in terms of understanding, as my first boss at Paramount, Ned Tanen, said, “We’re in the business of putting asses in seats.” Cinema is basically a delivery system for getting an ass in a seat and selling them some Coca-Cola and some popcorn.

But ultimately the Sandburg closed in the early ‘80s. My comic about the theater is called “Greek Lightning,” which was a kind of slang for restaurant owners who sometimes burned down their own establishments to collect insurance. So one night, lo and behold, a bomb went off in this nearby pizza parlor. Nobody was ever accused, or certainly convicted of anything. But in the wake of that they canceled everybody’s lease and they tore down the theater. And now it’s a Walgreens. And—this is true, Chris. You couldn’t make this up—Cary Grant happened to be a personal friend of Betty Walgreens. And he came to personally dedicate the Walgreens on the ashes of the site where we had shown Only Angels Have Wings, Charade

No. I just stood silently in the crowd, feeling like young Tom Sawyer up in the gallery, watching his own funeral. [laughs]

I was literally one of those guys who printed up business cards that said “Producer,” and then just faked it. My Sandburg colleague [Peter Hannan] and I hung out a shingle and started hustling, willing to do anything and trying to do everything. I had some relationships in the music world so I was able to get us a contract that allowed us to videotape the blues stage at the ChicagoFest. Another job we got was filming Cheap Trick, one of the first live concerts for MTV. I met Mickey Spillane in Las Vegas and optioned the rights to one of his books that I tried to get made as an independent movie. I was just hustling and learning by doing.

In the midst of all this activity I finally woke up to the fact that if I was going to be serious about making a career of this, I had to move out to Los Angeles. Andy Davis was the one Hollywood connection I had. He was from Chicago. He had been a successful cinematographer who transitioned to directing and went on to direct The Fugitive with Harrison Ford. But before that, he’d made a very early indie called Stony Island, which starred his brother, who was a musician; that was how I knew him. We’d shown the premiere at the Sandburg. Through Andy I met his agent, Larry Becsey, and through Larry I contacted Barbara Boyle, who at that time was an executive at RKO. Barbara told me there was a director looking for an assistant and felt I would land the job. So I bought a ticket and flew out there, and in typical Hollywood fashion, by the time I landed whatever film that guy was supposed to be making had gone pear-shaped and there was no job. So as a kind of consolation prize, Barbara offered me work as a freelance reader. Of course, I took it.

So I had this funny year where I led this Clark Kent/Superman double life, running around town presenting myself as a Chicago producer who had made stuff for television and had these feature film projects going. And then after a meeting, I’d sheepishly take off the suit and tie and walk around to the back door to where the story editor was … “Hey, I’m here to pick up my three scripts.” Thirty-five bucks per coverage report. I figure that I read about a thousand scripts over the course of that year. You read 1,000 scripts, man, you learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

But I was out there pitching. I pitched a project to an executive at Paramount, a wonderful guy named David Nicksay. He really liked the project but he was unable to sell it upstairs. When I heard that Paramount was interviewing for a creative executive job, I called him up and said, “Hey, I know I seem like this big shot Chicago producer but I’d love to throw my hat in the ring.” So he got me an interview with people who were looking at the first wave of applicants. I met with somebody and never heard back. Oh, well.

Andy Davis was going into production on a movie he was going to shoot in Chicago, and I took a job as his assistant. So in the middle of this gig in Chicago, literally months later, I got a call from Paramount saying, “Can you be here on Monday for a meeting with Ned Tanen?” Andy was a great mensch and just said, “Hey, go for it.”

I flew out and literally had a five-minute meeting with Ned and he said, “Could you start next week?” That was a huge, life-changing break for me. Paramount was my grad school. I mean, it was halfway to a college fraternity hazing. “Here’s three scripts. We have a 7 a.m. staff meeting tomorrow and we’d like your written opinion on all three of them.” It was a raging river of work and I felt like I was swimming as fast as I could to keep from drowning. But suddenly I was in the room with people whose names I’d only seen up on screen. It was the era of Eddie Murphy, of Simpson and Bruckheimer, John Hughes and the Zucker brothers.

