Filmmakers and Their Global Lens: Dan Halstead

a headshot of Dan Halsted

Staff Writer Dana Knight speaks with Dan Halstead at the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema.

Dana Knight and Dan Halstead “talk-shop” about the state of the film market, making it as a writer and what the world has to offer the filmmaker of today. This interview took place in Havana, Cuba at the end of 2014.

Dana Knight: What can you tell us about the state of the film market right now?

Dan Halstead: I have a lot of experience in independent film, studio film, network and cable television. My general rule of thumb, or my philosophy in the last 30 years can be boiled down to one idea: quality is everything. If you’re known for quality, you’ll have a long career. If it’s hard to get your material read by an agent or a producer, it’s probably not good enough yet. But what I see in my experience every day is that the best writers get the best jobs. So my advice is: surround yourself with people that will tell you the truth and keep on working on your material until it’s too good to give to somebody, until it’s the best. And if you think of it, that’s true in any business. So it’s not dissimilar in creative endeavours. The great thing about the market place right now is that it’s a global business and almost any decision made in Hollywood takes into consideration the global audience.

DK: Talking about the state of independent filmmaking from the writers standpoint, is there a genre or type of story that is more successful in finding finance? And how would you as a producer go about finding finance for that film?

Halstead: I’ll use some examples from recent movies we made. I always say to any client of ours “write what you know”. Whether it’s film or TV, if you can sit across the table from someone and say to them: “I’m going to make this movie about two brothers and I have a brother like this and I understand this world and I can bring something unique that no one else could”. I think Matt Weiner did that with Madmen, he wrote so much about his family. But specifically with the movies we got in Toronto, Sundance and Tribeca, they are all just a couple of million dollars. Most of the financing used to come from foreign sales and subsidies but at the lower levels it’s not really worth it to sell off your rights. Most of the movies that we do are financed by individuals who have a lot of money, either they inherited it or made it on the stock market, and instead of collecting art or cars, they want to finance movies. It’s usually one individual and they have either a social agenda, wanting to make movies about a certain subject, or they are attracted to Hollywood, or they want to date an actress. The guy who financed Garden State had a crush on Natalie Portman. Most of the time they are putting 1 or 2 million dollars in equity with that hope that, if the film is good, it goes to a festival where there are buyers like Miramax or Sony, these will buy their rights and they will recoup their investment. It’s pretty risky and they know that they stand a good chance to lose a large portion of their money. But there’s still some tax incentives in the US for their investment to help offset their losses.

In one case, we had this filmmaker who made a film called Baraca/Samsara and he takes five years to make these movies in 70mm and they are very high res, 4k. He shoots all over the world and it takes a very long time to do the music, and they tell a story without words. And those movies cost several million dollars. This is his passion and the movies are very successful and profitable.

So to answer your question, if there is something that is more attractive to an investor, I think not really. These films are usually dramas that can be made in a few locations for limited resources. You don’t see a lot of action films or horror films at Sundance. They are usually personal, character studies about the human condition or the triumph of the human spirit. They are usually extremely well-written. It is easier to get a writer who has never directed to direct their own script than to hire an outside director. Because the cost of bringing an outside director who maybe can’t explain the film in the same way isn’t worth getting rid of the writer. So at Sundance you’ll see a lot of writers/directors and a lot of first-time ones. Sofia Coppola never directed a movie but she created this beautiful visual look-book for Virgin Suicides and her visual style was so compelling, the music she played was so beautiful and her script was so good that we couldn’t imagine anyone else directing it.

But I’m a bit skeptical right now about independent film production. I had dinner with the president of the Warner Brothers recently and I was asking him: “What are you looking for?”And he said: “2-20-200.” I said: “What is that, a Gladiator movie?” He said, “No, we only want films like Paranormal that can be made for 2 million dollars. Only horror movies at 2 million. Or we want 20 million dollar movies like the first movie Taken, because Liam Neeson was the actor and he was very affordable then. Or like the first Hangover movie where you put a bunch of actors and you make it for 20 million. Or 200 million films like Batman or Harry Potter. 2-20-200, that’s all they want to buy. It’s just depressing, really. At least for me, as someone who made so many movies in Hollywood.  But having said that, every year there are some great films from all over the world because the democratization of production, the availability of cameras is amazing so I’m putting my hope is these independent filmmakers.

DK: I wanted to follow up on something interesting you said during the talk, you said the film industry is not growing right now, its the television sector that is the focus at the moment.

