By Heather Peavey Johns
Green is a powerful color in Hollywood. It’s not just the color of money, which is revered in a business that measures its budget in millions its grosses in billions. It’s not just the color of envy, a sin that’s taken down more Hollywood players than a busted bottom line. It’s the color of ready, set, go — full steam ahead on a project that might make or break an individual or an entire studio. Bucknell alumni who have joined the ranks of film and television executives know first hand the most powerful hue in Hollywood is the glow of the coveted greenlight.
Without a greenlight from a production company or studio, a film or television show simply doesn’t exist. A script is an idea, words and paper, just a collection of thoughts. Only when they are greenlit by an entertainment executive do they become viable projects.
Still, there’s no guarantee. A project can languish in “development hell” or fall apart without a director or star. “Every year, certain movies and TV shows prove the analysis and financial modeling wrong,” says producer Chris Bender ’93. “That unpredictability is why it’s such an exciting business to be a part of.”
Bucknell alumni have greenlit some of the most successful and influential projects in the past decade. Bender and his partner JC Spink ’94, AMC President Charlie Collier ’91, CBS President Les Moonves ’71 and Big Beach Productions Chief Operating Officer Jason Janego ’94 are among those responsible for a slew of award-winning, record-breaking films and television programs. They have each made their mark in a fickle, unpredictable industry where millions are at stake, and every decision is a ruthless cocktail of risk and reward.
Executives rely on data, timing, intuition and luck to predict the entertainment tastes of the masses. Unfortunately, there is no formula for making sure these calculated risks pay off. “We take all available and relevant information into consideration and then apply our shared experiences, perspective and instinct,” says Collier, who helped transition AMC from classic movies to original programming. “Samuel Goldwyn said — and one of my bosses repeatedly reiterated — the following truth about the business: ‘No one knows anything.’ It’s absolutely true that in a business so based on the reactions of people and their fickle and ever-changing tastes, no one ever really knows exactly what’s going to work.”
Executives analyze data and size up the abilities and potential of the creative players, but ultimately they are informed by something that can’t be tracked, counted or estimated. “Track records and test audiences are great for fine-tuning and tie-breakers amongst the creative group along the way, but ultimately, you have to fight for and go with your gut,” says Bender, who founded the diversified production/management company BenderSpink with JC Spink ’94 in 2002. “Most of the time if you don’t go with your gut, you’ll regret it later.”
The decision to greenlight requires foresight that goes well beyond the director’s cut. Film and television budgets are only the beginning. “Even when you make a movie for a low budget, it still costs at least $30 million to market that movie,” says Bender. “Studios have to think about that ultimate cost before they decide to make any movie at any price.”
Like most things in show business, regret comes with a hefty price tag. “The economics of the business are incredibly difficult, so it’s crucial that financial modeling is applied to any decision involving the greenlighting of projects,” says Janego. Entertainment executives are faced with the difficult task of balancing artistic visions with incredible financial risk. For every massive hit, like American Pie and Friends, there are a hundred flops that cost millions to make. They float in and out of theaters, on and off television screens, like ghosts of the countless careers that died with them.
Writers, actors and directors have nicknames for the executives responsible for making the tough decisions, like “brass,” “honchos” and “suits.” It’s tempting — and easy — to blame ratings and box-office failures on executives while lauding actors for audience hits, an industry conceit revealed by its kinder nickname for actors: “talent.”
But with so much to lose, the decision to greenlight is not taken lightly. “We are fortunate to be trusted with other people’s money,” says Collier. “I believe our job is to be ultra-responsible with that privilege and provide our backers a better-than-fair return on their investment. At the same time, they’ve entrusted us with that responsibility because they believe that we’ll build the long-term asset value of their businesses and, at the core, we can only do that if we thrive as a creative enterprise. I can’t stress enough that it’s not about one discipline or the other — the partnership between art and commerce is what it’s all about and we’re here to build both.”
A perfect balance between art and money may be delicate and rarely achieved, but that doesn’t prevent Collier from trying. “It’s called show business for a reason, and both words matter,” he says. “We see a good deal of ideas for content that we hold in high regard creatively but, try as we might, we can not always find a supporting business model for that content. As someone passionate about stories and storytelling and the head of an organization that loves to champion good artists, I find those to be incredibly frustrating moments. But those moments are a reality of the business, and the challenge of what we do is not just making good product but building a model that can fund and sustain it.”
Collier’s balancing act has reaped big rewards for AMC. Mad Men has inspired waves of retro-cultural appreciation and critical praise, and Breaking Bad is a gripping portrayal of dysfunction. Both are Emmy winners, and both have helped AMC vault into new and lucrative territory.
At BenderSpink, a lot goes into choosing which projects to champion. “It’s a combination of a good story or premise at the core, a marketable idea for an identifiable audience and, for me, connecting with some element in the story so that it’s relatable,” says Bender. “Despite all the economics and analysis that now goes into moviemaking, at the core it’s still about making a unique product that tells a story and entertains a large audience. Thus there will always be a part of the decision-making process that remains an enigma.”
The BenderSpink team helps make that mystery a little easier to solve. Three are Bucknellians: producers Bender and Spink and literary manager Brian Spink ’96. “It’s great to have that shared history in such a crazy and unpredictable business,” says Bender.
