It seems like so many great pictures came out of that time, and from the
studios. Why do you think that was?
Well, in the early 1970s, the whole revolution was that there were new
conversations and new voices that were being listened to in these companies.
These big lumbering companies that were essentially movie factories were all
the sudden listening to new voices. They were trying out new people -- people
that came from commercials, people that came from all walks of the film (what I
call) training business. And as such, when you have so much unconvention, you
have a lot of new ideas popping up, and people willing to take chances on it.
And of course, a film I made then, "Midnight Express," for $1,750,000 -- that
was the price of the airfares back and forth for "Seven Years in Tibet," which
we made [in 1997]. So you're talking about the risk/reward ratio was so
different. You didn't have to launch a picture.
A picture we recently made, they spent $40 million just marketing the picture
in North America alone -- not the cost of the picture, not international, just
U.S., North America, Canada alone -- $40 million in prints, advertising,
releasing costs, costs through the first two weeks. So if that film doesn't
work on Friday night, every executive in the business in that company gets
sphincter arrest, because there's nowhere to go.
Back then, there were platformed releases. You released them in eight cities
and you'd move the film out. You'd be able to spend a whole lot less, even
proportionally, on the marketing of a film, and therefore you could take more
chances. It wasn't just the cost differential, even the talent differential.
... Today, it's a different game.
People have also said that, back then, it was possible for one or two guys
to go into a studio and sell their idea with their passion. Was that also your
Passion was, is, and always will be the fuel of the dream machine. Passion is
something that comes from the proprietor of the vision, the person that sees,
the man or woman who sees the story; in a sense, the shaman, the flame keeper
who wants to make that film, who wants to bring that film to fruition. It's
that passion that ignites the whole process. It isn't a multiple vision; it's a
single vision being multiply owned, so that there is a proprietorship from a
lot of people, a collaboration on a single vision. That passion has to stem
from that vision. ...
And I think it may look a little different in the year 2000 than it did in the
late 1960s, but it still was that same way. Somebody had to convince somebody
else of their dream and to be able to finance it. Because, after all, it isn't
called "show show," it's called "show business." The person financing it has to
believe that they're going to get a return on their investment. How will they
get their return? Other people have to see it and embrace it. So the same
dynamics are alive today, even though the cost structure, the risk/reward
structure is much different. So passion is still the catalyst for it all.
A lot of people talk about "Jaws" as a kind of watershed. Can you talk about
what that meant to the business?
I think "Jaws" was significant as a watershed film, and it's almost ironical.
The four words that start the book -- "And so it began" -- are the same four
words that you could use for the business, the change in the business. "And so
it began." These wide releases. These enormous expenditures of prints and
advertising in publicity and marketing costs. They would create this enormous
swell of momentum that would create gargantuan box office from the beginning.
That started the whole media craze about tracking what film opened to what
numbers, and a kind contest of which films succeeded from year to year. All of
that became part and parcel of the dream merchants' tools in making films
You've done pretty well during that whole period, so obviously you saw
something and adapted in a way that other people didn't. What did you see? What
kind of changes did you feel you had to make?
The changes that you make trying to survive and prosper from the late 1960s
into the year 2000 are more of attitude than aptitude. I think many people keep
their aptitude -- their abilities, their capabilities, talents and insights.
But the attitude, the willingness to embrace new voices, the willingness to
allow yourself to be curious rather than become critical. ... As you get older,
you can become critical instead of curious, and that kills the passion. It
kills the energy that fuels the momentum that creates the process that gets the
... You cannot be risk-averse. Younger people tend to be more willing to take
risks, more prone to lean forward. As you get older and you become the
incumbent in the process, in the institution, you begin to defend your
incumbency, and then new challenges come along and take away your ground. So
the idea of what I think has allowed me to maintain both the propensity and the
disposition and, hopefully, the success through those four to five decades has
been those kinds of tools -- not the other kinds of rules.
