How does one make a million dollars in the movie business?
[The following events took place between 1998 and 2006.]
P A R T 1
Visual Effects companies are not viable businesses.
They are extremely costly to run, need an ongoing influx of cash to continually upgrade their hardware and software, are in constant turnover of their staff, have non-existent margins, incredible overhead, demanding clients, compacted schedules, outrageous competition, offshore companies that enjoy government subsidies and tax rebate programs… yet, while many have gone out of business, more seem to be opening every year. Having run Digital Domain and Industrial Light and Magic, it seems nonsensical to me to start a visual effects company, let alone to take one public. What is the upside? When do profits start rolling in?
It seems ironic that 19 of the top 20 box office hits of all time are chock full of VFX and that producers, directors, and motion picture studios are making billions of dollars while the VFX companies that are responsible for the incredible imagery that attracts viewers are, at best, keeping their heads above water and, at worst, going out of business.
In the glory days of the mid 1980’s, VFX companies were barely profitable, and over the years margins continued to slip. So…. what are the business reasons for being in this so called “business”?
The only answer seems to be creating and owning content. All we need do is look at PIXAR… now, we’re talkin’!
I was aware of this conundrum years ago, which is why I left LucasFilm and created Digital Domain. And why in the last three years of my tenure at DD, I focused solely on creating content. Unfortunately, for various reasons, I was unsuccessful.
Digital Domain, during my tenure, was a company filled with some of the greatest compositors, modelers, animators, technical directors, software developers, matte artists, motion-control camera operators, and visual-effects production people of its day. And years before, when I was running ILM, one could say the same of its talents and capabilities. In fact, today the very same could be said about WETA, R&H, ILM, DD, SPI (why do they all have to have monikers made up of capital letters). I often compared world class VFX studios with PIXAR. I mean, what was Pixar before it was PIXAR? Or Blue Sky? Or Dreamworks Animation (Pacific Data Images)? Weren’t they all very similar to the large VFX companies of today? Wasn’t PIXAR’s DNA very similar to ILM? Didn’t PDI compete directly with ILM for commercial productions? Well, to me, at the time, the answer was simple. YES.
So, why was it that the VFX companies were barely staying alive but PIXAR was making millions? Content. PIXAR created a product whilst the VFX companies were service-based businesses that helped create images that were used to market and promote films.
Recently there have been several VFX companies that seem to be desirous of creating content. Digital Domain is one of them. According to my sources, they are betting a great deal of money (by way of deferring VFX costs) on ENDERS GAME. ENDERS GAME will be directed by Gavin Hood (X MEN WOLVERINE, TSOTSI) and distributed by Summit (the production company and distributor of the TWILIGHT films).
In addition, they have built an animation studio in Port St. Lucie FLA and have launched preproduction on THE LEGEND OF TEMBO, a G-rated CGI animated film. THE LEGEND OF TEMBO, a family film about a baby elephant, seems to have no stars attached, no production funding in place, and no distribution. The directors are Aaron Blaise (BROTHER BEAR, Director) and Chuck Williams (BROTHER BEAR, Producer) now both employees of Tradition Studios, owned by DD and funded primarily by the state of Florida. Usually CGI animated films made in the USA cost between $125-200 million dollars to produce. That’s a lot of cash! This content business is difficult, expensive, and risky.
However, back in 1999, I decided that Digital Domain finally needed to start to produce its own film content.
We had taken our shot in content ownership in video games with the introduction of the first girls’ video game, “Barbie Fashion Designer.” Mattel had decided that they wanted to get into the video-game market, and Doug Glen, the VP of Digital Media for Mattel and a former LucasFilm Games VP who was an associate of mine whilst I was at LucasFilm, had approached me to develop a video game based around the infamous Barbie character. With the help of Steve Schklair and DD’s New Media team, Barbie Fashion Designer hit the shelves of Toys “R” Us and created quite a stir. A major hit, yet DD was not seeing the kind of revenue we needed to lift the company out of the “work for hire” VFX doldrums.
So, it was with the incredible success of TITANIC and Pixar’s TOY STORY that I naively thought we could produce world class feature films. As I had done with so many things in my life, I just started doing it.
First things first… I needed a story, sorta like TITANIC, a historic disaster laced with a fictional love story and real life characters. It had worked for Doctorow and Cameron, why not me?
I started cataloging 20th-century disasters. The Von Hindenberg Zeppelin, Mt. St.Helens, the San Francisco Earthquake, and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Always the businessman, I also realized that I would need funds to be able to research, write, and develop a script, as Digital Domain, at the time, following TITANIC, had no money to invest in new ventures. In fact, we barely had money to make payroll.
During that time I had been involved in a business venture with an old friend of mine from Japan, Yoshinobu Higashihara. Higashihara-san and I met when I was at Lucas. Higashihara had been a Sr. VP of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), one of the largest corporations on the planet. NTT had approached LucasFilm to help them understand creativity. Japan Inc. was quickly taking its revenge on the US, and in fact the rest of the world, by becoming the fastest-growing economy of the 80’s. The Japanese were everywhere and they were buying everything. While the Japanese had become the most efficient manufacturing force in the world, they, for some reason, did not believe they, as a people, were creative. And so, they started approaching major creative companies within the US, and I guess LucasFilm was on the top of NTT’s list.
With the help of Rose Duignan, we designed a creative curriculum for six NTT execs. These rather buttoned-up, conservative Japanese salarymen, now under the tutelage of Ms. Duignan were taken to museums, Grateful Dead concerts, and asked to go skinny dipping in the Pacific Ocean. For this, NTT paid LucasFilm $1,000,000. Their most senior exec, Higashihara, must have thought they got a great deal because he and I bonded and became fast friends that would last for well over a decade.
Many years after leaving Lucas and starting DD, I got a call from Higashihara who was no longer at NTT. He had formed his own company, one that was involved in starting colleges teaching creativity and digital media. I guess those late-night naked runs on Stinson Beach made an impression.
Higashihara, ever the entrepreneur, had realized that Japan, still flush with cash, needed to educate the sons and daughters of the wealthy. And what might those nerdy kids be interested in? Computers, visual effects, comics, sci fi, and movies. Higashihara went looking for capital to fund this new venture, and he thought that his old friend Scott might make for an interesting partner.
