As CEO of film-streaming platform Fandor, producer TED HOPE offers film-lovers a catalog of movies to watch (from classics to documentaries to new indie releases) while also offering independent filmmakers the opportunity to submit their own projects to the site for licensing consideration. But despite his foray into the new and evolving world of online content, Hope has been a fixture of the film industry since the indie film boom of the early 1990s, first with his production/sales company Good Machine (which was eventually sold to Universal and became Focus Features), and later with his production company This is That.
With more than 70 films under his belt, Hope’s credits read like a list of Indie Film’s Greatest Hits (The Unbelievable Truth, The Brothers McMullen, Safe, The Ice Storm, Happiness, In the Bedroom, Lovely & Amazing, American Splendor, 21 Grams, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Martha Marcy May Marlene), including three Sundance Gand Jury Prize Winners (What Happened Was…, McMullen, and Splendor) – the most of any producer in the festival’s history.
Though he’s stepped away from hands-on producing*, Hope continues to engage with the filmmaking community by sharing insight through his blog and as a contributor for publications including The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and Filmmaker Magazine. Now he has collected his best movie-making war stories for a new memoir, HOPE FOR FILM: FROM THE FRONTLINES OF THE INDEPENDENT CINEMA REVOLUTIONS.
Mr. Hope took time out of his busy book tour to talk to us about his role as a mentor to new filmmakers, how predictability can actually lead to more risk-taking, and his thoughts on the future of the film industry.[*UPDATE, 2017: Since the publication of this interview, Ted Hope has returned to producing as the head of Motion Picture Production at Amazon Studios, responsible for films such as Chi-Raq, Manchester by the Sea, The Big Sick, and Wonder Wheel.]
COLIN McCORMACK: How has your book tour been going?
TED HOPE: It’s really exciting. A little exhausting, but it’s great to be able to connect with local film communities.
CM: Has it been different from going on the festival circuit or a promo tour for a film?
TH: Yeah, it doesn’t feel like selling. [Laughs] I wrote the book because I had found that relaying the stories and the learnings I have through different steps and stages definitely helps others. At least, others said that it helped them. I felt it would be a utility getting it all down. And in speaking to folks, the best part is always the Q&A where you see alignments along the way.
I really believe for me, the real breakthrough came when we did Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet and nobody wanted that film initially. We couldn’t give it away when we were trying to get it made. It was execution-dependent. But even when we first made it, when it was seen out of context, sales agents passed on it and we were forced – [Good Machine co-founder] James Schamus and I – to sell it ourselves, which was the greatest gift. Because not only did we take a $700,000 movie and sell it for what amounted to $3 million in its first license period, but I was able to observe that if you had what was the expectation – not even the commitment – but the expectation of release in the U.S., you were able to license a quality work internationally for a profitable margin on its cost. And that drove James and I to start a sales business, lure David Linde away from Miramax to launch our international sales operation, and we made 45 films without having any financing, half of which we ended up owning.
It was really just being in the right place at the right time to observe that the art, the audience, the artists, [and] the technology had all moved faster than the marketplace had. And I think that the conditions are much more different now. We’re in a similar place where things are shifting, but our industry still has legacy practices that we fall into the rut of following. And we haven’t found a new model that is sustainable for the creative class. It’s wonderful that the barriers to entry have dropped, so more movies are getting made than ever before, but all of us – directors, writers, producers, actors – don’t just make our work just to do it. We make it to connect with audiences. And you want not just your movie to get made well, you want it to be seen widely, and more importantly you want to make sure that the people who create it are compensated fairly. And that’s what we don’t currently have across the industry, despite this great burst of production. Because you can’t sell your films yet for an equitable amount, nor can people invest in them with risk-appropriate rewards. So how do we start to shift that? And what’s exciting about a book tour is it’s a one-to-one relationship with the audience [where] you’re talking about this situation. Though I still very much try to make sure the talks I give still follow suit with the title, that there’s hope for film. What you confront head-on is people once saying, “I want to have a career in film,” now they’re wondering, “How can I have a sustainable creative life?”
