The Movie Waffler Interview - THE BASEMENT Producer Mark Heidelberger | The Movie Waffler

Interview - THE BASEMENT Producer Mark Heidelberger

mark heidelberger
Producer Heidelberger discusses his experience in the industry and his upcoming projects.

Mark Heidelberger has worn a few hats in his career but it’s as a producer – and a proficient and accomplished one at that – that he’s best known.

In this exclusive interview, Heidelberger tells us what a producer actually does (something I think we all want to know!) and teases his upcoming projects – which include the horror film The Basement, starring Mischa Barton, to be released later this year.

mischa barton the basement
Mischa Barton in The Basement

You started out producing music videos. How does producing a music video differ from producing a film?

Yes, I started doing music videos back in the early 2000s. They were a lot more accessible than features because they were low cost and easier to shoot. You didn’t need to develop a script and you didn’t have to worry about generating a return on investment for the financier, which was either the record label or the artist themselves. A music video is really just a commercial for the single, so it’s not expected to directly generate returns, but rather to bring in money through sales of the album. However, we as the producers were just hired guns; we didn’t have any ownership over the content. Once we delivered the final product to the label, distribution of it was out of our hands and we would just move on to the next one. As far as production goes, obviously the schedules were much shorter, we didn’t have to worry about production audio, and the crews weren’t unionised. Except for isolated differences like that, production is production is production. You still have a budget. You still need a crew. You still need to feed them. You still need a camera. You still need locations. And you still have some on-camera talent that you have to make happy.

Was it a natural transition into features?

For me, yeah, it was. Music videos were a great training ground for production logistics. I also started doing commercials. Both provided a lot of great knowledge that translates from one medium to another, like managing a budget, dealing with a financier, negotiating rates, hiring and managing skilled crew, casting, finding locations, on-the-ground-execution, insurance and legal matters, and on and on and on. Even the craft of storytelling is not lost on music videos and commercials. With a movie, you have 100 minutes to tell your story. You also have to tell a story in your commercial or music video, but you may only have four minutes or 30 seconds or whatever to do it in, so you learn to be economical and creative.

You worked with some pretty big talent right out of the gate, on those films, too. Was it nerve-wracking to work with names like Christian Bale and Eva Longoria so early on in your career?

My responsibilities on Harsh Times were pretty much limited to publicity and marketing, like generating material for the PR campaign and additional content for the home entertainment release, while my producing partner at the time dealt with production and on-set issues. So, for me, those names weren’t really intimidating because I didn’t have to interact with them on a day-to-day basis. I might have chatted with them a little on set, but our face time was limited. I knew pros like Dave (Ayer), my partner and others on the film had their areas of focus well under control, which made my job that much easier.

Do you have a regular team – those that you normally collaborate with?

There are filmmakers who I really enjoy collaborating with. Writer-director Nathan Ives and I have done, maybe, four films together since 2008, and we’re talking about doing another one sometime later this year. And there are crew members I like to hire time and again because I know the quality of their work. But as a freelancer, I don’t have permanent partners or team members or even a company that follows me from production to production. When I left Treasure Entertainment – the company I co-founded – back in 2011, I decided to operate solely as an individual producer-for-hire, where clients could bring me on to their projects while reducing the costs that come with a large-scale production company, like producing partners and overhead and company mark-ups. Not having these things allows me to pass savings on to the clients who hire me. Basically, I’ve made myself accessible to those who have source material and money and no idea how to turn it into a film. As such, the indie film market is my bread and butter. More information about me and what I do is pretty well spelled out on my website:

What’s your day-to-day schedule look like?

Man, that’s like saying, what does a house look like? It can really differ depending on what I have going on at the time. I spend a lot of time in front of a computer, whether that’s reading a script, checking emails, or creating a feature film budget for a client. Being on set for production is actually a very small percentage of my time, as the majority of a project’s gestation occurs outside of principal photography, whether that’s taking script development meetings, prepping the shoot, overseeing months of post-production like reviewing cuts or sitting in on audio mixes, creating marketing campaigns, attending festivals, or finding and working with the right distributor to get the project seen. But the fact that every day is so different is part of the appeal. And I make sure I balance work with social time, whether it be a bike ride with my wife or a trip to the driving range with a buddy.

Looking ahead to what you have coming up in 2018, there’s The Basement, Mississippi Murder, Pray for Rain and some other very appealing projects. How do you decide what to get involved in?

