Leading off the second Produced By NY 2014 interview session, producer Bill Horberg (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Disconnect) led an often hilarious conversation with film-biz polymath James Schamus, who started out by playing the devil’s advocate on the theme of advice to young producers. As usual in such scenes, the question began with a reference to William Goldman’s endlessly quoted observation of that in filmmaking, “nobody knows anything.”
“Here’s the thing about advice,” Schamus responded. “Somebody actually does know something, people do know more — there are those out there in your business who do know more.” He then asked the industry tyros in the audience at the TimeWarner Center to tell him the most important piece of advice anyone had given them.
“Do a budget” was first. “No,” Schamus said. “Start with a budget and you will get mired in a morass of depression.” Thus began a kind of call-and-response in which the Focus Films legend refuted every adage about the key to success and, often, its opposite as well. Only work with people you trust? “The vast majority of your mentors have been assholes,” he said. You’ll get sleep in the next life? “So wrong,” Schamus said, arguing that producers who stayed up till 4 a.m. micromanaging everything were usesless by the time the 6 a.m. shoot began.
It’s all about the story. “If it’s all about the story,” Schamus said, clearly enjoying himself, “then just tell the story to your friends.” Choose the right actors for your script? That means you have a preconception of what actor is right for each role, he said, “and then you’ll never be open to the right actor when he comes along.”
And to the suggestion that you should only work with people you trust, Schamus noted without apparent irony that “there doesn’t necessarily seem to be a correlation between success and integrity in our profession.”
Continuing in the contrarian role, Schamus paid tribute to his own mentor David Picker, essential when he began Focus 15 years ago, when he said that he had no problem with the range of films flooding the market today and that there will always be films “that matter.
“Are more people eating Big Macs than dining at Daniel? Yes. Who cares? If something matters, it matters — it could be a movie, a TV show, a game. If you’re asking if it matters, you’re asking the wrong question. The best way to make sure cinema doesn’t matter in the future is to wonder if movies matter.
Then it was time for Schamus the Marxist theorist to put in an appearance and the conversation got really interesting, if a little strange. “Movies demarcate a zone, a nexus of capital, activity and material the whole point of which is to get in a room with a bunch of strangers,” he said, launching into a mini-course on the economics of the industry and the fact that most successful releases today merely cover their marketing costs, a reality for some four decades. How does anyone make money? “No Outside Food Allowed are the four most important words in the business,” he quipped.
He referenced That Film About Money, the two-parter he just released for free on demand.
Perhaps consciously striking the same themes as the weekend release Citizenfour, Schamus noted that everyone sitting in the audience was a “data point” whose information would be sold 300 times before the day’s end by people we don’t know.
“Producers don’t produce movies,” he said, “movies produce a class of people like us, organize it for a group experience, second skim off what we can and throw it back into the stream where people are tracking our movements. We are disturbances in the field of capital flow. Citing Margin Call as an example, he noted that older viewers saw it in theaters and younger ones on smartphones. Don’t dismiss the audience of teenage boys, he warned; they understand “the intensity of the narrative experience in gaming…teenage boys are a pretty sophisticated audience.”
Answering a question about the future of film versus digital, he suggested that he isn’t a purist on the subject. “I’m excited to see Interstellar in 35mm,” he replied. “That said, you will know on November fifth exactly how many 35mm projectors are in use. And it will be half that next year.”