How important have these other [ancillary] markets become to the success of
I would say that the other markets that have emerged since the 1960s, in terms
of importance to the films and the film business, are somewhat akin to water to
a camel. They can stay alive, these companies, for quite some time. But they
have done it by building up these great reservoirs inside them -- these
enormous catalogs of films which they can turn and create revenue streams from,
that can build other kinds of assets like distribution channels for cable or
having the clout of having an enormous amount of videos to rack for video
All of these elements give the critical mass to these companies, which allows
them to sustain themselves from picture to picture, from year to year. A little
company like mine, at Mandalay, which is only seven years old now, which is a
world record -- most of these companies go out of business, you know, within
earshot of the first bang -- what has really allowed it is the fact that the
industry has now fractured itself. It allows other forms of financing to become
part of the packaging of films. In the past, the engines of finance were
totally the studios. Today, the costs of films and the risks of films have
allowed a new element in the packaging to emerge.
How important is marketing to the release of one of your films?
The importance of marketing, in terms of success of a film, is like air to all
of us. It is a crucial resource that you must be breathing from the beginning.
The minute you start the process of deciding to make a film and you're
communicating that vision to anyone, you're in the process of selling. If you
don't understand that, you're not in show business. You're just not.
The idea is you create a perception in the marketplace to a whole set of
constituencies. It can be talent constituencies, managers and attorneys, it
can be the media, it can be the exhibitors, it can be the distributors -- a
whole set of people who help catalyze the process of getting the film made,
both by their design and by serendipity.
And the reality is that, when you begin to communicate the ideas, people make
opinions and judgements and points of view about them. Is it a good one, is it
a bad idea? Is it a good writer, is it a bad writer? Is the film looking good
or is it looking bad? Is it successful, is it unsuccessful? These are fragile
enterprises. ... The rules are ethereal; they're very hard to put your hands on
them. As a matter of fact, I often say in this business [that] there are no
rules, but you break them at your peril.
The reality is that every movie is a new business. Nobody says, "Hey, let's go
down to the Pantages Theater, I hear a Warner Brothers picture is playing
there." Or "Let's go to this theater, I hear the film came in on budget." It'd
be ridiculous. Each movie is an opinion, a point of view, a collection of
opinions and points of view, plus the film itself. That's what helps create the
word of mouth. That's what helps create the perception of success that drives
people to the theater. The film has to be good. But many films that are good
don't succeed to their full merit, because they'd not been marketed well. And I
think that's an important ingredient. Marketing and filmmaking are, in a sense,
inextricably tied together at the hip.
So it seems like sometimes you're almost competing against the other
marketing campaigns more than the films.
On any given weekend in the summer, there's such a confluence of films
bombarding the North American media for attention, the cacophony is deafening.
To try to get separation, to try to get awareness, to try to penetrate the
noise, to try to create a sense of design for the film, to try to draw in the
core audience, takes enormous numbers of dollars, enormous energy. A big film
in a big studio that's maybe cost $100 million, the marketing resources -- and
I'm not talking about just financial capital, but intellectual capital -- that
are designed and deployed in making that film successful can suck the air out
of the rest of the company.
So every weekend, you'll find yourself competing against one or two or three
big films. And when these companies all put out $70 million, $80 million, $90
million, $100 million films, they have to support them. They have to open them.
They're in a bit of a footrace for that week for the available audiences out
there. "Well," you'll say, "Why don't you go out in February, why don't you go
out in the fall?" You do, but the available audience is much smaller, so you'll
do better, but the total audience is less.
So the idea is [that summer] is a very valuable playing time. You have to
market your films, your big films into it, and hope like hell that they catch
fire and that it's a conflagration that can play throughout the summer.
Otherwise, it's like a match. It burns down and burns the tips of your fingers
and all you got is a little bit of pain -- or a lot of pain, if there's a lot
So what do you think attracted those [multinational] companies to the film
What is the attraction of a French water company, [Vivendi], to buying a movie
studio in Hollywood? What is the attraction of multinational consumer
electronics companies -- two of them, Panasonic and Sony -- to buying companies
in Hollywood? What is the attraction of a Canadian spirits company, Seagrams,
to buying a company in Hollywood? ...