Actually, Mississippi Murder and Pray for Rain already came out last year, so you can see those on various home entertainment platforms now. The Basement comes out later this year. All of these projects and the ones I have coming up were for-hire assignments where a client paid my fee to get me involved. I’m really a bit of a whore, to be honest. I don’t disqualify a script just because I initially don’t like it so long as the client is willing to pay me to do the work. Usually, I work with the client to fix what I don’t like and then slowly find something that makes me passionate about it as we go through the development and production processes. Getting paid to do what you love can be a strong motivator. See, other producers pass on most of the material coming across their desks because they’re not getting paid to produce it at first. If anything, they’re going to spend money trying to get it made. So, they want to find that perfect gem right out of the gate. In my case, I have to spend some time crafting it into that gem I want it to be, but at least I can pay my bills while I do it.

The Basement. How different a project is this for you?

I had done some horror before. I produced a web series called Chopper back in 2011 and developed a number of horror features with former management client and long-time friend Jon Keeyes. So, I wasn’t out of my element with the material. To me, a good story transcends genre boundaries anyway. But there were individual challenges like building the basement set, executing the complex practical effects, and generating excitement with core fans that proved to be a challenge. Every film has its own unique set of challenges though, not just this one, and I always approach those challenges the same way – methodically, with an eye towards a specific result, and with the help of my kick-ass team.

Has it sold to a distributor?

Yes, it has. Uncork'd Entertainment has committed to giving it a limited theatrical release in at least 10 major US markets as well as premium on demand placement. The release date isn’t set yet, but look for it sometime this fall.

How much say do producers and filmmakers get in a film once it’s been sold to a distributor? Do you have to just let it go and wish it luck?

That depends on the contract you sign. But a savvy producer knows not to give away all his rights when setting the film up for distribution. At the end of the day, go with a distributor you trust because the legit ones are dealing with the markets and buyers every day, and they have the requisite experience to get the job done. But you also have to know what’s going on and know how the distributor’s decisions affect you. You have to have an exit strategy – how is this distributor going to generate the returns you need? The producer should be involved in all major decisions, from how the film is marketed to what platforms it’s exhibited on to how much is being spent on P&A, as all of these things can grossly effect both the return on investment – which financiers are looking to the produce to maximise – and the film’s ability to reach its audience.

Can you talk about some of the relationships you have with distributors? Anyone you’re especially fond of?

There are a few out there that have done a really good job, especially with limited resources. Leomark had the unenviable task of distributing a great little movie I produced called Comfort, which had no bankable names – just two Asian web celebs – a first-time director and a very limited P&A budget. And yet they did a bang-up job guiding the publicity campaign, selling the film at markets, and making sure it was available on key streaming platforms. That’s just one example. I was also impressed with how Naedomi Media negotiated an exclusive window with Walmart and Best Buy for my film Ninja Apocalypse that nabbed us an endcap for two weeks. That was pretty impressive retail real estate for a home entertainment title with no theatrical run.

Any advice for those looking to pursue a career in producing?

Two things. Get out there and do it. Produce something. Anything. Prosumer technology like RED cameras and Adobe Premiere coupled with the accessibility of internet exhibition platforms have made the creation and dissemination of quality content easier than ever, so there’s really no excuse. I was self-taught, but I loved what I was doing, even when I was stuck with far more limited resources than we have today. I controlled what was being made and I was involved in the entire process from beginning to end. I knew I would make some mistakes, and believe me, I made plenty. But don’t let that fear hold you back. Go out and make some mistakes. That’s the first piece of advice.

The second one is more practical: remember that “show business” is a business. That’s why we don’t call it “show show.” Treat it like one. As a film school brat, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the film schools have it all wrong. They tell you to just go make your passion project and then try to sell it. Wrong! You should have distributors and sales agents involved from the get-go, from script to development to budgeting to casting. You should be crafting a marketing plan before you’ve shot one roll of film, and to do that you need to understand your market. You need to know who your audience is, what they want and how much they’re likely to spend. In short, you need to treat filmmaking like a real business. No one manufactures a bigger, better widget simply because they personally like it without knowing whether there’s a significant segment of the market that wants to buy it, but filmmakers do that and then wonder why their films make no money. Make a movie that the public wants to see, not just one that you want to see.