The (Other) Producer: An Interview With Temple Fennell Of ATO Pictures
By Heidi Haaland It takes courage to christen your production company Art Takes Over, because when it comes Art, we Americans can be an ambivalent bunch, and when Art comes to us as a film, we're less likely to regard the encounter with joy than dread. The fusty theater. The funereal crowd. The two hours of one's life, sucked into the wake of some self indulgent Bergman pastiche through which only the director's family, friends and various patsies will willingly sit. Happily, Temple Fennell and his partners at ATO Pictures (and yes, this includes Dave Matthews, so let's move on) have steered well clear of this particular cow pie, as their filmography (Choke, Joshua, Terri) illustrates. This Art has staked out its place at the table, confident it won't merely entertain, but also offer something to ponder on the ride home, and not one bit interested in the crumbs or left overs of fringe success, as Mr Fennell explains.
HH: Do you recall the first screenplay you ever read?
TF: I don't remember the first one I read, but I do remember the first one that made an impression: Sex, Lies & Videotape. I just sat there reading and thinking, "This is an amazing piece of writing."
HH: 'Art Takes Over.' How did you arrive at that?
TF: We're part of a larger organization and borrowed that acronym from ATO Records, which stands for According To Our Records, so we took that and started playing with it. We aim for films with commercial or crossover potential and believe there's an audience looking for heart in writing and execution.
HH: When you finished school, you went off to work at KPMG and Clinton Capital, and then one day you decided "film." This is not the phone call most parents dream of.
TF: No, but I'd saved up enough money, so that I could live very frugally for 24 months, which was my deadline for becoming a writer. Two years. During that time I directed a short film that I adapted from my own short story. I took it to various festivals and at one of them I met a woman from AFI who encouraged me to apply to the Conservatory. I was enrolled there before my deadline was up.
HH: You were a Directing Fellow there. What put you on the road toward producing?
TF: I didn't really start producing until 2002.
HH: In a do-over, would you opt for the Producers Conservatory instead? Or would directing be something you'd still have pursued?
TF: That is a tough question to answer, because it comes down to life choices. But I do think everyone who aspires to be in this business should spend some time writing. If you want to direct you have to be able to write and should probably write your first film. Even if you don't ultimately make your living as a screenwriter, you have to be intimately involved in the writing.
HH: It seems directing experience could be both a blessing and a curse for a producer.
TF: It makes it harder for me. It is hard for me to be on the set, particularly if I see something being done that doesn't make sense to me. I tend to get involved first with the script and then again at editing stage.
HH: ATO both produces and distributes. How do you balance that? Are some years producing years vs. distribution years? Or are you more fluid, depending on what turns up?
TF: Our ideal mix is half acquisition and half production. We've been acquiring completed films of late, but have begun moving toward developing projects again.
HH: When evaluating a potential screenplay, what clicks for you? Do you see a movie in your mind or is your reaction visceral?
TF: There are a few things, and this is advice that I try to give writers working in the independent realm. We believe that the specialty film - as distinct from an art house film - can cross over and that the ideal audience is women, 30+. To create films that don't appeal to that audience is a problem. Three guys out on a Friday night probably aren't going to a movie - unless their significant others are there. But three women? They'll go. Women determine movie going patterns. So when you're writing films, be sensitive. Don't just write to a male demographic.
HH: Can you talk about the development process of Choke, which was an adaptation, and Terri?
TF: Both came as completed scripts from first time directors. At that point we were working very, very closely with the directors and making sure that we had a common vision.
HH: These days, domestic box office is slowing down, in contrast to the overseas markets which seem to prefer big, splashy pictures. Has this made life more difficult for a company like ATO that specializes in subtler storytelling for the 30+ moviegoer you described?
TF: Actually, that audience share has held steady. Moreover, the 50+ audience is both growing and grossly under served, so that's one of the reasons we will continue focusing there. That audience requires interesting story and interesting storytelling, and we look for a really strong voice, where the dialogue and characters are surprising and interesting. Part of that is very intuitive, but this audience is also very attune to films that are not just carbon copies of what they've seen before. If all you're doing is covering the same themes and characters, you won't get the word of mouth that this group generates. The Judy Dench film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a good example.
HH: You've commented elsewhere that ATO got into distribution in 2008 because of a sense that relying on a festival sale wasn't a viable model for independent film makers. Is that still the case?
TF: At that point, there had been a significant attrition amongst distributors. Many had just shut down. Yes, I'd say that was still true. Nowadays there are not a lot of those big sales people remember.
HH: In the past five years, crowd-sourcing has combined with digital camera and social media advances to put DIY filmmaking within anyone's reach. Even with less money involved, is it enough for these filmmakers to stake everything on their WithoutaBox accounts, or do they, too, need to be concerned about distribution?
TF: Absolutely. If you look at this year's Sundance, there were about 111 films, with about twelve out of two dozen or so purchased for under a million. For many films, a festival screening, even there, might be the only screening. And then they're done.
HH: And what advice do you have for screenwriters who might ponder taking that plunge?
TF: Anyone who spends their time writing needs to ask themselves what, ultimately, is their goal. Spend time looking at films that have been released in past years. Not just ones that have been distributed, but ones which have done well. It's really critical to study what market is looking for. Who is the target audience of your story? To write without that target in mind, makes what is already a tough climb even harder. Try to get a sense of the current.
HH: Microbudget films often feature unknown casts.
TF: That's tough. That's tough for everybody. Independent films are highly dependent on publicity. There are exceptions, like Precious, where an unknown can do incredibly well. But even the big distributors like Fox Searchlight struggle and work very hard to get the word out for films with known actors.
HH: What do you wish writers would do, in general?
TJ: That voice, that uniqueness, is pretty much everything. You're working in a constrained format, but people like to see characters arc. They like a thematic core. They like story arc. You don't want to completely ignore those rules. I remember a screenwriting book from years ago that said, in essence, that being a successful writer means that you know the rules and can break them. But I often see writers breaking rules that they don't seem to know. Find a really great way to hide the rule, or break it.
HH: Are there any common problems do you see in screenplays?
TF: One question that writers don't seem to ask at all is "does this story travel?" There are a number of films that are too U.S.-centric, they involve some aspect of Americana , baseball or football, that won't resonate internationally, because they're not relevant to overseas audiences. Writers should understand foreign values.
HH: In what way? Are you speaking of conservative mores?
TF: Yes. What I really try to push writers to do is to understand the industry as best you can. There aren't many distributors these days in a position to give a film a proper launch, a million dollars in P&A, and so on. As a writer, you really need to think about that. Festival success doesn't build a career. Look carefully at what is being realized in the marketplace, both domestic and foreign. A portion of financing is derived from overseas and they need to see their return, too. But it all starts with the material. Then the actors, the director, the distributor will follow.
HH: Do you see yourself returning to directing and writing at some point?
TF: I don't have plans to do that. I don't have the time.
Heidi Haaland is at HeidiEliseHaaland at gmail.com.