In episode 4 I speak with Ross Grayson Bell, producer of Fight Club and many other films.
In this episode you will learn:
- How to work with the studios
- How to be an independent producer
- How to secure the rights to a book
- Should producer focus more on TV
- Should we all be writing screenplays
- and a lot of great details on the making of Fight Club
Ross Grayson Bell
Full transcript of interview below
Thomas: Hello everyone, and welcome to Podcast Episode Number 4, the SmartFilmIncome.com podcast where we speak to smart and innovative people in the film business. And today I’m very excited and proud to have gentleman extraordinaire and Hollywood producer–and I say Hollywood producer with a big capital H–Ross Grayson Bell.
Ross has produced a lot of films, but he’s also produced one of my favorite films of all time called Fight Club. I’m sure many of you out there have seen that film. Ross, thank you so much, and thank you for being here.
Ross Grayson Bell: Thank you.
Thomas: Ross, it’s a changing world that we live in. There’s a lot of stuff happening and I know you are getting to terms with everything that is happening and shaping. But, before we get into the present day, I would love to have a little chat about working with the studios, and how it was back in the day. I make it sound it’s such a long time ago. Can you walk us through how you got the rights to Fight Club and how you ended up working it with the studios?
Ross: Yes, I had been an independent producer. Firstly, I had worked my way up from being a creative executive when I first arrived in Hollywood in 1999. I was working with Ray Stark, the legendary and late producer—of Steel Magnolias, Funny Girl, The Way We Were. Reading script after script, I became very steeped in story and story archetypes and structure, so it was a great basis for the next stage, which was to produce.
I think it’s one of the things that is lacking sometimes in Australia is the producers come up without the breadth of understanding of story, because we just don’t have the breadth of industry, the same volume of scripts.
Thomas: When you say Australia, it’s because you are Australian, but you’re also American. You are both, right?
Ross: I am now American citizen, yes. Anybody listening, anywhere in the world—it is so much easier, now, through the internet to get scripts, so to really understand story is important.
Thomas: Let’s talk about that before we go on. So, story to you, what is a good story to you, and what are you looking for when you’re looking for a script? When you read a script, or when you read a book, what is it that you look for, that identified it and it has to be made?
Ross: It’s usually about transformation. There’s a film out in the cinemas now, directed by Ridley Scott, called The Martian, which is doing phenomenal business, and I don’t discredit that business it’s doing, but it is not a story of transformation. You feel rather let down by it. It’s lacking somewhat.
There’s value in these films, just not for me necessarily. I look for stories, particularly outsider stories, or underdog stories where you see that character go through that transformation, find a power within. Because I really believe that we go to movies to experience something we don’t have in our normal lives. Most of us don’t change that much, but we’d love to think we can, so we enjoy movies that we see that. I’m in the business to enlighten and enrich, and if we have a deeper understanding of ourselves, or each other, or both when we leave the cinema, then I’ve done my job as a filmmaker. I think that’s very important.
Thomas: So you’re talking about escapism, or you’re talking about external growth? Is that the things you’re looking for?
Ross: No, not escapism. To be absolutely moved, to be taken on a journey. We connect with stories when we’re engaged emotionally. You can be engaged intellectually, it happens on a very different level, but, emotion is where the power is. If I can leave an audience crying, laughing, then that’s power.
I’ve been teaching a lot recently and I was talking to somebody about the difference between animals and humans. What is the thing that separates us? I’ve asked this question to lectures around the world, and the answer that, finally, we get to, is that we record our stories. They haven’t found a dolphin that’s written an opera or a chimpanzee that’s left a cave painting.
Thomas: Not yet, no. That’s true.
Ross: So this story-telling is innate to humans, it’s a need for us. We’ve done it ever since we could record our stories. There’s something very powerful and long-lasting in story-telling. It’s a great tradition to be part of.
Thomas: So you just mentioned The Martian, which you said does not have that transformation, even though it’s doing phenomenal business, but what other current films do you believe are out there right now that you did not do, but you wish you had done. Which stories have moved you lately?
Ross: That’s interesting, The Birdman.
Thomas: The Birdman. Yeah?
Ross: Yeah. It was supposed to be more intellectually engaging and emotionally engaging, so I really do see that there is value in both. I identified with that character so much. The tragedy, or, maybe, the pain of asking the question, have we lived valuable lives? Has it meant anything?
Thomas: Why are we here?
Ross: Why are we here? It restored my faith in movies, actually. The studios have tended much more toward spectacle, and less likely to do dramas, that’s why [00:06:00 – crosstalk]
Thomas: And super hero films, men in capes.
Ross: Men in capes. I understand this now with the studios, because it is so hard to break through the clutter. If you’ve got something that’s got name recognition, Batman, Superman, Marvel Comics, that’s existed in another form, half your marketing is done.
The studios keep saying they want to create universes. The Star Wars universe, you can spin-off now, and they are spinning off, one-off movies. You can go into the Ewok world, or the Jedi world. Once they’ve made that huge investment, initially, they can keep capitalizing on it by making these spin-off movies. As a business it makes sense.
Someone just pointed out there are 56 super hero movies in development, scheduled to come out in the next five years.
Thomas: Do you think some of the people going to be tired of it?
Ross: Oh, yeah. I think this is definitely going to happen. Super Girl has just premiered on network television, and phenomenal numbers. It just keeps re-inventing and moving. So for every film that’s a loss, Fantastic Four at Fox, being one this summer, there are still [00:07:22 – inaudible] doing phenomenal business.
When you think of The Martian, for example, there was a lot of money spent on that film and I think that film has capitalized on the [00:07:31 – inaudible] with the discovery by NASA that there is, most probably, water on Mars, so it’s really in the consciousness. You go because it gives you a world that we’re never going to see. There’s a wish fulfillment there. What would it be like if we colonized Mars?
But there is no sequel to that film. The studio invests all that money, they have all the CGI work done, and it can’t be used again. There might be one or two more movies like that, but I can’t see the upside for the studio. The studio lucked out this time.
Thomas: Got it. Let’s go back to [00:08:18 – inaudible] what you’re looking for in when you’re reading a script or when you’re reading a book. So there you are, you work your way through up, you come up throughout the Hollywood system, and you come across this book by, Chuck Pound? I can’t say his name, what’s his name?
Thomas: Palahniuk, yes.
Ross: Look, it was an amazing thing. I was partnered at the time with a producer, Josh Donner, and he had a film in production at Fox, so we were based on the Fox lot. I was his producing partner, and this manuscript, the galleys, actually, called the Unpublished Book Fight Club, were being sent around Hollywood. Back then, in the 90’s, every studio had books [00:09:03 – inaudible] on their payroll in [00:09:05 – inaudible].
Their sole job was to get manuscripts before anybody else. So Raymond Bongiovanni, he’s also the late Raymond Bongiovanni, he found the book and sent it to Laura Ziskin at Fox 2000 and said you’ve got to make this film. They had an internal reader do a report, and the report was damning, saying don’t make the film. It’s unconventional; it’s going to make people squirm.
Thomas: These internal reports are typically done by the lower-tiered people, meaning interns or people who are new, who might not be trained in the art of reading scripts.
Ross: Well, here’s the thing. They’re trained to say no, I believe, because if they say yes, they’re at risk, because now they’ve got to back up their beliefs. It’s so hard to make films, and so hard to make films that are profitable. It’s much easier to just let it slide and say no. The joke is, they keep these people in the basement, almost like editors, with no natural light, and they just sit there, churning out report after report after report.
Most executives don’t read the original material; they read the report, which is usually a one to two page synopsis, and then a page of comments. On that first page there’s a chart that says you grade its structure, you put poor, fair, excellent, very good and the same for dialogue. All the executives often do is look at that box, that grid, that multi-choice, and decisions are made on the log line and that grid.
