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Interview with Producer J. Todd Harris, CEO/founder of Branded Pictures Entertainment.

Interview with Producer J. Todd Harris

Raised in New York City, Todd Harris earned his BA and MBA from Stanford University and currently lives in Los Angeles. He began his producing career while in college with a production of ‘Hair’. His first job out of college, he managed theater company TheatreWorks in Palo Alto. He started producing fulltime after achieving his MBA from Stanford when he moved to Los Angeles. Mr. Harris’s films include such reputable titles ‘Bottle Shock’ (2008) starring Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman and Chris Pine, ‘The Kids Are Alright’ (2010) with Julianne Moore, Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo, and ‘Piranha 3D’ (2010) from The Weinstein Company. In theatre, some of his many titles include: ‘Heathers’ the Musical off Broadway in 2014, Broadway productions ‘Doctor Zhivago’ (2015) and Tony-nominated American ‘Psycho’ (2016). Today, Mr. Harris is president of Branded Pictures Entertainment and is also a founding member of the board of the Napa Valley Film Festival.

In a recent interview with Mr. Harris about his prolific career and upcoming projects, here is what he had to say:

 

How did you get your start as a producer?

TODD:  In college I produced a lot of plays because that’s what was easy to do there. I went to Stanford which didn’t have a film department of any note. It had a theater department, but it was small. It had great facilities so there was a lot of student theater at Stanford. I decided I wanted to do a musical of ‘Hair’ and that I wanted to be in it. But then I looked around and realized that if I didn’t go around and get the rights, raise the money, book the theater and sell the tickets then nobody else would do it, so I wound up being the producer of it. I realized I enjoyed gathering all these people who had real talent, while I didn’t have any discernable skills but could get everybody together who did. That was always a fun thing to do and I did a lot of that in college- I produced a half dozen plays, I was in a couple plays, I did a film festival because everybody was making these short films somehow, but nobody was seeing them. And then I produced concerts as well. The year I graduated, there was a theater company called TheatreWorks in Palo Alto looking for a general manager who would work cheap. It almost paid me a fulltime living, so I took the job. Palo Alto is a great place to live. It’s a very affluent community, so it wasn’t hard to sell tickets to theater. The company grew and I got to take a lot of credit for it. I ran it for three years and they just won a Tony this year for best regional theater company, which was exciting for everyone who has ever been involved with it.

TODD CONT’D: Then I went to business school at Stanford, which was a surprise, because I really didn’t have the grades or the scores to get in. It was a struggle to be honest. In between years, I went down to LA to be a reader of scripts. Back in the days I was typing my coverage on a typewriter and reading hard copies of scripts. I read fifty scripts that first summer, and I could string a sentence together, so that was very helpful being a reader. I came back to LA after I graduated business school in ’86 and got a job at Tristar Pictures in their TV division. I just jumped into it. About a year or two later, I raised $150K from my friends at business school and lived on that for three years and had a little deal with a company at Tristar Pictures. But they lost their deal. Then I got introduced to John Davis whose father Marvin owned Twentieth Century Fox and he had (surprise!) a deal there. He was incubating young producers, so he had about four or five young producers who had offices with him. I got introduced to him and he gave me one of those deals. I was there for a few years. I set up a few movies that didn’t get made. Finally, in 1994, I found a script called ‘Denise Calls Up’ that was makeable for $600K. I found three people to put up the money and we made it! It was a very funny interesting high concept movie about seven lives intersecting in every conceivable way. They make love, give birth and die and it all takes place on the telephone. It got into Critics Week at the Cannes Film Festival. It won Special Mention for the Camera D’Or and we doubled everybody’s money. We were staying on a yacht at the Palais and I was wearing a tuxedo. I thought then that making movies was easy. But then I spent the next 46 movies proving myself wrong. It was an amazing first movie to make. It was profitable, acclaimed and it was a hit in France. It was a $600K movie that France bought for $250K, Germany bought for $300K and Scandinavia bought for $180K with Sony Classics finally buying US rights.

 

How can people see ‘Denise Calls Up’ (1995)?

TODD: It’s hard to see this movie now. I have a VHS copy of it and I’m not sure if it’s even on laser disc. It’s crazy! Liev Schreiber’s in the movie. It was really a fun cast.

 

And your film producing career took off after that?

TODD: Yes. After that, I started making movies, most of which were all cash. I was not pre-selling or tax crediting anything. I would say half worked and half didn’t financially. And then it just took off from there. You wonder why there are so many producers on movies these days, and sometimes the answer is there is no good reason. But sometimes the answer is that there is a lot to do on a movie.