CM: Was that part of your idea with Fandor in allowing filmmakers to submit their film for consideration? A lot of producers of your caliber would not open the floodgates to allow new filmmakers to submit to them. But you’re reaching a new crew of up-and-comers.
TH: Well the model here [at Fandor] is that fifty percent of the subscription revenue is shared with the films. So you take a film to a place like Netflix, they’ll pay what they think is the appropriate price for it based on their expectation of success. And if the film does far better than that, you don’t actually see any more money. That risk is on your shoulders. With Fandor, the films that are watched the most receive the most amount of money.
CM: It seems like a lot of the other VOD or streaming services are a little hush-hush on their exact practices. It’s hard to actually get [specific payment] numbers from them.
TH: If you’re in the business of licensing fees, it’s not in your interest to reveal data… The way that we made those 45 films at Good Machine was that it was a time of predictable revenue. You were pretty secure in what your estimates were. We made conservative estimates we knew we could hit– and across [that slate of films] we delivered– at one point it was 123 percent on the investment. So people got their money back, plus a little bit more. One in eight did really well, just like a studio. But the rest were consistent base hits.
The challenge of today is we don’t have predictable revenue returns, and as a result money is hesitant to invest for business purposes. They’ll invest for cultural reasons. We’re getting all these great social issue documentaries because people are seeing it as “filmanthropy,” essentially. But if you want to have a solid business– and I do believe it’s that good business that gave birth to what we enjoy, which is probably the most diverse and ambitious film industry across the world: more subjects, a wider variety of tales. And we’ve been rewarded for that. But if you want to maintain that, you do need to have sound business practices. You do need to have predictable returns. And you do need your investors to be able to have reasonable expectations. As a result, when we license – whether it’s to a distributor or from a filmmaker – they have full access to the results of their film [on Fandor]. We’re not yet in [a place of delivering] total real-time analytics for that – we need an upgrade to be able to do that – but on a weekly basis people can see how well their film is doing.
CM: So do you think that climate of predictable returns during the Good Machine days helped contribute to why you could take risks and chances on new filmmakers? [Hope produced 18 directorial debuts.]
TH: 100 percent. Absolutely. That’s the irony in some ways: by having a level of predictability – i.e. diminished risk – we actually could take greater risks when it came to talent, both directors and also actors. We were able to break a wide number of actors who then went on to strong careers, they just [hadn’t yet had] the right opportunity. And when you’re playing it safe financially you can take risks on your talent and say, “Maybe this actor is not yet known and bankable, but this model for this film works and we can go with it.” And it wasn’t just us. You see it too with HBO. I’d like to take full credit for a movie like American Splendor, but really without a company like [American Splendor producer/distributor] HBO – who wasn’t based on an economic return model, but was based on a subscription model – they could agree that Paul Giamatti was the best actor for that role. And it really in a lot of ways launched his career. I mean, he had done [the Frankie Muniz/Amanda Bynes comedy] Big Fat Liar beforehand, but that was a slightly different genre.
CM: Oh yeah! [Laughs] So you were talking about having to sell The Wedding Banquet yourself. It certainly worked out, but was there a moment when you felt like you might be biting off more than you could chew? Or did you just have to jump in with both feet?
TH: We had done a little bit of sales ourselves – James even more than I had – and we were really fortunate. We didn’t know we’d sell out in all the territories. And when we got [to the Berlin Film Festival] we met a woman named Christa Saredi, who was a Zurich-based film sales agent; she really deserves credit for helping to break Aki Kaurismäki, Michael Haneke, Jim Jarmusch, Ang, Hal Hartley. [She] really helped on international [distribution] for all those filmmakers. So she helped us navigate those waters and do the delivery. They say a good partnership can survive failure more easily than it can survive success, and as good as James and I were at working together, we definitely needed other help once we had a hit of that caliber. [The Wedding Banquet went on to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1994 Academy Awards.]
CM: With the book, were there any stories you were hesitant to include? Or were you willing to name names, fragile Hollywood egos be damned?
