x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

All it takes to make a movie is a dream and $67m

When a single mother from California won the lottery she knew exactly what she was going to do with the money - make movies!

When single mother Cynthia Stafford won $67 million in the California state lottery, she decided to do something foolish with the money. She decided to get into the movie business.

Ms Stafford had been a movie-buff since childhood and had always wanted to jump into the business. And now, with US$67 million idling in her bank account, she could. Speaking for myself, if I had US$67 million in the bank, the last thing I'd do is give it to a bunch of slick-talking show business sharpies, but that's because I am one of those sharpies.

Since winning the big prize a few years ago, Ms Stafford has produced three feature films - a feel-good comedy called The Brass Teapot, a comedy thriller called Holla II and a film about a Jewish rap star (I'm not kidding) called Polish Bar. Haven't heard of them? Neither have I.

So, OK: she won some money and she made some movies. So what if none of them have done much business? I'm not sure that's going to slow her down.

In that respect, the California resident is like a lot of rich and suddenly-rich folks. When the skies open up and rain money - what venture capitalists and investment bankers call, without irony, a "liquidity event" - a lot of rich people decide to take a fistful of that newly acquired cash and throw it out of a window marked "Become a Hollywood Producer".

It's a pretty easy thing to do, actually. Of the three requirements to becoming a real Hollywood producer, the chief one is an ability to spend money.

I know a very talented art director who got involved with a fast-talking, very convincing producer. He convinced my friend to design sets, build models, do a lot of free work on a film - no, he thundered, a series of films! - he had in preproduction in London.

That's what he said, over drinks at a Los Angeles hotel: I've got a series of Shakespeare films. In preproduction. About to go into production. The money's all there. Just get to London!

So my friend did a lot of work - a lot of unpaid work - and each time the subject of money came up, he got an airy, "we'll settle up when we've got our production accounts open".

This charade lasted a long time, all the way to my friend lugging models and sketches to an address that led to a small one-bedroom apartment - not the production offices, because of course there were no production offices - where the producer, in his underpants, worked the phones trying to get a pitch meeting at the BBC, or anywhere, for this really cool idea he had about doing a series of Shakespeare films. He could be heard on the phone talking about the great art director he'd just brought out from LA, with terrific visual presentations and he's got models and sketches and stuff to show, too, and, and, hello? Hello?

The next day my friend was back on a flight to LA, having spent the night on the floor of the apartment, listening to a delusional producer thinking out loud about whether Anthony Hopkins or Ian McKellan should play Prospero.

There was no project. There was no slate of Shakespeare films. There was no money. What there was, though, was a passion for moviemaking and a certain amount of insanity.

Those are the other two requirements to being a real Hollywood producer, by the way. Which means that Cynthia Stafford, lottery winner, has just as many skills in that arena as any other mega-successful producer in town. She's made three lousy pictures and she insists that she's well-positioned to keep making movies for many years to come.

And that, I think, is excellent news. I've driven by a billboard for The Brass Teapot for weeks, but I only recently learnt its back story, and it made me smile. The film business has become too risk-averse, too buttoned-up. The joy of filmmaking - the buccaneer spirit that built the business in the 1920s and 1930s - has given way to focus groups, special effects, and endless sequels. Maybe it's going to take a naive amateur to shake things up.

Or, maybe not. Cynthia Stafford may in fact keep making awful movies - though let's be honest: that won't make her unique among Hollywood producers - but anyone who loves movies and moviemaking as much as she does is bound, at some point, to produce a terrific picture. My money is on Cynthia Stafford. Though I mean that in the figurative sense.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl