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Producer Deborah Del Prete

On February 19, 2002, I talked with producer-director Deborah Del Prete at her Coronet Theater on La Cienega Blvd.

Deborah: "My 16-year old son is an actor and singer with a big agent. But even when you're successful, you still have to audition. The rejection never ends. I started in acting but I realized I needed to be more in charge."

Luke: "I've never written a script. That studio process where ten people take over your script and completely change it..."

Deborah: "Theater writers are better positioned. The Dramatists Guild doesn't allow you to change one word in a play without the permission of the writer.

"I'll be interested to see what you conclude in your book because I think things are changing significantly in the way Hollywood is run. It's evolving away from partying to people who have families."

Luke: "Hollywood producers are nice professional educated business people."

Deborah: "Producing is a complicated job. It takes many different abilities. I talk to kids all the time who want to be producers. And 99% of them don't have a prayer to become producers.

"Success producing movies takes luck. Last year, a couple of weeks after The Wedding Planner came out, we were working, for 15 minutes like everybody else, on a new media company (partnered with Mike Medavoy). A friend of mine [Lloyd Silverman of Snow Falling on Cedars] who'd been in the business forever said, 'Congratulations on having the number one film [in box office] in the country.' I said, 'Oh yeah, you know how it is.' And he replied, 'No, I've never had a number one movie.'

"And I didn't think about it in those terms [box office]. And the way he stopped and said, 'No, I've never had a number one movie.' And I'm thinking, there was no difference on that day when my film was number one, than the day before. And here's a friend of mine who'd done it as long as I, and at least as well.

"And my theater producer Ted told me that it is that one day that changes everything. Producing is so up and down. There are days when you say, 'Oh, this is just impossible.' And then on one day, you get a movie greenlighted. One day is the difference and everything changes.

"It's largely luck because as you say, everybody's competent, smart, passionate, educated, hard working... I think there are two kinds of producers - those who care about their projects and only produce things they believe in, and those who throw projects against the wall and see what sticks. These tend to be older-time producers who will take anything and do anything to get something made. To them it's just a business of getting things made."

Luke: "I meet producers who are proud to make movies that send messages and producers who are proud to not send messages in their movies. Many producers think it is a mark of their professionalism to not use their projects to send messages."

Deborah: "Those guys who don't send messages almost sound like they've been conditioned to say that. It sounds like a front. A position. It's nonsense. All we are doing is telling stories and giving perspectives. How can you be an adult in this world and not understand social responsibility? How can you not understand that what you put out there does have an effect?"

Luke: "But so many people's values are so warped that I hope they don't send messages."

Deborah: "I went to a movie that a friend of mine made and I sit there scared. How can my friend not know what this movie is saying?

"I reject projects when I find the subject matter disturbing. A movie called Pumpkin was a success at Sundance. I haven't seen the movie. I saw the script two years ago. It's a black comedy about a sorority girl who has an affair with a retarded boy. It's a comedy that plays off him being retarded. It was incredibly distasteful. Despite having a commercial sheen to it, the script was making fun of people who were retarded. And I couldn't get on that bandwagon.

"For the most part, movies are to let people not feel alone. Every movie you make is an opportunity to touch somebody to feel some sort of kinship with what they see. Basically, everybody feels alone, no matter how many people they have in their life. And all great art touches people."

Luke: "Where did you grow up?"

Deborah: "I grew up in an Italian family in New Jersey, a bedroom community for New York. My father was a film editor for Audio Productions in New York. Audio did everything from commercials to industrials to animation to features. And he'd take me to work with him some days. But I was a girl. Nobody suggested to me that I be a film editor. That was not conceptually something that people thought you could do.

"When I was 16 years old, I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and I was so moved. It was the first time that I had to know how they made a picture. I saw the music and how significant it was to the movie. I was so taken with it that I started reading books about movies. I was a girl with a lot of male interests like comic books.

"My father said that girls grew up to be teachers. So I went to college to be a teacher. I went to Montclaire State University. I got a teaching degree but I did lots of theater. Then I taught grammar school (5-8th grade). But I got the kids doing plays. And on my time off, I auditioned. I got into a theater company (where I met my second husband) and after a couple of years, I quit teaching.

