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Studio Snapshot: Overture Films

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In this issue, Below the Line begins a new series of interviews designed to open better lines of communication between the below-the-line and above-the-line communities.
Neither can live without the other. Studio executives, producers, agents, directors, showrunners and their colleagues sign the deals, greenlight the projects and shepherd into existence the films and TV shows that keep the pipeline full and the business humming. Artists, craftspeople, technologists, and workers of all stripes turn these projects into emotional experiences that draw audiences to their screens.
Harmony between these two communities is essential to the health of the industry. With this in mind, Studio Snapshot will approach studios big and small to get their perspective on how they deal with issues of physical production. We start with Overture Films.
Why Overture? Because the Liberty Media-financed company has grown from two employees since it started in late 2006 to 65 today. Because it has several promising projects in development, production and distribution. And because it represents the sweet spot between studio behemoths and struggling independents–making strong films on modest budgets. Below the Line editor Peter Caranicas talked with Overture CEO Chris McGurk and COO Danny Rosett.

BTL: What films are now on Overture’s release schedule?
McGurk: We have eight for 2008. We’ve already released Mad Money. In March and April it’s Sleepwalking with Charlize Theron and director Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor. Later in the year we’re releasing Righteous Kill with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, Traitor with Don Cheadle, Last Chance Harvey with Dustin Hoffman, Humboldt Park with Freddy Rodriguez, and Henry Poole Is Here with Luke Wilson.
BTL: You bought Henry Poole at Sundance?
McGirk: Yes. We had a great time there. We saw 30 movies and debuted two of ours, and we bought Henry Poole, which was directed by Mark Pellington, from Lakeshore Entertainment.
BTL: With all these films scheduled for release, how do you handle their physical production?
Rosett: We try to run our company the way United Artists was run during the heyday of Mike Medavoy. We outsource the production. We identify great filmmakers, marry them with great producers and allow them to go off and make their film in the true negative pickup sense.
BTL: Do you have a production staff?
Rosett: It’s very limited. We have a total of seven people on the creative side of our company. Our goal is eight to 12 acquisitions or productions a year. And we have a head of postproduction, Bruce Markoe. He ran post at MGM and later at Revolution. He supervises and facilitates the finishing of our films.
BTL: And who handles what goes on before post?
Rosett: For physical production and principal photography, we do everything we can to identify the right producers and the right line producers, and to consult with them so we can surround them with all the key department heads.
BTL: What kind of budgets do you work with?
Rosett: They’re all under $30 million, and the average budget on our films is closer to $15 million. We owe it to the directors and the producers to let them go and make their movies and not manage the physical production in the traditional studio way. If you’re a studio and you’re making Transformers, you need to have a substantial physical production presence. We don’t because we’re asking filmmakers to be efficient.
McGurk: Our strategy is to empower filmmakers and producers and let them go and make their movie, subject to budget parameters, without the kind of creative and process interference they encounter at the big studios, where they have to deal with tens if not hundreds of executives looking over their shoulder, second-guessing everything they do, and focusing them on everything except the process of making their movie. We think our way leads to better movies
Rosett: We know how to review budgets, how to structure the right scheduling, and how to put a movie together. But we don’t feel like we’ve got to have a physical production department to vet every lighting or grip package.
BTL: Will your model change as you grow?
McGurk: No, we don’t plan on doing more than 12 pictures a year. And we want to do movies in this budget category because it’s filmmaker-friendly and over the long haul, will enable us to attract a higher quality of director, higher quality of producer, higher quality of material. The discipline of sticking to this business model is very important.
Rosett: Lots of people talk about running their business this way and sticking to it, but what happens more often than not is they end up getting involved in the tentpole business, chasing the kind of movies the big studios make. In a lot of cases it’s led to financial ruin.
BTL: What makes them do that?
Rosett: Temptation is part of it. If you have one or two successes you think you can operate at the same level as a major studio, with all of the resources they have behind them. People have been led astray by that.
BTL: Who do you trust with technical decisions?
Rosett: It’s a combination of the producers and the filmmakers–plus our postproduction group, because a lot of those technical decision ultimately have their greatest impact in post and finishing. Some of it is partly a creative assessment, like deciding whether to go digital or not.
BTL: Do you talk to technology companies?
Rosett: Yes. We have relationships with Panavision and other vendors. We go to them for advice on technical decisions relating to shooting a movie, like whether to go with three-perf.
Rosett: Many mistakes are made within the studio system when the production process gets overmanaged. It can be a great system when you’re mounting a $100 million dollar project, but it just doesn’t apply when you’re making a $15 million movie. As a result, a lot of movies that could have been made for $15 million end up costing up $20 million to $25 million at a studio–just by virtue of the way the infrastructure works.
BTL: Why do you think the studios can’t rein in costs?
McGurk: Part of it is precedent. They have so many deals with so many big producers who are forces of nature unto themselves. When they set a precedent for one and cross a line, all of a sudden it just flows across their entire infrastructure and all their deals. The sea just rises.
Rosett: And they have enormous infrastructures. They allocate a lot of overhead to their movies. Also, the way the economics of studio movies work, some important people get their money upfront.
McGurk: We forge alliances with producers and filmmakers who are very cost-conscious. There are filmmakers out there who are as disgusted with the waste of the big studios as we are. The way we motivate our partners–whether in front of or behind the cameras, whether the directors or producers or stars–is by letting them participate in upside of the movie. This motivates them to keep costs down.

Written by Peter Caranicas

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