TH: I left a few stories out, some at the request of my lawyers. But I felt like in some of them, the behavior was what it was, so it needed to be addressed. Everyone has their own reasons for acting out. You know, you wish it wouldn’t happen. But they can write their own book and explain their own side of the story. [Laughs]
CM: You’ve always been pretty vocal about how the industry is changing in various ways, including your campaign against the MPAA [In 2003, Hope and a group of filmmakers sued the MPAA for banning DVD screeners during awards season. The suit argued that DVDs would allow awards voters to see smaller independent films that couldn’t afford large promotional campaigns and private screenings. A federal judge sided with Hope and the plaintiffs.] Have you felt that the Hollywood establishment is still dragging their feet when it comes to new technology?
TH: It’s understandable that people who have always made money are still continuing to make money. It was really hard for me to make the decision to [no longer] pursue producing as my profession. I’d love to be making great movies. I’d love to be working with filmmakers. I really enjoyed that. But the downward spiral and the drive to drive budgets down is consistent, and you can see it. And the work suffers in the process, and I think as a result audiences and the artists both suffer. You can look and see what are the missing cogs in the machine, and you wonder why there isn’t a greater concentrated effort to solve that. Most namely, needing to have aggregated communities of like-minded folks who share interests and values.
When you look at the shift that we’ve had from scarcity of content to abundance of content, you start to recognize that a mass market approach – one reliant on advertising dollars to cut through the noise for a level of awareness – doesn’t make any sense anymore. Sure, you understand why we’ve had to go more and more to the tentpole picture, but if we have these communities that we could reach in more efficient ways, we could give them what they want as opposed to trying to find those movies that everyone might be interested in. And it is in that model, I think, that you see the success. Whether it’s HBO or Netflix, you can look at that and see those as still fairly general-interest communities, but communities that put up money each month to have a consistent supply of content that they enjoy. And I think you can slice and dice that down even more specifically, and with that you have a more efficient model. It’s what allows each of those companies to take risks with quality content. And I think it’s one of the reasons we’ve had kind of a phenomenal change the week before last – about six companies over the course of a two-week period all saying they wanted to move into the subscription business. It’s been a huge learning curve for me. It is different than content creation, certainly. And I’m thrilled that I’ve been given the opportunity to do it. You wonder why others haven’t jumped in sooner. People now say, “Oh it was inevitable,” but I was hesitant. I needed the right opportunity, and I was still here ahead of a whole lot of others.
CM: In terms of cultivating a creative community, you’ve taken on a mentorship role between your book and your blog and how available you are on Twitter. Why do you find it important to share your experience and advice with people outside the business or trying to break in?
TH: I think in a lot of ways, if people at key points hadn’t done that [for me] both in the little ways and big ways, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. I also think that it’s precisely the outside voices that frequently move the culture ahead. The nature of our business is – because it’s so capital-intensive – we try to find ways to diminish risk, and that frequently leads us to replicate past successes. And as a result, I think we start to lose audiences. A thirteen percent audience drop on television over the course of the summer? That catastrophic! The worse box-office since 2009? We need to bring in new voices, we need to revitalize it. Look at everyone who was nominated for Best Picture or Best Director Oscars last year and they’re all folks who came out of the indie ranks. Matured and seasoned through a decade within the studio system, but they still were developed by the indie ranks. So whether it was a simple phone call that James Schamus and I got early on from some folks like [former Columbia Pictures president] David Picker or Francis Coppola, or more serious mentorship I got from director Jill Godmilow or executive producer Scott Meek [or] executive producer Jim Stark— those things all helped us find a way, develop a business strategy, and [give us the] confidence that we should do it. Do I wish that somebody had reached out more and gave me more of an opportunity? Hell yeah. I think that producing – one of the reasons I always sought partners – it’s a very solitary practice, and if you don’t know the others who are doing it, if you’re not able to connect and find those ways [to collaborate], it can be hard to go on. I do think that producers can generate more great voices [and] more great stories than those that are the “pure author” of it, like a writer or director. So I’d love to help spawn more, but in such a fashion that it gives them the strength to persevere.