I was very fortunate to be taken under the wing of Lindsay Doran, who was a highly-regarded creative executive in Hollywood and who had been involved with some of my favorite movies. She was just a master in terms of how she eschewed the aggressive politics of the studio, but also defended her point of view and stood up for the projects that she believed in. Ned was someone else who I stayed very close to and who I had deep respect for. That’s the hardest job, being in the bunker every day of incoming missiles and inferno-level fires. He was a very tough guy and kind of intimidating, but had a wicked sense of humor and had an ability to razor cut through the bullshit. I thought he was very fearless in terms of how he did that job. The first research screening I ever attended was the legendary unsuccessful test of Fatal Attraction.

 Horberg (second from right) with (from left) Steven Soderbergh, Howard 
Rodman and cast member Joe Mantegna, on set in Los Angeles for an
episode of Shotime's "Fallen Angels" (photography, Wonderful Films)

It was incredible. I mean, I watched a beautifully made, impeccably edited, directed and acted movie completely crash and burn in front of an audience who said, essentially, that we’d made a monster movie, and the monster can’t commit suicide at the end. Someone has to kill the monster. That was a shocking truth that was very controversial for the filmmaking team to come to terms with. That was where I saw Ned at his best, going from the producers, to the filmmakers, to the actors, to the editors to his own boss and, one by one, convincing everybody of what needed to be done. He brought the team back together to write and shoot and re-edit. And it became one of the all-time zeitgeist/cultural identity hit movies, a huge success. It was incredible to have been able to bear witness to that whole process.

Ned was a truth-teller. A lot of people would’ve walked on eggshells around all of these powerful personalities. He just didn’t have that sensitivity, and that was his gift. He just sat everybody down and said, “Hey, look, she boiled the bunny. If you boil the bunny, there’s no going back. There’s nothing wrong with what you’ve done in terms of the artistry of it. You’re just going directly into the face of something bigger and stronger than all of us, which is the narrative want of the audience. The audience has final cut.” You don’t always have that gift. Sometimes you’re trying to read tea leaves and figure out the nuances of why something isn’t working. This wasn’t that. This was 500 people in a room going, “Fuck you. You have violated some primal tenet of what we want.”

Yeah. But it was a period of a lot of success at Paramount. I got to participate in that success. That turned out to be a five-year run for me where I went from being a creative executive to a senior vice president of production. I cherish my years at the studio. Though just as much, I somehow always felt like a bit of an outsider within. There was often a kind of surrealism in terms of how decisions ultimately got made and how some things that nobody wanted to make seemed to take on a life of their own in the system.

 Horberg on set with director Neil LaBute during production of "Death at
a Funeral" (photograph by Phil Bray).

It started when Mark Rosenberg died. He had been Sydney Pollack’s partner at Mirage, which was one of the premiere director-driven production companies. Sydney recruited Lindsay Doran to be the new President of Mirage, which created a shakeup at Paramount and an opportunity for me, because I stepped into her shoes and took over a number of projects that she had been running, including Ghost, which was a huge hit, and a few that she then joined as a producer, with Mirage.

So I got to work alongside her again but also got to meet and work with Sydney, her new boss, as he became a producer on these films. One was a brilliant script though a bit of an ill-fated movie called Crazy People, written by Mitch Markowitz, who wrote Good Morning, Vietnam. It was one of those scripts that really high-level people wanted. Sydney wanted to direct it. Barry Levinson wanted to direct it. But Mitch said, “No. I wrote it. I own it. I’m going to direct it.” It got on the floor with Mitch directing and John Malkovich starring, but it all fell apart. John is one of the great actors of all time, but he was going through some personal issues at the time, and probably miscast. Mitch was struggling as a first-time feature director.

You get to know people much better in hard times than you do when everything is going peachy. Because that was a particularly beleaguered production, I spent an inordinate amount of time with Sydney, and I think he got to see me as somebody that he liked, creatively and how I went about my job. Right around that time, Brandon Tartikoff had come in to take over Paramount. It had been a particularly tumultuous period. I’d had a fantastic run there. My first son was about to be born. It seemed like a good time to hit the pause button and follow Lindsay to join Sydney at Mirage.

