What does a producer do? We ask Mark Heidelberger, the successful and renowned producer of such films as Harsh Times, Comfort and the upcoming The Basement.
I imagine producers, much like filmmakers and actors, have idols – even mentors. Who are your producing mentors or idols?
I can’t speak for others, but I’m not really one for idolatry. I guess I’ve always been a little more grounded that way. Iconic as they may be, big-name entertainers are still just people. They have issues just like you and I (some more so) and struggle with the same daily questions. So, my respect for their talent and accomplishments never really rises to that level. But I’ve certainly had some good mentors. My first boss in the industry was Bobby Newmyer – a prolific producer responsible for the most quintessential indie movie ever, the one that started indie filmmaking as we know it today: sex, lies, and videotape. He then went on to do a number of big studio pictures like Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead and The Santa Clause. He showed me a lot about how the studio system worked while I served as one of his assistants on Training Day, so that was eye-opening. I also had a few great mentors while pursuing my master’s in producing at UCLA – namely Myrl Schreibman who taught me a good deal about the fundamentals of production and Meg LeFauve (former producing partner of Jodie Foster) who was a genius at script development.
Can you say you’ve tried to emulate another producer’s career or follow his or her playbook?
Definitely not. My path has very much been my own, as every producer’s should be. Just like every film is different, every deal is different, each filmmaker’s tastes are different from others, so too will your career path be different… whether you like it or not. And what’s not to like? Why try to mimic someone else’s career when you can blaze new trails?
What kind of producers don’t you admire? What traits are they missing…?
I have a very simple philosophy to producing. My job is to establish and maintain the creative vision while balancing it with the picture’s financial needs. Protect the money and the integrity of the story. And not necessarily in that order. To do that, I hire a whole host of people that are far better at what they do than I am at what they do. Electricians, caterers, cameramen, sound people, editors, actors, costumers, and so on. I tell them the result I want, when I want it by, and the resources they have to get it. If they say they can do it, I let them go do it. I’m there for support, questions and to address problems, but I don’t look over their shoulder. They know what they’re doing; I tell them that’s why I hired them! But there are producers who lack trust in their team or are so afraid of creative collaboration or are so afraid something will go wrong that they micro-manage the whole process. I know crew hate it because you’re basically telling them you don’t trust them to do their job. And you know what? For those producers who won’t let go because they’re afraid the picture won’t turn out well, it usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their constant meddling is their own undoing.
Is the main goal of a producer to make the movie money?
There’s a reason they call it show business and not show show. At the end of the day, it is a business and you should always be concerned with making money. Why? First, you have a fiduciary duty to your investor. Second, your livelihood and those who you hire depend on it, especially if you want investors to give you more money to make future movies. But the goal of a financial return does not exist in a vacuum. The twin goals of strong story development and proper execution are paramount to drawing in an audience and, moreover, offering something that satisfies them. Producers who are consistently able to do that – identify their audience and satisfy them – will find that the financial returns will inevitably come. It’s just like any business; you identify a need in the marketplace and you create something to satisfy that need.
What’s been the most successful film you’ve worked on, personally?
I guess that depends on how you define success. I made films that were bigger critical successes, if not so commercially, and vice versa. I did a little film called Comfort that came out last year that I’m really proud of, but because it didn’t have big name stars or a huge marketing budget, it wasn’t able to break out commercially. However, both critical response and audience reactions were strong and validated for me the worthiness of small, personal stories that are well told. From a financial perspective, there are movies I’ve been a part of that made millions, such as Harsh Times and Ninja Apocalypse, even if they underwhelmed with some critics or audiences.
And which film are you the proudest of?
It’s tough for a father to choose his favorite kid, you know? I mentioned Comfort before, and that’s definitely up there. I guess I’m proud of different films for different reasons. I’m proud of films like Ninja Apocalypse and Pray for Rain because we were able to really stretch the budget and squeeze out a lot of production value. Films like Flintown Kids and You’ve Got a Friend had messages that resonated and reached their audiences, so that was great. I don’t know. Sometimes it almost feels like whatever your newest project is, all things being equal, that’s the one you’re most proud of because it’s the newborn baby you’re doting on. I have some great new projects in the pipeline like techno-thriller LITU and true-life drama Walking on Palmettos that I feel could turn out amazingly.
Most outlets no doubt ask you about the films you’re producing – – I want to ask you about some of the films that didn’t happen. First of all, what are usually the reasons for a film not coming to fruition? Is it genuinely financial?