His offer was one that I couldn’t refuse. Seven figures to attach my name to the venture. I would have to travel to Japan twice a year to lecture and do interviews throughout the country. At first, I signed a contract with one group, but for some reason they couldn’t come up with the cash. With traditional Japanese sensibilities they were terribly embarrassed by their inability to make good on their deal. So, they did what any self-respecting businessman would do… they showed up at my office with $100k in a brown paper bag, slid it across my desk, bowed deeply, and left. That day at the Bank of America was interesting. I stepped up to the teller window in shorts and a tee shirt and handed over one-thousand $100 bills.
With that deal underwater, Higashihara started looking for other investors. A few months later, I got the call. He had pitched his Scott Ross Digital Media School concept to Tsuzuki Kaukonen, an educational institution based in Fukuoka. They had ambitious plans of opening up a half-dozen of these schools scattered around Japan.
Tsuzuki colleges and universities had been around for awhile, founded by the father of the present Chancellor. Their main campus was Daichi University in Fukuoka. Tsuzuki-san was generous beyond all imagination. First-class airfare, world-class interpreters, five-star hotel suites filled with flowers, hundreds of students waving American flags whenever I landed at airports in Japan, black limos to whisk me and my interpreter to world-class restaurants.
My first in-person meeting with Tsuzuki-san was a bit strange however. An entourage of a dozen or so of his staff, Higashihara, my interpreter, the man himself, and I were shown to a secret, underground room under the University. This underground room was a room within a room, lined with lead, with submarine-style hatches for doors and its own generators and air filtering system. Tea was served by two attractive young women in uniforms. Introductions were made. It seemed that most of the “staff” were ex military. Tsuzuki-san was rather rotund for a Japanese and he didn’t really speak—he grunted, loudly. A scene right out of a Fellini movie. We discussed poetry, Mt. Fuji, the meaning of Wabi Sabi, though the rest in the room were still and sat bolt upright. Tsuzuki-san was a fan of TITANIC and asked if Digital Domain had any interest in producing its own films. Thinking quickly, and running through the various disaster scenarios I had been researching, I mentioned that I was interested in creating a film surrounding the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Tsuzuki-san’s face changed from his animated boisterous self to one of tranquility and deep thought. A minute or so passed, everyone remained silent. He leaned forward and whispered to my interpreter. He wanted to know how much a film like this would cost.
“About $150 million,” I guessed.
“Well, I don’t have that kind of money,” Tsuzuki gruffly responded. “How much to get you started?” he said.
“About $1.7 million,” I guessed again.
The next day, Higashihara, my interpreter, and I flew to Hiroshima where Tsuzuki was planning on opening another Scott Ross Digital Media college. The throngs of students met us at the airport, the flags were waving, and the Tsuzuki staff ushered us to the waiting limo. Another formal dinner that evening and the next day we were to meet the mayor of Hirsohima, Akiba-san, who would tour us through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. There was, as usual, a press conference. One of the reporters, Akemi Satoda, approached me and told me that she had seen TITANIC forty-six times. Forty-six times! I was fascinated, we had coffee and talked. I made mention that I might be interested in producing a film about the Bomb. She asked if I had met any survivors. I hadn’t, and so she took it upon herself to set up a meeting the next day with Une-san, one of the most fascinating women I’ve ever met.
Une-san, was at the time in her early 80’s, about 4’2” tall and looked remarkably like Yoda. She showed up to our meeting with a shopping cart full of plastic jugs of water, a few dozen small glass cups, and a shopping bag full of presents for me. Une-san was the embodiment of pure energy.
Akemi translated as Une-san’s story unfolded. During the closing months of WWII, Une-san was the nanny for dozens of orphaned infants housed in a makeshift quonset-type hut on the outskirts of Hiroshima. Supplies and food were hard to come by, and so the children slept in hammocks hung from the rafters and fed on milk made from boiled sweet potatoes.
On the morning of August 6th, 1945, Une–san was tending to her brood of about 50 infants, when the sky lit up with the light of a thousand suns. Seconds later, she was blown over by the force of a hurricane wind. For hours she remained unconscious and when she awoke, she was buried under refuse. Digging her way out, lifting her head to a reddish brown sky, she looked around for the children, but the structure and all of its inhabitants were gone. Frantically searching her surroundings for the babies, she found nothing but smoldering bodies charred and blackened.
Dazed, she started to find her way back home, but nothing was familiar. Buildings that stood only hours before were now gone; a destroyed trolley lay on its side, blown yards from its rails. Everywhere Une-san went, those that did survive were asking for water, the heat so unbearable. With burnt flesh hanging from bones, the zombies of Hiroshima tried making sense of what had happened. She meandered through the devastation for hours, hearing pleas for water, water, water. Mizu kudasai… Mizu kudasai.
Several years after the war had ended, Une-san had decided that she would make a twice-daily journey to the dozens of memorial statues honoring those that had died that horrible day in 1945, and offer a single cup of water. She did that without missing a day for 67 years until she passed at the age of 93.
On the flight back to LA, I wrote a treatment called A THOUSAND CRANES. In Japanese culture, if one folds a thousand origami cranes, one can realize their greatest dream. When I landed in LA I wondered how this screenplay and research would be funded. It turned out that there was a reason for that bunker at Daichi University. Tsuzuki-san was a Hiroshima bomb survivor himself.
When I got to the office the next day, DD’s controller called my office to enquire about a $1.7 million wire that had been sent to DD’s accounts from a Tzusuki Kaukonen… and I hadn’t folded one paper crane.
The journey had begun. With close to $2 million, I started searching for the perfect screenwriter. I knew that the film needed to be a love story and that the writing had to be delicate and inspiring. I called the various agencies, and some of them actually took my call. I guess it helped when I told the assistants that I was Cameron’s business partner. One side story though… I called all the major agencies but one still stands out some 15 or so years later.
