Dan Jinks on the Creative Rewards of Producing Independently

November 29, 2019
We caught up with the producer of American Beauty, Milk and more to discuss the rewards of working independently, the current state of the feature film industry, The Irishman and much more at Screen Producers Australia’s Screen Forever conference.

21 years ago, Dan Jinks produced a zeitgeist-defining film called American Beauty, which would eventually sweep the 2000 Oscars. With deft performances, operatic virtuosity and iconic cinematography, the movie has been cemented into movie lore in the years since.

In a year which included works such as The Matrix, Magnolia and Fight Club, American Beauty went on to win five Academy Awards including Best Picture, launch the career of director Sam Mendes, become a cultural phenomenon and gross $356.3 million worldwide.

Since then, Jinks has become one of the most well-regarded film producers in Hollywood, working on diverse and exciting films and series including Big Fish, The Forgotten, The Nines, Pushing Daisies and Milk.

20 years after the release of American Beauty, the economics of the film market have changed dramatically, as the landscape for mid-tier films has become significantly more challenging. We spoke with Jinks to discuss how radically film financing has changed, whether American Beauty would be possible to make today as a theatrical release, and the state of the feature film industry.

We’re in a time of significant change in the film and TV industry. Whilst you’ve previously worked for studios, you’re now an independent producer. What are the changes you’re seeing now in the market?

 For a long time, when I first became a producer, it was perceived to be really important to be affiliated with one of the big studios, because if you wanted to work in movies, that’s where everything was happening. And, frankly, TV was sort of like, “if your movie business wasn’t going well, you might work in television”. Boy has that changed dramatically in the last several years.

For a while, I had a TV deal. And I was thrilled to have one. I had two TV deals, one at Warner Brothers, and one at CBS. The business really changed during the time I was at CBS. Netflix emerged and Apple, Amazon, HBO Max and Peacock soon followed. And one of the interesting things that I learned during this time, is that those places all want to own their own content. Most of them, not all of them, are willing to work with a studio, but they don’t want to work with an outside studio. They want to own everything themselves.

I had to figure out for myself, how to set up shop without being affiliated, and it has been so much better for my business to not be affiliated. I can take on a project, whether it’s film or TV, take it anywhere I want, without having the baggage of a studio. A friend of mine at a major streaming service told me, “the minute you walk into the studio, we’re looking for reasons to pass on something”.

That is a big, big sea change from a few years ago. That was sort of a wakeup call for me. And I thought, “let me figure out how to do this on my own now”, because it will be more advantageous to have the flexibility of going wherever I want, wherever is most appropriate for a project.

Have you found more freedom outside of the traditional system?

Absolutely. The downside is I’m paying my rent, I’m paying for my office by myself, I’m doing all that. But I have been able to work on things that I really want to work on and I’m now at a place where I’m loving the things that I’m doing more than I was when I was under a CBS deal, where you were sort of expected to come up with TV programming specifically for that network, which wasn’t as much my particular taste. Now I’m only doing things both in movies and television that really excite me creatively.

What are your thoughts on the theatrical independent film landscape at the moment?

It is a dramatically changing world. With Netflix being as prominent as it has been, as well as all the other streaming services, it’s gotten harder and harder to get people to leave their houses to go see a movie. I’m somebody that loves going to movies, I work in the movie business. I see a lot of movies in theatres. I love that experience. I don’t ever want to stop doing that. But I understand that for a lot of people, they would rather sit home and watch Netflix on a Friday night, then spend the money to go to a movie theatre. So, in order to get movies made now that are going to be released theatrically, there has to be something about them that makes people feel like it’s enough of an event that it’s worth seeing on a big screen.

It’s interesting what’s happening in New York right now with Martin Scorsese’s movie The Irishman, which is a movie that famously was financed by Netflix at a very high budget. I’m assuming their highest budget movie ever, but I don’t know that for a fact. But that’s my assumption. It’s a terrific movie. But it’s showing in mostly independent movie theatres because the major chains don’t want to show it. In New York it’s actually showing in a Broadway theatre and people are lining up around the block to see it, because New Yorkers, they want that movie-going experience. They feel ownership about a Martin Scorsese movie, they want to see it at the theatre. I love seeing that. I saw it in the theatre, I thought it was a great movie. I understand that most people are going to watch it on Netflix, but I applaud anybody that’s going to wait, stand around in a line around the block to see something in a theatre. Especially an old Broadway theatre.

