Two first-time film producers get schooled by the reality of teaming up together. 2,909 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
In other parts of the country, networking is largely structured, taking place predominantly through civic organizations, professional groups, and charitable institutions. In Los Angeles, where showbiz is king, the phenomenon is far more random yet ubiquitous. Business ties are often formed at parties, screenings, and social gatherings. Others begin at gyms, yoga and Pilates classes. Even pre-schools and Little League games provide opportunities, as do weddings and funerals, plus Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Also never to be overlooked are meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
It was thanks to AA that Russo and Adler became acquainted. Initially, it was little more than the kind of brief acknowledgments exchanged by regulars. But one Monday evening, instead of heading directly home in the aftermath, Russo agreed to join a group headed for late night coffee. As six "Friends Of Bill W" grabbed a booth away from other denizens of the night at a 24-hour diner, Adler nodded at Russo. "Nick, right?"
Russo nodded. "And you’re Jerry?"
"Guilty as charged."
Once orders were taken, group talk superseded individual conversations; it was only when the two men were strolling toward their cars afterwards that Adler rekindled their brief chat. "So what do you do?" he asked Russo.
"I’m an accountant," Russo answered with a shrug.
"Sounds like somebody doesn’t love what he’s doing."
"To put it mildly. How about you?"
"There’s what I do, and what I’m hoping to do."
"Stop agenting and start producing."
"You and I should talk some time."
"Know anyone in Hollywood who wouldn’t rather be making movies?"
To his surprise, Russo woke at 4 a.m. that morning thinking about his brief exchange with Adler. When the conversation continued to haunt him throughout a busy work day, it was with surprising zeal that he looked forward to the AA meeting that evening.
To his chagrin, Adler was a no-show, as was the case the next night. Thursday turned out to be a no-go for Russo, who had to attend a business gathering. Then he missed Friday, thanks to a much appreciated date with an old girlfriend who was in from New York on a work-related matter.
By the time Russo was back at his desk Monday morning, thoughts of the movie business and his conversation with Adler, had faded.
Everything changed, however, when Russo heard his name called while approaching that evening’s meeting.
"We should talk sometime," Adler stated as he scurried to catch up near the entrance to the meeting hall. "How about lunch Wednesday or Thursday?"
Entering a storefront Ethiopian restaurant called Awash on Thursday at 1 p.m., Russo had no difficulty spotting Adler.
"What’s good here?" he asked as they shook hands.
"Not broiled or grilled?"
"Only on weekends." Adler laughed, then addressed the waitress as she approached. "Two Ethiopian teas, please. And we’ll split a combination platter." As the waitress departed, Adler gestured to her. "Pretty, huh?" he said to Russo.
"Some think Cleopatra may have been Ethiopian. So this interest in making movies – just a kind of a daydream, like playing in the NBA? Or something you’re actually hoping to make happen."
"I’m the least impulsive guy on earth. In fact, I’ve only done one impulsive thing in my life – two, if you include climbing into Marianne Conforti’s sleeping bag on a camping trip during high school – and that was junking a cushy job in Manhattan to come out here. My goal, which probably seems completely cuckoo, was to somehow make movies."
"And when it wasn’t happening, you started drinking."
Russo sighed. "Not having a whole lot of friends here didn’t help.”
Adler mused. “Unless you’re Spielberg’s nephew, or maybe Tobey Maguire’s poker buddy, there are really only two ways to break into producing."
"Find a property – a script, book, play – that’s irresistible. But even with that, there’s a problem."
"A studio will attach a big name producer – or somebody who directs and produces – which means guys like us wind up with little or no say."
The waitress interrupted with two cups of tea and a smile. "The food will be coming soon."
After watching her depart, Russo again faced Adler. "So what’s the other way?"
"Going out and making a goddamn a movie."
"First and foremost, bucks."
Before the conversation could go further, the waitress came with a huge platter of chicken, beef, lentils, vegetables, and salad, plus a plate holding crepe-like breads called injera.
"Looks good, huh?" asked Adler. "Hope you don’t mind eating with your fingers."
Forty-five minutes later, as the two of them left the restaurant totally sated, Russo broke the silence. "So how much money you talking?"
"Depends on the project."
"And do you have a project?"
"Is this hypothetical? Wishful thinking?"
"What if I say I’m serious?"
"Mind if I ask where the money would come from?"
"I sold my apartment when I moved out of Brooklyn."
Adler stole a glance at his watch, then winced. "I’ve got to run, but when can we meet again?"
Several nights later, following an AA meeting, the two men hit a late night Thai joint. Adler ordered coconut milk-based soup, duck, and a veggie dish for them to share, then faced Russo. "Should I roll up my sleeve and start showing the watches I’m peddling?"
"Be my guest."
"There are three indie projects. One’s an actioner about a gal avenging her brother’s death in a drug deal that went awry."
"Somewhere around $1.5M."
"A comedy set in an old age home."
