LOS ANGELES — Last weekend I hosted a panel at the Santa Barbara Film Festival that featured five producers whose films were Oscar best picture nominees.
At one point I asked everyone how many shooting days they had to make the film. After everyone else answered, Graham King, the producer of “Hugo,” got a big laugh, saying “I think our shooting schedule was longer than everyone else’s put together. After 100 days, what are you going to do — call an ambulance?”
When it comes to King’s investment in “Hugo,” it’s probably time for a healthy dose of gallows humor. The Martin Scorsese-directed 3-D film is a cinematic marvel, taking us on an amazing journey through 1930s Paris back to the formative days of moviemaking. The critics swooned over the film’s technical wizardry. The academy gave it 11 Oscar nominations, the most of any film this year. If I had an Oscar ballot, it would get my vote for best picture.
But the film has been a financial meltdown for King, a bigger-than-life movie impresario who has either produced or helped finance an impressive array of prestigious movie star-propelled films, including “Ali,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed,” “The Tourist” and “Hugo.” King sold off some foreign territories with “Hugo” but is otherwise on the hook for the rest of the film’s losses.
Originally budgeted at roughly $100 million, the movie spiraled out of control during production. King puts the film’s cost at $156 million, thanks to some tax rebates and additional British financing, but others say the film’s budget ended up at $170 million. So far “Hugo” has taken in only about $62 million domestically and last weekend it wasn’t on the box-office top 10 list.
It’s been a sobering experience for King, an ebullient man who is usually the life of the party. On an artistic level, King has much to celebrate, having accomplished the rare feat of producing best picture and animated feature (“Rango”) nominees in the same year. Yet when we had lunch last week, King had the slightly shell-shocked air of a stunt pilot who’d barely survived a crash landing in a cornfield.
“I’ve completely changed my way of thinking about making movies, maybe from hitting my head too hard a couple of times,” he told me. “Now when I read a script, I think — what does the audience want to see? In the past, I was only thinking about what I wanted to make. But I’m changing my ways. I’m too old, too tired. I don’t want to live on the edge anymore.”
Of course, living on the edge is what makes King, 50, such a fascinating showbiz character. Born in London, he was a big Chelsea soccer fan whose dad would take him in the middle of the night to a local theater to watch the great Ali-Frazier fights. When he was 18 he moved to Los Angeles to attend college, but instead took a job as a temp at 20th Century Fox, where he ended up as an executive doing international TV deals. By 2001 he’d been nicknamed “The Suicide King” for investing in films that everyone figured were long-shot gambles, like “Traffic” and “Gangs of New York.”
The bet King was really making was on his ability to build relationships with star talent. King has made four films with Scorsese. He’s made two films with Angelina Jolie, including her recent directorial debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” He also has a production company with Johnny Depp, who costarred in “The Tourist,” was the lead voice actor in “Rango” and is starring in the upcoming Tim Burton film “Dark Shadows,” which King also produced. King has a Brad Pitt film, “World War Z,” due out this fall and is prepping a second film with Ben Affleck, who directed the King-produced film “The Town.”
In many ways, King is a throwback to men like Sam Spiegel and Joseph E. Levine, mid-20th century producer titans who made Oscar-drenched films like “On the Waterfront,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Lion in Winter” and “The Graduate.” Like King, they were men of epic ambition who often courted disaster when their films didn’t hit pay dirt. King stands out even more today, especially since today’s studios have grown wary of making $100-million films with costly talent, preferring to cultivate star-free superhero franchises.
When you don’t have studio backing, having talent on your side is your best insurance policy, since the top stars are magnets for the hottest scripts in town. King believes that his willingness to back his stars’ passion projects will end up giving him access to more commercial projects. Depp’s “Rum Diary,” which King produced, was a flop, but their next film together, “Dark Shadows,” has the look of a big moneymaker. King is also a regular patron of screenwriter John Logan, who wrote “Hugo” and “Rango” and is now writing a film adaptation of the “Jersey Boys” musical, which King is producing.
Still, “Hugo” is a thorn in his side.
“There’s no finger pointing — I’m the producer and I take the responsibility,” he said glumly. “Budget wise, there just wasn’t enough prep time and no one really realized how complicated doing a 3-D film was going to be. I went through three line producers because no one knew exactly what was going on. Do I still think it’s a masterpiece that will be talked about in 20 years? Yes. But once the schedule started getting out of whack, things just spiraled and spiraled and that’s when the avalanche began.”
He laughed uneasily. “Let’s just say that it hasn’t been an easy few months for me — there’s been a lot of Ambien involved.”
King isn’t taking the hit alone. His partner is Tim Headington, a Texas oilman who, according to Forbes, is worth $1.5 billion. Not long after they first met, King told Headington, a longtime film buff, that he should invest in a company, not individual films. Headington took the advice and became King’s partner. “It’s a handshake deal,” King said. “It’s been painful lately but he’s seen the change in my thinking about making commercial movies.”
By the end of lunch, King almost began to sound like his old self, touting his latest projects, which include a big-screen biopic of Queen singer Freddie Mercury. “Being a good producer is all about self-confidence,” he said. “When I’m on the set, I try to make sure that everyone has a real faith, not just in the movie, but in themselves. It’s a lot like being a good baseball manager or a soccer coach. Sometimes the only thing that helps you handle adversity is believing in yourself.”