Midnight Madness Producers Part 1: Peter Block - JOHN CARPENTER'S THE WARDThis is the first in an ongoing series, Meeting The Producers Of Midnight Madness 2010.
Don't let the big name talent fool you, the ten films that make up this year's Midnight Madness program have all been made outside of the traditional Hollywood studio system. These ten independent features have all faced their own challenges and the standard ones of not enough time and not enough money. I recently had the opportunity to pose questions to the producers of the films so please follow me as we Meet the Producers of Midnight Madness 2010. Let me introduce you to Peter Block.
Mr. Block, formerly was President of acquisitions and co-productions of Lionsgate. In 2008 he formed A Bigger Boat productions in order to produce and distribute genre films and television.
What did you learn from being the President of Acquisitions & Co-Productions at Lionsgate that informed your decision to form your own production company A Bigger Boat in 2008?
What I had learned in my time at Lionsgate, and as far back as the early '90s when I found that a company could actually exist on a slate of straight to video horror titles, and sometimes you discovered fantastic new directors, such as Guillermo del Toro, "Cronos" and Peter Jackson "Dead Alive". I also learned that the horror audience was vibrant, dedicated and social. Whether the films were good or bad, was often not nearly as important as whether there was a great death scene, or even a really bad line-reading. The audience showed up again and again and shared their experiences with one another.
By 2008, I had spent the better part of a decade at Lionsgate, and had been able to chart its course into the genre world from the arthouse circuit; I can still recall the great conversation when we were able to convince Chairman Jon Feltheimer that (a) "House Of 1000 Corpses" really was an arthouse movie (perhaps one for an outhouse crowd), and (b) that he should never watch it. So began a great trajectory beginning with "Cabin Fever", right here at TIFF, which allowed us to not only play in the genre sandbox, but to dig deep for hidden gems that other studios wouldn't touch, like "Devil's Rejects", "Hard Candy" and "The Descent". After spending time finding and producing commercial (Saw, Crank, Open Water) and critical (Crash, Girl With A Pearl Earring, Fido) successes for the company, I had a chance to fully delve into the indie producing world, while at the same time further exploring some of my genre sensibilities. There were stories I was still interested in telling, and directors (like genre-fave Adam Green, new-comers like Mark Tonderai and the legendary John Carpenter) that I wanted to work with. Plus, in A Bigger Boat, I already had a great company name picked out and, with the help of my pal Tim Williams, a fun animated logo...
The Ward was made outside of the studio system, what were some of the unique challenges this presented?
The Ward was made outside of the studio system for a variety of reasons. Firstly, we (my partners at Echo Lake Productions, and I) wanted to entice John Carpenter to direct the movie, and we knew John was partial to his independence (we found out later that that sentiment extended to "from producers" as well!). Secondly, the industry was changing. Studios were less interested in lower budgeted genre fare, in favor of tent-pole releases with name stars to drive ticket sales, and with it corporate earnings and stock prices. Along those same lines, most studios are more interested in keeping cost commitments as low as possible, preferring to explore co-production ventures, off-balance sheet financing, and pursuing post-production acquisitions over pre-production financial commitments.
So, while no studio came aboard before we made The Ward, it did open up some possibilities elsewhere. Many foreign territories have distributors with output deals with different Hollywood studios, and their offerings reflect largely what the studio feeds them. So your film doesn't always end up with the right distributor overseas, but rather the one with whom the studio has a pre-existing relationship. We got to approach each territory separately, and our foreign sales partner --- Glen Basner's FilmNation --- did a masterful job setting us up with enough pre-sales overseas --- to distributors excited at the prospect of a new John Carpenter film --- that we were able to finance the movie, albeit with less than John or we hoped. And so began the search for where to shoot, a decision complicated by the ever-changing exchange rate of the U.S. Dollar. So initial explorations of Toronto and Winnipeg eventually gave way to a terrific team in Spokane Washington, which had an unknown production team but a great tax rebate program. But in then end, it all comes down to not the elements you don't have, but the quality of the ones you do, and we have a great story, a camera-friendly and talented cast, and a director who knows a thing or two about the art of the scare. I'd say we're doing ok.
I recently spoke with David Cronenberg and he said that in today's climate your past track record does not matter anymore. Each film has to be tackled as though it was your first project. You yourself have an impressive track record, how are you finding the business of raising money for a project?
I think David's right in some regards, but let's not forget: he's David Cronenberg, and he's done some of his most outstanding work lately with "Eastern Promises" and "History Of Violence". So I could disagree and say his body of work makes him ever-relevant, and at the same time his recent work is so strong that anyone would love to have the opportunity to be involved with a new project. But overall he's correct and it's as much a function of the "what have you done for me lately?" mentality as it is a matter that studio needs (and studio personnel) are ever-changing, coupled with the collapsing of industry windows and revenue streams.
Moreover, movie years are like dog years: by the time your movie gets made, released and finds it's way to a studio (non)profit statement, another 600 films have come and gone through theaters, to say nothing of those that bypass theatrical altogether. By the time you want to make a follow-up to your movie, the first one has been released and critiqued, amortized and analyzed, and most likely already replicated enough times so that's it's either deemed a classic or already forgotten. And all of that is further enhanced by the fact that everyone's always looking for a reason to say "no"; rarely does anyone get fired for not green-lighting a project, but the corollary isn't always true. So you've got to make sure your successes are recent enough to stay relevant in an ever-changing marketplace, and you've got to have a package that demands a "yes" when both economics and job preservation dictate otherwise. In other words, I'm no longer the guy responsible for "Saw" or "Open Water" or "The Descent"; I'm just the guy who this year made "Frozen" and The Ward and released "The Disappearance Of Alice Creed". And I'm hoping I can still get the director of "Scanners" on the phone.
This Interview first appeared 09/07/10 at the Tiff Midnight Madness Blog