"Seven, maybe eight hundred thou."
"And behind Door #3?"
"A script about a kid whose dad gets busted by the IRS."
"Bye-bye private school, hello tough inner-city high school."
"Got funny in it as well as tough?"
"Ideally, maybe half a mill."
"And not so ideally?"
Adler shrugged. "With a non-union crew, plus waivers from the Screen Actors Guild? Less."
"How much less?"
Adler gazed momentarily around the restaurant before again facing Russo. "With favors galore, plus you and me taking no upfront fees –"
"$150 grand if we’re lucky."
"Send me the script."
"How old are the kids you’re thinking of casting?" Russo asked on Saturday when he and Adler hooked up for lunch at a Persian place.
"Seems to me if they’re eighteen but look younger, they can work longer hours. Plus, no need for a teacher on-set."
"Somebody’s been doing his homework."
"Would you want a partner who doesn’t? Who do you see directing?"
"I know several guys in that price range."
"What’s that mean?"
"Somebody who does films on that scale for a living will be thinking about his next gig instead of focusing 100% on this one."
"So what do you propose?"
"Someone who’ll kill to make it special."
"The writer maybe? Or a cameraman dying to direct? Or an actor who can call in favors?"
"Here I thought you were supposed to be an accountant."
"Hopefully soon a recovering accountant."
"So you like the script?"
"If I didn’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation."
When they met next at a Santa Monica coffee house rumored to be owned by Bob Dylan, Adler in mid-conversation bit his lip. "Can I ask you something point blank?"
"You’re really serious?"
"As soon as decisions are made about director and cast, we can sign contracts. That proof enough?"
"A dream come truly. Only –"
"Who makes the ultimate decisions?"
Russo smiled. "There are two possibilities."
"Either it’s the two of us jointly –"
Adler winced. "Here I thought I’d be handling the creative side, and you business."
"For that I could remain an accountant. What about distribution?"
"Once the film’s done, we’ll send out links."
"I’d rather it be DVD’s," countered Russo.
"And less likely to wind up on Youtube. But before we send out anything, I’d like to try to get potential distributors to watch it with an audience. First, by inviting ’em to a cast and crew screening. Then getting it into festivals."
After speaking with potential director candidates – including the screenwriter, three different cinematographers, a couple of actors, plus a film editor – it was the writer who was given the go-ahead.
Whereas Adler proceeded to become visibly distracted during the script conferences that ensued, checking messages and often texting on his two iPhones, Russo’s own attention never faltered or waned.
The same was also true during casting sessions, where Adler’s inclination was to settle for actors who seemed fine, while Russo asserted that fine wasn’t good enough.
Throughout pre-production, Russo continued to push and probe. Budget and locations were subjected to his scrutiny, as was scheduling, catering, wardrobe, hair, and makeup, causing Adler to pull him aside one evening. "Relax," he said, "it’s only a movie."
"Nope," said Russo. "It’s our movie."
Yet Russo was aware that Adler’s diffidence at times proved to be a form of wisdom, coupled with film business experience. When, a week before commencement of principal photography their cinematographer jumped ship for a more lucrative gig, Russo was torn between searching for a gun shop or a bridge. Adler, however, simply shrugged. "It’s showbiz," he said, explaining that not only was it not the end of the film, but in truth it was a boon allowing them to find someone better.
"How in hell can you say that?" demanded Russo.
"Because a guy approached in advance may be holding out for Spielberg or Scorsese. But on the eve of a shoot, it’s a paycheck or lost time."
As Adler predicted, they signed a Director of Photography they would not have dared contact initially.
Then, three days before the shoot, word came that an actress was bolting for a recurring role in a sitcom. Again, Adler took it in stride. "It’s showbiz," he murmured again. "And I know someone great whose indie fell apart last night."
Late the following afternoon, just as they were about to go their separate ways, Russo received a text that caused him to quake.
"What?" Adler asked immediately.
"My Mom’s been hospitalized."
"How can you possibly say that?"
"It’s Hollywood’s version of Murphy’s law. No way can you ever start a shoot feeling happy or good. If you have to go East, get on a plane."
"Only if she absolutely needs me."
The next morning, Russo informed Adler that his mother was resting comfortably after what had been termed a mild stroke, which meant there was no urgency for him to depart.
That evening, with filming to begin the next morning, the partners went to what would likely be their last AA meeting for a while, then hit a place in Koreatown. "You just about drove me crazy a whole bunch of times," Adler avowed after slurping a soup-like dish called samgyetang. "But know what? I’m really glad you did."
"Every single word. You’re the best partner a guy could have."
"So are you. You’ve been there for me each and every time."
"How’s your mother by the way?"
"Out of danger, it seems."
"At least for now."
That night, Russo barely slept a wink, terrified that during filming someone might ask him what he’d produced before. But upon arriving at the first location, he quickly realized that everyone was far too busy to be asking questions unrelated to the shoot.
