Producers Guild of America co-presidents Gail Berman and Lucy Fisher opened the Guild’s “Produced By: New York” conference with a chat that covered the shifting role of pitching and selling product today—a role that seems to be changing faster than the time it takes to log into Netflix.
While much of the hour-long panel was devoted to how streaming services have disrupted traditional models for both television and film, the other great disruption—#MeToo—was addressed by the presidents in the discussion moderated by Variety managing editor, television, Cynthia Littleton.
Taking issue with a recent New York Times feature that suggested #MeToo has pushed Hollywood into a full-blown, malaise-filled identity crisis, Berman defended the progress and necessity of change in Hollywood.
“I don’t see a world where everybody is nervous about what they’re doing and saying,” Berman said. “I see it as one where women are more conscious about what they’re capable of dealing with in the workplace, and that’s a great way to start.”
Berman is the former Fox Broadcasting president who, as chairman and CEO of The Jackal Group, is currently producing Tidying Up with Marie Kondo for Netflix and developing the new Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among many projects. Adding that the new movement stressing diversity, respect and safety is still in its nascent stages, Berman concluded, “How it all plays out, I don’t know. But I think it will be very difficult for women to go back in the closet about this.”
That was hardly the only topic that included talk about the inevitability of change in film and television. Fisher, former vice chairman of Sony’s Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group and currently co-head of Red Wagon Entertainment, with credits including The Great Gatsby and The Divergent Series, brought up the seismic shift in the power structure at studios that determine what gets greenlit.
“When I started, production and marketing were in separate buildings. It was almost like church and state,” she said. “It used to be that production would make the film and marketing had to figure out what to do with it. Now it’s completely opposite. Marketing folks have as much if not more power in deciding what gets to be made.” And, stressing the shrinking number of major studios and film releases, Fisher added, “If you don’t have a superhero movie, you’d better be figuring out what category it fits in.”
The decision-making process, both presidents agree, has gotten more complicated as the number of industry players has gotten smaller, with power now concentrated at companies like Netflix, which has changed the economic paradigm. “At Netflix, you’re bought out and have no back end,” Fisher said of the new financing model where Netflix owns the end product. “It’s an interesting thing—the back end that can support you for many years to come no longer may exist. You get paid more money upfront—but that’s it.”
That reality has Berman suggesting a more traditional route: “I still think there’s a business in broadcast,” she said. “It’s not as hip to provide content for broadcast networks, but you can still make a living that way. Not that there isn’t a living to be made elsewhere. But that big thing at the end of the rainbow, the number of episodes, the goal that’s out there is achievable and not something people talk about much because it’s not hip.”
What is hip, the presidents agree, are a concentration on international markets (“In a global market, people are cast who are stars in their own country and that helps boost your audience and ratings in those countries,” Fisher said) and a movement past the old school pilot process.
Berman said a decision on a recent project was made based on CBS’ over-the-top service offering a script-to-series deal while USA’s was script-to-pilot. “I know the value of a pilot. On other hand, I have a company to run,” she said. “Those are the decisions we’re making now and I’m not positive it’s better for the product.”
Beyond the vicissitudes of the business, the common denominator remains the need to make something you truly believe in. “If it’s not coming from your heart and soul, it won’t be successful, and that’s the thing that keeps you going,” said Berman.
For both, that slate includes more stories of diversity, especially as workplace change continues. “Everyone has to break in somewhere; it’s who you’re giving opportunity to,” said Berman. Helping pave the way, added Fisher, would be changes in compensation and opportunity. “The pay disparity, now that it’s been unearthed, will have to be something that will change,” she said. “Constant pressure will help.”
Both admit that, like everything financial and cultural in Hollywood, change comes slowly, and through a process. “Hollywood doesn’t change overnight,” Berman said, citing the vast difference between the current political climate and what producers are trying to accomplish with their work. “I remember I had one boss who felt very good about himself; he said he no longer threw phones at people. That was his way of saying he was on the way up.”