In fact, Louis B. Mayer, the famous studio head, once said he read some of it all the way through. That is the joke that nobody is actually reading fully. There are so many scripts and they’re so busy, they’re just gleaning what they can from the one two-page reports. So it’s important for all film makers to know that all your hard labors, the scripts you’ve labored on, it all gets reduced to that log line and that grid.
You’ve got to stand out. You’ve got to be eye-catching. I have to say, as a young producer in Hollywood, I used to write my own reports, as if someone else had written them. Back then we used faxes in the 90’s and I would have a friend of mine fax to me as if it had come from somewhere else. Those reports, I would then accompany any submission, so that I was actually controlling how the material was received.
Thomas: That’s very smart. This is still true today. We’re talking about [00:11:52 – inaudible], when we talk about the past, but they’re still doing it to this day. This is still how they script [00:11:58 – inaudible], isn’t it?
Ross: Oh, absolutely. You’re absolutely right. I think anybody working, it’s really master a log line, because that’s the sentence that’s going to catch their attention. It is the job. In Hollywood, there’s a thousand scripts crossing everybody’s desk every week, so you’ve got to know how to stand out.
Thomas: This is a little bit off-topic, but still on the same topic, the Black List. This new phenomena the last 10 years or so, where all the people who read all those scripts, they make a list of all the films that are not being currently produced, but they think they should be produced. Then you get on the Black List, you get in one, two, three spot, then that makes, suddenly, a chance for people to go back and revisit scripts that are also sitting there.
Ross: Oh, absolutely, also being a runner-up in screen writing competition carries a lot of weight. Anything that sets you apart from the run-of-the mill, a thousand other scripts that are coming in a week, it’s very important.
With Fight Club it’s hard to give a log line to that [00:13:07 – inaudible], and it’s hard to do a glowing report because the book was a lot darker, actually, than the film. There was something about it. I remember I read it in one sitting. This is the unproduced book, the galleys. At one point I was just about to put it down because the characters were burning each other with cigarettes, and it was really getting bleak and then, of course, the twist happened. I’m not going to mention that. If someone hasn’t seen the film, I don’t want to spoil it.
Thomas: I think it’s pretty safe to assume that most people have seen the film. If they haven’t, then they have to go back and check out the film. [00:13:42 – inaudible]. Stop [00:13:44 – inaudible], see the film, and come back to this interview. For some reason, I was reading the book, as well. I can’t remember why I picked up the book, but back in the day I read the book. I was into the character and the dialogue, and it was a little bit, self-harm and all that stuff, but the moment that twist comes on, I have to reread, I think, five times, like, “What!” And then the whole thing just took off to another level. That’s what makes this film so profound and so different than everything else, I think.
Ross: That’s absolutely right. I talk about this a lot that the concepts of a movie is one of the powerful things that sell it, and the concepts that makes Fight Club unique is this twist, that the character that you believe is having a relationship with Tyler Durden, is actually a split. Tyler Durden is the split personality.
In the book, I remember reading, and being blown away. You have to reassess everything you’ve read, and it takes you to a new level of understanding. It’s like you’re walking along and then there’s a trap door. Suddenly the trap door opens and you fall into this well, and down in that well is this new level of understanding.
For me, I remember my heart starting to race. I was so excited because I didn’t see it coming. That made the book the film, made it possible to make it as a film. Because Chuck Palahniuk has written a number of novels, a lot of the same ideas, but also equally funny, bleak, seditious characters, but none of them have been made into a film other than Choke. And Choke didn’t really work.
But Fight Club, people might argue it didn’t work either, but Fight Club had that concept which elevated it to a new level, and it’s very, very important. I will argue to the Australians listening, that when Australia filmmakers get the concept right, Australian films do global box office like nothing else. If you go back to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Crocodile Dundee, these films had very clear concepts that were easy to grasp and easy to sell. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make character dramas, you’ve just got to make them with different expectations. Someone was criticizing the idea, the concepts; they were arguing the concept is cookie-cutter. That it’s somehow putting films onto factories. That’s not true at all.
I’ll give you this one example. A student, when I was the head of screen writing at the film school in Sydney, came to me and wanted to do a story about the guy who couldn’t get the girl. I thought, Oh, here comes one of these kitchen-sink-dramas about an awkward guy and a girl, and going to the dance, or something like that. I really wasn’t interested; I was about to walk away. I turned to him, and I said, “Okay, you’ve got a minute. Tell me the story in a minute.”
And he said, “Okay, it’s a claymation film about a cactus who falls in love with a balloon.” Right, you laugh.
Ross: Our job as storytellers, our only job is to engage an audience. And in seven words, “The cactus falls in love with the balloon,” I engaged you, you laughed, and he engaged me and that’s something you can see at Pixar.
Thomas: Absolutely. Very powerful. Very strong.
Ross: Great concept, but here’s the thing. All the pain that he has experienced at not being able to get the girl is in that story. But rather than doing the autobiographical version, he’s flipped it up a notch to a high stakes world of cactus and balloon. I’m totally intrigued to see how those two can come together.
The same thing happened in Fight Club, when you realize that Tyler Durden has set these bombs to go off, and then you realize, wait, wait, it’s not Tyler Durden as a separate character, it’s actually me that set the bombs, then you’re absolutely engaged in a new thought, in a new way. It’s exciting. You’ve got to keep ratcheting up the stakes and the tension. Both the cactus and the balloon and Fight Club did that. So concept is really important.
Thomas: Good. That’s very good. So there you are, you read the script, you read the book. Now what do you do? You start knocking on doors in Hollywood to finance it?
Ross: Well no, so here’s the interesting thing. We haven’t got the script yet. I’ve only got this unpublished galleys–
Thomas: That’s what it’s called in time, the galleys?
Ross: Galleys, yeah, in the publishing world. –and a report that says, don’t make the film. Because it had come to me from Fox, I had to go back to Fox. I really wasn’t in a position to shop it around. They had sent it to Lawrence Bender, the producer of Tarantino’s films, who had passed on it. Linson, who eventually came back on as producer, he passed on it. Everybody passed on it. So I thought, I have to convince these people to make the movie.
Now the producer’s job is to take away the risk for the financier in the early stages of development. Because you’re going to go to the studio and say, “Listen, option the book, pay me, pay a screenwriter, let’s spend $300,000, $400,000 developing this movie.” That’s not the business they’re in. I mean, they are in that business, but they want a sure-fire hits, because their jobs depend on it.
So I got a group of actors together, four unknown actors, and what my idea was, I was going to do a read-through of the book to get everybody in the room, everybody would hear it at the same time. The first read-through was 6-1/2 hours long, totally dull. Of course, there was no way that was going to happen. So we started editing the book and cutting out the scenes that were objectionable, that were noted in the report, the Reader’s report.
We started changing what was monologue into dialogue. We rearranged things, and I’d done a lot of work on the hero’s journey, which is a steamer, I suppose, a structure for the films, where you look at the 12 stages of the heroes journey as identified by Joseph Campbell, and then applied to screenplays by Chris Vogler. That was a great help because it gave a roadmap–
Thomas: And a structure.
Ross: –and a structure. Because Chuck’s book is really about eight or nine short stories that were woven into a novel. It’s not a cohesive novel, as such. And when you look at it, Tyler Durden, indeed the Ed Norton character, have so many jobs, that it’s physically not possible for them to function.
So the book wasn’t a complete whole. It gave us greater freedom in terms of rearranging things. And because it hadn’t been published yet, it wasn’t a known entity. It was laying out all of that [00:21:01 – inaudible] particularly helpful. The actors, to their credit, went away on weekends, and work-shopped it themselves, and came back with their own ideas.
