US producer Howard Rosenman

Yesterday veteran US producer Howard Rosenman came to Melbourne to share his wisdom and experience.

Rosenman has an extensive track record and has produced more than 35 feature films including Father of the Bride, starring Steve Martin and Diane Keaton. He is in Australia as a guest of the 2013 Israeli Film Festival. At present his passion is producing documentaries, for which he has won 2 Peabody Awards. As he said, his obituary will mention the Peabody awards and not his Oscar, for the documentary Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt, about the 1980s AIDS epidemic.

He has just remade Sparkle, a film he made originally in 1976. As he says, he is now so old he is remaking his own movies.

Rosenman said his motto was GIO – Get It On. That is what a producer must think of every day.

“Producing movies isn’t rocket science,” he told the gathering at Monash University. “99.99 per cent of the time you’re going to get rejected, but you have to push on until you find the schmuck who’s going to say yes to your project.”

Rosenman showed a clip of an audition with undiscovered actress Julia Roberts, at the age of 17. It was one of the few times that he saw talent in one of the many hopefuls trying out for a role. He took Roberts aside and told her to learn a part and return the next day, and he would make sure the director auditioned her again. She got the role and earned the enduring friendship of the actress.

Building relationships was a key to building his career. He conned himself into a job working with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and once they realised his con they just thought more highly of him than they did before, and Elizabeth Taylor became his supporter. When he created an organisation in support of AIDS sufferers, Taylor was the first person to donate with a cheque for $50,000.

His first mentor was a powerful man who told him – I’ll help you but don’t ask me for anything. Apparently the mentor was sick of being asked for free tickets to this, for an investment in that. “Don’t ask me for anything, but you can ask me for one thing, and that’s all,” he was told. So when the time was right Howard made his request and it was granted – and it started his producing career.

Another time he met a young guy called Ari Emanuel who was only 22, and Howard could see his ambition shining through. He took Ari to a party full of the rich and famous, including Princess Caroline of Monaco. Rosenman showed Ari how to network. Ari is now one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood.

His recipe for networking? Find a point of commonality. Maybe you both went to school in Brooklyn, for example. “These days it’s so easy to Google the person and find out the commalities between their life and yours.” You use that as an initial bridge.

Asked about pitching, he said he teaches pitching in California – and it takes 15 weeks. for his own projects, he spends six months working on a pitch. For him it’s about telling the story in as compressed a manner as possible, and he dwells on the setup, skips over the second act and emphasises the climax.

Rosenman said that writing was the toughest of all the crafts. You have to be concise, you have to tell a story in 110 pages, and align the plot strand, the character arcs, the theme and subplots all at the same time, and you have to use an original voice. He said it was easy to see when a writer had a distinctive voice. He picked up the script for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, written by Josh Whedon, and knew immediately that the writer had talent. He recalled how he used to read 30 scripts over a weekend, as by page 10 he would know that it was a piece of shit. “Most scripts are shit,” he said. These days he reads them on his iPad, but the process is the same.

Rosenman talked about becoming an actor late in life, when he was asked by Guy Van Sant to play a small role in the film Milk. Before then, as a producer he regarded actors as those people who created unnecessary overtime bills by not doing the scenes within the schedule. He auditioned for the role and to his surprise was given the part. Then, on the day of filming, he was overawed by realising he was acting with the great Sean Penn.

Rosenman said that Penn saw the fear in his eyes and approached him, explaining that he saw the scene as equally challenging, but together they would support each other and it would be all right. “I was amazed by his generosity,” Howard recalled. By the time Van Sant had got the coverage he needed and asked for some improvisation, Howard had got into stride, and generated lines freely. At the end of the day the actors were all hugging each other, having been through this emotional experience. “I realised that actors are the ones who really call the shots in this industry.”

The session was hosted by Associate Professor Con Verevis from Monash University. Howard Rosenman is Adjunct Professor at University of Southern California’s School for the Cinematic Arts.

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