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lucy fisher

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Lucy Fisher's company, Red Wagon Productions, oversaw last year's Academy Award-winning film "Gladiator." A long-time studio executive, Fisher began her career in the late 1970s as a story editor for Samuel Goldwyn Jr. Productions. She has held various senior executive positions at MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros., and Sony, where she was vice chairman of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group. Movie projects that she has overseen include "The Color Purple" (1985), "The Bridges of Madison County" (1995), "Jerry Maguire" (1996), and "As Good As It Gets" (1997). Here, she talks about Hollywood's increasingly risk-averse culture, the demands of the opening weekend, the homogenizing effects of mass marketing, and what she's learned about films that work and films that don't.

This interview was conducted in September 2001.

What drew you to the movie business?

I had a very circuitous route to the movie business. I came out here after college with my college sweetheart. We went to Harvard together, and we got in our Volkswagen bus and we drove to California, and lived on people's couches in Berkeley and made our way to Los Angeles. He ended up doing scores for AFI movies. It was the very beginning of the AFI, and I tried to get a job at the L.A. County Museum. ...

During that time, I ended up getting a job as a reader, the lowest-level entry job. I actually got a job working at KFWB in the newsroom from midnight to 8:00 a.m. ... between 2:00 and 5:00 in the morning, L.A. time, actually nothing would go on, and so I started to read scripts freelance. And at that point I had read... I had been to every French movie and I had read "Eraserhead," because my boyfriend was doing the score. So I had not read any regular scripts, and I got hired as a reader because I had written book jackets, so I knew how to write a little synopsis. That was my first job.

I was heavily underqualified but a movie lover, and I found myself sort of moving up the ranks from there. Then I had every title and every job you can have, from reader, to story editor, to executive story editor, to executive of creative affairs, to director of creative, vice president, different forms of vice presidents at different studios. I worked at five or six studios. So I went a roundabout way, ended up working in the Thalberg Building three different times, at MGM, UA and for Sony, from a reader to the vice chairman in the same building. That was kind of fun. ...

Can you talk about your observations of how you've seen the culture of Hollywood change since you've been working in it?

How has Hollywood changed? When I started, it was the mid-1970s. It was much more of a sort of a fun time to make movies. That was when a lot of really amazing directors were either starting off or just had done some of their prime work. I was lucky enough to work for Francis Coppola for two years around the time of the release of "Apocalypse Now," when he bought the little studio, Las Palmas Studios. It became Zoetrope Studios, and I was head of production there.

And to compare that time to this time, our studio was fully artist-owned. Our building had Jean Luc Godard, David Lynch ... I don't know if it could exist exactly now when everything is so much more multinational, big conglomerate-owned.

When, in those days, my first job was as a reader for United Artists and five guys ran that out of New York ... those five guys decided what movies to make, and they made them because they liked them. Period. And they didn't even watch dailies, because they bet on talent and thought, "If we respect you enough, we read the script. If we respect your work, go make a good movie, and we'll see you later."

And from that point of view came "Rocky," "Annie Hall," "Cuckoo's Nest," one good movie after another, the time when I was a reader there. Not that I had anything to do with any of them, but it was a community of people that really liked movies, which is one thing that's very different. The managers now, a lot of times, are business people, and they need to be, because the amount of money changing hands is so much more extreme than it was 20, 30 years ago.

There was also a camaraderie that existed that doesn't now, because the pressure of opening weekend is so strong now, that by Friday night at midnight, you already know whether the two years or the five years that you spent working on a movie were basically for naught, or whether you're going to make it through the weekend. And literally, by Friday night when the fax machine purrs and you have the numbers come through, you know whether your movie is over or not.

They take such a long gestation period that it makes people fearful of trying new things because the pressure is so big, and people do usually prefer what they already know to what they don't know. And certainly people who are in the decision-making seats feel safer making decisions about known quantities, as opposed to unknown quantities. So the rolling of the dice has become a much more limited, a limited game, I would say.

And more often in the early days, or my early days ... people could take a gamble for $4 million or $10 million, and if it worked, fine, and if it didn't work go, go do the next one. Now there is the nut of making a movie that could cost $100 million and $100 million to open it. That's a $200 million gamble; that's a lot different than a $5 million gamble or a $4 million or $1 million.

There also, I think, was a better training ground then -- funny to say it -- but Roger Corman, who had his own little studio and gave birth to Coppola and Demme and Scorsese, and a lot of good directors that made little exploitation movies to begin with. But at least they had a chance to make movies ... the hardest thing is to get to make the movie.