I contacted Dan Ahlone’s office who, at the time, was the head of UTA (United Talent Agency). For a few days I would call and leave my name and phone number, but I never received a return call. Several weeks passed, though at about 8PM on my way home from work, driving my car north on Pacific Coast Highway, my cell rang.
“Hello, Scott here,” I said, using my usual salutation.
“One minute for Dan Ahloni,” a female voice said.
I waited for a few minutes trying to juggle my Motorola Star Tac in one hand, the steering wheel in the other.
“Who are you?” the voice on the other end shouted.
“Excuse me, this is Scott Ross, who is this?” I responded.
“No, WHO are you?” the voice shot back.
“Well, I’m Scott Ross, the CEO of Digital Domain,” I answered.
“ Ok, why should I be talking to you?, the voice yelled.
“ Is this Dan Ahloni?” I queried.
“This is fucking Dan Ahloni, and I want to know why I am wasting my time talking to you!” Ahloni continued yelling.
“Well, I’m looking for a writer that…” I meekly said.
“I don’t have time for this.” Ahloni hung up.
Hmmmm, maybe this is more difficult than I thought. I mean I had close to $2 million to spend on development of what I thought was a very important film and some agents didn’t have the time to talk to me. Wow, what a business.
After reading several dozen writing samples (almost all of them terrible) I was sent a script by a CAA agent that had promise. It was a love story based upon the life of a famous Impressionist painter. This writer had also been a writer on FRIEDA, the fantastic film about the life of the Mexican artist, Frieda Kahlo. I contacted her agent and a meeting was set. Diane Lake showed up at DD and we hit it off right away. She loved my story and I loved that she was a mature woman, steeped in romance, and taken by history. I took her to Japan. We spent two weeks together. I introduced her to Une-san, we lived in an ancient Ryokan, met the mayor of Hiroshima, spoke to other survivors, visited Shinto temples, and generally immersed her in all things Japanese. I negotiated a deal with her agent for the customary two passes and a polish, and paid her handsomely for her work.
Diane then set about writing. She did so in solitude. Having my treatment as the basic recipe and her experiences in Japan as spice, my hope was that she would cook up the greatest love story since Romeo and Juliet. Every now and then I would check in with Diane, and in my sophomoric producer way, asked to see pages. Or Scenes. Or Acts. I was told that writers don’t do that. You get the whole meal at the end of the process. Producers are not allowed to be in the kitchen.
Three months passed and Diane was ready to serve up A THOUSAND CRANES. I eagerly awaited, salivating at the prospect. She turned in her first draft and it was close to 200 pages. Now, most screenplays come in at under 120 pages, and every now and again, one sees a 130 page epic…. But almost 200 pages! This was no ordinary meal, this was a 12-course orgy of a meal.
I read it… all of it. And in the end I felt terribly bloated. It just didn’t work for me. So, I sat down, pencil and paper in hand, and gave copious notes. I spoke to Diane (a really wonderful woman and writer) and explained that it wasn’t what I had in mind. She was devastated, having poured about six months of her life into this. Being the professional that she was, she licked her wounds, and sat down and started again. Ultimately, I could see that this wasn’t going to work. I paid Diane and moved on.
By this point, I felt that the project needed a world-class writer, an Academy Award-winning writer, a famous writer. It was relatively easy for me to feel this way as I had a lot of OPM (other people’s money).
Over the years I had met several Oscar-winning writers and two of them seemed to have the perfect sensibilities for a story like A THOUSAND CRANES. Jan Sardi (SHINE) and John Patrick Shanley (MOONSTRUCK) seemed perfect. After several phone conversations with both writers and their agents, only Shanley was available, given the time frame I needed to have the screenplay written.
Shanley and I had briefly known each other when he was directing JOE VS THE VOLCANO. He was doing his visual effects at ILM and we had several meetings back then. Shanley is a world-class playwright, having penned over 20 stage plays and having won the Pulitzer Prize for DOUBT: A PARABLE. More importantly, he seemed to be an avid Japanophile and seemed to be taken by my story. I sent Shanley the Diane Lake script, we had several conversations on the phone as well, but the task at hand was negotiating his writing fee with CAA. Having negotiated a healthy deal with CAA for Diane Lake, I was truly unprepared for what an Academy Award-winning screenplay writer gets paid. OMG! Yup, I know, it’s the majors, and major-league players get big paychecks. I guess I was still pretty green, and after Shanley’s deal I had a lot less green than I had before.
Shanley, on the other hand, was not allowing any grass to grow under his feet while his deal was being negotiated. I guess he had a limited window in which he was available to write CRANES, and he went to work immediately. He must have been confident that a deal would culminate. It did, and within what seemed like hours Shanley’s draft was on my desk.
I devoured it. And when the dust settled, I was once again disappointed. The writing was, of course, wonderful… but there was something missing. I got on the phone with John, explained my concerns and he understood. I was upset that he had written his first draft without much of my involvement. The story that I had in my head was not yet on the page. I gave John notes, and he graciously agreed to the changes. Within a very short time the second draft was completed. I read it. It still didn’t work—at least not for me.
At this point I had burned through a large portion of the development money. The screenplay was not close to what I wanted and well over two years had passed. I started feverishly folding origami cranes.
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P A R T 2
The $1.7 million had been received and about $1.2 million already spent. Two writers, a trip to Japan, dozens of meetings, and two years had transpired and so far, several disappointing drafts and not even a traffic-light insight, let alone a green light.
Interestingly enough, the money had been wired directly into Digital Domain’s bank account, but there had been no contract or agreement governing the use of funds, nor any obligations that DD would have regarding the money. The bubble in Japan, at least in the educational sector, had not yet burst. Tsuzuki Kaukonen had dozens of educational and vocational enterprises. From Hotel Management, Economics, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Digital Content, to Flower Arranging… Tsuzuki Schools had extraordinary tax advantages (they paid none), and thousands upon thousands of students. The schools were run with military professionalism, but when it came to entertainment business affairs, they were sorely lacking.