What can I say about Mirage? It was probably the most meaningful collaboration of my career. Sydney was an artist who I deeply respected as a consummate storyteller and craftsman. He had started out as an actor and acting teacher and was the smartest guy around in terms of casting, script and certainly the smartest guy in the editing room. He was deeply contradictory but in a way which I thought strengthened him as an artist. He wanted to be a mogul and rule the world and make blockbusters, and he wanted to have a small boutique filmmaking shop that would make the next Truffaut movie. Both things were equally true on any given day. Whatever you were doing, you could be sure you were vulnerable to not be doing the other. It was a very lively place in that respect.

One of the first things that I brought in was The Talented Mr. Ripley. Anthony was hired initially just to write the script. But following the writing and development process, when he came to turn it in, he told me, “I don’t want to turn it in. I don’t want someone else to direct this. I want to direct it.”

Yes … a writer wants to direct? You don’t say! [laughs] But Sydney and I were supportive of him to the degree that we could be, though it was a very expensive development property and Paramount didn’t want to just guarantee Anthony the project. But Sherry [Lansing] respected Sydney so much that if Sydney believed in Anthony, that was something she gave weight to. So we made an unusual deal where we had a short list of maybe six or seven major directors. We were going to go out to them, but if we didn’t get one of them, she was open to going back to Anthony. Anthony was none too happy about that.

As it turned out, those people either weren’t available or weren’t ready to commit. That process played itself out over a period of time. Meanwhile, Anthony went and shot The English Patient and came out of that a different person … not only a different person experientially, but in the industry-speak, he had a lot of heat.
Of course, in the perfect Hollywood “no good deed goes unpunished” way these things work, once The English Patient came out, Anthony became the hottest director in Hollywood, with every “A-plus” script on his desk. We were suddenly at risk of him taking another movie, after we had fought to get him the job and had waited a year for him.

Horberg on location in Kashgar, China for "The Kite Runner",
with novelist Khaled Hosseini (photography by Phil Bray.

Yeah! [laughs] So we had to sweat that one out.

Through the whole process of making Ripley in Italy for a year I had gotten incredibly close to Anthony as well. Ultimately I said, “Maybe there’s a way that we could all work together and expand this company to include you.” He’d seen what Mirage was about in terms of supporting filmmakers and navigating that terrain between independent film and studio-financed movies. Because that was really our coin. Sydney was in the rare club of filmmakers who had final cut as producer. He was so financially and creatively responsible. I really saw what it meant to be willing to own the studio’s own concerns and not treat them as “the suits.” There is a kind of brutality to this system, but their concerns are often legitimate. Sydney knew how to speak their language. And here was this whole world of international directors, writers becoming directors, indie guys who were being given material and resources. But what came with that, obviously, was the threat of loss of control, which is always terrifying to independent artists.

Sydney represented a bridge, because he could say, “Mirage has final cut. I’m not going to cut behind you, filmmaker-to-filmmaker, but I’m going to force you to be responsible to the audience. I’m not here to have someone use my final cut to make an un-releasable or inaccessible film. But we are going to guide you through this system. If you’ve never gotten studio notes before, we can help translate those notes into something that you can understand.” So Sydney and Anthony and I joined forces, with an LA office and a London office for Mirage.

Honestly, it wasn’t for everybody. There were some directors that never crossed the threshold of wanting to have another director produce them. But we made Ang Lee’s first studio-financed movie. We made Tom Tykwer’s first studio-financed movie. Obviously, Anthony Minghella. Steve Zaillian is one of the greatest Hollywood writers of my generation. We believed in him as a director. We got behind Steve writing and then directing Searching for Bobby Fischer—not an obvious studio film by any means. We made Cold Mountain with Miramax. We made Sydney’s movies. We made Anthony’s movies. It was really a unique place at a unique time in the business, riding the explosion of Sundance, the baby boomer bubble that still allowed smart movies and dramatic content to be consumed theatrically. It was the heyday of Miramax and all the innovative zeitgeist movies that Harvey was championing … Soderbergh, Tarantino. I was very fortunate to have been such a large part of it for so many years.