The pressure of opening weekend is so strong now, that by Friday night at midnight you already know whether the two years or the five years that you spent working on a movie were basically for naught.

So it's hard to practice getting better at it, when you don't get to do it. And the only way to get to do it is for somebody to give you a chance to do it, and the only way that can happen is for it to happen in a less expensive way. Now the studios really have no way, hardly, to make movies inexpensively. So the independents can do it, which is great that they can. But the studios really have a hard time. They're not set up to doing that, so it's hard for them to grow new talent, and I think that's a big problem. One of the best things about the 1970s and the movie making of it was that there was such an abundance of talented people, many of whom are still doing great work now.

How did the pressure of opening weekend come about?

How did the pressure of opening weekend come about? There's always been pressure, I'm sure. You read any of those books about the 1930s, and people were always going to their previews in Riverside on the train and they were always worrying about opening weekend also. But because, I would say -- and there are those who know more than I do about this aspect of it -- because movies are sold primarily through television now and television is so expensive, if you're going to open a movie broadly, you're going to buy a lot of television time across the country.

If you open a movie and platform it in a few theaters, New York, and L.A. for instance, then ... the opening weekend isn't as crucial, because it has time for the word of mouth to catch up to it. If you have a really strong movie, you might be able to do it that way. But once you have bought television time across the country, the movie that's coming out next week is going to buy the time the next week, and you won't be able to afford to keep buying the time week after week. So you only have that window of the first week, unless by some chance, the word of mouth is so strong that it can overcome. ...

So sometimes you can have "strong legs," as what they call them, and continue on even if you didn't have a gigantic opening weekend. But if you have a really bad opening weekend, it's just very hard for the studio to keep spending the money, hoping that they can figure out a different way to get the audience's attention. ...

Is it getting harder for producers to nurture a good film these days?

I think it's always been hard. I think a producer's job is really hard and it's harder, I'd say, in that the people that you're having to convince now are less apt to have an aptitude for actually loving a movie. And the fact that something is quote "good" might not even be on the scale of a reason to want to make a movie. The people that have the power now will say they'll "run the numbers," an expression I'm sure you've heard a lot. ... There's a bunch of people that plug in facts and spit out alleged answers that are going to say that a movie that's this or that can only make this or that. ...

Obviously, you can never really calculate the magic of when a movie works. A perfect example is one of the first movies that I helped put together when I got to Sony as vice chairman, a movie called "As Good As It Gets." It had a wonderful script. It had Jim Brooks, who's a genius. It had Jack Nicholson interested, but not quite committed. And the studio was nervous because, they kept saying, "Well, it's a movie about a gay guy getting beaten up." And I kept saying, "No, that's something that happens in the beginning of the movie, it's not about that, and it's going to be funny, it's going to be touching."

Yes, but this starts off with a gay guy getting beat up. And movies that have a gay guy beat up in the beginning, they can only make whatever the number was. If you looked at it on paper, you might think that's what that movie was about; you might not be able to read between the lines and see all the heart and the soul and the humor that somebody like Jim would bring to it. And if you weren't a fan of Jim's, you might not know.

In fact, part of what helped us make the movie was ... I said [to the head of the company at that time], "Let me just put you to lunch with Jim, and you're going to see the whole movie differently, because you're going to see it through his eyes, not just you reading the script." And it's true -- as soon as he did that, he was able to see the movie in a different way than just sitting in a room reading the script. So I think it's hard for the people making decisions to not be the people talking in the room to the actual artists making the movie. ...

It seems as though because it has become a much more corporate town, that we're turning out films that don't have charm.

... It's as hard to get a movie made for $25 million as it is to get one made for $100 million, I think, in many respects. Because at least the $100 million movie fits a genre; usually that's an action genre or an international box office kind of a genre; whereas the smaller, more dramatic pieces don't as easily qualify to fit in. ... They break it down into four quadrants -- under 25 and over 25, male and female. And the ideal movie fits in all of those quadrants, but you better at least know that you have one.

So the Sony marketing department had an expression -- I don't know if they still have it or not, but they used to have it, and I took it to heart myself -- which is an MFN, a "movie for no one." Which is when a marketing department gets a movie that somebody thought was a good idea to make, but nobody ever asked the question, "Well, who is the movie for?" Which is a really good, practical question. You might come back with "American Beauty," and you're not quite sure who it's for. And it turns out to be for everybody, because it's a brilliant movie.

