Producer Fred T. Kuehnert
On February 27, 2002, I meet producer Fred T. Kuehnert at his pad in Westwood. Producer David Permut lives in the same building.
Fred: "The first movie I produced was my biggest success - The Buddy Holly Story . I haven't done anything as big since."
Kuehnert made his name churning out horror and action-adventure flicks (Beneath Loch Ness, The Killing Box) made typically for less than two million dollars each.
Of working class German Lutheran background, Fred's temperamentally worlds apart from the fast talking Sammy Glick caricatures thought to run Hollywood.
Fred: "I moved to Los Angeles in 1990 from Houston, Texas. I entered the film business from a background in venture capital and real estate. In the mid seventies, the US tax code made it attractive to invest in film. I became the point person for my company. We packaged several films for the tax shelter market. During this time, I met Ed Cohen at a New York screening room. Because I was from Texas, he naturally assumed that I would be a good hit to raise money for his Buddy Holly film. A former agent, it would be the first film he'd produced.
"Ed worked with Arnold Kopelson at the time. And when Ed sealed his deal with me, it was at Arnold Kopelson's wedding, an elegant extravagent affair. You don't throw parties like that in Texas. Arnold was at a law firm at the time. I'd just helped finance a picture through Arnold, Out of Season , starring Cliff Robertson, Vanessa Redgrave and Susan St. George.
"The Buddy Holly Story was the first film I helped produce. Before that, my involvement with movies was strictly financial.
"After I made the deal with Ed Cohen, and raised some money to write and develop a script, I spent the next six months trying to raise the money for the production of the film. It was not an easy task then, nor is it now, to raise money for films. My partners in Houston called me in and put it on the line. 'You haven't earned any money for this company in six months. While we want to support your efforts, we can't afford to continue carrying you if you're making no money. You need to assess this situation.'
"The next day, while driving into the office, I prayed. 'Lord, I need some kind of sign.' So, I reached over and turned the radio on. And exactly on cue, came on Don McLean's song American Pie [about the death of Buddy Holly]. 'I can't remember if I cried, when I read about his widowed bride. But something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.'
"I still get the chills when I think about that. Coincidence? Divine intervention? I don't know. A few days later, I get a call from a group in Boston that wants to invest in a movie but they said they didn't trust the people in Hollywood. I was on a plane to Boston the next day and we signed a deal to finance The Buddy Holly Story.
"We proceeded to make The Buddy Holly Story. It went way over budget. We weren't bonded. [Most movies have a completion bond whereby if the picture goes over budget, the bond company will come in, take over the movie, and finish the movie.] The budget represented to me was most likely misrepresented but I didn't know any better. We got the picture finished but we were broke. We couldn't pay the taxes we owed on salaries. The creative team and the financiers were at each other's throats, and I was in between them. I vowed to never produce another film.
"A narrated presentation of the movie was edited together and shown to several studios. And David Begelman of Columbia swooped in and bought it. Otherwise, we would have never finished the film. And he advanced us more money than he had ever done before.
"And then, just as we were all breathing easier, David Begelman was the lead story in the Wall Street Journal for allegedly embezzling money. He was reported to have been taking royalty checks to actor like Cliff Robertson and endorsing them over to himself. We feared we wouldn't get all our money, but we did. Traditionally when new management of a studio comes in, they want to clean the slate.
"Not withstanding the critical acclaim, The Buddy Holly Story did just ok at the box office. I think it would've done a lot better if David had stayed at the head of Columbia. I don't think there was much of a push behind it. I think Columbia misread the marketing strategy. Their own exit surveys showed results that went through the roof.
"I remember looking at the advertising campaign and thinking that it looked like it was for a Tommy Dorsey movie. It looked old fashioned. I thought it would've been better to have just called the movie 'Buddy.' The people who know of Buddy Holly are going to come anyway. 'The Buddy Holly Story' title wasn't hip.
"Later, after spending $40,000 on a marketing analysis to determine where they had gone wrong, Columbia came out with a totally different campaign that went to the other extreme. There's a guy with an electric guitar with lightning bolts shining off, and these great big oversized balls... The difference between failure and success is often a narrow thread.
"I've seen La Bamba and liked it. They did a better job of marketing it. I don't think it is a better film than Buddy Holly. Several times I've been offered the story of the Big Bopper [who also died in the plane crash that took the lives of 1950s rockers Buddy Holly and Richie Valenz]. I don't want to go there."
Luke: "Which of your films since Buddy Holly have had the most meaning for you?"
Fred: "They all have meaning for me. But I did a 1990 documentary, That's Black Entertainment, which I was particularly proud of."