I had an idiosyncratic career strategy: I decided early on I was only going to work for older Jewish men named Sidney. [laughs] So Sid Ganis was my boss when I was a senior executive at Paramount. When I left, I went to work for Sydney Pollack. Years later I was hired to be the president of production at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. I have a lot of affection and respect for Sidney Kimmel. We made 13 films together in three years. It was an intense time for me, a synthesis of my experiences as both a studio executive and a producer. I’m really proud of many of the films we put out—an eclectic mix that included Talk to Me, Lars and the Real Girl, The Kite Runner, Death At A Funeral, United 93. But all good things come to an end, and I left in 2008 as both the U.S. economy and the specialized theatrical business underwent massive contraction. If there was an epitaph on the tombstone of my experience at SKE it might read, “You made me laugh. You made me cry. But you didn’t make me any money!”

You’re defined by the movies you get made. They don’t represent all the movies that you want to make or have tried to get made. I love movies in every genre. I’m a comic book guy. I draw comic books. I’m really into that world. Thinking of my time at Paramount, it’s incredible to think what we could’ve bought, owned and controlled. But Popeye had come out and that had been a bomb. The visual effects and technology hadn’t really matured to a point where you could do those things the right way. And then I went to work for Sydney, a billion-dollar director who had a single green-screen shot in his movies. So my career went a certain way. But I just like good movies. I like it when people take a genre and are pushing the edge or twisting it or reinventing it. I would give my right arm and my left leg to have produced Inside Out or The Big Short. What a genius thing to do, to turn those abstract ideas into accessible, entertaining storytelling. I like to think Searching for Bobby Fischer is a movie that could’ve made $100 million in a more just universe. It’s a movie that my 12-year-old son and my baby boomer friends watched and loved. I like movies where there’s something there for everyone.

You remember that bit from Woody Allen, in Midnight in Paris, about “Golden Age fever?” I think Golden Age fever is something that afflicts all of us, the idea that there was this time, somewhere in the past, where it was easier to do what’s so hard to do today. I think that’s just false. I think for every generation, it’s just really hard to make a good movie. To actually craft that story and character and visual experience and big idea, and have all those pieces work together like a piece of music, ending on the right chord and the right melody. It’s just really, really damn hard to make it all work on that level.

Well, as they say, you write a movie three times. You write it on the page, trying to make that structure work and make the conflicts into something that evokes an emotional response in the reader. You write it again with the camera and the actors, with all the vagaries of production and the happy accidents and the tragic fuckups and the gale-force winds of personality and ego and money and time. Some things just crack under those pressures. And then you really get to write it again in post. And I’ve always found that part of the process to be the most tangibly fascinating and rewarding. I’ve learned a lot sitting in those rooms. I’ve seen incredible surgery done where you’re getting a complaint from the audience about the hipbone over here, but you realize there’s something in the ankle that you can adjust and there’s no more pain, the patient is walking. I love that aspect of it.

But in terms of the ultimate fate of my movies, on some level I feel it’s out of my control. I don’t approach the business from a pure marketing sense. My litmus test is: Is this a group of people and a world that I want to be in and put my heart and soul and energy into over a significant period of my life? Because when you say “yes,” it can carry a 7/10/14-year sentence with it. If it’s a jail sentence, there’s nothing more miserable. If it’s a ticket to be part of something special, there isn’t a day where I don’t wake up wanting to call somebody, wanting to dial for dollars, wanting to be in the room with the filmmaker and the writer and say, “No, we haven’t cracked this yet. There’s a better way.” I’m sure in the Hollywood parlance some of the things I’ve taken on are “small-target” movies. Or some of them are Quixote-like quests.

Yeah. But you have to judge that overlap between the movies that you want to make and the movies that are getting made. Unless you’re a billionaire yourself, you’ve got to cut your cloth to fit the market. If you’re not setting out with something that’s perceived as a four-quadrant, 3,000 screen movie, then you know that you’re going to encounter some financial resistance.

But those things tend not to be fixed. They’re perceptual and constantly in flux. I made a movie three or four years ago with Oscar Isaac. I felt really lucky to have him, just because I admired him so much. I just made another movie with him last year, except now he’s Poe Dameron in Star Wars and Apocalypse in X-Men. So certainly there’s a fluctuating marketplace of talent. There’s a marketplace of filmmakers. There’s a marketplace of ideas. And sometimes you have to play a long, patient game for an idea whose time has come.

This movie I just finished, The Promise, starring Oscar and Christian Bale, and directed by Terry George, is about the Armenian genocide. People have been trying to tell a version of that story for 75 years. Kirk Kerkorian lived to be 98 years old and he caused this movie to get made, kind of as his final legacy. But it’s a movie that I would say was made independent of the business, probably in spite of the business, not because of where the business is today.