Eventually, we recorded the reading. We’ve it down to 50 minutes, so basically it’s the highlights. We recorded it, like a book-on-tape and I gave the tape to Laura Ziskin. It just so happens that she has a weekend house in Santa Barbara, which is 50 minutes on the freeway north of LA, and she played it.
Thomas: You say book-on-tape, you say it’s being recorded, not video, but sound recording.
Thomas: And you create a mechanical tape and you gave it to her, and she listened to it in the car on the way up.
Ross: Yep. And she called me the next day and said you’ve got a producing deal. I’ve never produced a movie, and I was given an exclusive producing deal at 20th Century Fox. Because, what I had done, was gave them the movie—all for free. I wasn’t getting paid for any of this. I took that risk.
Thomas: So let’s talk about this, this thing with filmmakers. We are very passionate, and we have to believe in our own products, or the products we come across. We’re a little bit like preachers, a little like someone who has the faith, and we have to go out there and get other people to believe in that faith. Passion is certainly a part of the job, and to convince other people to be part of it. Obviously, Fight Club turned out well, we’ll talk all about that afterward
How does it so many times where you believe in a project that no one else believes in, you can’t do anything, and it’s just hard to accept that, or do you, then, tell yourself, okay, maybe I was wrong. Or should I leave this for later, or, what’s the encouragement, and what’s the idea to other people listening to this podcast about how to believe in your own product, how to convince other people to believe?
Ross: I have changed my view on that, so this is a hard question to answer. Churchill said, “Never, never, never, never, never give up.” There are many filmmakers who have taken 20 years to make their films, and some would say it was worth it, some would it’s not. If you’re living your passion, if it’s really something important to you, there is no guarantee you’ll ever get the end results, so go and live it. Go and live that life.
I had a great time doing the tape. If Fight Club had never happened, like many of my movies have never happened. I’m a richer man for that experience. But it’s interesting you talk about determination or conviction. I believe there are three things that get movies made. There’s talent, which is subjective, right?
Ross: Is ThomasCruise a talented actor? Some would say yes, some would say no, so that’s subjective. There’s craft, is actually knowing how to tell a story, how to create audience engagement by creating reversals, raising stakes, those kind of things. Then there’s conviction. I believe the strongest is conviction.
Working with David Fincher as the director, who directed Fight Club, when he’s in the room, you are in awe of his command, of his profession, the technicalities of it, and you sit there, going, “Oh, my God. Let this man have the money to make the film,” because you buy the conviction.
Nobody knows what film is going to be a success. [00:24:35 – crosstalk], or otherwise, we’d all be successful every time.
Thomas: Yeah, that is the fascinating part about the film industry, and also the scary part about the film industry. Nobody knows, nobody has the right answer. And everybody who, of course, puts money into the film, or time or energy into a film, deep down believes, at their own level, that this is going to work. The fact is, not everything’s going to work. I mentioned previously that 50,000 films are made every year, and only [00:25:05 – inaudible] of those films go into the theaters, and only 52, 90, of those films actually make their money back.
So the odds are so stacked against everyone. You have a bigger chance of making money in Las Vegas, and you will certainly have a lot more fun. Because it is making film, it is a hard journey, it is a battle season journey for those people who are the most convicted, who believe the most in what they do.
Ross: Well, absolutely. But I think that producers, filmmakers, can get more informed, in that if you’re making a film, like Birdman, then you’ve got to know, your expectations have to be calibrated according to other films in that marketplace. You can’t go out thinking you’re going to do a $100 million opening weekend film with something like that. I think, and I’ve noticed this a lot in Australia, particularly, that filmmakers are actually rather delusional.
Thomas: Oh, totally delusional. I know you’re talking about Australia, but I think this goes for the whole global community. Everybody’s very delusional. And maybe it’s a level of naivetivity, which is great to have, and also very painful to have, because you have to believe in what you do. Because you have to knock down those doors, and if you don’t believe in your own stuff, why would anyone else? I figure it’s a matter of being naïve. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, [00:26:31 – inaudible] until you’re convinced otherwise.
I would not have the career today if I was not naïve. I would have never made a first feature film back when I was 23 years old. I had no idea, I had no film school education, nothing. The director that I worked with had never directed a feature film before. But we believed we could do, and because we believed, we made other people believe that we could. If we had not believed, nobody would have gone on that journey that we went on. We were so absolutely convinced we could do it. We were completely naïve.
It was just a matter of, okay, we’ll figure it out as we go along. That’s my motto, I guess, in life throughout. I throw myself into many adventures and many things. As you know, Ross, I’ve spent a lot of time now, running [00:27:19 – inaudible], and I would never try [00:27:21 – inaudible], unless I believed that it would work. It is such a huge leap of faith, and I think that is an important distinction, as you said, the conviction part for a filmmaker. I hope the people listening here understand how vital this is. It’s a survival skill. I think it’s an essential survival skill to have.
Ross: It’s interesting you talk about naiveté, because you’re right. I had no idea that I was breaking all the rules making that tape in terms of Fight Club. In fact, I never knew that making movies was hard. You know what? Fight Club was easy. We went from unpublished galleys to finished film in 2-1/2 years. Now that’s phenomenally fast in Hollywood, particularly given that we shot for over 100 days on Fight Club, so it was a long, long shoot. And, it was very subversive material.
There is absolute power in not knowing the rules and just doing it anyhow. All of those people who break those rules, or don’t know the rules, are usually the ones who are creating the next wave. So I absolutely, yes, I was wrong, maybe to say delusional. But I was more talking about some filmmakers who keep going back to the same pot, the same well that’s dry, with tiny character-driven movies, with budgets that are just not sustainable.
Look, we’re artists, and we believe our stories are worth telling, and that’s valuable and great. But at the end of the day, we’re asking somebody for a couple of million dollars, and we really owe it to them that they make their money back. They’re not doing it because for some philanthropic reason. They’re doing it to see their money back, so they can make another film.
My argument is that if you really thing I’m creative and I’m not going to worry about the investors, then write a book, because you can actually be a novelist and not cost anybody any money. [00:29:33 – crosstalk] people waiting for you on set, and all those salaries. You’ve got to make the money back.
Thomas: I’m going to join into a little side story, it’ll take a couple of minutes. This is what changed my belief and faith in the movie business. Shocked me and also inspired me, and I think I’ve told you this story before, Ross, so forgive me for repeating it again yet. When I was a young man, I think it was ’99. I guess it was around the same time you were doing Fight Club, I found myself running a sales company, a little, small boutique sales company out of Copenhagen, Denmark.
What was particular about the sales company was that it was new, and it was owned by [00:30:17 – inaudible], which is [00:30:20 – inaudible] and Peter Opec’s company. We were going to Berlin Film Festival and it was February. We had two films in our lineup. One of them was a Swedish little film that I saw before. I saw both films, of course, before I went to the Berlin Film Festival.
We were in the middle of the Darkman movement, and if anybody knows what that is, I can really quickly recap for everyone. Darkman Movement was this idea that there are no rules and everything should be hand-held, the actors should bring their own costumes, there should be no music done afterwards, no grading. It was trying to make things as cheap as possible, look as worse as possible, but it actually forced to focus on the story.
The first film that came out, was the Celebration by Thomas Vinterberg, and here we were with the second film, from one of the documentary founders, [00:31:10 – inaudible], an amazing man, very talented, a musician as well. Wrote all my childhood hits, but that’s a different story. So he’d made this called [00:31:18 – inaudible], and that was the second documentary film, as I said. I really liked it. I thought it was really good. Pardon me for saying this, I didn’t think it was a masterpiece, but I thought it was really good.
Then we had this other Swedish Film, called Fucking Amal, and no, it’s not the name of a porn film, or anything like that. It was the name of a small town called Amal where this girl is trying to escape from, and that’s why it’s Fucking Amal. We had changed that title in America, because it wouldn’t work, so it was called Show Me Love, because Robyn was singing the soundtrack.
