Oscar-Winning Producer Ed Saxon’s Seminar – Part 2
On December 3, 2011 the Nevada Film Alliance hosted Oscar-winning producer Edward Saxon’s (Silence of the Lambs) first ever all day seminar here in Las Vegas. A few weeks ago I shared some of what was discussed and now here is Part 2. One topic that Ed spent a great deal of time talking about was the circle of people often found surrounding talent. For example, an actor could easily have an agent, manager, lawyer and publicist handling a variety of the duties and Ed spoke about some of the responsibilities each one has and how much they are usually paid. An agent normally makes 10% of the actor’s take and Saxon explained that the bigger the agency the more clients they are going to have. The largest ones right now are CAA, William Morris Endeavor or WME, ICM and United Talent Agency. Agencies like these have departments for film, TV, music and corporate sports and as a rule agents field offers and package deals while serving as a great resource for obtaining information and achieving access to other talent. Next, Ed spoke about the managers noting that one major difference between the two is that a manager can’t negotiate a deal. Also, under California law, agents can’t be producers, however, managers can. They also give more attention to the client and are more apt to find and develop new materials and be more concerned with helping the people they represent realize their dreams. Managers receive 10% or more for their services. Then there is the publicist who handles the public persona of the clients and escorts them to press conferences, red carpets and other events. The publicist is often the person seen traveling with talent and acting as a go between with the media. Publicists earn an average of 3-4k a month. Finally, there are the attorneys who negotiate the deals, make introductions and handle all contracts. Lawyers should have entertainment industry experience so that they know what is considered boiler plate in a contract and what items need to be negotiated or argued about. It is best to have someone representing you who is both a litigation specialist and a troubleshooter. They earn about 5% of the talent’s income for these skills. As a result approximately 30-35% of the actor’s pay goes to the team.
After covering this area we moved on to discussing different types of script deals. Ed talked about 1st look development spec scripts where nothing is paid in advance yet the story can be locked up for six months with sweat equity, then there are various other types of option deals. A screenplay can be optioned many ways including using an agreement where very little money is paid now against money in the future. You need to think about what you want to get out of the deal before making it. For example, author Steven King has sold options for as little as a $1.00, providing he keeps control of his work. You should also consider the reputation and track record of the producers involved and whether or not you feel they will do justice to the story and actually be able to produce it. Also, if you don’t have enough time during the period originally allotted, a second option can be negotiated extending the rights for up to another 18 months. Saxon explained that there are many ways to set up these agreements and anybody who is interesting in producing can contact a writer and negotiate terms for their work.
There were a few other details he suggested we make note of. First of all, be aware of revision clauses whereby the story is purchased for a number of years, then the rights return to the writer. Also, when a guild writer is hired there is a minimum scale set with a percentage of the payment owed being due on the 1st day of shooting principle photography. He also mentioned some of the different areas scripts come from such as newspaper or magazine articles, video games, non-fiction novels, news items, original screenplays, fictional novels and graphic novels. Pay attention to the types of stories that are being bought and produced. For instance across all studios the ratio of comedy to dramas is around 1/3.
Unions and guilds were created by the studios and they set the terms. Signatory companies employ members under rules of the guild which provides a certain amount of protection. For example, two guild writers can’t be hired to do the same script without waivers being signed. If there’s a dispute over credit, there’s an arbitration procedure, then there are also healthcare benefits and residuals that the guild offers. Productions are budgeted for a 12 hour a day turnaround time for talent and 10 hours for crew, which is necessary to note with regards to budgeting.
Saxon also spoke about different job functions on the set and how assistant directors make up schedules and handle extras. He said that one of the rules for having continuous employment is establishing continuity and being able to balance artistic and economical needs of the shoot. He added that casting directors are crucial as sounding boards in the early stages of putting a film together because they recognize who is good, while during production the script supervisor is key because of the notes taken on the set. Another hint is to be aware of your transportation needs since the trucks have to reach your locations first. He suggested casting locals and getting to know who is in the community where you are and that if you are a producer stay out of things. Know what you’re supposed to do and don’t mess with anything else.
Perhaps the most fun part of the day was hearing some of Saxon’s stories about the films he’s made. For example, he referred to “Silence of the Lambs” as a version of Little Red Riding Hood. Ed claims that they had no idea the film would be so successful adding that when you are making a movie you don’t know how it will work out. Originally Gene Hackman and Michelle Pfeiffer were considered for the leads, but both thought the script was too grisly so the studio began looking at Sean Connery and Jack Nicholson, who also turned it down. At the time Anthony Hopkins was doing stage work in London and wasn’t originally a strong contender since the studio preferred having a movie star in the lead.
Calling “Philadelphia” as a political piece Saxon said it was not made for people who had gay friends with aids, but rather for people who weren’t there yet. The film made twice the amount of money overseas as it did in the states. The Denzel Washington character wasn’t in the 1st draft of the script and originally the lawyer was written as an Italian, yet Ed believes that Denzel’s part was crucial for Tom Hank’s Oscar win. Saxon also admitted that he almost cut the Opera scene because he thought it was stereographical, but was glad he didn’t because Hanks turned out so great in it. He recommended that when in doubt you go for it after admitting that producers tend to play it safer while directors are the ones who like to push. “Trust yourself,” he advised. Currently, Ed is enjoying television success as Executive Producer of the new HBO series “Enlightened” starring Laura Dern, which has presented him with different types of challenges since with television everything is constantly in pre-production, production and post-production. Perhaps the truest words of wisdom he shared during the seminar were actually first spoken by Harry Belafonte who said, “Be careful how you treat people when you’re on the way up cause you’ll meet them when you’re on the way up again.”