The documentary shows clips from black films from 1929 through 1957. Musical performers include Paul Robeson (in Song of Freedom), Bessie Smith (St. Louis Blues), Eubie Blake and the Nicholas Brothers (Pie-Pie Blackbird), Lena Horne (Boogie Woogie Dream), Nat 'King' Cole (Killer Diller), Sammy Davis Jr. (Rufus Jones for President), Cab Calloway (Jitterbug Party), and Ethel Waters (Carib Gold). Dramatic excerpts include Murder in Harlem (1935), Juke Joint (1947), and Souls of Sin (1949). Also included are clips from white films stereotyping blacks, including Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and a blackfaced Bing Crosby in Crooner's Holiday (1934). (From Imdb.com)
Fred: "While I've made a nice living, I've never hit it big. The projects that I've most loved have been characterized as soft [and nobody's bought them]. They are well written, and I often hear the comment, 'This is the type of movie that I would like to see.' I have a father-son story, a male version of On Golden Pond, which is not the kind of picture a major studio will do, unless a major star commits to it. It would take a Kevin Costner to make it. The studio wisdom is that even if these films do work, they don't make enough money. Given a choice between exploitation and quality, more often than not studios will choose the exploitation genre.
"Steve Rash directed The Buddy Holly Story. We're working on a film together now. It's a teenage One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest set in a retardation center. Steve is good with human interest stories. But if I walked into a studio only with him attached to the project, it probably wouldn't get made. If we get [actress] Juliette Styles interested in it, or the pop singer Jewl, we'll get it made.
"I'm drawn to movies about normal people who overcome adversity. I've got a project about multi-generational father-son relationships that is a tear jerker. I've had an executive who got off a plane and called me. 'Why didn't you warn me? This had me bawling in my chair. It may be one of the best scripts I've ever read but I don't know if I can get it made. You need to attach more elements to it.' It is difficult to get a talent commitment without a several million dollar pay or play commitment.
"I get along great with talent but I'm not about to work a room. I've seen Brad Krevoy work a room at Mortons. He went to every table in the room. It's a trait of many succesful producers but it is something that I just can't bring myself to do."
Luke: "You're not a player like The Player. You come from a Protestant business background. You wouldn't sleep at night if you were telling lies during the day."
Fred: "I've tried to act The Player role but it just doesn't work for me. My attorney Norman Rudman always tells me that I'm too nice and that is not a compliment in this town. This is not a business where the top producers like to help people. It's cut-throat. For example, I always return calls, even when I probably shouldn't. But if you were to take a successful producer like Arnold Kopelson, if you are not on his list, it is unlikely that you will ever get through to him.
"Arnold Kopelson read the father-son script I wrote, called me and said, 'You should stop all this other shit you're doing and concentrate on this project. Because if it works, it is going to establish you.' That's easy for him to say. He probably makes a $2 million a year salary while I have to pay the rent each month.
"If I can help someone, I'll help them. Though I have had to reasses this as as I have been overwhelmed with unsolicited phone calls and submissions. I am setting up a consultancy service, so I can start getting paid for referring and advising people. But my philosophy is - if I help you make a movie, there isn't anything less for me."
Luke: "It's so hard to make a living from independent films."
Fred: "I made a lot more money when I was in venture capital. But at this stage, this is who I am. While I've never hit a home run financially with a film, I've made a living from producing movies. I've produced 15 films.
"In 1991, after moving to Los Angeles, I made my first film with Steve Stabler and Brad Krevoy and their Motion Picture Corporation of America. The director, George Hickenlooper, started out just like you. He did a book of interviews [Reel Interviews published in 1991 by Citadel Press]."
According to the Imdb.com: George Hickenlooper graduated from Yale University in 1986. He was born in St. Louis and raised there, Boston, and San Francisco. His interest in film began in childhood and stemmed from his great Uncle's (Leopold Stokowski) involvement in the movie Fantasia (1940). Hickenlooper's interest also bloomed from his father being a playwright and his mother starting a guerilla theater troop which would protest the Vietnam War. Both of his parents told him the techniques of story telling whether to make an aesthetic or political point. Hickenlooper's first short Super 8mm films were animated and made with this grammar school friend Kirk Wise who, years later, would go on to direct Beauty and the Beast (1991) for Walt Disney. While attending a Jesuit high school, Hickenlooper turned to live action short filmmaking. Many of those shorts (TELEFISSION, A DAY IN THE LIFE, A BLACK AND WHITE FILM, and THE REVENANT) were premiered on Public Television in St. Louis and Kansas City. Hickenlooper spent one summer studying at the USC School of Cinema and Television, then went on to Yale for a B.A. in History and Film Studies. After graduating, Hickenlooper interned for producer Roger Corman and in 1991 authored the book REEL CONVERSATIONS (Citadel Press), a collection of interviews with film directors and critics. Hickenlooper made his professional directing debut with Art, Acting, and the Suicide Chair: Dennis Hopper (1988), a short documentary about Dennis Hopper. However, he made his breakthrough when he premiered Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991), the internationally acclaimed documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now (1979), at the Cannes Film Festival.
Luke: "I think most everybody writing on the entertainment industry wants to be in it."
Fred: "Realistically, it's probably one of the most sensible ways to do it (i.e. making contacts and learning from others experiences.) Just what you are doing.
