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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Hollywood producer Mark Gill shares tips and box-office tricks

Mark Gill is the producer behind some of Hollywood’s biggest films, from March of the Penguins to this summer’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard. He shares tips and box-office tricks with Chris Newbould in Abu Dhabi

Mark Gill’s films have taken more than Dh7 billion. Getty images
Mark Gill’s films have taken more than Dh7 billion. Getty images

It has not been a great week in the press for Hollywood movie producers, with allegations about former Miramax and Weinstein Company chief Harvey Weinstein dominating headlines. There was no cause for alarm when I sat down with Mark Gill, however – himself a former Miramax president and now head of Solstice Studios – ahead of his speech to an audience of filmmakers and students at Nation Towers’ Vox Cinemas in Abu Dhabi.

Sana Bagersh, head of the Smovies film competition, which had co-sponsored the event, had already assured us that Gill, who has worked on March of the Penguins, Trainspotting, Olympus Has Fallen, The Hitman’s Bodyguard and a host of other box-office smashes, is nicknamed “The Nicest Man in Hollywood”. We can confirm that Gill is politeness personified.He was in the UAE primarily on a fundraising drive for his latest venture, Solstice, which aims to democratise and globalise the effects side of the movie business, by putting all necessary tools in the cloud, rather than “on giant machines in a building in LA or London”.

He also talked about his long and successful career, which has involved stints in charge of Columbia TriStar, Warner Independent, Millennium Films and Miramax. With a US$2.1 billion (Dh7.71bn) production record to his name, Gill knows the industry inside-out, so what advice would he give to those looking to carve out a career as the next Jerry Bruckheimer – or, indeed, the next Mark Gill?

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“If we’re talking about global cinema, you have to be in one of the hubs,” he says. “Sure, there are regional hubs such as Bollywood, but globally you’re basically looking at London or LA – not even New York anymore. That’s where the ecosystem is. Just like if you want to be in tech, you need to go to San Francisco. It’s a community, and that’s where all the writers, the crew and the actors are.

Gill concedes that movie careers may flourish elsewhere, but insists that things are a lot more limited outside those two cities. “Realistically, outside those cities, you’re going to be looking at producing small, local-language films, or acting as a local producer on incoming productions, which realistically means looking after hospitality.”

Gill’s assertion that you “just have to show up” to succeed in Hollywood may sound flippant, but his own career path has had something of the accidental about it. He began as a journalist, writing for the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek, before moving into public relations. His first posting was with entertainment PR and marketing firm Rogers & Cowan. This led to a move to the marketing team at Columbia TriStar, before switching to Miramax in 1994. Here, through what he describes as a combination of good luck and timing, he “failed upward” to the post of president. Among the products of this “failure” were Pulp Fiction, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting and Shakespeare in Love.

Gill has a remarkable lack of flops to his name. Even over the recent summer of big-money bombs, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel Jackson, was a notable success. It enjoyed three weeks at No 1 in the United States, and is expected to take a global $200 million on a $41m production budget. He has harsh words for some of his fellow producers, however.

“The supply of major studio films has declined by 28 per cent since 2006. The reason is that the major studios are spending almost all their money on huge movies such as Spider-Man and Star Wars,” he says. “In so doing, they’ve almost entirely abandoned films that cost between $30m and $80m. Mostly they make films that cost $100m to $300m. And they hope to sell a billion dollars in tickets at the global box office. Which means they make $300m on a hit. Or lose $230m on a miss.”

Gill admits that in the past, this has seemed like a successful strategy, because these big-ticket films were classed as “non-execution-dependent,” a term that the producer is happy to decode: “It’s a ridiculous Hollywood code phrase, which translates roughly as: it’s OK if our film is bad. We’ll still make a lot of money,” he explains. “That was true of almost any big spectacle movie for the last 40 years, until this summer, when the major studios put out another batch of huge movies, as usual. Many of them were especially awful, as usual. But this year, they got punished. This was a first.”

Gill puts this down to two key factors. Firstly, social media means disgruntled movie watchers can now share bad reviews to millions within seconds. Secondly, the rise of quality drama on streaming services means less motivation for audiences to flock to cinemas to see a bad film.

Gill has carved out a niche in that underserved $30m to $80m sector – above the sub-$10m art-house sector, where “maybe five films a year will break through and pick up Oscar nominations and box-office [success], but 99 per cent will fail”, and lower than the $100m-plus blockbuster sector.

Gill admits that he and his colleagues often don’t always see eye to eye – March of the Penguins, for example, was an obscure French nature documentary when he bought it for $1m: “The story made no sense. It had a terrible Eurobeat soundtrack. Warners thought I’d lost my mind.” Under Gill’s instruction, the film was rewritten as a charming anthropomorphic family drama, re-soundtracked, and Morgan Freeman was brought in to narrate. The resulting $127m box-office smash remains Warner Bros’s most profitable film to this day.

“Often when I talk to people about movies I’ve made, they ask: ‘What were you thinking?’ Several people said that to me about The Hitman’s Bodyguard. I’m very happy to report that they’ve all shut up now that it’s a global hit.”