Anyway, side story, side story, side story. So here I am in Berlin. It’s my first major film market and I literally know nobody. I had seen Fucking Amal, and I was blown away. I thought it was a genuine film. I thought it was a masterpiece. Talk about emotion, talk about being moved. That film just really moved me. The film I liked, it was good, it was not a bad film at all, it was just really good, very solidly made, very good. But, Fucking Amal, [00:32:16 – inaudible], just blew me away.
So here I am in Berlin and screening at the [00:32:21 – inaudible] in the old western part of Berlin. [00:32:26 – inaudible], it’s early in the morning and it’s just sold out. Every buy on the planet’s there. The film just [00:32:32 – inaudible] itself. Sometimes when you’re in a room, you can just feel the energy, you can just feel that this film, this place of the world—mind you, I’d seen you in a badly VHS tape in some hotel room somewhere, and suddenly I saw on the big screen the real [00:32:47 – inaudible], and it just worked. Like, “Oh, my God, this is [00:32:49 – inaudible].”
I walk out of the theater, and the Belgium distributor wants to talk to me. “Hey, Thomas, you selling this film?” “Yeah.” “How much do you want for Belgium?” Back in those days I couldn’t remember the prices in my head, because they only had two films, “This is the price.” And she said, right away, boom, “I’ll buy it.”
Normally, when you’re selling films you have your asking price, and there’s a go price, and the asking price is what you’re trying to ask for, and the go price is what the minimum you have agreed with the producer that you can sell the film for. She just said yes to the asking price, which is very unusual. I said, “Great, come to my office, we’ll sort out the paper work.” And then on the way there, Korean showed up and a Japanese buyer.
The film was still running, but people were starting to leave the theater to try and come find me. Half an hour in, an hour in, I had 10 people at my [00:33:33 – inaudible], I had 20 people, I had 50 people. Suddenly, I seriously had more than 100 buyers at my desk. It was so insane. Everybody wanted to buy this [00:33:42 – inaudible].
I was all alone, and we’re a small sales company. I had to call my boss and say, “Hey, come down here.” Peter Opec, and he wouldn’t come, and blah, blah, blah, and then he finally showed up. Then, we, basically, held an auction and for five days no film was bought during the whole [00:33:57 – inaudible] and film market because everybody was overbidding themselves to try to get [00:34:01 – inaudible]. So we stopped all those sales happening, because everybody was committing more and more money to our film. This is my [00:34:07 – inaudible].
A very long story. We said to these buyers, “Listen, if you’re going to buy this thing, you also have buy this Swedish film,” because whether you didn’t like it, they didn’t like it, they saw it, but we sort of said, you’ve got to buy it, because this is how it’s going to be. I’m exposing myself here to certain things I shouldn’t say, but I am nonetheless, because the moral of the story is [00:34:30 – inaudible].
So here we are, we’re generating such a big asking price. I think the German sale alone, the one sale for Germany alone was worth more than the whole entire cost to make. I mean, we’re talking big numbers. This was in the highlight of the heyday of film sales. It was back in the days when there was a lot of distributors and few films, so a lot of competition. Now it’s the opposite, we have a lot of films and very few distributors, which means that they can pick and choose.
The price goes through the roof and then everybody buys the Swedish film. So here’s the moral of the story. [00:35:10 – inaudible] opens everywhere around the world, and it tanks. It does not make the money back. All the distributors lose money. But this Swedish little gem of a film, called Fucking Amal, just plays and plays and plays in all the small [00:35:25 – inaudible] theaters, and it ends up making a lot of money back for the distributors.
This taught me, early on, and we’re talking the biggest buyers in the world, that even if the big buyers in the world, all the buyers in the world, have no idea what they’re doing. It’s virtually insight to the film business that everybody is just based upon conviction. You go with your heart, you go with your—and this is why I’m so fascinated by the film business, is that people—some of the best buyers, and some of them are my very good friends today, they buy with their heart. They buy because they believe in the story and the value and they’re trying to get other people to see the same thing as well.
This taught me a huge lesson in the film world that nobody knows what they’re doing. It’s frightening, as scary as it is, it’s also very inspirational to know that there are these things that can happen. And that’s just what taught me there. Since then, I’ve been, okay, you’ve got to believe in what you have. It’s really, really, really, true. Sorry, that was a long side-story; I just want to share that with—
Ross: What’s interesting in what you say is that wouldn’t happen today, right, in these markets?
Thomas: No, because there are so few buyers left, and they have absolutely no money. It’s not because the [00:36:33 – inaudible] doing a bad job, it’s just because of the eco-system, the whole way that we were purchasing films back in the day, because you could make money back on pay TV, on DVD, on free TV, but those options are no longer there. A distributor putting up a movie into theaters has always been a lost [00:36:52 – inaudible], meaning that you will lose your money.
Even when you say, “Oh, that film made $300 million, the box office, you and I know, Ross, that that $300 is not going to the producer. There’s a lot of costs there, sales tax, the theater’s dock 50-65%, there’s marketing costs. I mean there’s so many costs before anyone sees a dime. So these numbers are people are so passionate about those numbers. But they’re not real numbers. Normally when you make a film, you will lose money putting it into theaters, because it’s just that expensive. Hopefully you will make your money back in all these other windows. But those windows are disappearing now because of the Internet.
Ross: Right. And the Internet has also created competition. I watch more stuff on YouTube and different things on the Internet than I do go to the movies now, actually.
Thomas: Yes. Because it’s easy, it’s convenient, plus you’ve got—the theaters, you’ve got scarcity. A film will stay around one, two, three weeks, and that’s if it’s successful. If it’s not successful, they’ll kick it out in two days because they’ve got to get the new thing in so they can fill the seats. I understand being a theater owner can be very stressful. You never know if anybody’s going to show up.
Now, theaters [00:37:59 – inaudible] owners, are in for a good rest of the year, because the time you’re recording this, James Bond is still going to come out. Tarantino’s film is still going to come out, [00:38:11 – inaudible] going to come out, so it’s going to be a big cinema year at the end of the year, for most cinema owners around the world. They are so excited because they know they are going to sell a lot of Coke and a lot of popcorn, which is where they really make their money, not on the ticket, itself. Anyway, that’s a side-story.
Yeah, it’s just fascinating, how conviction, how important that is. That was my point. Sorry, that got a little off-track there.
Ross: No, it’s good, good.
Thomas: All right, let’s go back to you, Ross. So there you are, you’ve commit this studio, she writes the check. How do you get David Fincher on board? He is an amazing director. Everything he’s done has just been—Seven is a masterpiece, he did House of Cards. I mean everything he’s done and touched has been—he has this amazing way to make everything just look dark, but also engaging. How did you convince him?
Ross: That’s a very interesting point. The studios, even though they loved the tape, they still didn’t commit. Because, at the same time, I was doing the book on tape, I was meeting directors, because the package is really important. Again, my job as producer is to take away the risk to the studio, their financier.
There were four directors I wanted, Peter Jackson, Bryan Singer, Danny Boyle and David Fincher. I flew to Wellington to meet Peter Jackson who was cutting The Frighteners with Michael J. Fox. Danny Boyle I’d met in London previously. I think I went to London, and I knew Brian Singer, so I’d given it to him. David Fincher was good mates with Josh Donan, who I was producing with, and I was in Josh’s office. So it was that relationship that helped me.
I wasn’t making offers to directors. Any agent is going to put it at the botThomasof her pile, a submission without an offer. Their job is to make commission on their client’s salaries. So if you’re coming in and saying, “I’ve got no guarantee that I will ever get the money to pay you,” it goes to the botThomasof the pile.