Try as we may to put an agreement in place, we just couldn’t come to any terms agreeable to both parties. They wanted ultimate creative control—approval of actors and director and final script approval. They however had no concern about DD using the funds for script development and never once asked for their money back. In fact, at one point Tsuzuki had indicated that he was prepared to fund the entire film, all $150 million. He sent his beautiful daughter Asuka to Venice to discuss the possibility, but after several months of negotiations funds were diverted elsewhere. Tsuzuki-san decided to purchase one of the largest buildings in Fukuoka and open up StarBucks throughout Japan.
I continued to travel to Japan, lecturing at various Scott Ross Digital Schools. I gave press conferences, met with Tsuzuki-san to discuss actresses that might play the lead role of Keiko (Tsuzuki-san was very interested in beautiful actresses), and continued my conversations with resources that would give me further insight into what led up to that day in August 1945. I met with dozens of Hibakusha (survivors), professors, news archivists, military, and government officials. I built a friendship with Hiroshima’s mayor and had full support of the Peace Memorial Museum as well as the Hiroshima Film Commission.
But, I still had over a million-dollar script(s) that I was unhappy with. I realized that I would never really be happy with a personal story that was written by writers that wrote in seclusion without my direct involvement. I had also learned that writers, at least scriptwriters, were a strange lot, and rightly so. Hollywood had mistreated writers forever. While everyone in Hollywood will tell you that a script is the most important part of a movie, writers were, for the most part, treated like second-class citizens by Hollywood power brokers. Those at the top were paid extremely well, deservingly so at times, but most writers were often mistreated and not compensated fairly. And so, over the years, the WGA, writers’ agents, and writers themselves had developed their rules and regulations, their tough outer skin, to protect themselves. Unfortunately, like all of business, and most acutely, the business of Hollywood had become absolutely dysfunctional—everyone expecting to get screwed by the other guy, and therefore, defensively, trying to make sure that they did the screwing first.
I figured that if I were to be involved with the writer, I needed to be part of the writing team. I had conversations and meetings with several good writers but all of them refused to have the Producer be a part of the writing team. It seemed obvious to me that I needed to find an already-existing writing team that would be open to allowing a third member (moi) to join the team. After more meetings and reading even more bad scripts, I stumbled upon two young guys that had written a pretty-good sci-fi script. While the script wasn’t appropriate for CRANES, I was intrigued by the last name of one of the writers: Kebo.
This team was comprised of two young guys, an Argentinian, Rudi Liden, and a Japanese American, Dave Kebo.
They showed up at DD and I took an immediate liking to them. They were cool, excitable, eager, and loved the story. And then I lowered the boom… I would only hire them if they allowed me to be part of the writing team. They wanted to think it over. I think that they didn’t want to embark on what they thought would be a cluster fuck. They came back with a No… sorry, but this won’t work, they thought. I thanked them and told them that I would have to move on. After a few days, they got back to me and said, Yes, they would like to see if they could work under this rather strange arrangement. Personally, I think they really needed the money.
The next several months was to be one of the greatest creative experiences of my life. Everyday, Kebo and Liden would show up to DD at about 10 AM. After sketching-out characters and a rough outline, the three of us would talk through each scene. The guys would retire to their cubicle and get on with writing while I tended to being the CEO of a major visual effects facility. At about 6 PM we would reconvene and review the scene(s) that had been written that day. Comments, discussions, at times-heated debate would ensue, yet at the end we would craft a screenplay that we all would be proud of. This went on for several months. I believe both Dave and Rudi would say that the experiment was a great success and that the end product was everything that we had hoped for. At some point Kebo got out of the business, but Rudi and I remain close friends to this day and have collaborated on several other projects.
With this new version of CRANES, it was time to attach the necessary “elements,” as those in the biz say. A project like A THOUSAND CRANES, a big budget film, chock full of visual effects, drama, romance, history, intrigue, and character development (everything I like in a film), is a film that for the aforementioned reasons is nigh impossible to get made. Again, I learned that a little too late. What I did learn was that to get a project like this off the ground, one needed “elements.” And in this case the elements needed to be as heavy as Uranium. Those heavyweights fell into two categories: directors and movie stars.
Over the years, while heading up VFX companies, I had the opportunity to meet some of the world’s biggest directors. I had also learned that most of those heavyweight directors had projects scheduled for years ahead and that unsolicited screenplays like CRANES were rarely, if ever accepted by their production companies. I was not your average solicitor; after all, I had cut deals with most of these guys over the years, and many of them said, “Take care of me on this one, Scott, and I’ll take care of you guys in the future.” I also realized that CRANES would have to go through the necessary channels to ever make it to the desk of any of these directors.
The script would be submitted, wind up on the desk of some “20-something” reader dressed in black, smoking Gauloise and still having nocturnal emissions over some darkly disturbed “Fincheresque” film noir piece. Assuming this reader even cared what happened fifty years ago in Hiroshima, I was pretty sure I would never get the coverage I needed to move to the next level, the director’s Producer.
Over the next few years or so, I submitted the screenplay to Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Peter Weir, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, and Mel Gibson. Interestingly enough I got responses from all of them. Oliver and I met a few times but he had a real problem that, even though there were many historically accurate elements, the main characters were fictional. I reminded him of JFK. Spielberg said that although he liked the script, he had a Japanese film already in production (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA). RSA (Ridley’s production company) sent their Exec Producer to DD for a meeting but ultimately decided to pass. I called Peter Weir at home and explained the project. Peter had just finished MASTER AND COMMANDER and explained to me that after that experience he would never again direct a large visual effects-laden movie. Clint’s producer Rob Lorenz and I discussed Cranes, and while Rob thought the script good, he said that Clint too had a Japanese film in the works (LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA). Rob recommended that I send the script on to Clooney’s production company which was located just next door to Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions on the Warners lot. Clooney’s people said that while the script was really great, that George was through making WWII movies after his experience on THE GOOD GERMAN.
The feedback I was getting on the script was very positive, particularly from women. With that info in hand, I started to look for a woman director. Unfortunately, the pickings were slim. At the time, there were very few female directors that a studio/financer would feel comfortable handing a $150-million epic war story to. I had fallen in love with Julie Taymor, the director of FRIEDA, and felt that she would surely understand our heroine, Keiko. I spent a half an hour on the phone with Julie. She had read the script but felt that our heroine was not strong enough. I tried to explain that in 1945 Japan, Keiko was akin to Wonder Woman in today’s society. She wasn’t buying.
