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James Toback
and Alec Baldwin

Co.Create

What's Wrong With Hollywood, According To James Toback

In his new feature with Alec Baldwin, and here, James Toback exposes the broken system behind studio filmmaking.

Alec Baldwin and James Toback set out at last year’s Cannes Film Festival with a seemingly simple mission: to try to get a film funded. The film would be a psychosexual political thriller called Last Tango in Tikrit set against the backdrop of the post-war Iraq. It would star Alec Baldwin as a defense contractor and Neve Campbell as his love interest. It would be a kind of 21st-century homage to Bernardo Bertolucci's 1972 film, the infamous Last Tango in Paris, with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. Toback would write and direct. Throughout the 2012 Cannes festival, screenwriter and director Toback and Baldwin traipsed around the French Rivera meeting with many of the international film scene’s brightest lights (and quite an assortment of other characters) trying to convince billionaires and international sales agents to finance their project. They had little luck getting interest in the film from potential funders. In the scenes where they came closest to getting offers, the financiers they met with were only prepared to put up 10 to 20% of the $25 million budget they were looking for.

As a result, the project quickly evolved into a film about the process of trying to get Last Tango in Tikrit—or a film like it—made. The pair turned their experience into a documentary, Seduced and Abandoned, now playing on HBO, which explores the challenges for thoughtful directors and films without big stars to get made in the Hollywood system and, more specifically, the influence of international film financiers and sales agents and their ability to make or break a possible film.

For Seduced and Abandoned, Baldwin and Toback interviewed legendary directors and producers, including Bertolucci, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and many others. As a Hollywood player, Toback wasn’t shocked by anything he learned in the process of making the film. He says he had a good idea of many of the factors at play and how challenged the system was, but one thing really stood out: “I was surprised to see how illegitimate and unscientific this international financing game is. They are essentially saying, ‘My guess is that this person will add X amount to the value of your movie,’ but in reality there’s no proof of that. It may be in general that you know enough to know that one star will sell more than another, but the financiers act as if an actor is a stock selling at a certain price. It’s really a guessing game and it’s an argument game.”

At one point in Seduced and Abandoned, Avi Lerner, the legendary international sales agent, who claims to have made a profit on every one of his films says, “Get me whatshername Natalie Portman.” The line is Toback’s favorite in the film, serving as a perfect illustration of how little the game is oriented around quality and content and how much it is oriented around profit and what’s valuable at the moment. Says Toback: “She’s not really quite worth learning her name because two years from now she’s going to be nothing, so why bother to get her name straight?”

Toback began his film career in 1974 when he wrote the breakout screenplay for The Gambler, which he followed with his directorial debut, Fingers, in 1978. He was able to make Fingers because of a financier who had initially promised to work with Toback and legendary director George Cukor on a film about Victoria Woodhull (the 19th-century suffragette who was the first woman to run for president). Toback had written the script, Cukor was to direct. But Cukor, then 78, had a bomb with a film called The Blue Bird, and as a result, the financier cancelled the Woodhull film. (Incidentally, The Blue Bird was an example of a film that bombed despite having terrific stars in it, including Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Ava Gardner, and Cicely Tyson). To quell Toback’s ire, the financier asked Toback if he could make a film for $1 million, and thus Fingers was born.

Toback shares this story today as an illustration of both the impact one film’s performance on another totally unrelated film’s future prospects, and the person-to-person deals that once allowed great creative projects to happen. In Seduced and Abandoned, Ron Meyer, who until recently was the chairman of Universal Studios, says that even if he really loved a project, he did not have discretionary power to greenlight it. Nothing can go forward without being vetted by a bevy of players and competing interests at the studio. The power to personally greenlight a picture, once afforded to people like the legendary producer Robert Evans in the 1970s when he was at Paramount, was one of the main reasons films like The Godfather—which other Paramount executives objected to—came into being.

In the 35 years since Fingers, Toback has written or directed nearly a dozen films including his acclaimed 2008 film Tyson, a documentary about boxer Mike Tyson. He is gleefully proud of being the only filmmaker to have his first two films remade—Fingers was remade in 2005 and a new version of The Gambler is about to go into production starring Mark Wahlberg. Toback has spent much of his career breaking form—or as he puts it—“getting away” with operating both inside and outside of the Hollywood system. Yet, despite all that has changed in the years since, Toback feels that if he were starting out today he would still have success in large part because his style has always been to make films “on the run” as opposed to big budget studio dramas.

Bernardo Bertolucci and Toback

Toback contends that there are no deeply serious studio dramas being made any more. He adds, “The model for making films is totally broken,” Tobacks says, “The movie world is a reflection of what is going on elsewhere, the 1% are getting richer and the 99% are going to see their numbers shrinking and shriveling. The people who are really passionate about making movies instead of making films for $5 to $10 million are going to go onto Kickstarter. Because the technology allows it now, passionate filmmakers can still get their films made, just as we were able to do when I was young." But they are not getting any help from the studio system.

Seduced and Abandoned is backed by HBO's well-respected documentary department and it is certainly well within the documentary genre in that it features interviews with famous filmmakers and discusses various issues concerning the state of filmmaking today. But throughout the film, the idea of Last Tango in Tikrit seems like a put-on that Toback and Baldwin used as a ruse to tell their story, reminiscent of the lead characters in The Producers deliberately trying to finance a terrible idea for a show. But as Toback and Baldwin offer despair at the state of Hollywood, throughout the film, set in Cannes, one of the few places associated with Hollywood that can at times still feel like it did in cinema’s golden age, the pair aren't afraid to revel in it, as active participants. As Baldwin says to one of the journalists in the film, “You are seduced and abandoned over and over again.”

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4 Comments

  • Matt

    Perhaps someone in Hollywood should make a crowd funding website where directors and actors can create campaigns and rally the people around their projects? If I contributed 20 dollars to a project, and got a movie ticket in return to see that project on the silver screen, then I think that would be pretty cool. I would basically be investing in a movie that I would like to see.
    With that kind of set up, the trick would be the crowd funding campaign. There would be investment in presenting the idea to include a dazzling concept trailer, advertisements, actor/director interviews about the project, etc. Instead of selling ideas to financiers who are biased, sell the idea to the viewing public and give them the opportunity to invest.

  • Mandi Lindner

    The trouble I see with crowdfunding films is that none of the small time backers knows what the profit margin will be. So $10 million is crowdsourced to make a movie and then maybe it does exceptionally well worldwide and makes $100 million, not to mention future merchandising and royalty rights. Who owns those rights? Each backer at the percentage he or she gave? The actors? The producers? Director? That's the part that seems shady to me (and it's true in many other industries in regards to crowdfunding) in regards to profit-based business models crowdsourcing startup funds. Yes, it's more difficult and sometimes impossible to get venture capital, but at least those venture capitalists have an investment at the end of the day.

  • Ann

    Thank you, this is a fascinating topic. I just watched Toback on Charlie Rose and didn't come away with an understanding of this film or Toback. I'm not sure if my lack of understanding is due to Charlie Rose interrupting Toback's answers (as Rose did with his previous guest, Nancy Pelosi) or because Toback speaks with a stream of consciousness that never ends. Thanks for filling in the blanks. Ann

  • Waingro

    It's because Charlie Rose is a horrendous interview who interrupts nearly every guest, usually as they begin to say something interesting.