That’s why I flew to Wellington to meet Pete Jackson, so I could give him the context to read the book. I’ll tell you a very interesting story. When Fincher signed on, and it was announced in Hollywood Reporter, Peter Jackson sent me a note saying, “I wish I’d read it sooner.”
Here’s the thing. I am committed to making a film with Peter Jackson. It doesn’t live or die on whether he said yes to Fight Club or not. I think, as filmmakers, you have to have that long-term perspective, which is the result is not as important as living the life. I got to go to Wellington, I had no reason to go there otherwise. I had lunch with Peter Jackson, and it was one of those greatest moments in my life. If the plane had crashed on the way back, I’d still was living the life of a producer, even though I wasn’t being paid and I hadn’t got any credits to my name. So that’s really important.
I honestly see this all as building relationships. But coming back to David, here was the key thing, David Fincher. He had an assistant at the time called Doug Friedman, and I was working Doug. I was sending him pages, he was reading it, we were calling each other, he was laughing about these particular scenes. David overheard this going on, and he wanted to know what we were laughing about. The gatekeepers, the assistants, that so many people can be rude to, are the gatekeepers for a reason, i.e., the filmmaker trusts them. So building a relationship is just not about being star-driven or star-struck, it’s about working all of those people. Not working them in a manipulative sense, but [00:42:05 – crosstalk]
Thomas: But treat them with respect, treat them like a human being, and not like a doorknob, or anything like that, a doormat, just be nice to everyone. I mean, you never know. And as you said, this business is certainly about relationships. You can’t burn your bridges because you never know where people are going to end up. It’s not about you never know where people are going to end up, do to others what you want others to do to you, it’s very, very simple. Be nice to everyone. It’s just a simple human rule.
Ross: It’s also being genuine. I say I was working Doug. Doug was a mate. We’d become friends. It wasn’t working him in that calculating sense, even though there was an objective–
Thomas: Of course, you had a motive, yes.
Ross: –and if he had said, “Oh, this is just awful, this book,” I wouldn’t have been making the calls every day. We were genuinely enjoying discussing the material. Then David called to find out—he had the relationship with Josh, not me, so he called Josh to find out what was going on—and Josh didn’t particularly know because I was the one who had read the material.
Then I went back to the studio and said, “Okay, I’ve got David Fincher and we’ve got the book on tape.”
Thomas: How did you convince David Fincher?
Ross: The material, alone.
Thomas: Okay. All right.
Ross: For David, see, it’s different in Hollywood in that directors can attach themselves to any number of development deals, because it’s like throwing it against the wall to see what sticks. This is a problem that often young filmmakers face, is that they write the directors, particularly write their own material, and you’re in development for four years. Then you make the film, and the film comes out and you’ve got nothing in the pipeline. David’s off making The Game, in fact, he was in pre-production in The Game as we were putting together Fight Club.
Hang on a second. Just one second. Sorry, somebody just came in.
Thomas: That’s all right.
Ross: What was I saying?
Thomas: You were talking about David and he was doing The Game, which was a film with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow, right? Yeah, I think it is, yeah.
Ross: No, not Gwen Paltrow, Deborah Unger, actually, an esteemed Canadian actress. Gwyneth was in Seven.
Back to the studio, so at the same time that I had the tape and I had attached this director, it was a screenwriter by the name of Jim Uhls who wanted to adapt this book. He had read it independently of me and his agent was haranguing me to meet him. Jim had written a very funny script for Jody Foster, but it hadn’t been produced, and the studio were not going to back this guy.
In fact, the studio wanted, I just blanked on his name, the man who wrote The Graduate. Their idea was that the Fight Club was going to be The Graduate, a film for the generation like The Graduate had been. Jim had been in the room with me. This is the great thing about Jim Uhls, he was in the room with me and the actors when we were doing the read-through, so he knew the material inside out with me.
This is the other key thing—every filmmaker should know their material inside out—So when an executive questions you, you can answer them. We knew what might happen on what pages, we knew it so intimately. This helped us move the project very fast, as I said, from unpublished galleys to script and then film was phenomenally fast, because we knew what we were doing.
So the studio said, “Look, we’ll sign off on Jim Uhls, if David Fincher will.” David said, “Fine. I imagine there’s going to be six writers, it’ll take us 15 drafts and in three years we’ll have a script that might be worth filming.” So he went off to San Francisco to start filming The Game. The studio had the package. They had a director, who had done phenomenal business on Seven, but had made Alien III for Fox and they were wary of him, because Alien III was not a success. They had a writer. They had enough to go “Yes.” Then they optioned the book, paid Jim Uhls to write, gave me a small development fee, producer that makes no money during the development phase, and then they did a deal with Dave Fincher.
Here’s the kicker. David was off making The Game, Jim and I started to work. Every writer does a draft of a screenplay, then they do what is called a producer’s draft. Where the producer reads the script before anybody else and goes through it and tries to get the writer to make changes, without it being a step that’s paid for. So when Jim handed the script in, it was a mess. It was alarming, actually, and if the studio had seen that, they would have killed the project.
Thomas: So he gave it you first.
Ross: He gave it to me first. The agents never like this because they want their client paid, because they want the commission on that payment, but my argument to Jim, and Jim was a good man, and we were in the trenches together, so it’s very important that you look after your writer so you can get—it’s not like squeezing blood out of stone, it’s just doing the work.
Thomas: Especially with a challenging concept as I, Claudius.
Ross: That’s right, and we didn’t have an ending. The ending didn’t work. In the book they blow up a building which falls onto the Natural History Museum and symbolically destroys civilization. I said, “Well, that’s not dramatic, that’s academic. What could we do that people would cheer at, they’d be celebrating, but it still meant the end of civilization?”
When I was at university, I did an economics degree, and I studied restructuring of capitalism and the emergence of global banking, and how the destinations on Earth got together and refused to pay their loans, it would bring about the collapse of capitalism. It nearly happened, Greece and all these countries.
There is more debt in the world than there is money. And if all those people in debt said, “No, we’re not going to pay,” it would just destroy the system. So we came up with that ending of blowing up the credit card company so all the people would be cheering, “We don’t have to pay our debt.”
Thomas: Just going to wipe off our debt. Would be very nice, please, thank you.
Ross: Thank you, right? We did it at night, so nobody was in the buildings, that got killed. When Chuck Palahniuk, the author, read the screenplay–and it’s very important that the author has no say over the screenplay, you can’t be held to ransom by an author wanting to change things—he was so enamored with our ending, he wanted to go back and change the ending to his book, but now it was already being published. The film deal came together, pushed that book forward, and launched Chuck.
That was all happening while David was off making The Game. The day he finished shooting he got on a plane and I sent him the script and he read the script on the way back to LA and he called up and said, “I can’t believe you’ve done it. This is one of the best first drafts I’ve read. I want this to be my next movie.”
The reason it was the best draft is we knew it intimately, the writer was there with me, we had a great relationship in tossing ideas around, and we had the structure, because we had really looked at Hero’s journey. Again, this comes back to people saying, “Oh, structure, that’s cookie-cutter, that’s making it into a Hollywood Three-Act structure. I’d want to be outside the box.” Nobody can say Fight Club is inside the box. But, it’s so traditionally structured, and that’s what made the film work.
Thomas: And so, once you had David Fincher, certainly you’re getting two of the hardest staff on the front end, I mean, Norton and Brad Pitt are both of them, are big stars at the time, no?
Ross: Well, no. Brad Pitt was. The reason the studio said yes to David, even though they were wary after Alien III was because of Seven, which really put Brad Pitt on the map and David on the map. Ed Norton hadn’t broken through yet. We all sat down and watched Primal Fear, and that last minute of that film in the prison cell with Richard Gere is so extraordinary when Ed Norton’s character turns, that we knew he was A) a brilliant actor, and B) the right character for narrator in Fight Club. With Brad, Brad didn’t commit immediately, but Fincher would sit outside his door, waiting for him to come home, saying, “You’ve got to read this, you’ve got to read this.”