At some point, the writers and I, through our research, became aware that the first Caucasian to witness the devastation of Hiroshima was an Australian reporter, who after seeing the remains of Hiroshima, telegraphed a story back to Sydney. He was immediately seized by the Japanese Authorities and detained. I thought maybe we could rewrite the intro, include the Australian as a bookend and now tell the story thru the eyes of this Australian reporter. I contacted Mel Gibson.
Bruce Davies, Mel’s partner, wanted to pursue CRANES and it seemed that through Mel’s production company, their development execs prodding, and this new twist, we had some serious interest. Bruce and Mel set up a meeting with Paramount’s then-President of Production, Michelle Manning. Bruce and I met with Michelle armed with a tone poem DVD that Rob Legato had put together with images of Hiroshima cut to a track of Madame Butterfly. The meeting was relatively brief. Manning loved the script but felt that the ending was really sad. She wondered if it had to end with all those people dying, and our hero and heroine dying as well. I tried to explain that was the point of the screenplay.
“Couldn’t we have a happy ending?” she asked.
“Well, over 90,000 people were killed as a result of the bomb,” I answered.
“Couldn’t Keiko and Nic live?” she continued.
“Well, it seemed to work in TITANIC,” I responded.
“Maybe at least one of them, like in TITANIC, should live on,” she said.
“How about ROMEO AND JULIET, that seemed to have worked—for centuries, internationally,” I said.
Paramount passed, and certain issues started to plague Mel. We moved on. I continued folding cranes.
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P A R T 3
The realization that the only way to get a $150,000,000 epic, historical, love-story movie made was to attach one of a handful of directors or actors that the studio, even though they would rather not make the film, had to carefully consider making, lest they piss off a serious revenue generator. I saw that first hand when Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe wanted to remake the 1997 Spanish film ABRE LOS OJOS (OPEN YOUR EYES)… or as we know it, VANILLA SKY.
Back then, the directors that could get a movie made were James Cameron, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott, Roland Emmerich, David Fincher, Robert Zemeckis, and Peter Jackson. At least, that was my take. I spoke to most of them, and a few more.
Several directors didn’t feel “right” for the film (how pompous and arrogant can a VFX nerd get?), so I didn’t pursue them. George Lucas and I were not really on good terms, considering all that happened back at LucasFilm, so I didn’t approach him. I admired Fincher a great deal and since we had known each other for twenty years or so, I personally gave him the script to read. Not sure if he was being nice (he generally isn’t), but he said he liked it, yet he said it seemed “really really expensive.” And then there was Cameron. At the time, Jim and I were still partners, and while we had “disagreed” about many things, I talked to him about the project at lunch one day at Chaya Venice. He was talking about doing smaller art films in the wake of TITANIC’s incredible success. Something about a fellow with multiple personality disorders. I, of course, was really interested in Jim’s take on my Hiroshima bomb movie. I mean, it had all the elements for a Cameron film. A strong female lead, a repentant and reluctant male hero, a message film about world peace. A shitload of visual effects. Perfect. Right?
Cameron wasn’t biting… too bad, he would have made a great CRANES. Unfortunately, Jim and I had a major public falling out. I had to stand up for what I believed was right and unfortunately Jim didn’t see it my way. If only one could turn back the hands of time, I would have handled it so very differently.
A few years after that lunch, I noticed that Jim had hired some writers to do a “take” on something about Hiroshima and the bomb. Something about the grandkids of Japanese survivors wanting revenge on the USA and getting their hands on a Nuke. Then a little later there was the news that Cameron had optioned a book called The Last Train From Hiroshima, written by Charles Pelligrino, a frequent collaborator of Jim’s. Recently the book has been pulled by the publishers, as there where doubts about the authenticity of this “true” story.
I then had a crazy idea. Who was the director that I, given my druthers, would die to have direct CRANES?
Milos Foreman, while not a guaranteed green-light director, would be able to attract world-class talent that might get the film financed. Forman was old school. He had the same manager/agent for what seemed like an eternity. I must have spoken to this rather elderly New York gentlemen with a thick accent (I can’t recall his name) for a year or more. And every time we spoke, he assured me that Milos was “very interested, but very busy.” This conversation became a monthly regimen. I would make the call, he would take the call, he would put me off. It took me awhile to understand that people in the movie business rarely say “No.” They usually say how much they like something, but, that it’s not right for them at this time. The Japanese have a very similar quality. They Japanese word for yes is “Hai,” the word for no is “Hai” (said while sucking air in between their teeth).
Having run through a directors’ who’s who, I turned my attentions to actors that could get a movie made. CRANES is a film that is limited in attracting international stars, as most of the film takes place in Japan. In fact, most of the actors are Japanese. If you hadn’t noticed, there aren’t many major Japanese movie stars that are big box-office draws. Maybe that’s why MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA starred Chinese actresses! The only leading role that would attract a major movie star would be the role of Nic, our male protagonist. Nic, is Russian by birth, though he grew up in the U.S. Nic is supposed to be around 33 years old. When I started on this journey back in 1998, there were a handful of actors that could play the role. There were even fewer that could play the role and qualify as a movie star that would get the movie made. In fact, there was only one that really fit the bill.
Getting the attention of a movie star is a lot more difficult than getting the attention of a major Hollywood director, at least for me. Going the typical route of contacting their agent, is, for the most part, a non starter. Agents make their money by commission. Agents are mostly interested in the highest possible price they can negotiate for their client. Agents don’t want to spin their wheels, Agents want a sure thing, especially for their highest grossing client. Agents of big stars will only talk to Producers that are well financed and famous. Agents have assistants that guard them with a vengeance. “… and he would know you because?” “And he is expecting your call?” “I’m sorry but, he can’t speak to you now… or ever!”