I think it's like the moth drawn to the flame. There's something that you can't
get quite anywhere else. It's the reason for programs like this. It's the
attraction of the storyteller. There's something in the magic of the lights
that is inextricably true for all human beings. There's something about the
magic of the shaman, the storyteller in front of the flickering images of the
campfire that forever in our species have wowed us, from the very, very
And whether it's new technology driving it, whether it's capital driving it,
whether it's new markets driving it, it still remained integral. We're wired.
humans are a funny bunch; we're a narrative bunch. We're wired to talk to each
other in the form of story. So when we see these flickering images on a screen
40 feet high and 50 feet wide and we're in some way swept off of our daily
humdrum, we have a patent interrupt from all the terrible things that are going
on, there's something that is so powerful in that medium that I think companies
and individuals see that as an enduring legacy of human race.
So to own a piece of that territory, to own a piece of that real estate, to
somehow say "That's mine," and then you see it on every screen in [the] world
... is a very compelling element. Now, when it's also economically sound -- and
it can be -- [it's] a very powerful magnet for these companies.
One can always sell them on the basis that, over the years, the transactional
value has exceeded the enterprise returns. That's true. Nonetheless, it's still
been a powerful tool in building a multimedia international resource where the
inventory works to your advantage when you're asleep. I'm asleep right now.
"Sleepy Hollow" is making money in some airliner, at some hotel, in some
television station in Paraguay and in Venezuela and someplace in Eastern
And films that I made 25 years ago, in the 1970s, "Midnight Express," [I'm]
still getting checks from exposure from the 25-year re-release to a video to a
new DVD. So these are very valuable intellectual properties. Not easy to
create, but still something that has a compelling nature, for both the
entrepreneurial spirit and the creative spirit of companies and people. ...
Is there a culture clash between those companies and the way Hollywood
works? When they come in, are they changing the business in any way?
I think the first rush of international buyers for companies started way back
in the mid-1960s, when Banque de Paris tried to buy Columbia Pictures. Abe
Schneider and Leo Jaffe and a group of people who were at the company held them
off. There may have been some incidents before that, but I'm not really privy
to it. But I think that was one of the first ones. ...
Every company began... International companies began looking at it and saying,
"Can I do one of two things? Can I own a piece of Hollywood?" And I use the
word "Hollywood," not in its geographic sense, but its international sense, the
type of filmmaking, the type of international currency of product that it
produces. "Can we own that?" Then a group of companies came and said, "Can we
own it and can we do like the Japanese thought they could do? Replicate it. We
can now take it back home, redesign it, and make from there for here." That was
a thought. And that didn't work, either.
And so everyone had a different play at it. "Now that we have a digital world
and talent's living all over the world, can we run the company out of France?"
That didn't work, either. You could eat well there, but you couldn't run the
company out of there. These are funny little businesses. I say "little,"
because each of the movies are businesses, and now they're big movies, but
funny little things.
The international companies that are media companies realize that it is an
intrinsically international product that's intrinsically made in the English
language, and it's intrinsically geographically oriented in North America. So
ultimately, even the companies, the international companies that own it now,
pretty much other than the financing questions of the whole company, leave the
operational issues and the creative issues to the parties at hand in North
Have you seen any change in this span that you've been working in, in the
kinds of movies that get made?
In the early 1970s, even late 1960s, what you had was not a global market. The
lack of privatization of television meant that a lot of the product didn't go
into international television sale at the theatrical release. It was closely
controlled by the cultural ministries of France and other countries that they
didn't want them to be Americanized, especially in their television product.
Couldn't quite do so as well in their international theatrical product. But
still, all the cinemas were old, the screens were old, projection was
relatively unstable, uncertain and the product represented maybe 20 percent of
the world global value of a film at that time.
Then there were the American film icons that did real business, that you could
do some business with. That was the Clint Eastwoods and the Charlie Bronsons.
... The American companies didn't decide to make those films because they were
internationally focused, not domestically focused. They were more interested in
whether the film was boffo in Baltimore than whether it was successful in
Zagreb. In fact, they didn't have films then, it was a communist country. But
at any rate, you didn't have international films.
What happened was that, as the international market began to open up, people
began to see the revenue potential there. Just look at today. People talk about
the world. There's 300 million people in the United States and there's
5,700,000 people in the rest of the world. Doesn't take an Einstein to figure
out if you could tap into that market, there's a lot of money to be made and a
lot of eyes to be attended to.