He made the jump from Lewisburg to Los Angeles after graduation and worked at a management and production company, where he developed the film American Pie with one of his first clients. He signed a number of other screenwriter clients and hired JC Spink as an intern after he graduated in 1994.
“A year and half later, we both had our own client rosters and decided to leave,” says Bender. They brought their writer clients with them and started BenderSpink in the three-bedroom house, where they lived as roommates.
“We were young and, really, had nothing to lose,” says Bender. “Plus, we knew we’d be making more money in our first year than we were as employees of the previous company. Our goal was to get our writers jobs, get movies made that we developed with our writers, and get ourselves an overhead deal with a major studio to form a strong business relationship to service.”
Within its first year, BenderSpink sold more than 20 scripts and co-produced American Pie, which grossed $234,800,000 worldwide. It signed a first-look production deal with New Line Cinema shortly thereafter and has produced two television shows and more than 20 films, including last summer’s The Hangover, the highest-grossing R-rated comedy in the U.S., and the drama A History of Violence, which earned two Academy Award nominations for acting and writing.
There is a certain, necessary bravado involved in making the decision to spend millions of dollars on a project that has about a 50-50 chance at success or failure. Like Bender, most successful executives put a high regard on surrounding themselves with a creative, innovative and committed team.
Bender looks for, “people who have strong opinions and take initiative. I like being around people who are willing to stir it up, even if it’s not the safest thing to do. I like to be in the trenches with people who make their fight from a creative or gut place as opposed to ego and simply wanting to win the argument.”
Honesty and a creative approach to problem-solving are essential qualities in his support team, says Janego, along with “a willingness to pitch in and help with things that might not be part of the job description, positivity, forward-thinking and a real desire to improve on the status quo.”
Collier’s appreciation for balance extends to his employees. A head for business isn’t enough; nor is boundless creativity. “I look for people who are both creative and have an understanding of the business, and I love people who know that success in one of these is not enough,” he says. “More generally, I like adults — people who are secure in their own skin and can take feedback and give it. I value people who take their work seriously and personally; and I’m particularly drawn to people who can laugh a lot while they’re working hard.”
Bucknellians play a role in nearly every aspect of running the entertainment business. Moonves joined CBS in July 1995 as president of CBS Entertainment and was instrumental in forming the CW Network in January 2006. Prior to that, as president of Warner Bros. Television, he greenlit the hit shows Friends, ER,and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation among many others. Christina Kounelias ’84, executive vice president of marketing for New Line Cinema, has launched successful campaigns for many hit films, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hairspray, Elf, The Notebook and BenderSpink’s A History of Violence.
Collier helped transform AMC from a cable channel that aired classic movies into a multi-platform network with award-winning original programming. Bender and Spink are top-grossing producers with an eye for cutting-edge dramas and comedy blockbusters. Janego has acquired more than 150 films in his career, which includes stints at Magnolia Pictures, Miramax Films and NBC. There is no set path to follow to achieve the level of power — and pressure — that comes with the responsibility inherent in these positions. But they all had the same starting place: Bucknell.
“As an economics and art history major who took accounting courses, I learned how to view things both from practical and creative perspectives, which has served us well in running the business and in story development,” says Bender. “The entire experience gave me a well-rounded education, taught me to work hard and gave me a group of friends for life that I’m grateful to have. By my senior year, I also was inspired to pursue what I loved, as I enjoyed working harder in the classes I chose out of interest as opposed to those I felt I had to take to fulfill requirements.”
Collier got an inkling of his own leadership potential as president of his fraternity at Bucknell. “It provided a transformative management, learning and growth opportunity,” he says. “As the president of Kappa Delta Rho I ‘managed’ and felt responsible for serving, and protecting, more than 100 people, as well as the brand, if you will, in the Bucknell world that was KDR. I took the job seriously and truly cared about the people and the environment in which we operated. It was very much like being the president of a business — from managing budgets, to handling the board, to the people-management challenges, to the surprise phone calls in the middle of the night and the like.”
Janego counts his relationship with Professor of Geography Richard Peterec among the most influential in his career. “Professor Peterec taught me the importance of looking at the world from a variety of perspectives,” he says. “To be honest, my most difficult decision was getting involved in this business in the first place. It certainly wasn’t the ‘safe’ route, and as a young person struggling to establish myself in the entertainment business, it was hard not to second-guess that decision on a daily basis. Bucknell really contributed to building my confidence that I could succeed in any profession I chose.”
“As a 9-year-old kid, I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark from the balcony of the Capitol Theatre in Owosso, Mich., and fell in love with going to the movies,” says Janego. Collier has vivid memories of watching The Manchurian Candidate and The Graduate at least 50 times with his father. “I remember watching shows or films where I was so moved that I wrote down what inspired me in hopes that I could one day reproduce it with my own original content,” he says.
Like many people, entertainment has been a touchstone in these Bucknellians’ lives. Now, watching their business decisions come alive on-screen is emotional, even transformative. It’s not entirely unlike how they felt as kids watching Indiana Jones snap his whip or Mrs. Robinson extend her stocking-clad leg. Quite possibly, it’s better.
“Witnessing new screenwriters sell their first script or getting their first movie made, collaborating with other writers and producers and striking upon a great idea, or sitting in an audience and watching people laugh, scream or cry while watching a movie we produced,” says Bender. “All inspire me to want to do it again and again.”