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February 26, 2010

Diversity Panel Spotlights Production Deal Strategies

Production insiders share shrewd ideas at “The Art of the Deal: How to Play the Hollywood Game," a panel presented by Diversity Committee and Prod Execs peer group at the 6th Annual NAACP Hollywood Bureau Symposium.

Libby Slate

There’s a lot more to making production deals than, well, making production deals: You have to be informed about what’s already been produced for film and television, know your targeted audience, figure out how to market your work and support your fellow filmmakers by refusing to buy pirated DVDs.

A panel of industry pros offered this helpful advice along with nuts-and-bolts deal-making guidance at the 6th Annual NAACP Hollywood Bureau Symposium, “The Art of the Deal: How to Play the Hollywood Game,” held February 23 at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre. Presented in conjunction with the Television Academy’s Diversity Committee and Production Executives peer group, the evening marked the fourth consecutive year that the Academy co-sponsored the symposium with the NAACP. Once again, the evening took place a few nights before the NAACP Image Awards, now in their 41st year.

Panelists included Jeff Clanagan, president and CEO of Codeblack Entertainment; Kevin Monroe, vice president, business and legal affairs, Overture Films; Schuyler M. Moore, a partner at law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, who deals with production financing transactions; Will Packer, producer, Rainforest Films, and Nina Shaw, a partner at law firm Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka, Finkelstein and Lezcano. Vic Bulluck, executive director of the NAACP Hollywood Bureau, moderated.

When it comes to deals nowadays, “We’re seeing a little bit more reception to sources that are not traditional,” said Shaw, who represents writers, directors, producers and actors. “I’m watching people come into the business who don’t have a pedigree, but have financing or the desire. There are direct-to-DVD films, and television orders.”

Indeed Packer, whose feature films include Stomp the Yard and This Christmas, said he does at least one or two direct-to-DVD projects a year. And he has a reality step-dance competition series on MTV2, Step Off, which was inspired by Stomp the Yard.

To get financing, Moore advocated looking at foreign countries; he negotiated the recent mega-deal between DreamWorks and Indian conglomerate Reliance. “India is the largest English-speaking country in the world,” he noted. “They’re planting their flag in the U.S. China is next. If you ask why, they’ll say, ‘We want to get China’s story out to the world.’”

Advertiser financing is also on the rise, he added; one film was financed 70 per cent by Adidas. Making shorts, paid by advertisers, is one way of getting traction.

Agreed Packer, “My television show is 100 per cent financed by Sprite. Advertisers are looking for new and innovative ways to get the word out. If you have a video seen by a million people on YouTube, you don’t think Red Bull won’t want their name on it? Of course they will.”

It’s important to have some sort of visual reference when trying to make a deal, such as a vision board or a finished movie, Packer advised. Said Clanagan, whose company’s activities include film production, DVD distribution and television production and syndication, “It’s good, for instance, to see the lighting and color. I’m picturing dark and gloomy, and you’ve got sunshine and unicorns. It gives you a leg up — and you’ve got to assume [others] did it.”

Clanagan also noted that most independent filmmakers aspire to national releases of 2,000 screens or more, but that it’s extremely difficult to achieve such extensive distribution for small-budget films. “There are other outlets for distribution: Showtime, HBO, the Internet, DVD.”

Monroe, of Overture, a division of Starz whose productions include Capitalism: A Love Story and Sunshine Cleaning, said that screens usually top out at 1,000. And, he said, “We as distributors look at history — what kind of movies have been out there that are similar, how have they done. You really want to look at your product and compare it to that.” Shaw expressed dismay at the numbers of people who aren’t aware of what’s already out there, or of a company’s particular needs.

“A young woman came to me with an idea. I said, ‘That sounds like Glee,’” Shaw recounted. “She said, ‘What’s Glee?’ Someone else came with an idea for Nickelodeon, where the kid didn’t come in till the third act.”

For those films that do air theatrically, “The television sales market has actually been pretty good,” Clanagan said. “TNT, Bravo and others are aggressively pursuing product.”

Fledgling filmmakers must gain a thorough understanding of financing and distribution and surround themselves with people who behave professionally, the panelists counseled. Team up with a veteran producer, even if it means giving up ownership of your first project.

And, said Monroe, “You have to think of what your goal is. If it’s just to tell a story about the African-American community, that’s fine, but it may not be fine for distribution. Think [instead] of films that are going to reach every person. Think of universal themes, like love. And be as well-rounded as possible: Show different ways of filmmaking, such as special effects, visual effects, animation, not just interior shots of a comedy.”

The bottom line? “You have to say, you’re making a piece of art,” Clanagan said. “How do you get it to the consumer?”

Before the panel discussion, Pamela Alexander of the Ford Motor Company presented a NAACP/Ford Motor Co. Fund grant of $10,000 to the Common Ground Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the empowerment and development of urban youth. It was accepted by the organization’s founder, the hip-hop artist and actor known as Common.

Shelly Sumpter-Gillyard is chair of the Academy’s Diversity Committee; Candace Bond McKeever and Juan-Carlos Duran are vice chairs. Lucia Gervino and Marlin Davis are governors of the Production Executives peer group.

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