I interviewed Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman at their office on July 16, 2002.
We sat on a black couch and drank cold water.
Cary: "[Don] Simpson and [Jerry] Bruckheimer said that if you write agreat script, you'll own the town. Somewhat naively, we believed them. We wanted to run a studio. Our goal was and still is to be like Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. So we've concentrated on writingscripts, and eventually it started working for us.
"There are two types of producers: There's a producer who's a schmoozer. He gets material and takes it with him to star actors and directors and studio contacts and puts the package together. And then there's the creative producer."
Chuck: "I don't know how the producers on the lowest rung of the food chain, who are strictly producers, are able to function these days. The studio system as it exists today presents those guys with an unfair set of hurdles. Projects are no longer bought simply because the script is bawed on a good idea. A script has to be in shooting form before anybody is going to put up a nickel. This means the producer is forced to acquire the material with his own money and somehow bring it up to snuff. I don't know how they make a living."
Cary: "You have a two-tier system. You have the low-end producer who lives off foreign pre-sales and manipulating this and that. They make $150,000 off one movie and the next thing you know they're working in the circus that just left town. Then you have the major in-house studio producers like Joel Silver and Arnold Kopelson.
"We want to produce and direct. We want to be as writer friendly as possible and become a Statute of Liberty for writers. We leveraged our way in with the writing and now we're starting to direct. And because of our heat as writers -- we're doing The Inferno with Joel Silver and Warner Brothers and we're working with Stan Lee and Bruce Willis on a project called Femizons... We've become A list. And now we get approached by independent money sources. It's a town of legal extortion."
Chuck: "The more acceptable term is 'leverage'. That's how the business works. You negotiate the best deal you can based on what you bring to the table. Most industry people call it clout. Dealmakers back East used to call it 'drag'.
"Because the international market has monopolized that 'under $10 million' feature range, we've become landed immigrants for Canadian purposes (the Canadian equivalent of resident alien status in the US). Now we don't get shut out on the producing end from the Canadian and Canadian-Euro subsidies. We qualify for 'soft-dollar' sub sidies and tax credits everywhere in the world.
"We lost our series The Immortal. It was a good idea that became an awful 22-hour series because we weren't 'landed' at the time."
Cary: "We had a brilliant idea for a TV show. At the time there were four stars in syndicated TV who were considered worth $100,000 an episode. The only one whose series had just been cancelled was Lorenzo Lamas. We took it to his manager on a Friday. By Monday we had a deal. He had another series deal in the final stages of negotiation, but he walked away from it to do ours. Our ex-managers -- who were the XP's on the show -- came to us at the last moment and said, 'You're not Canadian. We're shooting the show in Canada. You're screwed.' We balked at their offer, and after some acrimonious negotiations they ended up paying us $16,000 a week to walk away and do nothing. Since it was already financed for a guaranteed run of 22 episodes, we agreed but the downsi de is they castrated the show. They turned it into a piece of sh-- because they had no idea what the hell they were doing.
"One of the problems of going to a B producer is that it's all about the money. They take what they can. If it were the same situation now, we'd be able to make a hit show and get the credits and residuals for the rest of our lives. We decided we weren't going to let this happen to us again and now we're eligible for every tax credit in the world.
"The rest of the world is joining up to beat up on Hollywood."
Luke: "Who did you have to sleep with to get this special landed status?"
Chuck: "Like everything else in this industry, it comes down to money.There's an attorney in Toronto who specializes in doing this. There's nothing illicit about it, but the Canadians are pretty specific about who they want to qualify. Mainly producers and directors. People who are held to be 'work creators' as opposed to those who fill a slot which could be serviced by a Canadian citizen."
Cary: "We were in Artisan Entertainment the other day. They're talking about doing business with us. We brought up the fact that we were landed, and they went crazy (in a good way). They said we could work forever because in some cases we'd be eligible to get 30% of the budget subsidized."
Luke: "How did you guys meet?"
Cary: "My mom and dad divorced when I was a junior in high school. We moved out to New Jersey. Chuck was the guy next door. I felt sorry for him."
Chuck: "I let him follow me around and it was the mistake of my life. I went to college at Notre Dame and studied accounting finance. I audited mutual funds for a few years. Cary and I opened a brokerage for a few years. We made a lot of money but we decided we hated our lives and our business. We'd rather make movies. So we figured if we were successful in one business, we could be successful in Hollywood. (laughter)"
Cary: "Our decision did not make our girlfriends too happy."
Chuck: "We had no idea how difficult it would be to get into this business. We now refer to it as the paradox of Hollywood: Anyone who is raised in Los Angeles typically doesn't understand the types of movies that excite the rest of the country. And the rest of the country doesn't understand anything how movies are made. And it's incredible difficult to find someone who understands both sets of realities."