So, for independent movies, it’s even harder, because independent movies by their nature are usually smaller films. And those movies are going to have a harder time being released theatrically than ever before. And this is a year where there have been some really terrific independent movies that have not done the business that one would like to see them do. Anyone that likes these movies, we have to be willing to say, “maybe the best place for this is on Amazon or Netflix or Hulu or another service”, because ultimately you want your stuff seen, and I say that as somebody that loves the experience of going to a movie. What’s most important is making sure your movie is seen.

You’ve worked consistently on unique, smaller specialty films like Milk (which was released through Universal’s arthouse arm Focus Features) throughout your career. Would a film like American Beauty be possible to make as a theatrical release today?

You know, that’s a really good question. And the honest answer is American Beauty came out 20 years ago. We made it 21 years ago. It was really hard to get made then. (Then first-time filmmaker) Sam Mendes was not even attached to the movie when we set it up. Fox Searchlight was one of the first places that was interested, but they would have done it for $5 million. The movie was made for around $15 million. The guy who was then running Fox Searchlight said to our line producer who he was friends with, “I liked that script, but you’re crazy to be spending $15 million on that, you’re never going to make your money back”. Very few people really saw the potential of it. I was extraordinarily fortunate to have DreamWorks as our partners in that and Steven Spielberg really believed in the movie. They had a big opening on their slate for us, so there was a great place for a film. It worked in our favour that they were a new studio and just didn’t have enough movies. It was like, “Oh, we can make this for not a lot of money because we need something else in our pipeline”. And Spielberg’s belief in the movie was essential to getting that made. Even so, there were people at DreamWorks while we were making the movie who did not believe in it and let us know that every day. Interestingly enough, it’s the movie that I’m probably most proud of that I’ve ever been involved in. But making it was the hardest, because when there are people in physical production who are threatening to close you down and telling you how you’re responsible because your movie is costing $15 million when it should be costing $14 million. It was a hard process.

Are you still developing the film Pinocchio with Robert Downey Jr. and Paul Thomas Anderson as writer?

Paul Thomas Anderson was involved for a very short period of time. The movie is not in active development right now. It was a huge, huge disappointment for me. It was a project that I set up with a guy named Bryan Fuller. He’s a terrific writer. We had a TV series together called Pushing Daisies that Bryan created. And I went to him with this idea and he loved it. And we sold it to Warner Brothers and they loved it. And he wrote a script and it came out great. And we brought it to Tim Burton. And Tim wanted to do it and we brought it to Robert Downey Jr., and he said yes. But then Robert had sort of a different vision of it. And it just took so much time that during the time that we were working on Robert’s vision, Tim took another movie, and Disney had their own version of Pinocchio. And Warner Brothers had gotten into a situation with Jungle Book where they were competing with Disney and the Disney one came out first, and they just didn’t want to get into that situation again, so I don’t know if our version will ever happen or not. It was an amazing process for a while. Bryan Fuller wrote this terrific, terrific screenplay and I was excited to work with Tim again. We’d worked on Big Fish together. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen.

You recently made a deal to do a take on A Christmas Carol with Disney, director Bill Condon and composer Stephen Schwartz (Wicked The Musical). Can you tell us about that?

It’s something I’ve been working on for about three and a half years. It was just announced two weeks ago. That’s how long things can take to happen in this town. It actually is not a new version of A Christmas Carol. Its relationship to A Christmas Carol is similar to Wicked’s relationship to The Wizard of Oz in that it’s an entirely new story. This project is actually called Marley. If you know Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by his old partner’s ghost [Jacob Marley], who says “you’re going to be visited in the middle of the night by three spirits”. So, we see Marley’s story. We see Marley as a young man. Bill Condon is the writer-director and Stephen Schwartz is the composer-lyricist. And it’s really, really good. I’m a big musical theatre geek. And I went to New York a few times in the spring to sit in Stephen Schwartz’s living room with Stephen on the piano playing these new songs that are just spectacular. It was just a thrilling experience. Our goal was to make it something that you needed to leave your house for. This is a big movie experience. And boy, Bill Condon and Stephen Schwartz can do that. They didn’t know each other and they’re both guys I’ve known for a while, so it was fun for me to put that whole thing together and have it be a really wonderful collaboration.

Can you tell us what else you’re working on and what’s next for you?

I just sold a TV show to Disney+ but they haven’t announced it yet, so I really can’t say a lot about it, other than the writer is Paul Rudnick (Sister Act, In & Out), who’s one of the funniest people on planet Earth. Paul and I’ve worked together before and I’m really excited to be working with him again. It’s a very fun half hour. It’s sort of adult comedy that can work for a family audience the way that Disney+ wants. I literally got the email this morning, the deal is closed. So, I’m super excited about that.

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