The Hurt Locker producer gives ten tips for producing award-winning films at the right budget.
Voltage Pictures president Nicolas Chartier, producer of The Hurt Locker and executive producer of Dallas Buyers Club, used his keynote speech at the Zurich Summit to offer ten tips for ‘producing award-winning films at the right budget’.
The tongue-in-cheek speech, which went down a storm, included plenty of sage advice.
Chartier agreed to share the speech with Screen and below is the near-entire transcript…
‘Good morning. So yesterday on the plane I was reading Hope For Film, the biography of Ted Hope who, for those who don’t know him, was one of the founders of Good Machine, a great independent company which produced Crouching Tiger, Ice Storm, In the Bedroom, Brothers McMullen and many other independent films.
He wrote, I quote: “To make art, survive independently, and make a living that is tied to modest financial gain, you have to be driven. Success is not as important to you as the pleasure of what you’re doing, the love and respect for what you’re creating, and the ambition to take culture further.” I guess for me, that’s what this keynote speech should be about.
So let’s go through a top ten list of advice, tips, and the things that went right, and wrong on making some of the films:
10. Money: I can’t win if I don’t play.
There is no right budget. Roger Corman, master of low budget movies, turned down Waterworld because the budget was going to be $5m, which he thought was too much. It ended up being $200m plus. We all have a different opinion of what the budget should be.
For me the right formula to calculate an award-winning film budget is: You take the budget your director wants in a perfect world, and you start by cutting it as much as possible; then you deduct the value of the film in the marketplace that you can get out of foreign sales depending on the world economy and politics of the day (for example, right now zero in Russia, zero in Italy, zero in Spain…).
Then you add the tax credits you can get depending on where you shoot, which is always a fun discussion. If the director wants to shoot in Los Angeles, you suggest New Orleans or Romania; if he wants New York you suggest Pittsburgh or Romania, and if he wants Miami you just tell him again about Romania.
To finish calculating the right budget you try to guess what your film will sell for in the US when it’s finished since usually no distributor wants to prebuy it (it’s usually between zero and $5m), and then you add your appetite for risk or losing money. That’s the most important part.
On Hurt Locker, we had no cast, a war movie, a director who hadn’t made a film in seven years, and the film is my biggest financial success. Because we took 100% of the risk. On another film I took a financial partner, so now we lost half of the profits it made. And on several movies, we believed in them so much that we wanted to do the whole thing by ourselves, and then the films weren’t great, they didn’t win any awards, they weren’t commercial at all either, so we lost it all.
But you can’t win if you don’t play. The right budget if you’re putting the money up, if you’re finding the money, is not just that film. It’s also the next. Like the stock market and Las Vegas, have enough to keep making films. When you get kicked out of the table, you’re out of the game. Just make sure you can keep coming back and try to make another award-winning movie.
9. I wish I knew which film was going to get an award.
I got lucky winning an Oscar for my first film, so I thought it’d be easy after, that I’d become Michael Shamberg or John Lesher doing plenty of great films back to back, and since I didn’t get to go to the Oscars the first time, I was going to make another great film and win a second time, definitely the next year… Well it’s been 4 years and I’m still trying…
The next one I produced was The Company you keep with Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf and oscar-winning actors and nominees Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper. Amazing director, zero awards… I did Killer Joe with Matthew McConaughey and Billy Friedkin directing, I think Matthew’s performance in that film is as good as in Dallas Buyers Club but it didn’t get anything. I produced the Zero Theorem with Terry Gilliam, and still no awards. And then I got involved in Dallas Buyers Club almost by accident, after refusing many times to do it, and we got a ton of nominations, so what do I know?
But I got to work with directors who are legends, I got to see Redford make a film, I got to stand in the editing room arguing with Billy Friedkin, I made a movie with the genius Terry Gilliam. So just like Ted Hope said: “Success is not as important to you as the pleasure of what you’re doing.” Do a great film with great people, it might win, it might not. But be proud of the films you make.
8. Surround yourself with the best.
Get the best cinematographers, editors, composers, designers to help you. Collaborate with your director, challenge him, make your film interesting, by mixing people with different backgrounds and talents.
