Oscar Spotlight: Munich

BoxOfficeGuru.com examines this year's major contenders with the new Oscar Spotlight column. Each Friday, editor Gitesh Pandya talks one-on-one with producers and studio executives behind some of the most acclaimed films up for recognition this season.

This week, Oscar Spotlight talks to Barry Mendel, producer of Munich which has earned five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the Universal release is the only nominee in the Picture category from a major studio. After producing films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and The Royal Tenenbaums, Mendel has turned to politics for his latest film by collaborating with the world's top director.

Box Office Guru: How did you first get involved with the project?

Barry Mendel: Well, it was my idea to do the film. I started the ball rolling and started developing it and he (Spielberg) heard about it and got in touch with me and we got together.

BOG: What challenges did you face juggling pre-production and shooting with Steven Spielberg's schedule with the release of War of the Worlds.

BM: One of the things that was done was many of the people who were on War of the Worlds were also a part of the team that made Munich. There are at least 20 people who are the same. He knew that he wanted to do these two movies back to back. So there was a lot of preparation for Munich being done during War of the Worlds. Even if it was conceptual and wasn't time-intensive, there was a lot of thinking going on. It seems like an impossible feat to move from one movie to the other, but having the same group of people making both movies made that possible, where otherwise it wouldn't have been.

BOG: Where were you when you learned of your Oscar nominations this year?

BM: I was at home and watching it on TV. Kathy (Kennedy) and me and Kathy's husband Frank Marshall were on the phone together. There was some sort of police chase going on and it wasn't on channel 4 so we were all flipping around the channels. Then I got somebody on the E! channel. I live in Pasadena and they live in Palisades so they couldn't find E! on their satellite. But then it finally came on and we were kinda like commenting and celebrating all the different people that we knew or we liked. You never want to have expectations about stuff like this, but we let out a big cheer when people who worked on our film would be nominated. We all feel that our nomination for Best Picture represents also Eric Bana, who wasn't nominated who gave a really amazing performance, and (cinematographer) Janusz Kaminski who I think did one of the best jobs of the year shooting a movie, and everyone else. Everybody's work is represented in the Best Picture nomination.

BOG: How did you celebrate?

BM: I returned no emails. For one day in life, I did not return a single email. A lot of nice calls and emails came in, but I just chose to celebrate by not having to deal with any of it. It's not comparable to getting married or having a child, but in your professional life, it's about as good as gets. It's something to experience and let it go into the cells of your body as a moment of joy and pleasure and also gratitude. I ended up calling all the people who made it possible and thanking them.

BOG: Many films with political or social issues have been in the spotlight this awards season. Do you think moviegoers are getting any more interested in these kinds of films?

BM: I wish they were more interested than they are! The Academy definitely seems interested. The journalists definitely seem interested in writing about them. But the audiences? I don't know. I think the jury is out. You cover the box office pretty scientifically. I would have guessed that you would have thought that Syriana and Munich would have done better and maybe Crash and Brokeback Mountain wouldn't have done as well. So I don't know. I started working on this movie in 1998. The public thinks 'oh, they're putting out this now'. Well, they don't recognize that we began working on this project in 1998 and so much has changed since then. The Atlanta bombing had already happened, but 9/11 obviously made the movie so much less about history and so much more about what's going on now. Then Afghanistan made it more relevant, then Iraq part 2 made it more relevant, then Hamas wins. It just all continues to change so radically, but those things weren't in your mind when you're thinking of the film. I was thinking about it in a much more universal, and less topical way when I got going on the movie. Films take so long to make that if you try to be a political filmmaker, you're going to be out of date before your movie comes out.

BOG: Many of your past films have been at Disney. How different has it been working with Universal on this film?

BM: They bought the project before Steven was involved and they always believed in it in a big way. So it wasn't a surprise to them or to us that somebody of Steven's talent, caliber, and stature would be interested to do it. Once Steven got involved, there were debates to be had, and there are ways that they could help us make a better movie, and market a better movie. Steven is the most successful director of all time and there's a certain deference paid to him. So it's always going to be a positive experience because they're always going to make sure it is. But working with (M.) Night Shyamalan and working with Wes Anderson, even though those guys are of a totally different generation, in those cases, the studio really respected them as filmmakers too. I have never had a rough time with studios in making the films that I've worked on. I hear lots of horror stories from friends, and I know they're all true, but I feel like I danced through the minefield of Hollywood completely unscathed because I've been working with directors where the studios say 'I want their vision of the film,' rather than trying to impose the studio's vision of the film.