The real shame is when some of those don't have a chance to see the light of day. That's a perfectly good example of one that did, though, and somehow they creep through. And then we the moviemakers beg the public, you guys, to go see them, because that's the only way we'll get to make more of them is if people go see them. ...

Do you think that it's in the best interest of the distributors to make most of their money back in the opening weekends? What does that have to do with movies being mass marketed?

... The truth of it is there's an actual formula that if, on opening weekend you make X -- and I don't know exactly what it is, but any distribution guy can tell you -- by the next, you can predict exactly what the movie will make, more or less, for its whole life, based on a formula from that opening weekend. ...

There's also the aspect of if a movie opens and does a certain amount of money in America, it will open wide to a larger number internationally. ... It used to be that, oftentimes, it would be six months later or maybe even nine months later that movies would open internationally. Now they might open the same time or very soon afterwards. And so if it gets a stinky smell, it spreads across the whole world really fast.

If it's a hit, if you have a hit in America, even if it's a pre-bought hit, for example, you spent so much money that you got the people to come the first weekend, even though they didn't like it and they won't tell their friends. If it's opening in a bunch of other territories very soon afterwards, you'll get a little buzz from the fact that it had big numbers in America and the exhibitors in the other countries will respect that. So that opening weekend now has a ridiculous amount of authority over the fate of a movie.

Do you think mass marketing of films is narrowing the audience too much?

Yes. ... The mass marketing does homogenize the way that the things are sold, and probably homogenizes the actual product, too, sometimes. Hopefully not; but certainly when you're looking for trailer moments as you're making the movie, you're thinking about selling the movie at the same time you're thinking about making the movie. In my personal deepest recesses of my heart -- which I'm not supposed to say necessarily -- I don't think that it's good to think about them at exactly the same time.

I think it's good to have the left side of the brain operating a teeny bit with mutual respect, but a little bit independently. So first you get to say, "This is good, this is why I want to make it, because it makes me cry, it makes me laugh, it makes me want to go hug my child, hug my boyfriend," whatever it is. And now, "OK, now this is what it is, how can I sell it the best way I can?" If you're always worried about "how can I sell it" at the very first juncture, you might not have a chance to have it breathe its life, or its original life. ... I'm also looking for those trailer moments every time I'm working on a movie, all the way through it. But I don't want to look at them at the expense of what are the best moments of the movie, which may well not be the trailer moments.

In the olden days when I started off, the marketing and the production were much more separate entities. In fact, I worked at Warner Brothers for 14 years and I complained to my bosses ... "Why can't they be more co-joined?" Because I felt, as a production executive, sometimes I didn't have enough control over the marketing.

Gradually I had more authority. I got it, but I think there was a definite, deliberate reason to keep them separate at that point, which was one side should make what they think are the best movies and the other one should sell them the best way they can; as opposed to now, where there's committees at every single studio that co-join those two separate functions. And if the marketing people don't think they can sell a movie, no one will make the movie. ...

Can you talk about the [motivation] for these massive corporations to acquire movie studios?

Why do big companies want to buy studios? ... It's, like, the biggest toy you could possibly find, and they have every other toy. So this is a great toy. ... It's always been a glamorous profession from the outside. From the inside, not so much, unfortunately, but definitely from the outside. And I think there's always an attraction to stars and access to stars. ... It's almost like the little pearl or the prize that no one can ever quite have, because you get it and it's not what you thought. It's a lot of trouble. It's a wayward child. It's unpredictable.

I also think, and it's always been this way, that regular people in regular business think, "God, that movie was bad. It can't be that hard to make a better one." And people feel that about directors. "That movie was so badly directed, maybe I should be a director. That movie was so poorly written. I think I should write screenplays and I should sell the movies and I should own the studio, because God knows those things that they put out are really crummy. I think I should do it because I could do it better." And actually, there is no reason why most of the things aren't done better, and it does seem like they could be done better.

But when you wade into the marsh of trying to make movies, you find that it's much, much more complicated than it appears. I think that most of these companies probably think that they could straighten out these silly movie companies pretty easily, and just make them toe the line; [that] there is a formula to make a good movie, and they'll figure out that formula. And then they'll apply that formula and then all their movies will be good.

