by Jim Cirile
Adam Leipzig is one of a kind. He's a golden-touch film exec who helped transform Disney from a film company who had never had a big hit to the behemoth it is today. For six years, he helmed National Geographic Films, whose successes include "March of the Penguins". He's also the same guy with a love of theater and artistic expression, who puts his heart and soul into his terrific Cultural Weekly blog (must not miss: his three-part series Indie Films: State of the Union, which you can find right here.) We chatted with Adam about his career, Hollywood, and what we can do to make indies a viable investment again.
Jim Cirile (JC): Thanks for taking the time, Adam. Tell us a little about who you are.
Adam Leipzig (AL): Sure. I'm a native of Los Angeles. I studied literature at Yale, audited a bunch of classes in the school of drama, graduate school. Had my first career in theater, came back to L.A. and was part of the Los Angeles Actors Theater, which then grew into the Los Angeles Theater Center, which is that four-theater performing arts center downtown at 5th and Spring Street. I was part of the team that built and opened that company. After its initial seasons, I wanted to work on a larger canvas and decided that I wanted to work in the movie business. This was just at the time that Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had come over from Paramount to run Disney. Hard to remember that Disney was once a small company that had never had a movie that grossed more than $100 million dollars. So, I went over there, I was part of the creative team, and had a terrific run there.
JC: You make it sound so simple. How did you get in?
AL: At that point I really knew nothing at all about the movie business, so I put myself on a series of information interviews, and started with the few people who I knew. I knew two agents, and they referred me to a few more people, and those people referred me to a few more people. I was really trying to educate myself about what the business was and where I could make a contribution to it. In three months, I sent myself on 87 of those information interviews. Number 88 was Disney. By that point I was prepared for the interview and there was actually a job on the table, and then they hired me.
JC: Wow. Nicely done. So then you worked your way up?
AL: I did. When I went to Disney it was a small team. There were eight people in the group, including me at the bottom and Michael Eisner at the top, and over the course of time, the group expanded, it divided into several different divisions. I and other members of my Disney class were promoted up into higher executive positions, and I was supervising movies with a very good team of people.
JC: Where does one go from there?
AL: At a certain point you have to make a decision in your life about where will you best serve, and I decided that I would best serve as a producer as opposed to a studio executive. There are many upsides to being the studio executive, but one of the downsides is that you get removed from the actual process of making the movie. So I left the Disney executive role and went to one of the Polygram companies. Polygram at that time was investing in the movie business and financing several companies. One of them was a company called Interscope, and I became a producer there. Kind of a great object lesson because I had been producing movies as an executive at the studio before I became a producer, and when I became a producer, the first day I walked onto the set I realized all the things that I didn’t know about movies when I had been supervising them as an executive. So I started learning again and re-trained myself as a producer. It was a necessary crash course.
JC: Did you enjoy the hands-on aspect?
AL I love being a producer. (It's) the most fun a kid could have. After I left Polygram, I set up my own company and I was a producer on my own. I produced some movies and a little bit of television, and then I was meeting with the people at National Geographic, who had a nascent film division and asked me to come in and help them develop a more comprehensive strategy for how to really be in the movie business, which I did, and then they asked me to run the company, which was very flattering, and of course I said yes.
JC: And you had a very nice six-year run there.
AL: Yes. I left in March (2010). There are still some movies that are coming out which I was involved in and there are a couple of projects which I may well continue to produce for them.
JC: What were some highlights of your run at National Geographic?
AL: It seemed as though the best and quickest way for the National Geographic label to make its mark on the movie business was through acquisitions and acquisitions partnership, because the amount of time it takes to acquire a script, develop it, cast it, finance it, produce it and get it out is a two to three year window. So we started, initially, in purely acquisitions mode, and we partnered with distribution companies. The first picture that we picked up was THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL (94% on rottentomatoes.com), which was a wonderful film that ended up being nominated for Best Documentary and won the DGA Award for Best Doc. We partnered on that with Think Film, which is sadly no longer with us, because they released some terrific movies and took some real risks and had some good management. It demonstrated that we could do it and that our brand meant something to audiences. Our next big acquisition was MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. We were emboldened by the recent success of WEEPING CAMEL, and we partnered on that with Warner Independent, which again, sadly, is no longer with us, and they were terrific partners. It was a perfect partnership.They did a brilliant job in platform releasing it.
JC: That went huge. What did that do for Nat Geo?
AL: It was very good for the bottom line. It was very good for our profile, and on the strength of that success and the business planning we were able to do from that, we were then able to raise a production fund, which closed two Torontos ago, which was basically a $100 million production fund for the production and acquisition of films. There’s equity capital both from National Geographic and from Image Nation Abu Dhabi, which is part of Abu Dhabi Media Company, and then there’s a credit facility which is lead by JP Morgan.