BOG: When a Steven Spielberg movie comes to a certain country for shooting, does it become an event for those living in the area?

BM: Well, the production team keeps everybody away. (laughs) But, you know, it was surprisingly low key. I'm not surprised at all that you'd ask the question, because I had asked myself that question before we started shooting. It was surprisingly matter-of-fact and business-like and low key. And maybe that was a really good job with the PAs (production assistants) establishing a perimeter, and so forth. But maybe the world is not as celebrity-crazy as we make it out to be and maybe it's because of the way he handles things which is pretty matter-of-fact and low key, and it's just about the work.

BOG: How has the film performed around the world and has the marketing been different in any regions?

BM: The marketing is generally the same. There's a different newspaper ad that they've been using that's a little more actiony. It's a picture of Eric (Bana) running with the city names behind him. It feels a little more exciting. But the poster is the same and the trailers are similar. They change a little bit in different countries. But the movie is doing great overseas. It's well past domestic, and it will do between 150-175% of domestic. The movie today is between $110-120M in worldwide box office. So on a movie we made for just under $70M, on an economic level it's a win. But more importantly, it's the film that we all wanted to make, and that Steven wanted to make. Not everyone in the world loves it, but it absolutely is the film we wanted to make, and we're all very proud of it. I also think of it as not just a Steven Spielberg film. I definitely think of it as a Steven Spielberg film and a (writer) Tony Kushner film too. It was very much a collaboration between those guys. And Eric Roth as well, but Tony and Steven worked closest together in the end.

BOG: Munich is the only big studio film among the five nominees for best picture. Do you think big studios and specialty distributors should stick to their respective size films?

BM: It's a marketing question, and not a subject matter question. I think Munich needed to have a big release. It's a big movie. It should have a big release. It's Steven. It's big subject matter. It's a big deal. The most successful director of all time has made a film on the most controversial and difficult subject of our time - terrorism, and what to do about it. That's something you need a studio for. I think all the other movies needed to be nurtured in platform releases and I'm very pleased that platform releases continue to work. Word of mouth can actually work. Because you wonder in the day and age of blitzing the movie in four screens inside a multiplex and it being gone three weeks later, does word of mouth matter any more? Does the quality of the film even matter any more? Those of us who make movies really want to feel like the quality of the film matters. It seems to me that the studios are generally geared towards big, wide movies and the specialty (distributors) are better at nurturing platform releases.

The cost of running a studio marketing department is more than the cost of running a specialty marketing department. So the scale, and the costs of the scale differentiates them. I have another really, really serious big movie that I want to do, and it's definitively a studio movie. But, it's still a tough movie. And then there's the next film that I'm going to do. It's a very small story, kind of a Capote-scale type of movie. And absolutely, that has to be distributed by an independent. If it was distributed by a studio, they wouldn't do a great job on it. When you're trying to get to $500M or a billion dollars at the box office at a studio, and you have a movie that's likely to gross between 10 and 20, it's just not a big part of what's going to make your year. Whereas those specialty arms, that's what they're about. Let's get 15 here, and 8 there, and 20 here. So we could be the most important film for a specialty distributor because of the quality of the film, but for a studio we could be relatively meaningless to their bottom line.

BOG: Are audiences more picky now? Is it harder to get them to come out to theaters?

BM: I'm in the camp that says movies have gotten worse. I don't think its harder to get them out. I think that for good movies that they will come out, always. I think the theatergoing experience is unique and will be around for our lifetime and our children's lifetime. Sitting in the dark and having that communal experience of watching a film on the big screen is unique. The problems reported on last year were problems of creativity. All of us in the film industry have to share responsibility. Make better movies and box office will be great.

2006 Academy Award nominations and grosses

Last Updated : February 24, 2006

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