And it just doesn't work that way. For whatever reason, eight out of ten movies don't turn out that well. ... It changes all the time, but whatever it is, most do not meet their own expectations for whatever the reasons are. And I think that many regular corporate business men think, "Just apply a regular business logic to this crazy business and it'll give us a high return. It'll be fun. It'll be diverting, and it will give us content for our other business."

Almost every single one of the studios is owned by a company that has related business. So they feel that the, quote "synergy" (because it's yet to work) will help feed itself. ... The sum will be more valuable than the parts. And then, just that it seems like it's going to be a lot more fun than it actually is, once they get involved. ...

Do you think that it has yet to be found out if there is a synergy there?

It's hard to interweave the different divisions, and I think all companies ... I don't run a major movie studio anymore, or help run one. But they usually have meetings where they bring all the different departments together, a once a year, twice a year, three times a year. It's go to a golfing hotel here or there, and it's hard. ...

There's a very interesting book called "The Tipping Point", by Malcolm Gladwell. ... One thing it talks about is the ideal size of an entity that can actually be functional -- I think it's about a hundred people. And after that, you can't talk directly to enough of the other people to actually make your point worthwhile. So when you're talking about companies that are thousands of people and thousands of divisions and they're not even in the same place, it's not the same as running upstairs. ... Go run upstairs and tell somebody, "Here's a good idea for something," and go run back downstairs and go run back upstairs and show what you have. It's not like that. ...

Is it yet to be determined if owning a movie studio is a profitable venture?

God, that's funny. That's a harsh statement. ... Well, there are fewer and fewer of them. I guess it can be. It's hard, because ... you have to have a library. You have to have other things besides the ability to make the movies in order for it to work. You have to have some of the other ancillary things or there is no way, because too many movies fail. So you need to be able to say, "OK, the movie didn't do that well, but we had the merchandising," or "We have Bugs Bunny at Warner Brothers," which can make money every year, no matter how good or bad the movies would be. Or you have a "Batman" every two years, so that will carry you through some bad times.

And you have a library that you can resell and repackage and make into a home video, then make into a DVD, and then make into whatever will happen next -- then make into something that will sell on the Internet and then make something that will sell through cable. All these different ways, so that the same thing that you paid for once, you can sell a whole bunch of different ways. That's crucial. Just selling through a movie theater is not ever going to be a viable way to make money back on a movie anymore. Unfortunately, boo hoo, but it's going to be a bigger business from now on. ...

Does the digital age enable young talent to be discovered?

It feels like the digital revolution, or whatever you want to call it, could be a really wonderful avenue for filmmakers to take the means of production back into their own hands and not have to ask for permission and not have to fit into a preordained slot of what they should be. So that seems very promising. "Blair Witch" seemed like it was going to change everything; it changed everything for one movie, and maybe it will again.

Certainly, any inexpensive ways of making movies will open the field to more people and then more voices can be heard and then the great ones will always -- I personally believe, maybe it's just Pollyanna -- that the great ones will always rise; that people, if they can, if they're given something good and something mediocre, they're going to pick good, if they possibly have the choice. So I think that the fact that there is going to be easier means of making movies will be very interesting.

... There's also an avenue of things that you haven't seen before that could be on your screen that would give you a good reason to leave your house to go see it, because you really haven't seen it before. And hopefully, we'll be able to make movies that, as we can make the special effects a little less expensive, that we could make movies that take place in period or have more epic scope, and they won't cost as much to make, so we can fool around in that playground a little bit more. Our company made "Gladiator," and that's a movie that, again, the special effects allowed us to recreate -- I didn't work on it, my husband did -- to recreate second-century Rome in all its glory and grandeur in a way that would not have been able to be done for the same amount of money probably 15 years ago or even 10 years ago.

Do you think that broadband will open up the market for filmmakers?

It's unclear who's going to own the means of distributing these newer movies made with all these talented young people that are out there. What is true, if you've ever gone to a bunch of festivals or film festivals, is that easily 50 percent of those movies are just as boring as... They're not as prepackaged and they're not the same formula, but easily, many of those don't work either. Just because you made it cheaply or you got to do what you wanted to do doesn't mean that it's going to be good.

I think most people, if they had a choice of watching a bunch of independent movies made that weren't picked up for distribution versus the ones that were picked up for distribution, they'd probably rather watch the ones that were picked up for distribution and not the independent ones that nobody wanted to pick up. There might be that rare exception of a wonderful little gem that just didn't get seen. But I think a lot of movies will be made and there'll be a lot of self-expression, which is nice for the people doing it and maybe nice for their families. It doesn't mean that anybody else will want to see them anyway, but we'll see.

