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'Produced By' conference packs 'em in, but the mood is downbeat

June 7, 2009 | 10:06 am

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Ari Who?

If the head of the newly merged William Morris and Endeavor has hopes of being the next Michael Ovitz, he should think again, said a panel of producers at the Producers Guild of America's "Produced By" conference, held on the Sony lot.

"It doesn't work that way anymore," said Lucy Fischer, the former vice chairman of Columbia TriStar and co-head of Red Wagon Entertainment, when asked if Ari Emanuel's new agency would shake up the backlots around town. "A studio can't get pressured by an agency, no matter how powerful," she said.

The event, the first such conference organized by the guild, drew more than 500 attendees to the Sony lot in Culver City over the weekend. The two-day gathering covered a variety of issues for producers, including movie production, financing, marketing and technology. The notion that movie producers need their own industry conference might elicit as much empathy as Wall Street investment bankers staging their own job fair -- but then both professions have encountered humbling downturns in the last year.

Indeed, perhaps the only bright spot for producers these days is that they don't have to deal with so many big-swinging agents. While the rooms were packed, a foreboding sense of gloom hung over many of the panels. Whether it is the difficulty of raising money, the paucity of creativity in the executive suites or the uncertainty over how technology is upending the business, the cumulative effect could only make one wistful for the old days -- i.e., the 1990s -- when the biggest headache was dealing with Ovitz.

An obsession with "tent pole" pictures and slavishly serving ADD-crippled youth audiences has turned movie-making into the sports business, lamented producer Kathleen Kennedy ("E.T.," "The Sixth Sense," "Jurassic Park").

"It's frustrating as a filmmaker, " she said of the studios' aiming so many movies at the 16-24 demographic. "No one talks about what a movie is about ... whether it was good. We have a baby boom generation that isn't going to movies anymore."

Lawrence Bender said "Pulp Fiction" would get two weeks in theaters today, compared with the many months it got when released in 1994. Producer Michael London predicted that in the not-too-distant future a movie like his last year's "Milk" won't even get a theatrical window.

The financial side isn't much cheerier. Banks are "phenomenally scared," said Clark Hallren, managing director of JP Morgan's Entertainment Industries Group, on a panel devoted to financing for independent films. The number of banks doing business with the movie industry has fallen to about a dozen from 30 to 35, he said, adding that a new capital source needs to come into the industry. On a later panel, Bender concurred. "There's not as much equity and debt to fill the gaps."

All this is leading to tension within the creative community as writers and producers earn less and feel no choice but to accept once-unthinkable terms. "Several studios have put forward no-raise policies," said Doug Wick, co-head of Red Wagon Entertainment.

"We are in a less fulfilling stage," said Fischer, Wick's Red Wagon partner and spouse. That was probably the understatement of the day.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Filmmaker James Cameron draws a crowd who came to hear him talk about his new film, "Avatar," and 3-D technology at the Produced By conference. Credit: Michael Quinn Martin.

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