TODD CONT’D: The most democratic way to become a prodcuer is to find a piece of material that you love that you can champion and control. If you can control a piece of material that people are excited about, you can be a producer. If you can raise money or if you have great relationships with talent, you can be a producer. Or sometimes if you just know how to budget, schedule and run a show, you can be a producer. So there really are at least four major aspects- developing, raising money, packaging and executing the movie. Every movie you really participate in is a minimum of a one year, usually a two to three-year, commitment. I realize that if people are counting the minutes you spend on set, that is one metric. But there is a whole life before a movie gets made and after it gets made. I know everyone comes together and smells the grease paint and the roar of the crowd for like a month, but there is a shitload that goes into a movie before and after.

 

What works are you most proud of?

TODD: I am proud of ‘Denise Calls Up’ (1995). I’m also proud of ‘Bottle Shock’ (2008) and ‘The Kids Are Alright’ (2010), although I was not a lead producer on that movie. ‘Urbania’ (2000) was a cool Sundance movie that was made for like $600K. I love ‘Elsewhere’ (2019). I love that movie and filmmaker. It’s a smart Alexander Payne type movie with a strong cast. I gravitate toward movies that are about the human experience. I’m happy that ‘Dudley Do Right’ (1999) helped pay for my house. I worked very hard on ‘Crooked Arrows’ (2012), my lacrosse movie. Fifty-two investors participated in that! ‘Black Irish’ (2007) is also a powerful movie with a good cast. ‘The Burial Society’ (2002) is a dark little movie I made with a Canadian filmmaker that I loved but never found an audience. ‘So Be It’ (2016) as well, was very moving story with a young Talitha Bateman starring. Then there’s goofy stuff too like Piranha 3D (2010) and ‘Jeepers Creepers’ (2001), which keep the lights on at the cineplex. They’re fun! Movies should be good fun, but the movies I feel that move the needle in an emotional and intellectual point of view are what nourish the soul. It’s a balance between the big and commercial with the intimate and significant.

 

What kind of is Branded Pictures Entertainment focusing on?

TODD: Branded is focusing on big and commercial. We have ‘Danny and the Dinosaur’, a famous kid’s book that we optioned and developed. ‘Dance Revolution’, based on the popular video arcade game that everyone knows. We spent a lot of time and money getting the rights to that. Now we’re working with a company called Stampede run by former Warner Bros. head of production Greg Silverman to develop that. We are working on an adaptation of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ as a feature. We’re working on a TV series based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald called ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, modern day with an African American lead; the only thing it has in common with the story is that the guy ages backwards. We’re working on ‘1001 Arabian Nights’ as a TV series. We optioned a Harlan Ellison Sci-Fi story called ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’ for a TV series. I’m working on ‘Soul Train’ and ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ as Broadway show. I optioned the rights to ‘Death at a Funeral’ to do as a straight play and I’m working on a play about Maya Angelou. Every day we are working on trying to get a director or actor to read and trying to get money for this, that and the other thing.

 

It’s awesome you’re doing theater, film and TV simultaneously. Is that difficult?

TODD: Awesome or insane, depending on your POV. I did do ‘Doctor Zhivago’, ‘American Psycho’ and ‘Heathers’ as musicals. I love Broadway and I’m hoping Broadway will love me back, or the Westend or both. Branded was formed with the understanding that seven out of the top ten grossing movies and Broadway shows every year are based on underlining IP, whether it’s a book, game, toy, play, remake, reboot, spin off. It’s just a reality. I am not a superhero kind of guy. If I never see another movie with a guy wearing a cape or a mask again, it would be okay.  I am so happy those movies get made because it keeps the theaters lit. I’m happy ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Black Panther’ got made, but to me, it’s kind of the same story over and over. There are only so many ways to save the world, so I’m much more interested in understanding humanity and saving our souls. I think “Joker” broke the mold. Look, I like Coen Brothers movies, Alexander Payne, Woody Allen too before he became unfashionable. I like movies about people and things. That said, would I have loved to make ‘Transformers’? Yes. Everyone laughed at Lorenzo di Bonaventura when he said he wanted to make ‘Transformers’. Now seven movies made and billions of dollars later, who’s having the last laugh?

 

You’re on the board of Napa Valley Film Festival. Can you tell us about that experience?