Thomas: [laughs] Again, bypassing agents and gatekeepers, and all the other people that are in between and just saying, “Here, you’ve got to read this.” Because of Seven, the history they’d had together, you have to read it.
Ross: That’s right. When he did, there was a moment when he wanted to play the Ed Norton role, because it’s the star role and has the best lines. We sat there with our jaws on the floor, thinking, okay, if you’re going to play the IKEA boy, Brad, the “every man,” who are you going to fantasize about being? I mean, who is going to play Tyler Durden, ThomasCruise? He kind of laughed because he realized, when you’re Brad Pitt, you don’t fantasize about being anybody else.
Thomas: [00:52:29 – laughs]
Ross: So he eventually said yes. I think of all Brad’s films, he was uniquely right for Tyler Durden. I think he did a great job. It’s kind of iconic, actually, when you think of his performance in that film.
Thomas: No, no, it’s an amazing film. If someone had [00:52:47 – inaudible] up there, and who had not seen the film yet, please go see it because it is a masterpiece.
Let’s cut forward a little bit. In the current structure, you go and shoot the film, you get the money, you get the actors, and the studios come back and say, “Yeah, we want to turn this into a boxing film, or that’s how we’re going to market it, right?
Ross: It was a big disappointment in some ways, I lost control of the film in that the studio spent $75 million, that was the budget, and they’re such big corporations. They have a very slow-moving marketing department that isn’t nimble. You can’t turn that ship around quickly. So they sold it as a fight movie. I actually think it’s a dark comedy.
Thomas: It’s a view on society and what’s wrong with society. It’s IKEA versus corporations, there’s so many symbols in that film and in the book. It’s a critique of the way we live. That’s basically what it is. We’re all caught in this dream, we’re all caught in this nightmare we can’t wake up from, and it’s to be a slave to the system. That’s what, I think, the film is, and that [00:54:07 – inaudible] for the same thing, about being aware of what’s going. I think that this film works on so many different levels. You can go see it for the fight scenes, but it has a deeper meaning, and whether you catch it or not—
Ross: That’s right. It was a huge disappointment. I know friends of mine who saw the film and said, “I didn’t know it was funny.” The film should have been opened at midnight screenings on university campuses, and built up a cult-following, a fan-base.
Thomas: They don’t have time, patience, or money for that. They’re not equipped to do that. They’re equipped to put films into theaters.
Ross: Exactly. So here’s where we were wrong. The film is about blowing up Fox Studios, and Rupert Murdoch, and that corporate—I’m not meaning on a personal level, I’m not advocating violence against Rupert Murdoch, but that said—
Thomas: We’re talking about a film here, we’re talking a theory, we’re talking about films and a book, just for anyone listening in. Including NSA, okay? We’re talking about the theory of structures.
Ross: But, true, also the idea that the world needs definating in some ways. It is so calcified, it’s locked into sound bytes and giving us a very broken-down version of the truth.
Thomas: And the film resets that. The book resets the structure. That’s the whole idea. We’ve got to rethink the way we’re doing things. Anyway, that’s a more inflatial point of view. So the film, [00:55:35 – inaudible] Fight Club, it [00:55:37 – inaudible] disappointing at the box office, right?
Ross: Oh yeah, the film grossed $38 million domestically in the US and, of course, only 50% of that goes to the studios. So, you invested $75 million in the film, you spent $35 million selling it as a boxing fight movie, so that’s $110, and you’ve just made $19 back from the box office. Rupert Murdoch was very unhappy. Bill Mechanic, who was the studio head at 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000 [00:56:10 – inaudible] his division of 20th Century Fox. He lost his job.
There was a huge backlash against the film because it was also the time of Columbine, when those kids in Colorado shot up their classmates dressed as characters out of The Matrix. So there was a huge backlash against the film. The other problem was, it was a very wordy film, and the humor was based on language, particularly—
Thomas: I like that, it was a very wordy film. Seems like we speak.
Ross: But it didn’t translate. It’s very hard to translate those films into other languages. David Finches films usually do better overseas. This goes back to our earlier point about what the studios make today. You don’t need to translate an explosion. It’s the same in Farsi as it is in English, so you have Star Wars or Mission Impossible, say for [00:57:12 – crosstalk] the studios.
Thomas: Yeah, because it’s a concept. You get it, you know exactly what you’re going to see, and you’re going to go and come out.
But in hindsight, moving forward to today’s age, which is, what, 15, 16 years later. The film stands the test of time, and it becomes somewhat of a cult film.
Ross: Absolutely. It doesn’t mean that it has not made money. The studio took a loss on it because they’ve got the cost of running the studio putting on to each film. They charge you 20-25% interest on that $75 million they lent you to make the film. So the film will never make money, [00:57:50 – crosstalk]
Thomas: But it’s also, let’s just be fair here. The system is also set up deliberately from the studios point of view, so a film will never, in theory make money. So, whatever dollar comes in goes to them and not to someone else. The business of making films and selling them is all about who owes what, and if the film is always in debt, then they can keep every dollar they get.
There was a reason why, you spoke of Peter Jackson earlier, why he has to sue New Line because their DVD deals that New Line picked for themselves, Peter Jackson said, “I could have a done better deal around town. You did the film a disfavor financially by selling it cheaper to itself, when I could have gotten out and got a much better deal.” He had to sue to get some of his money because he was paid a percentage of the surplus, and blah, blah, blah. This is not secret, this was all in the papers. Same think Michael Moore, he was suing Miramax because the, brothers, what’s their name–
Ross: Hardy and [00:58:51 – inaudible].
Thomas: Yes. –flew to Cannes in a private jet to New York and that cost got directly on top of Fahrenheit 9/11 and he refused to pay it. That’s a whole different podcast episode. Maybe we should that different time, talking about they recoup and how they recount, and how it’s designed so you can never make money. Really, because, your deal with them, I presume, is based upon an up-front fee, and then you get percentages if there’s any profit.
Thomas: So in their interest, and that’s the same thing with actors and the same thing with directors, and the whole thing, in their self-interest, they want to make sure that the film never sees profit, because then they have to pay money.
Ross: Yeah. All right. It was their biggest DVD seller. But there’s also a lot of illegal downloading.
Thomas: Oh, absolutely. It still has to find an audience. This film you can still find on DVD, and I’m sure it does steady business. Every time a new format comes out, go from DVD’s, go to Blue Rays, go to HD, go to 4k. They can resell it, they can resell it, they can resell it. [00:59:50 – inaudible].
Let’s fast-forward to today, Ross. Obviously we spent quite some time talking about the sale of Fight Club.
Ross: –can we break this, and pick it up in 20 minutes, or have I just ruined your flow, you can’t edit?
Thomas: Yeah, it’s a little bit hard to edit, or at least I haven’t gotten yet the do that. We can break, if you want to, can you…
Ross: I have somebody waiting outside.
Thomas: You know what, let’s break this. I’ll figure out how to [01:00:24 – inaudible] this for those listening. We’re going to take a short break, we’ll speak later. Thanks. Bye.
Thomas: We’re back, continuing this episode. So, Ross, just finishing up, we were just talking about Fight Club and how it was set up back in the day. Let’s fast-forward to today. We’re in 2015 as of this recording, at the end of it. One of the [01:00:51 – inaudible] we need to do, because things have changed. We talked about that briefly, the ecosystem has collapsed, [01:00:56 – inaudible]. What do you do today? How does a producer survive today? What do you do?
Ross: Well, the joke is that the producer is not surviving. There is a joke that goes around town about how do you make a small fortune as a film producer? Start with a large one. You’re spending so much of your own money off in development, because you’re not making money into your own production. The chance of a film going to production is so slight. So it is increasingly problematic and I know many producers in LA who have left the business.