CM: When working with first-time directors, was there a common issue or hurdle that would take them by surprise while helming their first feature? That after a while you knew to point out ahead of time, Hey look out for this or, Remember to keep this in mind?
TH: I think some of it is trying to help people understand what is practical to get done and how they fit into that process. You have this huge team, so it’s easy to think that they’re there to get it done, but they’re always looking to be led. And the more a director says, “This is possible,” and is prepared to demonstrate how it can be done – which includes demonstrating their own preparation – the more that you can lead. James Gunn’s film Super – which is one of the last films [where] I did hands-on producing – James was the most prepared guy on set, the most energized guy on set, the most enthusiastic guy on set. We got over sixty setups a day on average. We moved too fast for the actors, to be frank. But he cared about them too, really deeply. You could see what a great leader he was. And creating something like Guardians of the Galaxy requires that, and I think it pays off. He saw that there was a way– with the right supportive team he could get exactly what he’d want, which is what Super was. And it demonstrated how his personality could be applicable to a bigger context, like the Marvel Universe.
I often say that there is the role of the producer and there is the role of the director that are remarkably similar. The producer comes in and has to extract the big vision, the dream of everything that you want to accomplish, and then cut the legs out from under it and say, “That’s where we’re going. But with these funds, with this story, with this cast, we’re only going to be able to capture forty percent.” And then through work and through structure, hopefully [you can] achieve a place where you get another twenty or twenty-five percent. And then through good engineering, having built a structure where serendipity can occur, where the miraculous might be achieved, you get something more. And then to be able to sit and help the director recognize that you still may not have hit that full vision that you had before you ever shot, but you have something very unique and distinct that you were able to capture.
And from the director’s side, it’s really starting with the ability to articulate the vision, the common sense to recognize what is practical, the mindfulness to see what you’re actually getting; but [also] the willingness to adapt to that situation and that presence, the capacity to acknowledge what was actually accomplished in post, and then still the showbiz attitude to sell what is inherent in that movie that might bring people into it. Both of these requires a constant shift and negotiation. It’s very different from how we set up the business of film, but it’s still predicated on selling the invisible. Of [selling] the pitch. I know that each movie is going to include 10,000 compromises and 1,000 decisions a day, and leading a team of 250 people, and though I’m pitching this idea to you now and expecting you to [get] behind it to fund it, there’s no way in hell that the [budgeted] math is going to lead to what I’m telling you I’m going to do today. But that’s still the system that we have and that we enjoy.
To me it points out why we really do need to change. And how there can be many benefits from embracing something much closer to [economic] reality. Documentary films rarely get sold on the dream. Instead, they have many different stages of their financing, where basically you deliver a proof of principle, your trailer reel; that gets you to your next stage, which is your financing reel; [that] gets you to your next stage, which is your rough cut. You go through these different stages. And what’s the biggest difference between the documentary creative class and the fiction creative class? That in the documentary world you have gender-proportionate representation of the directors. Fifty-four percent of the directors in documentary are women. And six percent in the narrative world. Why is that? Well, one gender has been trained since birth to speak knowingly and arrogantly about something they can’t have any control over. And we’ve created a system to reward it. [Gender parity is] not the only change that would come from [a stage financing model]. When you look at stage financing, it’s deployed across many industries. It delivers better predictive results. It delivers a secondary market for financing. Right now who finances movies? Only the people and corporations that can afford to tie their capital up for three years. If we had a secondary market, some people might take chances that their investment today would be something they could extract in six months for a profit. Folks who needed greater liquidity could play in [the film market]. And stage financing essentially is a tool to build that.
CM: Do you think marketing has a bigger role today? I’ve heard that the Marketing Departments at the studios more or less greenlight the projects [based on], Can we sell this? Did you encounter that when you were producing films? How involved were the Marketing Departments of the various distributors you worked with?