Cary: "We started in the mutual funds business having no contacts and ended up making incredible amounts of money. We were doing a convention speech in Philadelphia. We had offices in 20 states. After my speech, I said to Chuck, who was about to go on stage, 'Do you want to go to Hollywood and make movies?' And he said, 'Yeah.' And that was it. We were off.
"If you come to town to make movies, the hardest part is making an entryinto the business, because you are going t o suffer and be humiliated, nomatter what. It's a ten year ordeal. The industry is a terrible mistress. But if you can somehow endure, after ten years, you know everyone. Mathematically, you can't help bumping into people at a diner."
Chuck: "As Dick Wolf [creator of Law & Order] points out, success is largely about outlasting everyone else."
Luke: "People tell me that the best asset for a producer is some money in the bank, because there are such long dry spells."
Chuck: "Yup. Especially if you're not a creator, you're going to need money to option or purchase scripts. Paying for rewrites, running an office. . . it all adds up. And sooner or later, someone without basis for it is going to try to block your access to a property you legitimately own the rights to. So you need at least $50,000 on hand to hire a good attorney to squash that suit."
Cary: "It's not like you can't do it without money. We did it."
Luke: "Wait, you just told me you made a ton of money before you came here?"
Cary: "When we came out, we couldn't take a lot of that money with us. We were living high at the time, which was a mistake. We were arrogant and said, 'We've conquered Wall Street, we can conquer Hollywood.' Because we were 3000 miles away, they gobbled the business up and stopped sending checks. We went from wealthy to having to buy 69c burritos to survive.
"In our heyday, we were spending hundreds of dollars for dinner. We'd take eight friends out and end up footing a bill for hundreds of dollars."
Luke: "Did your girlfriends come with you to Hollywood and share in yourpain?"
Chuck: "Mine came with me for six months."
Cary: "Mine promised she'd love me forever. That ended the day I quit my business."
Chuck: "She could tell we were headed for the 69c burritos."
Luke: "Women have good antennae."
Cary: "I don't blame them for leaving. What we went through for the nextfive years, I wouldn't put anyone through. The tragedy of Hollywood is that there are so many creative people who will never get a chance because of Hollywood's caste system."
Chuck: "It's as bad as being a serf in the Middle Ages."
Cary: "You have this great piece of material and you can't get a meeting or an agent."
Chuck: "No one will look at it and no manager or entertainment attorneywants you for a client because you don't make any money."
Cary: "If you've got the stink of no one wanting to talk to you, how do you break in? You have to scrape your way in from the bottom like a gladiator rising out of the pits. Our first writing job was for $250 to take a script from Polish to English. We did our first producing jobs for free for the experience. Then you meet five, ten, fifteen people and over time, people see you and hire you."
Luke: "Tell me about your film school experience at USC. I hear that' s the best place to make Hollywood contacts after Harvard."
Cary: "We bought into their accelerated six month program for $50,000 each. We didn't know anything about film. We heard it was the most prestigious film school in the world. The guy told us on the phone, 'This is going to be four awesome years crammed into six months. You're not going to have time to eat or sleep.'
"We went in and they were teaching us all this useless crap. They spent six weeks teaching us about film from 1908. They know all about pre-WWII Russian documentaries, but the professors hadn't bothered to see the blockbuster films of that year."
Chuck: "Then we broke into little groups to do a 16mm color sync soundshort. The director of the program asked us to stop scaring students because we were too intense. We wanted to learn everything we could in the shortest amount of time. We had only one good professor: Herb Pearl. He was a director of photography. He would only teach on Saturday or Sunday because he was working the rest of the week. He would teach more in those two days than everybody else did in the other five."
Cary: "We finished the program in two months and got in our car, drove back to New Jersey, moved all of our stuff out here and went to work. It was a worthless program. You learn by doing. If you want to be a producer, roll your sleeves up and go to work. Do everything. Assist someone. We have interns by the bundle. We believe in helping people. You need to find a mentor, because that's better than film school.
"In the nine years we've been out here, we've seen the whole industry change. It used to be you could go to a meeting at a studio, pitch an idea and they'd rip out a check for $750,000. That doesn't happen anymore. You have to go through 50 ranks before and then they ask you, 'What's your quote?' And if you don't have a quote...
"A quote is the fee you get for your services. If you are a writer-producer,and your quote for your first movie was $125,000, then that's your quote. If you don't have a quote, they are going to start you at $75,000."
Chuck: "Studios have become good at 'sidestepping'. Studios don't honor production company quotes, even if they are from big production companies and they've actually paid you. Studios will try to depress your price on your first studio gig. Here's how you gauge whether they really want you: Our manager responded to a quote squabble six months ago by saying, 'Let the quote write the script.' In other words, if you want the project from these guys,you are going to have to pay more. And they did."