For me the transition was two-fold. One was into screen writing, and I have been commissioned to write four screen plays. See, the writer gets paid in development, even if the film never happens. But the other thing is to focus on television. It makes no sense to make a film every—if you’re an independent producer and you’re making a film every four years, you [01:01:57 – inaudible] better than most, and you’re not paying your mortgage.
Thomas: No, you cannot, it’s not possible for four years, unless you get a huge fee, which no one gets.
Ross: Right. So you’re waiting for profits down the line, and they might not materialize. So my focus is increasingly on television. Television cannot go black. It has to have product to fill the pipeline. Cinemas can close, but television is always looking for material. And people are now talking about, is there too much television with Amazon, and Hulu, and NetFlix, and everybody is in the game now.
Thomas: As a consumer, [01:02:43 – inaudible], it’s insane the amount of content you can get out of your $10 a month on Net Flix. If you get the HBO package, as well, HBO Go or Now or whatever it’s called, certainly for $25 a month, you have stellar content.
Ross: It’s amazing. It’s the golden age. We’re very lucky to have that choice. I think the way viewing habits have changed, too. You can binge-watch. I think I’m spending more time in front of my laptop watching Game of Thrones than I am going out to the movies. When I talk to my colleagues and peers, they’re saying the same thing.
So there is a huge shift. Hollywood keeps talking about it’s biggest box office ever, but they’re making their money on IMAX and these formats that actually have increased ticket prices. The actual number of people seeing movies is declining, and has been for a long time.
Thomas: But nobody’s talking about that.
Ross: No one’s talking about that.
Thomas: We talk about box office numbers, and they seem the same, but that’s because prices keep going up.
Ross: That’s right. I have a script that was in development as a feature film, based on a book, and I am now reinventing it as a four-part limited series, which is not what everybody’s in the market for. Everybody wants ongoing series, but at least I can breathe life back into it. It’s dead as a film, absolutely dead. The studios have told me and told others they’re not making dramas anymore, so it’s all gone to television. I think that you can make a viable living in television.
Also, I haven’t cracked it yet, but I am looking at ways of creating content for the internet which then leads people, builds a fan-base to another project. I have a film that, in some ways, is similar to Fight Club, very different arena, and I want to do online campaigns as if this company exists, the fictitious company in the film.
Of course, you just have to break through the clutter. You’ve got to have some sort of audience already. I’ll give you the example of those who know the animated four minute or three minute YouTube sensation, Beached Abs, which was about a whale. Really, it was a send-up of the New Zeeland accent.
Those guys went to one of the networks in Australia and said, “Here are the number of people who watch us on YouTube. This is the number of T-Shirts we’ve sold,” and the network said, “Great, we’ll put you in development.” Increasingly it’s following on the creator, the artist, the filmmaker to bring with them their fan-base.
Thomas: Absolutely. You do know that [01:05:46 – inaudible] talked about that you no longer send the scripts, and the talent, and idea, you also have to represent the audience. If you don’t represent the audience, well, then, [01:05:55 – inaudible] the choice, the commission editor, or the people being the gatekeepers at the varied TV stations or movie studios. Distributors of sales agents, or film funds, whatever it is, you have to prove that you have an audience, because they have a job as well. They want to make sure that they keep that job. The best way to minimize their risk is to go with someone who can prove that they already have an audience.
Let’s talk about that now. You’re an established guy in the film business and you have a very good network and living in Hollywood. But for starting out in the business, what would you do? If you started out fresh today, you were fresh out of film school, or you might have gone to film school, which a lot of people opt not to do these days, what would you do, Ross? What would you focus on? What would you do?
Ross: It’s interesting. Two things, one is it’s about the network, building your network. You have to enjoy that part of it. So, being at screenings, and events, and networking. A lot of creators, particularly writers shy away from this, that’s why they’re writers, they prefer to be alone in their room.
We talked earlier about conviction, talent, and craft, then there is a fourth element that I forgot to add then, which is strategy. How can you strategically place yourself so that you become known? It’s well and good to go to cocktail parties, and screenings, and premiers, and chat to people, but you’ve got to follow up at some point with some goods to get you in the door.
So in breaking into television, I’ve been told that no one is going to buy a TV show from me because I have not delivered a weekly show on budget, on schedule, so they’re not going to take that risk. I have great film credits, but that just doesn’t count. So I have to partner a producer, a TV producer that already has runs on the board.
The only way I get in the door, they might have all socialized with me, I know them. But the only way I get in the door is if I bring them an idea that they want. Even though audience is now king, you still have to have that content.
You’ve got to have something that is valuable, and so that you’re bringing them something of value. Calling them up and saying, “Hey, I want a job,” is a headache for them. Coming in and saying, “I’ve got this book, which is a 10-part series, and I have this writer who wants to adapt it,” now they’re listening.
So you’ve got to do both things, you’ve got to be developing the content and the relationship. When you have the content, you can call the person and go, “Here I am.”
Now, for somebody coming in straight out of film school or early stages, it’s what I did back in the day. It’s working up, getting in a room, calling up and, even interning. One of my first jobs I interned for Roger Coleman who, back in the day, produced 20 movies a year that went straight to video when there was a video market. I interned for him, meaning I didn’t get paid. I read scripts, I was in his office, and one day he said, “I want you to write me a treatment for a movie.” I did, he then commissioned me to write the screenplay, and I was a produced screenwriter within six months.
It’s no good being at home alone, that’s not strategic. Can you put yourself in a situation where people are going to get to know your work? I know there’s a lot of writers in LA who are reading scripts, doing coverage. You do it free for awhile, and then you’ve samples of your work, and then, most probably, you can get a job reading scripts. There are also programs for those Australians listening, through Screen Australia, where they pay you up to $40,000 to intern at companies overseas. [01:10:04 – crosstalk].
Thomas: Yeah. I’ve seen a few of those spots over here for that. That’s very valuable that you do that. It’s very, very interesting they can do that.
Ross: That’s right. So it’s developing the relationship with filmmakers, screenwriters, or if you’re one of those, a producer, and then being very strategic about the executives and other producers you’re meeting. One way to do this, when I was head of screenwriting, I had the students enter their screenplays that they’d developed as part of their course work, for Writer’s Guild Awards.
I had five students nominated for best unproduced screen play. For the TV pilots, they developed as pilots they developed as part of their course. They didn’t win, but they were in the room, they were in the conversation. Their name was in the program. So the next time they call, it’s a lot easier to say, “Yes, I was Australian Writer’s Guild nominee.” The same goes for screenplays here in the US, The Nichols Fellowship. There are all of these screenplay competitions. That’s very important.
It’s also being totally informed. You should be subscribing to The Hollywood Reporter, The Daily Variety, and whatever film trade-paper there is in the country you’re from, so that you start to see who are the writers, who are the deals, what are the ideas that are selling? It’s a lot about information. You don’t want to spend all your time developing something to find out that oh, they sold that idea yesterday, and you could have known that by reading.
We talk about six degrees of separation. I believe it is two degrees separation. So if you’ve got a project and you want to get to movie star “X,” there are ways that you can create pathways to that person, and once I was here in LA and I wanted Wes Craven to direct something, when he was still alive, of course, and he was speaking at a function. I went and I bought tickets for this seminar. I listened to him, and as he was leaving, I approached him. This is something you have to do with some degree of respect and caution–
Thomas: And diplomacy.
Ross: What? And diplomacy, yes. [laughs] –because these guys get hit up all the time. But there was something I said in that conversation, that he said, “Look, I’ll read the script.” He did, he attached himself, and I was able to set it up, the film never happened, but it was a strategic pathway on my part to get to Wes Craven.
