Founder of Mandalay Entertainment, Peter Guber discusses 21st century challenges in the film industry

May 4th, 2007

Straight Talk, Insight & Advice From Those in the Know
By: Ashley Jude Collie

Ask Peter Guber almost any question, and he`ll tell you a story. For this still youthfully exuberant Hollywood mogul who`s been involved in making movies for five decades and has helped produce everything from “Midnight Express” and “Rain Man” to the teen thriller “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” it`s always about the story.

Sitting comfortably cross-legged in his office at Mandalay Pictures, the 65-year-old Guber warms instantly to the topic of movies. “I`ve had dinner with Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, producer Jack Warner, and young stars like Johnny Depp, Adrien Brody, and Keira Knightley. I span a lot of periods and a lot of great actors, but regardless, there`s always one thing that`s at the heart of all good movies: the storytelling mechanism. We`ve been in a storytelling environment for 25,000 years – from tribal dancing around the fire to the oral tradition, the Bible, the Gutenberg press, and films. They all form one long connection. The Internet and interactive games are now extending that connection, changing the methodology of storytelling. And no matter the medium, for the story to work it has to be compelling.”

As a producer whose movies have garnered over 50 Academy Award nominations, Guber says Hollywood is in the “emotional transportation” business — the stories have to hit your heart and gut first. But he notes that a sea change in the macroeconomics of the business is putting Hollywood to the test. For instance, he says the traditional moviegoing audience that went out to a theater on regular nights has been replaced by people “going to a movie as an individualized product.”

Additionally, where Guber produced Midnight Express for $1.75 million — “that`s the catering bill on movies today!” — the average budget for a movie is now $75 million. That, along with the alternative entertainment options competing for our attention, has created a new dynamic. “It`s brought in a four-letter word that starts with F. Fear is such an omnipresent element in our business now.”

The bottom line is that it`s increasingly difficult for filmmakers to create a hit that both makes money and is loved by audiences.

Guber, who partially subscribes to Academy Award-winning writer William Goldman`s famous take that “nobody knows anything” in Hollywood, offers us a few points to consider when we head out to the movies.

“People spend their hard-earned time and money, so they want to be sure they`re seeing a good movie. They also want variety. If they have to go to the same film over and over, say `Rocky 12,` there`s no expectation of variety. Big-event films give people a sense of certainty — they know what they`re getting, and they already know the cast and the storyline. Smaller art films are acts of discovery. They can surprise. But very few of those small films make any real money. They`re a challenge for filmmakers and audiences. I love them because they`re usually about something. They challenge my creative interest, and I adore them.”

“I`m looking for a suspension of disbelief, to be taken into a compelling experience that separates me from my own life. Whether I`m quarreling with my kid or I`m upset with my mother, I have those two hours, and that time interrupts all the cacophony in my life. It takes me away, makes me feel better about the world, enlarges my opportunity horizon, or enthuses me about living. It gives me an emotional experience, and that`s what I take away.”

“Theaters are crucial in keeping the communal experience alive. But mostly, it`s a pain to park, the queue`s too long, the seats are uncomfortable, the concession person`s indifferent, then there are 20 minutes of commercials. There`s not much creative thinking about the whole theater experience. Instead of recognizing what they`re selling, some theaters are devaluing the proposition.

“Additionally, for around $2,000 you can buy a really first-class theater — plasma screen, surround-sound, HD delivery — and re-create the moviegoing experience at home. Theaters should be about providing an entertainment experience for the audience. They should deliver a compelling, holistic experience, so that the popcorn is good, the concessions are engaging, the seating is excellent, and the experience is not to be missed. In other words, you`re not just getting a movie — because you can get that at home — but you`re getting a communal experience, you`re having fun with other people, all while being entertained.

“I went to a Korean theater complex and there were kids playing on videogame machines and sports scores were posted in the lobby while they were waiting. The experience made them want to come early. The film, of course, is crucial, but it`s only part of the overall experience.”

“Big pictures are like thrill rides, promising to give you an emotional rush. But all storytelling is emotional. When you go to smaller art films designed to probe your inner emotions in a thoughtful, more engaging way, the question then becomes whether I should get some filter on that — critics, discussions — because the value proposition is different from the Hollywood blockbuster.”

“Before you head out to see a film, regardless of what you saw in an ad or a trailer, know if it`s targeted to your age group and taste. There are films made for audiences that are a little older and have more discriminating taste. Their success is often dependent on the opinion of critics — so from a producer and director`s point of view, they`re risky.

“Movies targeted to young audiences are not subjected to the same treatment. Those are fed directly to the gut and the heart of their audience. One of the reasons that movies for kids and teens proliferate — aside from the fact the critics don`t cast such an analytical eye on them — is found in viewership statistics.

“The frequency of theater attendance by an older, more discriminating audience is a mere three times a year (although we are seeing that number increasing), while movie attendance for a young audience comes in at 16 visits per year. So, when a producer or director is looking at making a film, which target are they going to aim for?”

“You know who the critic is today? It`s the kids and the people coming out of the theater, text messaging and phoning with early word of mouth. That and social expression groups like MySpace, those are key. If you`re a young girl and you want to know today about a movie, you check out the Internet, you listen to your peer group.

“I`ve liked critics like Roger Ebert, but is a young customer really going to listen to him and value his opinion? He`s a guy in his 60s, and you`re going to listen to what he thinks about a flick for 16-year-olds? Not a chance.

“Now there are millions of kids that find all the information out there — the stolen clips and trailers — and they give the thumbs up or down. It`s a whole different world and kids are driving it.”

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