I had heard through some friends, supposedly in the know, that Brad Pitt had a psychic. And that he consulted with this psychic on all decisions regarding projects that he might get involved with. I must say, that I’m a New Yorker and most definitely not of the “woo-woo” variety, but I set up an appointment with said psychic. A fifty-something charming Persian woman, nicely coiffed and affable, answered the door. She was located in the mid-Wilshire district in a nondescript two bedroom with lots of tchotchkis sprinkled throughout her apartment. She asked me all kinds of questions. She pulled out a deck of Tarot Cards. She recorded the session on a cassette player. I told her all about CRANES, but I didn’t want her to know that I had come for the specific purpose of getting my script to her client. At the end of the session, I handed her $150 and as I was walking out the door, I made mention that I thought Brad Pitt would be perfect for the starring role.
She thanked me and said, “Visualize Brad calling you on the phone, and accepting your offer.”
I did… for several months, but I guess Brad never got the vibration of my visualization.
The other two movie stars that could get CRANES made, though not quite perfect for the role were Tom Cruise and George Clooney. George had already passed because, according to his “people,” he didn’t want to do another WWII movie. So that left Tom. Over the years I had spoken to Paula Weinstein, Cruise’s producing partner. I rang her, I sent the script over; I never got a return call. So, I called, a lot, and was finally told that they really liked it but they too had a Japanese film, THE LAST SAMURAI.
Visual Effects production was looking very appealing.
I started to retrench. Maybe the screenplay wasn’t as good as I thought. Maybe, creative people of the caliber I was shooting for didn’t actually read screenplays. Maybe I needed visual aides and a polish on the script. I hired a bright young Lebanese artist that proceeded to create renderings and illustrations of key scenes within the screenplay. We worked together as a team for a few months, me as creative director and my new friend drawing magnificent illustrations. At the end of three months we had put together a beautiful presentation.
At about the same time, I was developing several other projects as well. One was a supernatural thriller called INDIGO. The lead character was a 20-something female, and I thought of another hot, young actress who would be perfect. I contacted her manager who, interestingly enough, not only grew up in my neighborhood in Queens and was my age, but was also her mother! We met at DD and immediately hit it off. We seemed to hang in the same places back in the mid to late 60’s. We liked the same music, had the same sensibilities and loved the same movies. I asked her to read A THOUSAND CRANES, and she loved it, albeit with notes and changes that she wanted to make.
By the way, every person that reads your script, whether he/she is a professor of literature or a garbage man, a psychologist or a dishwasher… they ALL have notes! It is one of the only businesses that I know where everyone, I mean everyone, is an expert. Imagine if this was allowed in medicine.
“Excuse me, Doctor, but are you actually going to enter this patient’s skull with an incision?” the dishwasher asked the surgeon.
“I think you should use leeches to extract the infection,” the garbage man added.
The mom invited me to a private dinner honoring her daughter for winning the BAFTA for her latest film. It was at the home of a famous actress. Though I was on the verge of a divorce, I attended with my then-wife. About 30 people were in attendance that evening, all of them world class actors, actresses, producers, and directors. Meg Ryan, Sir Ben Kingsley, Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Winona Ryder, etc…. you get the picture. In fact, everyone there was super famous, except my ex and yours truly. It was a heady evening for a VFX nerd like me.
The next day I got a call from the actress’ agent at William Morris. I was excited. This fellow begins to tell me that I need to move forward with the mom as my producing partner on CRANES because, after all, if I want to play in the major leagues, I’ll need the support of a major agency, like his. I’m stoked, “Damn, it looks like CRANES is back on track,” I say to myself.
The mom sets up meetings with new writers, many of them quite famous, some of them with William Morris. She brings another producer to the table, the wife of the William Morris agent and the daughter of one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. I’m liking all of this, finally, playing in Yankee Stadium with the crowd roaring. We collectively talk to a handful of writers and finally settle on Jeremy Leven (THE LEGEND OF BAGGAR VANCE, THE NOTEBOOK, DON JUAN DEMARCO). Leven is a seasoned writer, a one-time director, and very expensive. A deal is cut, I whisk him and his wife off to Japan, and he asks us to set up shop in NYC (where he lives). He needs an office (in his tony apartment building), a researcher, and an assistant. All is put in place and we now have a new writer!
The mom and I are really hitting it off. We start to develop other projects and wind up going to Cannes for the film festival. We take meetings with international distributors for CRANES. I stay at the Carlton Hotel in a very small windowless room on the first floor that is costing un bras et une jambe (an arm and a leg). Mom, however—the manager of a star—is being put up by Sony Pictures on the 6th floor in a suite. In addition, Sony has made a car and a driver available to her as well as tickets to every party and premiere that Cannes can throw at us. What a time! She and I walk arm-in-arm down the Croisette. How very French of us. We dine at fabulous restaurants, drink copious amounts of champagne, and talk about Rimbaud.
One late evening, I got a call to come to Mom’s 6th-floor suite, to discuss our meetings for tomorrow. I rang the bell, and she opened the door with more than strategy on her mind! I made a hasty exit, explaining that I was just going through a messy divorce and that our business relationship was considerably more important than anything she had in mind.
A week later, now back in LA, I got a very nasty phone call from a certain Agent. It seems that there was a major misunderstanding about what was said about his wife. I explained that there is nothing as upset as a woman scorned. I sent a lovely basket of fruit. All was forgotten.
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P A R T 4
Realizing that US studio financing was not in CRANES’ immediate future, I started pursuing international financing and distribution. I assumed that Japanese studios and distribution entities would be the best place to start.
Over the last several years, I had come to know a few international film sales agents. Kathy Morgan had been in the foreign sales game for a number of years. I liked Kathy, and more importantly she seemed to like the films that I and my team were developing at DD. Kathy put me in touch with Penny Karlin, another veteran foreign salesperson that was representing Shochiku Company Ltd., a famous Japanese movie studio and production company. Penny and Kathy graciously ushered me through the corporate hierarchy of Shochiku, finally putting me in touch with their most-senior executive responsible for foreign acquisitions. Shochiku “seemed” to be interested in CRANES. I assumed they would be, as Hollywood films based on a Japanese theme always did well in Japan. THE LAST SAMURAI grossed $111 million in the US and $119 million in Japan.