"A television company rented our theater to shoot the Barry Manilow play The Drunkard. Around 1980, cable TV is casting around for things to do. And one of the first things they pursued, for about a year, was theater for television. It was something that hadn't been done for 20 years. They did a bunch of musicals for cable.

"I attached myself to the crew. I knew then that I really wanted to do film and television. I made myself invaluable. There wasn't anything they needed that I couldn't get. The producer became so dependent on me that I was offered a job.

"Commercials were the big New York production and so I started work there. I intuitively knew how to edit, how to balance books, how to budget a shoot... I met travel show producer Gunther Less who had a show on NBC. We traveled all over the world. I directed the show.

"Along the way, my partner Gigi Pritzker came to work for me. From a big business family in Chicago (Hyatt Hotels), she'd graduated from Stanford in Anthropology, then did a Masters at a documentary film school in Sante Fey, New Mexico. When I went on maternity leave in 1986, she took over. When I came back after four weeks, she said she didn't want to go back to being a PA. So we decided to start a company and we made commercials, industrials, and music videos. We were making money the first year together.

"Then we started looking for scripts because we wanted to make feature films. We made our first film with private equity and foreign financing. Around 1986, you could make films with the video money. There was lots of video money. We made our first movie, Simple Justice [1990], for $2 million.

"Then, in 1993, the studio Savoy Pictures Entertainment came along, a partnership between Lew Korman and Victor Kaufman, the guys who ran TriStar and sold Columbia to the Japanese. Barry Diller eventually bought Savoy and made USA Films.

"Savoy was the biggest start-up film company ($500 million, largely from Herb Allen). Gigi and I were coming out to LA for meetings and form relationships. We met Savoy and showed them our movie Simple Justice. Gigi's father was a big investor in Savoy. And they (Lew Korman and Victor Kaufman) offered us a deal to produce for them. So we moved to LA.

"New York is an independent film universe. People who make films in New York are more intrinsically part of the process. They come from hands-on filmmaking. They've been line producers. I can take a script and budget it like that. I can figure out the schedule of a movie because I come from filmmaking. Hollywood is completely different. Producers come in from development, or law. It's not part of the film-making progress.

"Savoy production executive Stacy Attanasio, sister of writer Paul Attanasio, taught me the Hollywood system. I ended up eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with 500 agents and managers. I learned the game of getting material from the agents. The funny part about Hollywood and producing is that it is this whole strange relationship game. You have to be able to sell yourself and get people to do things you want them to do. It's all about access.

"One day Manny Coto came in to pitch me an idea. I didn't like it. So we started talking. He brought up his obsession with the game paintball. I liked that idea and told him to develop it and pitch me. He came back a week later and we bought the picture. Then I thought about it, and I didn't think it was a feature.

"Savoy had a deal with HBO. I asked a development guy there for his opinion. He said he didn't think it was a feature but that it would be great for an HBO Thursday night movie. So we did it as a Canadian co-production with Chesler-Perlmutter.

"Ricochet River was a Robin Cody novel that Gigi and I loved. We knew it wasn't commercial but we made it in Eugene, Oregon over the summer of 1997 for $1 million.

"The Wedding Planner was one of the films that we developed at Savoy. Before it could get made, Savoy fell apart. Savoy was an ambitious undertaking. It had these plans and then it did everything against what it said it would do. Ultimately it failed because it is a hard business and you have to percentages in it and they spent a ton of money... And when the day was done, it was easier for them to sell off the company for the television assets they'd acquired.

"After the project went through various studios, we eventually made the movie. Though when you make a studio picture, it is never the same as when you make your own picture. Studios make changes that you don't necessarily agree with. I think Jennifer Lopez and Mathew McConaughey were right for the parts.

"In 1997, I met these group of guys doing a play-reading series at the Cannon Theater in Beverly Hills. Gigi and I, with Steve Tisch, backed them for $50,000 a year in development funds and helped them get their non-profit status. After a year, they said they needed their own theater. So I bought the Coronet Theater [at 366 N. La Cienega Blvd] and moved my company here. And we've created a space where writers, actors and directors can come together."