Eight Hollywood Lessons About Movie Success
Hollywood producer Alan Haft, former Vice President of Breakheart Films, gives the low down on what Tinsel Town taught him about how to succeed in the business of making movies. In the early 90's, Haft, with veteran actor James Woods, formed Breakheart Films. While serving as Vice President of Breakheart, Haft was involved with numerous feature films and television projects such as Killer (with Oliver Stone as Executive Producer) and served as Associate Producer for HBO’s Best Picture Emmy Award winning Citizen Cohn.
Alan Haft writes...
The entertainment viewed on TV, or in theaters, is an example of either prudent decision making based on proven principles, or short-lived flops hastily created as a result of poor planning. The studio hotshots and high-profile actors have a lot to teach us about managing money.
LESSON 1: KEEP IT SIMPLE
I’ve pitched many projects to studios over the years, and if you can’t tell your story in a few minutes or less, you’ll never get one made. All classic movies can be reduced to a simple sentence. Any more complicated, forget it. Learn from ET: it’s a story about a group of children who help a stranded alien return home. One sentence. $756 million dollars. Just the way Hollywood likes it.
LESSON 2: DETAILS MATTER MOST
My close friend James Woods told me when shooting the epic Once Upon A Time in America, legendary director Sergio Leone shot over 50 takes of a dinner scene just to get a spoon in the right place. Screenwriter Peter Shaffer wrote something like 60 full length drafts of his masterpiece Amadeus, then another dozen or so to refine it. Writer/Director Cameron Crowe once said he spent well over a year doing absolutely nothing except writing one of the greatest screenplays in recent years, Jerry Maguire. If the spoon isn’t in the right place, take your time to get it right.
LESSON 3: COSTS COUNT
An actor’s last movie grossed more than the Gross Domestic Product of Norway. He pitches his pet project and the studio green lights it. While everyone works very hard for it to be a big hit, the budget skyrockets and the movie has a negative return of $250 million before anyone ever sets eyes on it. Ouch.
LESSON 4: PLANNING IS KEY
Once “green lit” into production, a screenplay is broken down into extremely precise line item movie making elements: costs, schedules, camera shots, make-up, hair, costumes, props, scenery, stunts, transportation and a thousand other things. On set, minutes can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars. A well planned production is an incredible engine of extremely intelligent efficiency, with often hundreds of people knowing exactly what they are doing every moment of the time, all building towards one very definitive common goal: the date of release. Some movies take many years just to plan. The smart guys realize success just can’t be rushed. If you want your investments to end with an Oscar, planning early always provides the single best chance of success.
LESSON 5: CUT YOUR LOSERS AND RIDE THE WINNERS
By 7pm on opening night, movie studios can predict with incredible accuracy, the revenue a film will likely generate. Even more startling is the DVD market. It’s estimated that by 3pm the day a DVD is released, the studio can accurately predict how much revenue it will generate. So what if the film is going to be a dud? Do they pour more money into advertising hoping someone will love it as much as the studio once did? No way. Ad expenses are immediately cut, and in some cases, completely eliminated. As much as the studio execs might love a film, they rarely let emotions take precedent over the math. If the thing isn’t working, they cut losses and just let it go.
LESSON 6: EXPERTS FOCUS ON REDUCING RISK, NOVICES FOCUS ON RETURN
Many films have nearly bankrupted their creators: Hudson Hawk, The Last Action Hero and Cutthroat Island are just a few examples. As a result, partnerships on expensive features are now the norm. Take for example James Cameron, who one day gets an idea to make a film about two people that fall in love on a sinking ship. One sentence, at least $200 million to produce. So what does Fox do? They partner with Paramount to reduce the risk. Easy to look back and say they should have taken the risk to get all the return, but who would have known Titanic would go on to become the most successful film ever made? If you don’t need the return, don’t take the risk.
LESSON 7: DIVERSIFICATION IS KEY
A typical studio releases somewhere around twenty films per year with many genres covered: romantic comedies, science fiction, drama, action, teenage comedy, etc. Why? Easy: they know it’s impossible to predict which genre will be hot. Some will win, some will lose, but one thing is for sure: reducing risk through diversification always provides the best chances of success.
LESSON 8: DON’T REINVENT THE WHEEL
Hollywood: In the 1940s, a writer named Joseph Conrad wrote a pioneering thesis entitled “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” The exhaustive study concluded that regardless of the plot, all great tales from the beginning of time share a very distinct, common structural foundation: the hero is introduced in his Ordinary World, he receives a Call to Action, he Refuses the Call, a Mentor convinces him to cross into the Unknown, etc., etc. Whether it’s stories from the bible, Star Wars or The Lion King, he proved how all timeless stories can be reduced to a distinct group of core structural elements.