On yet another trip to Japan, and yet another nine-course formal dinner, I sat with Shochiku’s top brass and tried to negotiate an agreement for financing and distribution of A THOUSAND CRANES. Negotiations with Japanese is an art unto itself. First there is the difficulty regarding language, but real complications arise regarding culture. Japanese eschew legal agreements, take forever in their decision making process, need to get to truly “know” you, and build meaningful relationships before a deal can be struck. Additionally, as I’ve stated before, the Japanese word for YES is “Hai” and the word for NO is “Hai,” though said whilst sucking air between one’s teeth.
A “deal” was struck, and a press release was announced:
Visual effects production studio Digital Domain has entered an international co-production deal with Shochiku, one of Japan’s largest and oldest distribution, production, and exhibition companies.
The companies are partnering on the epic love story “A Thousand Cranes,” with Shochiku making an equity investment of nearly $25 million in the film and picking up the rights for Japan.
The film tells the story of a taboo love affair between a young Japanese translator and an American spy amid the backdrop of the atomic blast in Hiroshima.
“Cranes,” developed by Digital Domain CEO Scott Ross has been Ross’ passion for several years.…
Twenty five million dollars down and $125 million to go.
Unfortunately, a very short time after the above-press went out, Shochiku announced serious financial woes and much of the senior management of Shochiku exited. As a result, the new management backed away from the deal.
Covering my bases while in Tokyo, I visited a very wealthy individual that was the owner of Japan’s biggest cable TV provider “WOWOW.” This gentlemen was in fact wowed by CRANES and pledged that he and his company would cover the entire budget of $150 million if we met one condition. I braced myself, and waited for the translator to interpret his only caveat. It seemed that if I was able to procure the directorial services of Steven Spielberg, then and only then, would he deposit $150M into an escrow account for the production of the film. I tried, in vain, to explain that if Spielberg had signed on to CRANES, we wouldn’t need his money. We took the perfunctory photo, the one where I shake his hand and smile, and then I bowed deeply and said “Sayonara.”
I guess by now, you the reader can tell that I am (was) unflappable in my pursuit of getting this project underway. CRANES had become my passion. I was doggedly determined to bring CRANES to the big screen. It had become my life’s work and in many ways defined the rest of my life.
I continued pursuing financing alternatives in Japan. Fuji TV, Toho, SEGA, and Nintendo were all approached, and they all said “Hai” through clenched teeth. I finally started to realize, through insightful conversations with Japanese friends, that the Japanese had not come to terms with losing WWII, let alone with the Atomic Bomb and Hiroshima/Nagasaki. As opposed to Germany, WWII was rarely mentioned at all in Japan. In many ways, Japan was terribly embarrassed by the only war they had ever lost. And in some ways, their world-wide economic dominance became their revenge.
Back in New York City, Jeremy Leven and his two “assistants” were supposedly busy working on a rewrite. As I had mentioned, DD was funding an office and two employees under Leven’s direct supervision. I had chosen Leven, not only because of his prior work, but also because he, unlike some famous writers, actually wrote the scripts they were hired to write. Now, I know a few of you just said “WTF?”… but there are writers that employ a staff of junior writers that write screenplays that have “oversight” by their famous screenwriter boss.
I was quite excited to be working with Leven and was so looking forward to his new “take” on a screenplay that, to date, had four other writers already (not including me!). I had become close with one of Leven’s assistants, as I had hired her directly. I would check in with her almost daily while she was in Leven’s NY office. After a few months had passed and I wasn’t receiving any pages from Leven, I started to get worried. Speaking to Leven’s assistants, I started to get disturbing reports that Leven had other projects that he was working on as well. This was not my understanding of how things were to work. Eventually, I let Leven go. It upset Jeremy and he threatened legal action. At this point, I had enough. I never used anything of Leven’s, yet he said he was going to go to the Writers Guild and tie CRANES up with chain-of-title issues.
After all these years, and the incredible efforts by all involved, I had decided to shelve CRANES. It broke my heart to do so, but for the time being, I was done. Finding funding for a story where an American atomic bomb drops on a mostly civilian population, whilst George W. Bush was sitting in the White House and two of the largest film studios were controlled by ultra conservatives seemed impossible. On the other hand, maybe the script sucked, though I only got positive reactions from all those that had read it.
I had spent eight years of my life and almost $1.5 million of Tsuzuki’s cash on pursuing a dream, producing the definitive peace film. It had been over 60 years since August 6th, 1945, and in today’s zeitgeist there are now nine countries (excluding Iran) that possess nuclear weapons. And the weapons of today are a thousand times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima.
And I still fold a crane every year.
When I sold DD back in 2006, the new owners, Wyndcrest Holdings, headed up by DD’s new CEO John Textor, was unwilling to let A THOUSAND CRANES revert to me. To this day, it sits in a file folder somewhere within the halls of Digital Domain, collecting dust. Maybe, one day, DD will either produce this important film or return it to me. I’d fold a thousand cranes if that dream became a reality.
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Post Post Script
Much has happened to Digital Domain since I sold it back in 2006. Wyndcrest Holdings and John Textor led the Company into bankruptcy in 2012. Textor and his management took huge sums of money from the State of Florida with promises that DD would build an animation studio in Port St. Lucie FLA. Textor’s hopes were that DD FLA could become the new PIXAR. Though DD FLA hadn’t a distribution deal nor the necessary funding or talent to produce an animated CG film, the Company not only made promises to the State of FLA but also went public on the NYSE (DDMG). Neither effort worked out well. Textor left the Company just before it declared bankruptcy. The now-bankrupt company was put on the blocks and was ultimately sold to a Chinese company, Galloping Horse Beijing (80%) and Reliance Media, an Indian company (20%). There have been a lot of rumors about how the deal was done… whether there was Chinese money-laundering involved and whether the new owners of DD were actually shills set up by its real financier, Che Fung, who has since been arrested and is now spending his days in a Beijing jail. The new DD, now renamed DD3.0 is owned by yet another public company called Digital Domain Holdings (0547.HK ). Various reports of black market dealings, off shore companies as tax havens, continued money laundering, IP law suits, a murder of Galloping Horse’s CEO, and general hanky-panky continues. And though all that nastiness is still purportedly happening, DD ( the VFX company) continues to make incredible images, albeit losing millions of dollars a year in the process.
