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Let’s say you produce a prize-winning director. And they just won a very big award. They have a story they wrote that have wanted to make, and now they can basically write their own ticket to do whatever it is they want to do. This story has the possibility of casting big stars and shooting in glorious locations. You know it will be a fun shoot, and well funded.
The question is not whether you do that movie or not. Of course you do. You’re going to get paid well (which is rare these days), and have some real fun working with people you like in a place you have always wanted to be. What could be better than that?
The question is what happens when the film is finalized in terms of picture and sound. What if the film is just not good? Not up to the director’s previous work? The director’s track record will get it in to some festivals for sure. But what do you do? Do you tell the director they can do better? Do you tell the director how you feel — and thus perhaps jeopardize the relationship?
How about if you can recognize that in the script stage? Do you raise it then and risk not being part of this grand adventure? I used to say that I wanted only to make films that either forwarded our world, forwarded cinema, or financed the revolution of either. But there was also a fourth one I always considered too: the film that forwarded the relationship. But that one may be the trickiest one to navigate, because by putting the relationship first, you can miss what is central to the producer/director relationship – and that is of course the film. What becomes of the producer/director relationship when you make a mediocre movie?
I think every producer/director relationship confronts some variant of this situation and it would be best for you to think this out before you arrive there yourself. Let’s try to think this out together — before it is too late…
A lot gets determined by whether you have distributors aboard or not. If no one is buying the film, it can help some filmmakers realize that work needs to be done. Unfortunately, in this current marketplace that will be too late, as you generally only get one chance to premiere your work. I have premiered a film in Sundance, and then have had it be the only film selected for Cannes, recutting it before the International premiere, notifying all buyers of the new cut, only to have no buyers attend in Cannes, and have Variety reprint the Sundance review as if it was the same cut (The Hawk Is Dying). Sucks, but them there’s the breaks…
I don’t think anyone other than sociopaths can cover up their feelings. If you think your director can do better, and you don’t say it, the director will know you are unsatisfied. This “feeling” alone can undermine your relationship.
Yet some directors, particularly when they are coming off a success, have a difficult time with criticism from trusted collaborators. This is one of the only explanations (beyond human fallibility) of why so many talented directors follow up some of their best work with mediocre excursions: they create barriers for honest and allied criticism. They make it clear, either directly or subtlety, that they just don’t want to hear it.
But is there ever a win in not voicing your opinion? Is the relationship worth keeping if it is not an open collaboration? Does a mediocre film ever further a relationship? Can a producer/director relationship successfully navigate a mediocre film?
There are definitely directors who want a general instead of a producer, someone who will execute their orders. Frankly, I have never thought that was producing. I have always seen the true producer/director relationship as about both sides aiming for the best film possible — which is why a common agenda and language is so necessary to the process. The director/general relationship can weather the storm of mediocrity because then the person-called-the-producer is just barking as ordered, and only has the stake of the relationship. The general knows when to keep his or her mouth shut.
I am always disheartened when I see a director who once impressed me so, deliver a piece of mediocrity. On the other hand, I then pick myself up by reminding myself that failure is an essence of our being. We are not gods. We are fortunate to be able to take risks and not hit the mark. But then again, what of the example when the follow-up to the award winning work never aimed high? What if it was mediocrity that never, or rarely, step beyond the Safe Zone? That didn’t even qualify for “Noble Failure”? Is there something that the producer could have done?
On their own, the choices are a catch-22. It doesn’t pay to open your mouth and it doesn’t pay to keep it close. It’s the opposite of a win-win. The only answer is to build the relationship to the necessary strength before you confront the situation. If every filmmaker eventually delivers work below their abilities, why not discuss the inevitability before it arrives? Talk through these scenarios over a nice meal with a good bottle of wine. If you can’t get through that meal, you certainly won’t get through such an experience. Weigh each option with each other. Imagine the outcomes. You will be able to refer back to this map when you later find yourself headed down that path.