Monday, June 29, 2015

When It's Not About the Money - Part 2 - For The Love of the Game

[T]he job of mass entertainment is to cajole, seduce and flatter consumers to let them know that what they thought was right is right, and that their tastes and their immediate gratification are of the utmost concern of the purveyor. The job of the artist, on the other hand, is to say, wait a second, to the contrary, everything that we have thought is wrong. Let's reexamine it.
-David Mamet in a Salon Interview

There is a common truth about the producer in theater and in film. They are salesmen. They are salesmen that sell art, but they are still salesmen.*

Mamet knows art, and he knows salesmen. He writes great characters who are obsessed with money, and in interview after interview, he distances artists from salesmen and talks disparagingly about producers and the film and theater business and how it's all about the money.

His film producer in State and Main, Marty Rossen (played by the wonderful David Paymer) is a petty little man who cajoles when he can, and threatens when that doesn't work. Or as his producer says in Speed the Plow

"Life in the movie business is like a new love affair; it's full of surprises and you're constantly getting fucked."

The Coen Brothers give us Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink, who alternately woos the titled writer when he thinks that will work, but offers him this when it doesn't:

"I run this dump and I don't know the technical mumbo-jumbo. Why do I run it? Because I got horse-sense, Goddammit. Showmanship!"
And that may be what separates producers in film and theater from other salesmen. Deep down, they are showmen.

The Producer's Max Bialystock uges his new partner, "When you got it, flaunt it!"

But he knows there is no art without commerce.

"Don't forget the check-y," Max tells one of his elderly suitors. "Can't make plays without the check-y."

For some of us, it makes us feel cheap. I have never been good about having my hand out for the check, which is why, in Part 1, I talked about how I never liked that part of producing. This, even though I often describe being a line producer as being a glorified accountant. I'm okay with counting and watching the money, but not collecting it.

Someone has to do it.

The previous post - When It's Not About the Money - was going to be a one-off. However, as often happens after I publish, I woke the next morning to the realization that there was an entire side to the story I had not told. It was not a part of that article, so I didn't edit it. It was a follow-up.

What I have seen in my new-found position of working with people who are good at raising money is that there is a side of the salesman many don't see, and that's the love of the product.

In the past few weeks I have seen producers as salesmen at work, and what I walked away with was how seamlessly they blended art and commerce.

Doug is a theater producer, and if you looked up a theatrical producer in a dictionary, his picture would be there (maybe without the big cigar).

When I first met him for coffee in a hotel bar, he immediately broke into his spiel about his current musical, complete with flyers and cards and props from the show that he carried in his bag, a bag that was seemingly as bottomless as a magician's hat and had whatever it needed.

Then, he played his favorite song from his the new musical he is raising money for on his phone for us. A few seconds in, his face lit up, and it lit up for real. The snake-charmer charmed by his own tune.

When he talks about his current comedy - a hilarious piece he was kind enough to take some of us to - he beams. "I've seen it a number of times now," he says. "A day in the theater never fails to cheer me up."  He offers a satisfied sigh, and you know he truly loves it.

When I sat with Marc, the director and producer for a film we may be able to help get funded, he, too, had all the marketing and social media angles covered, as well as potential tie-ins to his very clever movie about the lottery. Once he talked about the scenes from the script, though, he lit up. He could see the scenes right before him, and that was not about box office or grosses, but seeing a dream come to life.

My producer friend Trevite says of herself, "I'm a closer." She is good at making deals and not shy about making sure investors deposit the checks. While she says she doesn't like being on set (she has the LP and PM and AD for that) the truth is that she has a hand in every side of the creative process, and not afraid to get her hands dirty to make things get done. I got to see the rough cut of her latest feature, and it looks great - not great for the small budget they had - but great like I would have enjoyed it if I had paid $15 in a theater for it.

Maybe that's the difference between producers in theater and film and other salesmen. The dream came before the money, and the dream was not about money but the work. "Whereas money is a means to an end for the filmmaker, to the corporate mind money is the end," says Robert Redford.

This is what separates them from the Willy Lomans, whose boss tells him, "The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell."

A few years ago, I was line producer on a true art film, so much so that I can't give you a simple description of the movie. The screenplay was based on an existential novela and was, if possible, even less commercial than the book. The producer and I had lots of issues with how each of us work, but I never stopped admiring her for raising over $600K for a film I could not describe by a first-time feature filmmaker.

That is certainly talent.

Sometimes I wonder if those of us in the arts embrace the fact that "artist" is the word that most comes to people's minds after the word "struggling" is not just a way of us justifying our lack of financial acumen. The work should be the badge of honor, not the poverty.

Later this week, I will learn if my marriage of these two worlds lands a script and two filmmaker friends that I very much admire their funding. If so, we will be shooting in the Fall. That will make it all worth it.


Many people know one of my favorite "poor artist" speeches is by Bill Murray in "Tootsie." Here is a little bit of it.

*As with the term "actor," I use it for both genders.

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