Halstead: Yes that’s right. Over the last 10 years, the film business stayed about the same, the same number of movies, even with the addition of indigenous films. On the other hand, hour-long dramas are expanding throughout the world.

DK: Why do you think that is?

Halstead: I think it’s about the amount of the movie theatres and the fact that the market place for one-off films is not as desirable as TV shows that you can run over and over and over again. So if you make one film for a few million dollars, you can play it a few times, but unless it’s a classic, it doesn’t have value on channels running it over and over. Film libraries are not hugely growing in their value. But if you make a show like Law and Order or The Sopranos – you can play those for years on multiple formats. You can remake Breaking Bad in Mexico or other countries like Russia. It’s a business and these products have more value.

DK: This means there is a huge opportunity for TV writers right now

Halstead: That’s correct. On cable television in the US there are 120 dramas, not including comedies, not including network shows –  ABC, Fox, NBC etc. So if you’re only taking the cable shows, that’s 120 dramas each year, expanding each year. And each writers room has 10 writers. So that’s 1,200 writers. And when you do the math, there just aren’t enough writers in LA who are talented enough who can do the job. Because the years that it takes to become like the Madmen writers […], you can’t go to school for, you can’t become that overnight, you work your way up over the years. So there is a tremendous amount of opportunity in television and I don’t mean only in the US, all over the world, in Brazil, Morocco, India. Countries trade shows and formats: Homeland is an Israeli show that we adapted for the US. Breaking Bad is being done in Mexico, uniquely for that market.

Having said that, we also represent the writer who wrote the Oscar-nominated movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. She was a playwright out of New York and she adapted the movie for 1 million dollars. And she only wants to write movies so she’s writing a film right now for Guillermo del Toro for Universal Pictures. And she’s not interested in television. And she’s doing very very well. So there is still room in film for people who can do the job really well but if I were totally honest it’s television right now and it’s going to be for a long time.

DK: How about web series and YouTube shows?

Halstead: I personally don’t see, and maybe this is my age, Youtube and internet shows making a lot of money in the near future. It’s a great place to get noticed, it’s a great way to experiment, but no one has found a way to monetize it in a meaningful way yet. And probably there are people who would disagree but that is my experience.

DK: Is TV an art form in the way that film is?

Halstead: I think that TV is right now very much an art, yes. If you look at Sopranos and Madmen and Breaking Bad, they are almost like the 1970s was in Hollywood where you had Chinatown and Easy Rider, we have auteur TV show runners in the way that we used to have auteur directors back in the day. So if you were a gifted writer/director in the 70s, you would make independent films like Mean Streets, but if you’re here today you’re probably making a TV show.

DK: So are you saying that the rebellious content that we usually associate with independent cinema is now moving into mainstream TV?

Halstead: Yes. And there are so many TV channels and platforms on which to make risky TV shows that are provocative.

DK: What are buyers looking for in terms of content?

Halstead: Something that isn’t on anywhere else, everyone wants something that’s doesn’t exist anywhere else, something original. It could be about the Civil War, it could be about Vikings, it could be anything. What drives the audience to a channel is that only on this channel can they find Game of Thrones, only on this channel can they find Homeland.

DK: In the movie business, we know that the repetition of a formula is considered safe and this attracts financial investment more easily. Are you saying that in TV, investors are more willing to take risks.  

Halstead: Yes, that’s true.

DK: Do you still produce?And what kind of material are you looking for?

Halstead: I’m also looking for original content, something that when you hear it, you go “wow”, something that surprises me.  And yes I still produce because my clients want me to, but it’s a different kind of producing than when I was with Oliver Stone. When I was with Oliver, I would go on location for several months and live, breathe and work 24 hours on that one movie.

The kind of producing I do now is more executive-producing. I’m bringing the package together, the money, and at my age I feel that I like this better. I don’t want to worry about all the details. And there are so many people who want to worry about the details, there is no shortage of producers. But I wouldn’t trade the experience of solving problems day to day. I did a film with Reese Witherspoon when I was first starting and the writer/director never directed before. So on the first day, on the first shot, he said “Ready, dolly!” But we didn’t have a dolly! I said it’s “Action” and “Cut.” And you can say “check the gate later.” On day three, he didn’t come out of his trailer after lunch. So we opened the trailer knocking on his door and he had a needle in his arm, he had OD-ed. So we rushed him to the hospital and myself, the AD, DP and the script supervisor, we finished the week of shooting by ourselves while he was recovering. And I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. And having actors going through rehab, I’ve seen everything, nothing surprises me.

About :

Dana Knight is a former writer for The Independent.