JC: That’s amazing. Why would one then move along from there?
AL: After six years it’s just time. I really love building things and starting new things, and we had closed the fund and it was time to put our first projects into the fund and it was just time to move into other ventures. I’m trying not to call myself an independent producer because I’m not actively looking for new projects. People keep sending them to me, though. Being an independent producer is not really a business model that functions anymore in the world. While there may be a few projects that I produce, it’s not primarily how I define myself. I’m doing a lot of writing, and I am also doing some consulting and I am thinking very entrepreneurially about which entertainment venture I may either enter into or attempt to start up this year.
JC: Let's talk a little bit about your article on the fall of the Indie. Back in the day, we used to finance a lot of indie films through foreign pre-sales (wherein you pre-sell foreign distribution rights at American Film Market and Cannes in order to get the money to make the film.) I understand that paradigm no longer works.
AL: It has not completely gone away. In fact, at AFM, sales were higher than many people expected, and I think this Berlin will actually be better than people are predicting. But, it has certainly fallen down, and in Cannes last year and the year before, sales were much softer than anticipated. What is selling is more specific. It is much more overtly commercial. It is much more focused on a very specific audience, and it addresses the needs of the audiences in the territories where the sales are being made.
JC: Why did the international sales model go soft?
AL: The first reason is that television sales and home entertainment/DVD sales softened in international territories just as it did here in the United States. So, if you’re a French distributor, you are not going to sell as many DVDs or make as big a sale to your French TV company as you could have in the past. Therefore, every movie has less financial value to you. The other reason is that over the past decade, so-called local language production has reached critical mass. Local language productions are movies made in the country by people of that country in their language for that audience. Audiences in each country have shown a dramatic preference for their own movies versus smaller American movies. Hollywood tentpole movies still seem to have a global audience.
JC: Really? The rise of the local filmmaker is partly to blame?
AL: On an international, global creativity basis, it's kind of good news. It means that more filmmakers in more countries are making movies that their audiences are seeing. On a holistic basis, that’s kind of cool, right?
JC: One would think. So it's about the renaissance in filmmaking because of cheap filmmaking equipment? Doesn't feel like that could be a negative.
AL: You've really come to the heart of the problem, because now the technical ability to make a movie is practically universal. You can shoot and edit a movie on your iPhone and upload it to YouTube. Of course, what’s not universal is talent. Are you making anything that anyone really should see? But the big thing is, of course, there’s the massive distribution problem -- just because it's relatively easy now to make a movie, that doesn't mean (it's easy to get people to notice) that it’s there, that they will see it or buy it.
JC: So hopefully everyone reading this will read your article, but can you give us a quick recap?
AL: Sure. Even though there was a surprising flurry of high-priced dealmaking at Sundance this year, the reality is that most of the movies shown at Sundance, and far and away most of the movies that were submitted to Sundance, are not going to be distributed (or) seen by audiences, and even if you heard about it, you will not even be able to buy it on Netflix. The crisis of independent filmmaking is not that movies are not being made. They’re being made in the most inventive and sometimes the most desperate ways, from angel investors to credit cards. But they’re not being distributed because we don’t have enough distributors or distribution mechanisms to get those movies in front of audiences, and solving that problem is going to be fundamental to how our business transforms itself in the next ten years.
JC: The studios' indie arms have almost all gone away.
AL: Some of those were cut because they were not profitable and because they overspent. Others were really profitable or consistently profitable, but the problem was that their numbers were just not that big on the balance sheet of a billion dollar company anymore, and it was too labor intensive to make a few million dollars a year. From an accounting perspective, the people in the head office just didn’t feel that it made sense. I, of course, feel otherwise. I think if you can make an extra two million dollars, what do you care? The reason the independent distributors with specialty divisions closed were either because they were making money but it wasn’t enough for their corporate parent -- look at Paramount Classics. They were profitable every single year. On the other hand there were examples of independent companies which overreached and overspent, and therefore could never be profitable.
JC: Any light at the end of this tunnel? Glimmer of hope for indies? What can revitalize the genre?
AL: We have to focus on distribution. Distribution has three parts. One is access, the second is awareness, the third is want to see. Access means you have to be able to get the movie – DVD, iPad, iPhone, Netflix On Demand. That is pretty much close to being solved. We have the technology, that’s there. Awareness. Much better use of social networking in smart ways, not just e-mail blasts, not just Facebook postings, not just endless Twitter feeds, but actual awareness that really connects with audiences that care about the work. And the third thing is want to see. Everybody was aware of THE TOURIST, but there was very little want to see. You have to have enough investment in your audience to create movies that your audience wants to see and then connect with them strongly enough that they buy the ticket.
JC: Thanks so much, Adam!
Read Adam Leipzig's Cultural Weekly blog right here.
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