The worst thing is to sit there and be in isolation. There are many ways to connect, I think, for screenwriters—belong to a writer’s group, support each other. The collective noun for a group of writers is actually a fellowship of writers. So, rather than holding your idea and keep it all very close to your vest, be part of something bigger than you and join a writer’s group.
Thomas: Yeah, and get feedback and somebody can improve your script. If I was starting out as a producer today—I like what you said, it’s really good—but if I was starting out today, I’m looking at the soccer, football, whatever you call it, whatever country you’re in. If Champion’s League is the top, top tier, and there’s Premier League underneath that, and there’s First division, Second Division, Third Division, Fourth Division. Since you’re starting out, you’re probably in the Fifth or Sixth Division, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But there will be some key players, there will be some star players from that Sixth Division who want to move up. I think it’s about recognizing talent already at the early stages and find out who has written the best short story, or done best short film, or who in your peer group are the ones who can, maybe, go the distance, and align yourself with them. They have something that can make you, maybe, go all the way up to the Champion’s League. There’s nothing wrong with that. Say, “Okay, I cannot get to the Champion’s League level right now, I cannot get to the Premiere League level now, but I can get to a level where I am. They need me, I need them. Let’s work together. Let’s be part of that.
That’s what I did in terms of my first director when I worked, because we had done nothing, as I mentioned previously, and so we worked our way up through the various tiers. I don’t think we ever approached the Champion’s League, or maybe the Premiere League, but we did get movies made, and it certainly went to cinemas, we went to film festivals and all that stuff.
I think that that’s the approach. Start with the talent you have. Because no matter what level you are, you’re always looking for the next talent, who’s the next one coming up, and you want to be part of that ship. You want a fellowship, you want to be part of that boat, or whatever you want to label it, so, think that’s a good way to do that.
Ross: Martin Scorsese works with the editor that he met at film school 30 years earlier. He always works with her, and she’s—Sometimes you think, you’re old juniors, or baby film producers in the business together, but that is the next level. As well as trying to meet the power brokers, you’ve got to stay true to your peers because that is the next way in.
Thomas: Exactly. All right, Ross. This has been very good. We spoke for quite some time and I know you and I could speak quite some more time, and we can drop a little hint here that you and I are working on something very big that we hope to announce in the beginning of next year. It’s very interesting, and listeners here, when we announce it, I want you back on this podcast and we’ll talk more about that in detail.
Ross, how can people find out more about you? How can they follow you? How can they learn more from you?
Ross: Okay, I have a website, RossGraysonBell.com and they can subscribe there. I do offer script development services, so if people are developing something and need a script consultant, or mentor, I’m available for that. I just think that’s the most important thing.
I’m running a script lab here in Los Angeles for Australians in film and one of the primary reasons we do this is to road test ideas. There are 10 participants, we workshop ideas, and they have to work with each other outside of the normal hours that we meet.
If you’re not engaging your audience, you’re failing at your job as a story teller. This is the only criteria. This is what’s it about; it’s not about whether you’re right or wrong. It’s whether you are engaging an audience. There are specific craft principles on how to do that. So, there are many ways that we can become more knowledgeable about the techniques used to engage audiences. I offer those services.
I think it’s very important whether it’s through me or anybody else, that we join the community, we don’t stay in isolation. We go out with our ideas and we test them, and test them, and test them. If people are glazing over as you tell the story, don’t go ask somebody for $5 million to make it because it’s not, most probably, going to work.
Thomas: No, have something that moves people. That’s what Ross started by saying. You know as a sales agent, I would watch so many films a day. But a film has to either scare me, provoke me, frighten me, excite me, show compassion, has to move me in one way. If it doesn’t move me, I know it won’t move the buyer. If it won’t move the buyer, it won’t move the audience. That’s what it comes down to. That’s how I look at things.
Am I into this, do I like the main character, don’t like the main character, do I like the villain? Let’s talk about villains for a second. Some of the most iconic villains, we really love to hate, and are probably are so fascinated by them. Some of the main characters, the biggest heroes, because we want to be like them, Luke Skywalker, [01:18:12 – inaudible] little boy. He is the essence of that simple and that dream, just to talk about Star Wars.
In essence, I need to be moved by what I’m watching or reading, for that matter, if I’m reading scripts. If I’m not moved, why would anyone else me moved? Have some passion, have some soul, that’s what life is all about. You’ve got to have that spice and flavor. That has to be in your script and in your story, otherwise, nobody’s going to care, and they will glaze over you when you pitch it.
Ross: What’s interesting is with breakthroughs in neurological science, they are now studying what happens in the brain as people watch films and stories. Certain chemicals are released, oxytocin, which encourages humans to cooperate with each other and creates empathy. So there are all these studies now that show the signs of how story, by engaging our emotions, creates chemicals, which brings social cohesion. So this goes back to the point earlier about telling stories, recording stories, is the ultimate expression of our humanity because no other species does it. It actually is intrinsic to how we work with each other.
The more you understand story—I asked some students once, if an alien came down to earth, how would you define a story? I would like to hear from any of the podcasters listening, write to me and tell me what a story is. If you’re a storyteller, even an editor, a composer, you’re still a story teller; if you are working that medium, define a story for me.
Thomas: Well, there you have it everyone. This is a challenge from Ross Grayson Bell and film business, and film making is about those who dare to do, so challenge. Take Ross up on it, but go to RossGraysonBell.com, that’s his website, you can subscribe to his news there. There’s also a link to his facebook, and LinkedIn, and Twitter. There’s many ways to get in contact with Ross. Write to him and let’s see if something hits. That’s a challenge.
Ross, it’s been absolutely a pleasure to having you hear. As I said before, you and I can speak for hours, and we already do on this other thing we’re trying to do. I’m so happy and excited to have you here because you are a very talented man, and a great human being. That is sometimes a little bit remarkable in this town of Hollywood.
Ross: Thank you.
Thomas: Thank you, Ross. Thanks for being part of it, and you and I will chat soon.
Ross: Okay, I look forward to hearing from you all.
Thomas: That’s a challenge everyone, so, please take that up, and maybe you get a chance to move to a higher level in this soccer hierarchy that we talked about before.
Thank you, Ross. Be good.
Ross: Thank you, Thomas.
Thomas: So all the listeners still listening here. Thank you so much for taking your time for listening all this way through. I know this was a long podcast, but I don’t really have time limit on me. Something that’s interesting, something that really moves, I want to keep going. That being said, do I want a three-hour podcast? Absolutely not, but it’s something really works, as in this case, you want to talk about. That’s why I wanted to keep going.
Just want to finish and round this up. I hope you’re enjoying these podcasts, I certainly have making them. I hope you find all the value out of these, I certainly do, and I hope you learn from this. My idea is to spread as much knowledge as I can. I am building, and I keep talking about this in every episode, a website, and it’s so up and running now, has a lot of changes to be done, but you can go to SmartFilmIncome.com and you can find a lot of information on there. So SmartFilmIncome.com and that’s—
I basically want to empower filmmakers with innovative information. Go to that site, follow me there. You can listen to this on the sound cloud; it’s going to be uploaded to iTunes soon. If you want to know more, I have a course I’m teaching on crowd funding. It’s free, or you can donate what you want. Obviously, I would like you to donate some money, but if you can’t, and you don’t have any money, then take it down for free. You can find that on my site.
Also, you can consult with me. I offer some very affordable packages. I know filmmakers are the people who finalize the least amount of money. They have a lot of passion, but not money, but I’m offering an affordable program for only people. It’s going to close down soon. For $97 a month, you can get to speak to me once a month. I cannot do it any cheaper than that. It’s as affordable as it can be.
Hope you enjoyed this, Episode 4, and I’ll speak to you guys again in Episode 5. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you. Bye.