"I've preferred working alone. I've observed the years that even companies that have successful films often fail because their overheads are so huge.
"Before I moved here, I had a small production company in Houston. And quickly I realized that I was the only person generating income. I had a CPA and a development executive and a financial guy... I had this monthly overhead nut. So I decided to do more one-off financing of pictures. And I've pumped one out a year. And every one has been picked up by either a studio or a major sales company. I have a decent track record with profitability.
"The day of the producer is over. If a film does well, the director gets all the credit. If the film tanks, the producer gets all the blame.
"I've become aware how many financially naive people are underwritten by the studios. I talked to the head of development for one of the more prominent female directors [Penny Marshall] who wanted me to get involved with them. Why? Because they're often presented projects that they like but if the studio doesn't want to do them, they can't make it. It surprised me how many people there were like her who were unwilling or had no idea of where to go, outside of the studio, to raise money for a project.
"Yesterday I visited with my hero Saul Zaentz [English Patient, Unbearable Lightness, Amadeus, Cuckoos Nest]. He and I are represented by the same attorney (my friend and mentor Norman Rudman). We were at the American Film Market and we sat there and caught up. He's won three Academy awards for Best Picture. He develops difficult literary material that turns out to be commercial. He makes about one film every five years.
"I do a lot of films because they're commercial. We're doing a movie now about the discovery of a 40-foot mummy. Based on pre-sales, the budget should be about $2 million."
Luke: "Most of your movies are action-adventure because that genre sells internationally."
Fred: "It's the safest genre. I am developing other projects. I've tried going the studio route and I've realized that is relationship-driven and flavor-of-the-month. It's a factory. I spent 18 months trying to go the studio route. I got waltzed around. I got close. I am not so wealthy that I can afford to go two years without any income. I'm not a trust fund producer who spends his days sipping lattes on Sunset Blvd waiting for the call from the studio that never comes.
"So I set up a six picture deal with Orion Pictures International. I began popping out two pictures a year. We were in profits before we finished the film. And if you owned a percentage of the gross... On those deals, the percentage means something presuming you're dealing with an honest distributor. Now, 'honest distributor' may be an oxymoron. Whether it is creative accounting from the studios or a foreign sales company using their funds for overhead, it can become a full-time job trying to collect monies owed.
"I could've made more movies for Orion but four years ago the Asian market collapsed. We were making movies for $750,000 and selling them for $2 million. After the Asian collapse, the margin became making movies for $1 million and selling them for $1.25 million, if the movie is good. If you don't capture that magic in the bottle, you may not even break even.
"I got tired. It was almost like you were a TV producer, making movies of the week. I was shooting a film in New Orleans and I was about to go over to comment on something to the director. And then I thought, 'It doesn't matter. It just doesn't really matter. This is just filler.' I was burned out producing films that I didn't have a passion for.
"So I started producing other projects. Even though Beneath Loch Ness would still fall into that same genre, it was a crafted film with an interesting story. Miramax picked it up to distribute domestically. In the meantime, I've met this young filmmaker I'm taken with - Kevin Van Hook. I like him as a person. I've gotten to the point now where unless there's a lot of money on the table, I don't want to deal with people who I don't trust their integrity, or don't respect them creatively, or just don't like personally."
Luke: "You used the same director on about eight pictures - Serge Rodnunsky."
Fred: "Serge is like Roger Corman. Serge is Canadian. His father's a famous Russian composer - pianist. In his early 30s, Serge has probably directed 40 films. He knows the beats. He knows what the international market wants. He's prolific. He comes up with 20 scripts a year."
According to the Imdb.com: "Filmmaker Serge Rodnunsky started out as a dancer and choreographer and worked in American Ballet Theater with such notables as Mikail Baryshnikov, Agnes De Mille and George Balanchine. As an actor and dancer Serge appeared in the hit musical Cats and was a regular performer on the Fame television series. He has also choreographed numerous films and television shows."
Fred: "Serge is like some of the old producers like Sam Arkoff, who would open up the newspaper, scour the headlines, and make up movies based on those ideas."
Luke: "Did you see Robert Altman's 1992 film The Player?"
Fred: "I think The Player is the best film Robert Altman's ever done. That it didn't do better at the box office may be because it was such an inside joke. Only people in the industry understand all the nuances that that film represents. It's pretty right on.
"As we walked out of the movie, my wife turned to me and said, 'This is what we moved out here for? This is the type of business you want to be in?'
"I'm a helpless movie junkie. There's nothing, aside from painting, that fulfills me more. The first time I saw the completed Buddy Holly Story on the screen, I was hooked on making movies. It's a way of moving people.
"If you go to the American Film Market, you will be amazed at how many movies get made that you've never heard about and are never distributed theatrically. There are so many people are engaged in that commercial end of the business who are never featured on Entertainment Tonight or are invited to the elite Hollywood parties. It's like a parallel universe."