Why is there no other mechanism in place that allows the public to see some of the really good festival features?

I think broadband would probably allow the public a way to see some movies, for instance, the best of the festival movies that never come to their town and never come to their theater. What I don't think will ever be popular is the other 900 movies that the board at Sundance had to look at before they chose the 30 that they chose, or the 100, whatever, the ones that got weeded out. I don't think anybody's going to want to wade through a lot of those, but there always is the needle in the haystack. ...

One of the areas that was always a pet project of mine that never succeeded, that I always thought it would be fun to have -- this was before Internet - [would be] to have shorts, because shorts can be a pretty expressive medium. It doesn't cost that much; you can raise the money yourself. But there was no way to sell them, once they got made, even if you did put them on the Internet and you could see them once. No other people would buy a home video of them. They wouldn't sell them in Europe. You couldn't make a package of them. Part of the problem is there never was a way for those sort of oddball things to be packaged so that they could be sold more than once. You could see it the one time, but then, what would you do with it?

That's what they always told me every time I tried to start one of these things up. ... "It's a great idea, but what are we going to do with it?" What we could do with it now is do it on the Internet, for sure. But that could never be a really big business, because people will sort of cruise by, check it out, find something that they like and then go back and see a regular movie with stars they've heard of when it's Friday night. ...

How important is it to tap into the global audience?

We're just waiting for those theaters to be built in China. Everything will change. Yes, the global audience is as important as the domestic audience now, which again, I think, is good and bad. The good is that there's more people to see a movie. The bad is there's more formulas that people are trying to apply, like action, so that they can appeal to or appease the foreign markets. Well, it doesn't mean they like dumb action. They like action because they can understand it without any language barriers. But would they prefer it to be good and original, or would they prefer the same copycat movie as they saw before? They would prefer it to be original and good.

Every year, there's always a happy surprise, like "Crouching Tiger" certainly was a happy surprise for Sony this year, which was made as a small little movie and had a huge, huge box office around the world and was pretty un-language bound. It's such a visual movie -- that's what sold itself. Sony Classics had never had a movie that was that big before. It did find a huge audience around the world. Periodically, something can just happen like that, which is always nice when it does.

Are you under pressure to make films for a global audience?

In my mind, I no longer separate it. I've always felt like the audience was my partner. ... The world is our partner in this. You know, we're all human beings. The earliest movies that I loved were French movies and Italian movies. I grew up watching those kind of movies, and often find the truest looks at human nature, you can find them in another country's movies. So it's a wonderful thing to be able to have a global universe for movies. I think it's a real way for people to feel a kinship across the world.

What types of films excite you?

I like all kinds of movies. I really do. Our company makes all kinds of movies. We make family movies and we make epics and we made "Girl, Interrupted," which was kind of a smaller drama. ... I like movies that really sort of can titillate all different sides of the brain or the human experience. ...

The only thing I don't want to set out doing is -- but you can do it inadvertently -- is make movies that basically, they're so hard to make, you don't want to make one that nobody gets to see. It's just too frustrating and painful. There's nothing worse than making a good movie that doesn't get seen. It's a horrible feeling. ... So you want to figure out some way to make sure that there will be an audience for your movie. ...

What is the most exciting part of the process for you?

I'd say there's two parts that are the most exciting for me personally. One part is when you're in the room putting it together, at a certain stage, there's a group of people and the sum is so much greater than each part; when you feel like it's a smart room and feel like the idea is getting enhanced minute by minute. It's geometrically getting better as the costume designer says, "What about this?" And the director says, "What about that?" And the actor says, "Well, what about this?" And the producer says, "What about this?" And all of it gels.

For me, that's the best possible thing, when you sort of say, "I could never have done this on my own and none of us could have. It took everybody." Obviously, the director is the leader, but it took everybody's insight and everybody's point of view and everybody's specialty to be at their peak for it to be good. So that's the part that, as a producer, you can control a little bit of, and that I find the most fulfilling -- just watching something get better.

And then there's a moment where you actually sit in the dark room and it works, and it's so much better than you ever could have hoped for. It's a very rare pleasure to experience that. ... Or you'll be sitting in the theater and hear an audience member that you don't know saying, "I want to go to the bathroom so bad, but I can't leave." That's when you know you did your job right and you feel really, really great.

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