It was a tremendous honor to be elected as a new Chair of the PGA East, alongside my better half and fellow Chair, Kay Rothman. In a nice bit of serendipity, my old boss at Paramount, Gary Lucchesi, is one of the two Presidents of the Guild; I like that after all these years and experiences, here we are trying to give something back, to push for the betterment of the lot of all producers in these times of tectonic changes in the industry. Our membership in the East skews a bit more towards non-fiction film and television and new media, and of course has that New York independent I-will-survive spirit. As a trade organization and not a union, there are some limits to what we can and cannot do, but I’m amazed every day at the ideas and initiatives our leadership and membership have undertaken to help producers.

But process is everything. There’s something that Walter Murch said to me a long time ago. We called him Professor Murch, just a brilliant guy. “Bill, I think in the future there’ll be a machine. And its function will be to read, not the image that the director intended, but the deeper DNA of the movie, which I’m convinced is imprinted in the celluloid or the digital bits of data. And what’s encoded is the entire experience of making the movie … who was sleeping with who, and who was eating what that night, and whatever crisis the director was going through and who just got fired from their job at the studio. Movies are like chaos events … there’s so much going on, on every movie all the time, and I know it’s coded in there somewhere. And I think it would be endlessly more interesting to experience that story than the three-act structure that we think that we’re all here capturing and playing back on these primitive DVD devices.”


Right? Thousands of years of strata and substrata. Anyway, I very much think of my whole experience that way. It’s the process and the people and the experience. My takeaway is very much defined by process. I rarely go back and watch the movies that I have my name on as a producer. I find it’s almost impossible for me to suspend the knowledge that I have of everything that’s wrong or the compromises we made. But more than that, you mostly see the traces of the life that you lived so vividly, in this heightened way, among these kind of illusory families that come together and disband around the lifespan of any of these projects. And so Murch’s magic machine is never too far from my mind when I think about making movies and what it means to be a producer. 

-Photography by Noah Fecks

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Produced By: New York - Headlines 2016

Posted By Administration, Monday, October 31, 2016

For the third straight year, Produced By: New York has demonstrated itself as an in-demand and significant event for the producing community in New York (and really, for the industry at large).  The flagship Produced By Conference in Los Angeles will be heading into its 9th year in 2017, but the New York edition has blossomed in its own right, hosting numerous prominent speakers and celebrities and representing a neighborly but distinct producing culture from traditional Hollywood.

This year included guest speakers such as Tina Fey, Chris Rock, and via satellite link -- Matt Damon.  As always, the media was on hand to cover the event.  Below are a few of the headlines coming out of Produced By: New York from 2016.  Check back in later for more updates.


October 29, 2016
Tina Fey Defends Jimmy Fallon's Donal Trump Interview

COMPLEX / Morgan Baskin
October 29, 2016
Tina Fey Feels Sorry For Jimmy Fallon

DEADLINE / Greg Evans
October 29, 2016
There's Box Office Gold In Diversity, Says Producer Panel

DEADLINE / Paul Brownfield
October 29, 2016
Late Late Show Producer On Integrating TV and Digital

DEADLINE / Greg Evans
October 29, 2016
Chris Rock & Producers On Rigors Of Getting Laughs...

HUFFINGTON POST / Maxwell Strachan
October 31, 2016
Tina Fey Defends Jimmy Fallon After Controversial Trump Interview

VULTURE / Halle Kiefer
October 30, 2016
Chris Rock Discusses Comedy Made For Different Audiences: "People Should Be Funny to the People Who Look Like Them First"

THE WRAP / Matt Donnelly
October 29, 2016
Chris Rock Says Comic Should Cater To "People That Look Like Them First"

DEADLINE / Paul Brownfield
October 29, 2016
Matt Damon On "Manchester By The Sea" & Why He Had Final Cut Approval

DEADLINE / Paul Brownfield
October 29, 2016
TV Showrunners On Being Captain Of The Enterprise & Why Money Isn't Everything

DEADLINE / Greg Evans
October 29, 2016
Tina Fey On Keeping Political Humor Fair And The Time She Stiffed Al Franken

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