Running mainly on adrenaline, he felt alive in a new and exhilarating way, though that seemed not to be the case with Adler, who was visibly restless due to the stand-around-and-wait aspect of filming.
When, after midnight, Russo at last climbed into bed, it was with none of the trepidation of the night before. If asked the next day what, if anything, he had produced, he had an answer ready: "Yesterday."
Though plagued by the customary problems of indie filmmaking – a morning shoot without the necessary permits, an afternoon with camera troubles, a night shoot in which an actor got lost en route to location – the combination of Russo’s attention to detail and Adler’s equanimity enabled them to stay on budget and schedule.
Then came Russo’s introduction to post-production. Though it was his inclination to hover – first over the editor’s shoulder initially, then subsequently over the graphics guy’s, and later still over the composer’s – Adler continued to have a calming effect. "Give him room," the agent-turned-producer counseled each and every step of the way. "Input? Yes. Hovering? No."
Upon seeing a rough cut of the film, Russo was perturbed. "It seems long," he confided in Adler once they were away from the editor. "And slow."
"Right and right."
"So what in hell do we do?"
"We wait until the next cut, then the one after that."
"Because an indie comedy like ours needs to come in at ninety minutes tops. Right now were at 117, so of course it feels long and slow. And it’ll still seem that way at 110, and a lot less so at 95. But once we’re at 85 or so –"
As Adler predicted, Russo was pleased once the film came in at 86 minutes. Then delighted once music and graphics were added.
On the day of the long-awaited cast and crew screening, to which it was hoped that some invited distributors would come, Russo pulled him aside. "Tonight," he began, "you and I are going to sit in the back of the theater."
"So that, instead of focusing on the movie, We can watch the audience while they watch it. And We can see it through their eyes."
Filled with pride upon witnessing the audience’s response to the film, Russo leaned toward Adler as the end credits rolled. "Distribution deal here we come!" he whispered.
"It’s the movie biz."
Though the partners received several inquiries from distributors, plus a few overtures from festivals, not a single serious offer materialized.
Perplexed and unable to sleep, Russo called Adler late one Thursday evening.
"Am I missing something with our film?" he asked. "Or about us?"
"It may not have anything at all to do with either the film or us," Russo replied.
"Can I get that in English?"
"There could be too many comedies at the moment. Or worse, teen comedies. Or everybody could be focused on foreign sales, which means action and little dialogue. Or maybe we’ll just have to take an if-come deal instead of real bucks up front."
"So what do we do for now?"
"If we’re smart, we use whatever heat the film – and we – have to set up our next one."
Using the other two arrows in Adler’s quiver, the two new producers went out on the pitch trail. Hitting studios, cable entities, and newer media, they engendered a good amount of enthusiasm, plus several variations of "consider us interested."
But, ultimately, no deal came through.
During a powwow at a Cuban restaurant in Culver City after an AA meeting, Russo took a bite of platanos, then faced Adler. "Getting nervous?" he asked.
"A little. You?"
"More than a little. So what do we do?"
"I guess it’s time to approach Netflix and Amazon. Maybe Hulu."
"Which means a release, but no real bucks for a while?"
"Which is better than no real bucks forever."
"Except that there’s rent. And car payments. And food."
"Tell me about it. I know it’s not what we want in our heart of hearts, but a friend told me about a studio that’s looking for guys to start a low-budget division kind of off campus and non-union."
"Exactly. Should I ask him to put us up for it?"
"It’s either that, Starbucks, or Big 5 Sporting Goods."
"About that studio thing –" Adler said to Russo after lunch the next day.
"We’re set for Wednesday at 11."
"Beautiful! What can we do to prep?"
"Come up with a bunch of concepts, plus names of actors, writers, and directors we think are up-and-comers."
All weekend Russo thought, scoured the internet, and made notes. But on Monday morning, just as he was about to rendezvous with his partner, a call came in that shook him.
Gathering himself as best he could, he then phoned Adler. "My mother –"
"What about her?"
"She’s had another stroke."
"And you want to get on a flight?"
"If you don’t mind."
"Mind? I’ll bump the meeting."
"What do you mean, no? If we can do it this week, we can just as easily do it next."
On Tuesday evening, Adler received a text from Russo: Mother didn’t make it, but at least I got 2 say goodbye. Crazy here. Talk when I’m back. Break a leg at meeting!
Having arrived back in L.A. on Sunday evening, Russo rushed to Cantor’s Deli on Monday morning for a breakfast with his partner.
"Sorry about your Mom," Adler said immediately.
"At least she didn’t suffer. So tell me about the meeting."
"It’s a case of good news and bad."
"Let’s start with the good news. Is there a job?"
"Great! And the bad?"
"It’s for one person."
Russo froze. "A-are you telling me that you t-took it?”
To Russo’s dismay, Adler nodded.
"B-but how? W-why?"
Adler shrugged. "That’s showbiz."
Those were words Russo would never forget.