Amir Mokri, the cinematographer of Good Kill which we just did with Andrew Niccol also shot Transformers 4 and Man of Steel; the composer Chris Beck scored the Disney movie Frozen but one of his favorite movies was Gattaca. Both of them wanted to work on this film for a fraction of their regular fee because they wanted to be involved with a great story and a great filmmaker.
To make a great film, work with directors, actors and technicians who are smarter than you, who you’re going to learn from. People who have a vision but who aren’t afraid to collaborate. Not egomaniacs who want button pushers.
7. There are no quotes for actors anymore if you have a great script.
Actors want good parts. They want to act. For real. No actor studies Shakespeare in college to be in the Avengers part 3 fighting a giant robot in front of a green screen.
So if you have the right script, if you have a great part, go for that big rich actor or actress who doesn’t need a payday. They all want to be in a festival movie.
You have no idea how many calls I got this year in the vein of: “He doesn’t want to do a thriller, she doesn’t want to do comedies, he/she is looking for the next Dallas Buyers Club.”
Even Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton want to be taken seriously as actresses.
6. Push the people you trust to their limits, but not beyond.
I was arguing on a budget with my favorite line producer for three weeks, I was telling him: “We should cut this, let’s reduce here, what about removing that?”
Every day we would argue, until one day he said: “Nic, I’m out of here if we cut more”. And I said: “I’ve pushed you to your limits?” And he said “yes.” and I said: “Ok, let’s go with this budget. We can’t reduce more.”
5. Something I learnt: Never work with other people’s family.
Don’t hire anyone related to the director on a film. If the director wants his wife to get a salary, he can pay her out of his paycheck.
Now of course, just to be clear, I would break that no family rule for the Coen Brothers. Ethan, Joel, my number is in the phone book.
4. Final cut.
I’m French. For me, directors have final cut. Film is a director’s vision. My job is to serve the director, nurture the project.
Saul Zaentz who won 3 oscars (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, The English patient) said a producer’s role is “giving the fish the biggest bowl to grow.” So Kathryn Bigelow, Billy Friedkin, Redford, Andrew Niccol, Terry Gilliam, all had final cuts with me.
We argued about keeping or not a few lines of dialogue in Hurt Locker, about the editing of the car chase in Killer Joe, about the pacing in Company you keep, about the ending in Zero Theorem, about the music in Dallas Buyers Club, and we didn’t argue at all on Good Kill, but in the end all these films are the director’s babies. I’m just here to help them realize their vision.
3. Money doesn’t matter. Imagination and ideas do.
The make up budget on Dallas Buyers Club was $250. The two make up artists won the Oscar for best make up instead of Jackass and the Lone Ranger.
We didn’t have a lot of light equipment and not a lot of time to shoot and the cinematography for me became one of the most interesting, handheld, sometimes dark, because of that.
Very often a lack of money, a lack of a bigger budget can feed creativity. Once again, the right budget is not a number, it’s getting the right people together.
2. You want an award? Go with your gut.
Everyone has to start somewhere, start with passion. Great stories are everywhere, the movies I want to do are the ones which I believe in, but nobody else does.
You don’t win by doing the same movie everyone is trying to do, you win when you go against the current, when you do the film noone else is doing. Create something you believe people will want to see because it’s different and fresh and great.
Like Kevin Costner said: ”If you build it, they will come.” His first film was Dances with Wolves a three hour western and a masterpiece.
There used to be a time when producers and directors would make a great film, and then the distributor and the marketing department would find a way to release that film because it was good, I’m thinking of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Gandhi, Amadeus, A Clockwork Orange.
Now marketing departments are telling you what movie to make. Movies are not widgets. Films are pieces of art and culture.
1. Do I need to do more commercially successful films or not?
I remember when we were at an Oscar Party, a fellow nominee producer (I think it was Michael London who produced Sideways) said something like: “One week a year, during Oscar week, 99% of Hollywood wants to be in this room and have a film which is a critics’ favorite, an Academy award-winning movie and get congratulations from everyone: your film is fantastic, I loved it, it’s a masterpiece, you’re going to win… The rest of the year, we want to be them and have a movie that makes money at the box-office.”’