Over the years since the sale back in 2006, I have been very concerned about the company that I founded. I worried about the artists, the reputation, and frankly my legacy regarding this once great organization. During that time, I took Mr. Textor to task. I used all social media available to reveal the truth about what was really happening behind the curtain. The Wizard, in my opinion, was either a crook or just plain stupid. At times, I couldn’t tell. I once asked one of Textor’s partners if he thought John was evil or delusional. His response, “both.”
Years went by and I saw DD become a shell of what it once was. Time passes. Passion fades. But, the one thing I could never let go of was A THOUSAND CRANES. I tried every trick in the book to get my script back. After all, DDMG, DD 3.0, DD 2.0, or DDH seemed to have no intention whatsoever of doing anything with CRANES. It seemed to me, that the only reason I was unable to have CRANES revert back to me was DD management’s desire to somehow punish me. I mean, they did nothing with this screenplay for a decade. Additionally, as I had raised the development money from Tsuzuki, and that there was still several hundred-thousand dollars unused, didn’t DD have some form of legal and moral obligation to, at minimum, return the money to Tsuzuki? I contacted Tsuzuki and told them that I was willing to act as their agent to get the script and the unused portion of the money. I told DD that they had a possible lawsuit on their hands if they didn’t return the money and the screenplay. In the end however, Tsuzuki-san passed away and his heirs were unwilling to pursue any legal action. Textor and friends were unwilling to even have a conversation with me.
After the bankruptcy in 2012, all DD assets, including A THOUSAND CRANES, were placed in trust with the bankruptcy court. When the Chinese bought DD out of bankruptcy, they were not interested in A THOUSAND CRANES, and so that asset remained under the control of the bankruptcy trustee. I must have contacted that trustee a half dozen times over the years trying to buy the script. I was always told the same thing: “The court has not yet determined what it wants to do with all of the assets, please check back.” Needless to say, I did just that… every six months to a year. And every time I made that call or wrote an email, the response was the same.
A few more years passed. One day, about six months ago, I got a call from who other than … John Textor himself. It seems that John had negotiated a deal to get all of the DD assets that were not acquired by Galloping Horse, which included… my script.
John then made me an interesting offer. He said, “I acquired the script because I knew that you wanted it, and as soon as the proceedings close, the script is yours.” Needless to say, based upon my previous dealings with John, I assumed this was a trap. Several months went by and I would occasionally drop Textor a line: “So, John, what’s happening with A THOUSAND CRANES?” Sometimes he would respond with, “Oh, yeah, we are working on it,” and sometimes I would get no response at all. After awhile, I guess I just gave up.
But a couple of weeks ago I got an email from John. “The script is yours. Here’s the conveyance, sign it and send me $10.”
The journey was finally over.
Eighteen years had passed since that meeting in Hiroshima. The script was now mine and there were no legal entanglements.
And now… the next chapter.
I wonder what happens if one folds two-thousand cranes?
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About Scott Ross:
As one of the most notable pioneers in digital media and entertainment, Scott Ross’ career has been stellar. At present, Scott is the CEO of Virtuosity, a virtual reality startup which offers VR solutions to major brands and studios.
In 1992 he founded, along with Hollywood luminaries James Cameron and Stan Winston, Digital Domain, one of the largest digital production studios in the motion picture and advertising industries. Under Ross’ direction, Digital Domain garnered multiple Academy Award nominations, receiving its first Oscar for the ground breaking visual effects in TITANIC. That success was followed by a second Oscar for WHAT DREAMS MAY COME and a third for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. Digital Domain received additional nominations for TRUE LIES, APOLLO 13 and I, ROBOT, and has won four Scientific and Technical Achievement Academy Awards for its proprietary software. For well over a decade Ross oversaw the company that created imagery for movies such as TITANIC, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, APOLLO 13, FIGHT CLUB, TRUE LIES, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, X-MEN, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, I ROBOT, and many, many others. Ross has worked with the who’s who of film directors such as Cameron, Bay, Fincher, Howard, Scorsese, Coppola, The Coen Brothers, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Jackson, Salles… and generally has nice things to say about them.
In 2006 as Digital Domain’s CEO and Chairman, he successfully sold Digital Domain to director Michael Bay and a group of private-equity investors.
Prior to forming Digital Domain he led George Lucas’ vast entertainment empire, running ILM, Skywalker Sound, LucasFilm Commercial Productions, and DroidWorks. Ross first joined LucasFilm as General Manager of Industrial Light and Magic, and under his leadership ILM won five Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, INNERSPACE, TERMINATOR 2, THE ABYSS, DEATH BECOMES HER). The company re-organized in the 90’s and Ross was named Sr. VP of the LucasArts Entertainment Group, which was comprised of Skywalker Sound, LucasArts Commercial Productions, LucasArts Attractions, Editdroid/Soundroid, and ILM.
Ross has played a significant role in the worldwide advertising industry as well. Having started commercial production companies whilst at LucasFilm (ILM and LCP) as well as Digital Domain’s Commercials Division, he has led two of the largest VFX commercial production companies on the planet. Digital Domain has continually established itself as the premiere visual effects studio in the advertising industry. With Fortune 500 clients such as Nike, American Express, Gatorade, Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and Mercedes Benz, the DD Commercials Division has garnered dozens of Clio Awards and numerous Cannes Golden Lions.
In addition to the visual effects divisions, Mr. Ross launched Digital Domain Films, a feature film production division. The first feature film produced by Mr. Ross was the New Line Cinema release SECONDHAND LIONS, which achieved both critical and box-office success.
Prior to his celebrated career in film and advertising, Ross was a sound engineer touring with bands such as Miles Davis, The Allman Brothers, and Johnny Winter.
A native of New York City, Ross began his career in Media Studies at Hofstra University where he graduated with a BS in Communication Arts. He returned to Hofstra to receive an honorary doctorate degree from his alma mater.
Mr. Ross is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (OSCARS) and The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (EMMYS). He has worked on over 100 of the world’s largest special-effects films and has lectured extensively about the creative process, content, and technology in over 30 countries around the world.
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