Yes. It’s almost always because you can’t get the money. To me, if I have a script and I have the financing, I’ll get the picture made. That stress of raising money is one of the reasons I don’t do it anymore. And because of my track record, honestly, I don’t have to. I let others raise the money and I only come on as a producer for hire now. Raising money is thankless, exhausting, and you don’t get paid for that time. All that plus I was never really good at it anyway. There are plenty of people out there who are much better at it and who actually enjoy it, so I let them do it. That leaves me to do the parts I like, which is basically everything else.
What project didn’t go that you’d dearly wished had?
There was a project I had in development when I was at Treasure Entertainment called High Midnight about vampires in the Old West. I really loved that script and had tried for many years to get it off the ground. I had a great team involved. Mary Lambert was attached to direct, Bonnie Timmerman was helping us cast, we had attached a number of wonderful actors like Vincent D’Onofrio, Elizabeth Hurley, Thomas Kretschmann, Billy Baldwin and Ted Raimi. Stan Winston Studios had agreed to do all the effects. We even had this great Western town up in Manitoba, Canada that we were all set to shoot at. The problem was the funding. We couldn’t pull together the money required to make it happen. I know the script is still floating around out there somewhere, maybe under a different title, but for whatever reason it just never saw the light of day.
How far did you get into that project before the plug was pulled?
Probably about eight years, $50,000, and four dozen headaches later. I left Treasure in early February of 2011 and my old producing partner shuttered the company later that year. We had been working together on the project right up until that point, but my departure from the company was basically its death knell.
Any others you’d care to mention that didn’t get the go-ahead?
Too many to count, my friend, too many to count. That’s part of the deal when you’re a producer. For every 10 you develop, you might get one to the finish line. And if you’re doing that, you’ve got a pretty good track record.
What do you think of crowdfunding campaigns? Had any experience with them?
Hate ‘em. I think they’re a waste of time, to be honest. For filmmaking, that is. I think they’re perfectly fine for other types of ventures – product innovations and such – but I’ve never had a good experience with crowdfunding and don’t know any other filmmaker who has. First of all, who wants hundreds of little investors that you have to worry about satisfying obligations to, whether that be executive producer credits or shipping out signed DVD copies and posters or whatever else you’ve promised them in exchange for their donation? You have too many other things to concern yourself with. Second, you just wind up bugging the same friends and family for money that you could have asked directly, but now, what, you have to pay Kickstarter and IndieGogo a fee for the privilege of using their platform? That’s money that could have gone on the screen. Third, the amounts you can raise on those platforms are pittances compared to what it takes to properly produce a quality picture. They might be useful in limited circumstances like finishing funds for micro budgets, but again, you’re just approaching the same people you could go to directly anyway.
Do you think you’ll ever step behind the camera and direct? Is that an interest?
I did some limited directing in film school and still direct a few scattered projects here and there. I actually just produced and directed a series of ads for a new music service called Playyo. And while it’s fun to direct, it’s not where my passion lies. It’s not something I want to do as a career. I liken it to playing beach volleyball. I like playing beach volleyball – it’s fun – but I don’t want to be a beach volleyball player. I’d rather stick to what I’m passionate about – producing – and hiring the directors that will support my overall creative vision for the project. As producer, I’m still the ultimate decision maker and I’m the only guy that gets to be a part of the filmmaking process from the very beginning through to the very end!
Tell us what’s coming up for you?
I’ve been in development on a $30 million film called Walking on Palmettos for the last two years, which I’m co-producing with screen legend Ed Asner and hoping to get off the ground this year. It tells the true story of Myles Richards, this privileged but restless surfer who managed to build a marijuana-smuggling empire in the 1970’s that made him a millionaire, but also estranged him from his disapproving father and drew the attention of a relentless FBI agent who stopped at nothing to bring him down. I’m also attached to a boxing drama called Worth the Fight, which I’d like to shoot next year, about an underground fighter recruited into the legit boxing world by an over-the- hill coach. It’s a great story about struggle and the importance of family, as the hero must overcome his seedy past and his own insecurities to find success or risk losing his siblings to the welfare system. However, my next project will likely be a thriller called LITU for TDP Films about these two helicopter parents who buy a digital AI (think Google Home or Amazon Alexa) to tutor their ten-year- old twins, but soon find themselves in a struggle for supremacy, as the machine is smarter than they are and controls their entire home. It’s very cool stuff that plays on people’s fears of AI’s growing dominance in our lives.