Cary: "We worked with a guy whose quote to produce is $750,000. We came to him with a smaller project, which he loved. But he couldn't do it because his cut would only be $300,000. And if he did that, then everyone would think he was on the slide.
"This is a hard time to be a producer but the magic of seeing your film on screen keeps everybody going.
"I suggest to prospective producers, if you can, write and direct. It gives you additional bullets for your gun. If you can't, you can still schmooze your way through it. It's just harder.
"You have to decide early on what you want - art or commerce. If you want to make money, you have to work within the studio system. If you want to make art films, you have to make them independently.
"We're working on a small independent called Bad Karma, which we wrote and are going to direct. We want to take it to Cannes and the other film festivals. We want to make both independent films and studio films. We can do both so long as everyone knows that it's a conscious decision on our part to go independent, not because we're failures."
Luke: "How do you convince people of that?"
Cary: "One of the great things in this town is the publicity machine. You need to learn how to spin things because people get destroyed over perception. In Hollywood, it is not about who you really are but about how you are perceived. If you don't get a hold of your image quick, you're dead.
"You say to your agency -- our agency is ICM -- we're doing this because, damn it, we're artists. And you tell them 90 times because you want them to get it through their heads. They are so deluged with so many clients and material..."
Chuck: "Unless you're born wealthy or well-connected, you have to find the most powerful advocates you possibly can to champion your material. Credibility comes from being vouched for by other people who are perceived as being credible. That's why it's so tough for an unknown outsider to break in. He or she may have written a brilliant piece of material but people out there probably won't recognize it as brilliant. Or, if they do suspect that it is something special, they will be afraid of their own convictions. And if they hear any negative reaction from anyone, they will tend to say, 'Oh well, I guess that wasn't as special as I thought it was.'"
Cary: "We were lucky that we mapped out a plan whereby if we could get our hands on great material, sniff it out like a Thalberg, then we could show it to stars and get it made. Most of the talent can't predict great material. We've been fortunate to have a manager who goes around town every day telling people, 'This is great. This is hot.'
"We started off with an entertainment lawyer who had no idea what he wasdoing. Now we have the best lawyer in town, Mike Adler. He reps Tarantino, Soderberg and Streisand as well.
"You need a 'battle plan' to conquer Hollywood. You need to plan everything.
"If you were to come to town and suddenly make a big deal and become an overnight success, it would probably wipe you out. You wouldn't be able to handle it. You don't know anything yet, and likely couldn't duplicate the success. Don't believe it? Look back at the writers of all the big spec script sales of 6-8 years ago. Most haven't been seen or heard from since."
Chuck: "You need to get one person to like you and your work. Then you get other people to like you. We have a spec script going out in the next week. It was a sneak to one star who wanted to be attached to it. If the star didn't want to be attached, everyone's perception would be damaged."
Cary: "I have chancy material that I won't move right now. It goes in the treasure chest. When you've got the heat, you can let it out.
"If we end up selling this spec script for a million and end up producing for anonther $250,000, and the result is good, we get heat. Then that piece I put on the shelf is ready for daylight. All of the sudden, we're geniuses and we're daring. Five months earlier, it would've been written off as 'over the top'.
"You've got to turn your heat into meetings with the right people. You've got to build associations with the right people to move forward."
Chuck: "Most chronic gamblers begin with a lucky first day at the track and it's all downhill from there."
Luke: "Many producers tell me that their best experience was making their first film and everything has been downhill from there."
Chuck: "Because they rounded up independent money for that project and they had nearly complete creative control."
Cary: "Later on everybody gets involved."
Chuck: "The moment you take that studio check, you have to realize that you are beholden to them. They are in charge."
Cary points to a poster from one of his projects gone bad, Race Against Time .
Cary: "If I were to teach a film course, I'd make people read the original script and then watch the movie. And see how 30 extra people in the process destroyed something brilliant.
"It was a piece called Gabriel's Run. It won several screenwriting awards. It built our careers."
Chuck: "It was watered down for cable TV. We only let it go because it was supposed to be a backdoor two-hour pilot for a series."
Cary: "The agent sold it for fast money. We thought it was going to be afeature and it ended up on TNT. But we still send out Gabriel's Run as a writing sample of our work and a lot of our career was built on it. MGM saw it a few months ago and a Senior VP was very excited about whether or not it was still available."
Chuck: "It's what got us the Stan Lee - MGM - Bruce Willis project.
"Many film producers are bringing in 60-70% of the financing from funds under their control. They expect complete creative control but they still end up having to meet numerous studio criteria."
Luke: "How do you guys divide up?"
Cary: "He's great analytically. He's great with numbers and finances and planning."
Chuck: "I always want to bring things back to structure. He's the great intuitive thinker. He thinks outside the box."
Cary: "We have the same goal. We want to run a studio. Everything else is subservient to that goal. We know that we're better together. McCartney and Lennon were better together. Simon and Garfunkel were better together.