So over this period, that continuum, that's what began to happen. The
privatization of television, the expansion of the cinemas; the international
marketplace began to have multiplex cinemas. Theaters didn't have concessions;
they now have concessions in the world. A whole sea change happened, including
the ancillaries that came from theatrical. Now cable and video were enormous in
the world markets.
That meant that the shape of the films would change, because for a long time it
still was the action adventure, mainstream down the middle, male-oriented film.
And then suddenly, I remember, in 1993 or 1994 when I was at Sony, one of our
studios was doing two films, "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Philadelphia." And the
team at the company modeled those films and said, "We're going to do about 40
percent [internationally] of what they do in the U.S. domestic market -- 40
percent. Oh, OK, not bad. That's what they can do. Maybe 50 percent, 40
And you've made your decision based on that. Of course, they did 125 percent
more than they did in domestic market. Films that normally weren't looked at as
international travelers, ones that didn't cross all the territorial lines, so
it's all blurring as CNN brings the news of a successful film to the world the
same day it is happening here. So you got international releases that are
closer. You've got publicity and promotion that is now global in nature. So the
whole nature and design of what you make is also changing.
A lot of people we've been talking to say that, over the last few years,
that films seem to be getting simpler and simpler. Do you think there's a
danger in overmarketing and playing things so safe that you can wear out the
This is a very difficult question, because it's a dangerous question. If you're
asking an opinion of a person that's been on the filmmaking side of the
business for 32 years, are the films that are like that, that are getting
simpler, and kind of uncomplicated and younger -- is that a good thing or a bad
... I'm not sure. I'm seeing it from an older person's side. But some of the
stupidest films [that] ever could be conceived have enormous grosses. I mean,
they're unbearable. Now, that's to me and my sensibility. You know, maybe I'm
too old, maybe I'm too educated, maybe I'm too thoughtful -- I don't know what
I am -- but they are plain-out terrible. It's the only word I can use. Now, one
man's meat is another man's poison, and vice versa. So the question, is that a
film I would want to make myself? No. I wouldn't want to spend my money, our
money, my passion, my scarcest resource -- my time, my energy -- and make those
kinds of films.
Not that I haven't on occasion made films that are terrible; I have. Or that I
haven't made films that didn't succeed; I have. Or haven't made films that have
been badly reviewed; I have. Or haven't made films that had some dumbness to
them; I have. But that's not what I'm aiming for.
And I think your question is, is that what's happening now? Is the success of
those films causing companies to aim at that? And the answer is yes. And the
reason why is that greed and avarice were invented in Hollywood. So the bigger
targets, closer up, are those kind of films. And they can migrate to television
easier, video. ...
And let me say this: That's not putting anybody down, because I don't think
that's not a fair statement. We're all cut from the same cloth. But the reality
is that some far-off travelers in the cosmos seeing these errant signals that
have escaped Earth 1000 years from now are going to think, "Who made this
'Little Nicky?' What is this thing? Can this be a species we want to visit?"
So my question always is not the end product of the film, because I think
that's a hard way to really completely answer the question. It's, "What was the
design going in? Were you aiming, as your question suggests, were you aiming at
that lowest common denominator? That cheapest possible audience? That basest
possible value? Is that the target of choice?"
That's a very honest question and it deserves an honest answer. And I think the
answer is yes. If they believe they can make more money at that, that's where
they'll aim, in the main, because they are, after all, public companies. The
shareholders don't want to know what the product was; they want to know what
the profits are.
What could Hollywood do to screw itself up?
Sometimes you look at something and ask yourself, is this the greatest thing in
the world and could it be ruined, or is this the most awful thing in the world
that has some great things in it? I'm not sure on which side I'd come down. But
my own view is that, so long as the human being remains a human being and
doesn't become mechanical, have all mechanical parts and a mechanical brain,
that ultimately they're going to be driven by the imperatives of storytelling.
People love to be swept off their feet, to go into an environment where they've
never been, to experience things they only dream about. And filmmaking offers
that potential. Whether we call it cinema in the [digitized] future or if it's
played on your eyeballs injected with electrodes into your head, whatever the
means are, we're going to start with somebody wanting to tell a story to
somebody else -- a lot of somebody elses. I don't think there's anything in the
technology or the financing that can screw that up.