TODD: I knew the founders of the NVFF. I went to college and business school with them and I was involved as a filmmaker at the Sonoma Film Festival when they ran that. They did a great job with Sonoma and they made Napa from whole cloth. I was the first board member and I’m the only person left from the original board. That’s why I look so tired! It was a appealing location, one of those things that many would have thought, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’. They created it and they know how to put on a very nice festival, and they did a really good job of putting that festival on the map, getting top filmmakers and top sponsors, a cool board together. It was a very exciting first decade of the festival. Many festivals go through their growing pains and we’ve gone through some, but they did an amazing job creating the festival. I will always be grateful to them for that.

TODD CONT’D: Napa is a natural place to have a film festival because of the hospitality and location. It’s hard to put a value on the location of the festival, because it’s so beautiful and it has so much culture and Viti-culture. If you like wine or you’re a food or film person, it’s got all three. That’s an incredible combination of things to have. Napa is one of the top five or ten destinations in America and possibly the world. I always feel great when I’m up there. It’s close to San Francisco, it’s not far from Silicon Valley, a short plane ride from LA. It has a lot to offer. Places like Telluride and Sundance are not as easy to get to, but they have become a commercial success too. Every festival needs to have its raison d’etre. I think Napa will be evolving over the next few years with the new director, but it will always have its baseline appeal of food, wine, proximity and beauty. The festival will be redefining itself over the next few years. I don’t think the world needs another film market. I don’t think we need to be place for people to find a movie to buy. This is really for people in the region or people who want to visit Napa to come see some of the best films of the year that have been curated out of Tribeca, SXSW, Toronto, Sundance, etc., because odds are people coming to Napa will not have been to those festivals. We don’t need to be the world premiere of some spectacular never-before seen film, because most of these people aren’t going to see those films unless they see them at Napa, Netflix or some other streaming service later. That’s not to say we couldn’t curate a more international profile or venture into the TV space, which we’ve talked about. TV and film are blurring so why not embrace that reality? We’ve talked about the possibility of premiering some TV. There are TV festivals in Austin andAtlanta.. I think it would be great if we could premiere a new pilot for a series for HBO or something like that. Anyway, I am very proud of everyone involved with the Napa Valley Film Festival, from the founders to the board to the filmmakers who have come up. It’s not hard to get stars up there. We’ve had Kevin Costner, John Travolta, Viggo Mortensen, Nancy Meyers, the whole Groundlings crew and many younger stars breaking out. I think for our 10th anniversary we will pull out all the stops and try to get some huge people to come. You know, it takes a village. As you can imagine, running a village can be complicated.

 

Are there any closing statements you’d like to make about what you’re working on next?

TODD: I am focused mostly on the Branded fare and some of the new plays I told you about. I would love to see ‘Doctor Zhivago’ get a big West End production. I think ‘Death at a Funeral’ should be born in London or in England because it’s a British movie originally, so I’m trying to get that going. I’m excited about the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’. I think it’s going to be great. All of those are brands! I have a few not as big branded projects I’m excited about too. I’m doing a hot air balloon thriller in Capetown starting in the winter. I’m working on an adaptation of a book called ‘12 Mighty Orphans’ that’s shooting in Fort Worth, starring Luke Wilson. I’m an EP on that, helping strategically. I’m also a co-EP on Aaron Sorkin’s new movie ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7.” There’s a movie called ‘Silent Knights’ about a guy who coached a deaf football team with Marlee Matlin attached and Sean McNamara to direct. It’s a very emotionally compelling movie. I’m part of a producing team that has developed a book called ‘On Fire’ that is a faith-based movie about John O’Leary that is an extremely emotionally compelling movie. I have a movie called ‘Hate: A Love Story’ about the guy who took the Westboro Baptist church to the Supreme Court. Another book by a former congressman called ‘Big Guns’ that basically does for the 2nd Amendment does for what ‘The Big Short’ did for mortgage backed securities, which takes a look at how messed up we are about guns and gun policy and couches it in a very human story. There are a few action films to work on too, as the foreign market still wants commercially driven stuff. So yeah, no shortage of stuff to work on!

Interview with Producer J. Todd Harris

 Interview with Producer J. Todd HarrisInterview with Producer J. Todd Harris‘The Kids Are Alright’ (2010)

Interview with Producer J. Todd Harris ‘Bottle Shock’ (2008)

Interview with Producer J. Todd Harris Interview with Producer J. Todd Harris ‘Black Irish’ (2007)

 

Interview by Vanessa McMahon

 

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