"People laugh at us when we say this. They think we have audacity. It's simple. We want to do it the way Simpson and Bruckheimer could've done it. They had the opportunity but chose to stay producers because it was more lucrative. At their height with Paramount, they were getting 9% of the gross from first dollar."
Chuck: "We're willing to take a cut in pay for the opportunity to determine which movies get made and how."
Cary: "We want to reinvent a workable form of the old studio system. I believe you can pick the winners. We know what good material is. We write it all the time. We're starting to direct. We have no doubt that our pr ofile as directors will flare up. If you do good work, and put your heart and soul in, you will be noticed.
"People fail in this town because of sex, drugs or parties or greed or ego. Too often one of the nasty traits becomes dominant and destroys everything.
"If you ask these veteran producers about their goal, you might find out that some of them got lost along the way.
"Money follows success. When I was in my last business, and I was making $100,000 a month, people were calling me and offering $10 million. It's the same thing in Hollywood. Once you get a profile going, it builds on itself."
Luke: "Tell me about your manager Jeff Wald?"
Chuck: "If Jeff believes in you, he will strap on a sword and shield and go out and do battle against any dragon."
Cary: "He made our career. Let me tell you a story. Our manager at the time, Mark Skelly, took us in to meet Jeff in November of last year. He sits behind his desk. 'Who the f--- are you? I've read your shit. I know that you guys want to write and direct and produce and run a studio. It ain't gonna happen.'
"For the first hour, he just hits you with cannon shells. Then he said, 'But you guys have something special. I know. I can do this for you.' He gets on the phone. 'I can make you guys. I'm going to get you a $500,000 deal right now.'
"Jeff makes a call. We're at Stallone's house an hour later. Stallone says, 'You guys are good.' Six hours later, we have a $500,000 deal because Stallone wanted us to rewrite a project that's been bouncing around town for years."
Chuck: "It was a fantasy project (based on the novel THE GREEN) that nobody could get a take on. We didn't even have to pitch our take on it. We just got the assignment. . . and ICM became our new agents.
"THE GREEN is the story of a golf hustler (Stallone) who gets sucked into the world of Ryder Cup play. We have a quirky black comedy sense. Stallone read 'Bad Karma' and was tickled by it, and essentially said 'I want these guys for the rewrite'."
Luke: "What should I be asking producers?"
Chuck: "If you're looking to find out what these guys really know, you won't find the answers from asking direct questions. Because you'll frame those questions based on things you think up in your head. The real secrets of producing are hidden a lot deeper and you have to hope they're willing to unfold those things before you. If you're not experienced enough, you won't know what questions to ask."
Cary: "It's like anything else. Ten years on the police force, and a cop knows exactly how to talk to somebody. He can tell when somebody is lying."
Chuck: "The power producers are defined clearly. Are they gross percentage players? Do they get a set percentage of gross box office revenues? There aren't half a dozen guys in town who can legitimately make that claim."
Cary: "They came from a different time. They came when things were flexible. Everyone was shooting from the hip. Everybody was go-go-go. James Cameron started as a model maker, then worked as a writer, then director, now producer. He forces projects through because of his clout. He can direct one movie and produce five based on his muscle.
"The new producer is the creative producer who can write, direct and produce."
Chuck: "And in many ways, this tough market works to our advantage. We can go out and find material that's just inside the 20-yard line and polish it up to where it gets across the goal line."
Cary: "Stuff that nobody else is paying attention to."
Chuck: "Big agencies now complain, behind closed doors, that they've been too successful. They've managed to get fees so high for their A-list stars that very few movies can be made. There isn't enough work to go around.
"Americans have traditionally spent about 7% of their disposable income on entertainmentin every decade of the past century. That held true even during the Great Depression. So ultimately a bottleneck in studio production creates a demand for more hours of entertainment product."
Cary: "When I came out here, I did not understand why studios didn't accept unsolicited scripts. I now understand. We just had to shut down our development arm. There was potential for too many lawsuits. We had a production company. We'd take in 3000 scripts a year, and our people would read them panning for gold. Maybe we bought five.
"There just wasn't enough 'gold in them thar hills' to justify the expense. And ironically, it's not the good scripts that create a potential liability. The good ones you buy, and that's it. Or if the writer has unreasonable expectations about what it's worth, you just say 'oh well', forget about it and move on. It's the unreadable peice of junk where one of your readers read the first ten pages and passed without even doing coverage on the screenplay. We've never been big on wasted labor. Why spend two hours of writing to say a script is no good? But the writer of that screenplay is out there somewhere, liable to file suit if they have the least suspicion that you might haveknocked off their script because you do something in a similar genre. I now understand that the studios only accept material from the agencies, because the agencies filter out most of the nonprofessional junk."
Chuck: "There's a saying around town: Feature people invite people to their premieres. TV people invite people to their homes."