The question becomes, can they maximize its value? Can they make stories and
compelling dramas that are entertaining, charming, inventive, romantic, funny,
that somehow move forward the human spirit and support the best of who and what
we are as individuals? Can we do that and still have it be a good business?
That's the real challenge in the question.
You're someone who seems to have struck a balance between big commercial
films and films like "Sleepy Hollow." How do you approach putting together
something like "Sleepy Hollow?"
Well, "Sleepy Hollow" was already rolling down the road when we got involved.
We chose to do it because we felt it was a worthwhile business venture. Tim
Burton had done "Batman" with us, and Johnny Depp had done "Donnie Brasco" with
us, so we had some relationship and we were in business with Paramount.
But to look at a film that may or may not get made, may or not get made by the
time this show is on, take a film like "Beyond Borders." The screenplay [was]
written largely at the direction of Oliver Stone, who wrote "Midnight Express,"
by the way, and he won the Academy Award. Very difficult adult film about
darkness without borders. A combination of "Year of Living Dangerously" meets
"Out Of Africa." You know, clearly not "Little Nicky." He's not in that league.
It's a real challenge to make that film, because your audience isn't 15 years
old. You're not going to look at multiple moviegoers in terms of the number of
times they're going to see it. It's a long film. It's going to run two hours
and 15 minutes, and it may not get made. In fact, there's a high likelihood
that it won't get made. It had Oliver Stone directing, it had Kevin Costner in
it, it had Michael Douglas in it, it had Ralph Fiennes in it, it had Julia
Roberts in it, it had Gwyneth Paltrow in it. I mean, every kind of person had,
like, surrounded it.
But ultimately, it may not get made. We believe in it, from the first moment of
the treatment all the way through now to the screenplay and trying to find the
right filmmaker to make it. In Chechnya, Cambodia and Ethiopia -- that's a
tough film to make. So that doesn't mean it's worthy of the money or worthy of
being made, but it's worthy of the passion. And we have a passion for it. Will
it get there? I don't know.
But I can say this: The target on that film is small and distant. If I want to
make a big and close one, "Sleepy Hollow" is a much bigger and closer one. So
you look at what balance you want to do. You're driven by the passion inside
you, by something that you believe speaks to something in your creative self,
in your humanness, that you feel is worthy of the scarcest resource that you
possibly have -- your time.
Any trends in the future that you see?
I think the most interesting is new technology, because this business has
always been transformed by new technologies. The shaman in front of the
campfire danced his dance and sang a song and stood in front of the flickering
images, until somebody one day picked up a cape and horns that were drying and
put it on his head and danced around behind him acting out the hunt, and
suddenly the prop was born. New technology. And everything changed. ...
You know, everybody was slow to embrace it. And then they figured out how to
incorporate it. Today, change is change. The rate of change is accelerating.
... It's a compelling adventure now just to stay alive, just to keep afoot of
all the things that are going on.
But one thing that I think has the greatest advantage to both change the
financial underpinnings of the business and create a wider circle or a wider
orbit of audience, and differentiated audience, and a wider orbit of talent
that can feed that audience, is World Wide Web broadband.
[There's] the idea that it'll collapse the distance between the "Eureka" of the
artists and the "Wow" of the audience -- collapse it all and get them much
closer together with a lot of intermediaries who made money in the process,
people carrying film cans around, all kinds of other distribution mechanisms,
marketing mechanisms, being commoditized, intermediated out of the business --
and allow those two forces to come together with a greater frequency and
greater selectivity... [That], to my mind, has enormous potential.
Anything that's frustrated you?
The most frustrating thing is that I'm getting older. And it's frustrating, not
because it's not enjoyable, but because there are so many new voices, so many
unconventional voices coming at us from that direction, that sifting and
sorting and deciding which ones to embrace and examine and be curious about is
indeed a challenge in and of itself. But that's also what keeps you young, if
you're willing to take a breath and think, "Oh, I'll accept that. I'll look at
that. That's a new idea that I didn't think of," rather than be the proprietor
or the steward of all ideas.
Anything I didn't ask that you want to comment on?
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my mother for giving birth to
me. I failed to do that at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and every
other award. I want to do it here.
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