TH: Well, because I was independent often my films were made without having a U.S. distributor in place, [though] that became less so in the later stages. To sell your film, I found as I went on, it became more and more required that I had a marketing plan. I didn’t have to have a good one, because nobody expected me to excel in that position, but I had to say: Here is the audience, this is how we address them, these are the different hooks within the piece. But both American Splendor and Adventureland only came into being because of the preparation that was done in the marketing. And neither one did particularly well [at the box office], but each inspired the teams that financed them – being HBO for American Splendor and Miramax for Adventureland – that there were sufficient ways to identify reach and sell that audience. With American Splendor, when I submitted the project I also submitted about two-and-a-half inches of material on the audience for American Splendor, which was everything from labor organizations to comic book fans to jazz fans to literary sites, and so on. My goal was just to get two-and-a-half inches of material; what I wanted was something that when it hit the desk it made a nice, deep sound. At HBO in those days when they greenlit your projects, if you were not in L.A. you had to do a video conference call, and I remember on that one you saw this big table of HBO department heads – like thirty or forty people – and they all had in front of them that marketing plan that I had done, with a new HBO cover on it. It was enough to give people confidence on what was an oddball project. When [former Miramax president] Daniel Battsek initially said he wanted to do Adventureland— which you have to remember at that point Jesse Eisenberg hadn’t done The Social Network, Kristen Stewart hadn’t done Twilight; Ryan Reynolds was our main star; Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader were up-and-comers; nobody was who they are today. But Daniel loved the project, loved Greg [Mottola, Adventureland writer/director], but was not quite sure how to market it. And when we were done with our conversation, he was confident that there were many different ways to go about it because [producer] Anne Carey, myself, [and] Greg, we had drawn out every single hook we thought there was in order to pitch it.
CM: With your filmography, is there a specific film that people want to talk to you about the most?
TH: No, I think it depends on where folks fall. You definitely have the Todd Solondz fans and the Ang Lee fans; the Hal Hartley fans and the Nicole Holofcener fans; the folks that want to talk about 21 Grams or In the Bedroom or The Savages. You see these different pockets and tiers. I think that there’s a little bit of nostalgia that comes through, where people feel like there once was a time that you could make a movie about any subject in any genre with any talent, and I think that they’re missing the point there. We were able– this is where you start to see that it’s all integrated– I think James and I had good taste, we could identify good talent along the way, we believed in them. So even if they were not yet in a place where they were their own best advocates, we could see that they would deliver. And once you had two or three of those, people started fearing that maybe your next movie might be even better, and wanted to get into business with you. And that allowed us to have this predictable revenue structure, which allowed us to consistently produce work. And by always trying to reach higher, by [being] willing to ask questions, we delivered consistent work. And it wasn’t just that these were wild bets or wild risks or that we dared to go into different subjects; we had the infrastructure of support.
It’s why when you get right down to it, for an independent filmmaker, you kind of always want to be where you [are] most dependent. Because television and films were made in New York and L.A., you had this great pool of talent – actors and craftspeople, writers and directors – and because of that I could say, “Yeah, look at all those great actors who we gave great starts to.” But again, there are great actors who never get those great starts, but you’re going to have a lot more success picking the right ones in a town that’s full of them than in a town where there’s few. So we were very fortunate to be in New York at a time [when] it was affordable; that folks who were starting out in any of those fields could take that gamble. I worry about it now. The other advantage of New York was that because it wasn’t a car culture, people had to find gathering spots, and it was easier to find [in New York] because L.A. is more dispersed. But New York is no longer affordable.
What’s the first movie you remember seeing in theaters?
What’s your go-to drink order at a bar?
I think I’m very diverse. It will depend on if it’s the start of the night or the end of the night. Start of the night– it’s beer or wine. And the end of the night will conclude with a very peaty whisky.
Recommend a movie you love that most people haven’t heard of.
Right now that would be Nathan Silver’s Uncertain Terms, a film that we just gave the Grand Prize and the Screenwriting Prize to at IndieMemphis Festival last weekend. Really a masterful work. Incredibly intimate, about big themes with real originality to it.
What’s an interview question you never want to hear again?
You nailed it! [Laughs] I enjoy interviews. I always learn from them, and I can’t say that there’s anything that bugs me.
Where to find Hope for Film: From the Frontlines of the Independent Cinema Revolutions?
Available on Amazon.com
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