An award winning producer, and one of Hollywood's most powerful players, Paula Wagner is perhaps best known for her long association with Tom Cruise, having formed Cruise/Wagner Productions with the star in 1993. The company produced many of Cruise's films of the '90s and 2000s, including the 'Mission: Impossible' series, 'Minority Report' and 'War of the Worlds'.
Ms. Wagner began her career as an agent at Creative Artists Agency in LA, where, in addition to Cruise, she represented actors and directors such as Oliver Stone, Demi Moore and Val Kilmer. In 2006 she partnered with Cruise to revive the fortunes of United Artists, leaving two years later to form her own production company, Chestnut Ridge Productions.
In October, Wagner ventured to the Doha Tribeca Film Festival to participate in a panel discussion about the changing face of film distribution. Keen to delve further into the subject, Cinematical caught up with Wagner over the phone earlier this month to learn more.
Did you enjoy Doha?
Very much, I did. I've never been to the Middle East and I was fascinated. Qatar and the interest in film -- the real, passionate interest and enthusiasm -- fascinated me. And it's very refreshing because you don't see that so much in Hollywood right now. They have all the ingredients [in Doha] –- what they need is the infrastructure and the education, which they're doing.
One of the other things I did while I was there; I'm on the board of trustees of Carnegie Mellon University, which is one of the campuses in the education city that the Sheik has put together of top universities. It's 2500 acres in Doha. Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Texas A&M, a number of colleges. I was there meeting students –- that's my other passion.
Is it harder to get movies off the ground in Hollywood these days?
It is, because what's happened is that the middle has somewhat evaporated. You have the massive event films that are technologically advanced and are epic in proportion and nature. We're in an era of branded entertainment, which is all perfectly understandable. It makes total sense how Hollywood got where it is and why it got where it is. We didn't see it coming but it dovetails perfectly with the bottom dropping out of the economy in 2008. As the budgets escalated, and the prints and advertising costs escalated over the 90s and the 2000s, as the DVD market shrank, as independent film and foreign presales transitioned, suddenly you have the very little films and the very big films, but there's no middle. Not unlike what's going on in the rest of the world, the middle is being squeezed out.
Was that what you were trying to do with United Artists – keep those middle films alive for a more mature, mass audience?
Yes, I think my goal was taking what was traditionally acknowledged or accepted as the special universe that that phenomenal brand inhabited, and bringing it in to the future. I wanted to make those kinds of films with the high-level talent. I think you can do it all. I have the very distinct philosophy about filmmaking that you can have it all and do it all. It's hard, it's challenging, but it's possible.
I'll tell you a film I'm particularly a fan of this year. 'Inception'. That, to me, is a film that did it all, and I'm very impressed that the studio backed that film. I think it's an extraordinary film; it's daring, it's risk-taking and I applaud it. I'd like to see more of that. And it could only have come from Chris Nolan, because he's becoming a brand through 'Batman' and taking those movies into the future. It was a risk, but I think it paid off on all fronts.
Interesting that you say only Chris Nolan, is he an exception, then? Can an auteur still play in the wider, Hollywood system?
We're not in an era of auteur filmmakers. And it's not only Chris Nolan, but he created something original and that excites me. I think we're in an era where we're examining myths, legend, history and contemporary culture. If you put those three things in together you come up with something original. I think you come up with an 'Inception', or an 'Avatar'. Think about that – another film I loved. Are they perfect? No, but they're creative and original and they use technology with an appropriate perspective. Their content, their story and their characters – they take you to somewhere you've never been. That, to me, is great moviemaking. But on the other end of the scale, you can take a very small film and that film can become something big. I loved 'Paranormal Activity', the first one. How clever. $15,000 – good for Oren Peli, what a smart guy to do that.
But it seems to come from that place of visionary leadership on any scale – something you seemed to acknowledge with the 'Mission: Impossible' series, giving those movies to Brian De Palma, John Woo and JJ Abrams.
When we began the 'Mission: Impossible' series, the whole philosophy behind it was to take a brand, a notable television series, with certain iconic elements – the theme music, the sleight of hand concept, the team concept – and all of the things that tapped in the cultural zeitgeist, and then bring in a classic filmmaker like De Palma and cast it internationally. We shot it Prague – the first major Hollywood film to shoot there. We purposely made it international and brought in a filmmaker to make each one a standalone. I'm very proud of the series, it was always the goal to, within something branded, take the opportunity to do something original.
Is that a philosophy you're applying to your new company, Chestnut Ridge Productions?
Yes. I'm looking for that very thing – that's the kind of film I want to make. Something highly original and entertaining – I want it to reach a wide audience – and I'm looking to the international market. We're working on something in China. As you know, some of 'Mission: Impossible III' was shot in China. Basically, those are the areas I'm interested in. I'm also working in theatre and I'm consulting. I've been developing a number of pieces of material but I'm interested in putting together the right thing – the right kind of film.
Very much for the Hollywood mainstream?
Absolutely. No film can get made without distribution. Making a film takes two things: money and distribution. Everything else will fall in place if you have those two. The project determines where the money comes from, how much it costs and what your distribution is going to be. The thing I'm working on for China is of epic proportions. I love big, epic productions and I'm also not opposed to doing a small movie that has incredible impact.
You worked with Tom Cruise for a number of years – do you believe stars still have the power they once did?
Well, our business is going through a transformation, but when you're going out to see a movie – if you're not in the industry and you just want to see a movie - what are the first two questions you ask?
What's it about and who's in it?
You got it. You have to have a great story to begin with – there's nothing more important than that – the play's the thing. But you have to anchor it with a star. The concept of stardom has changed because, with the accessibility of the Internet, there are a million celebrities. But there are very few movie stars. To be a movie star is not just to be a celebrity. You have to be an actor, you have to understand who to inhabit a character. Anybody can be a celebrity – a kid on YouTube's a celebrity tomorrow. But that's different from a movie star and they aren't going away. We need to make new movie stars, because we need to believe in that, and I'm a believer in movie stars. Before I was a producer I was at Creative Artists Agency and I worked with all the young actors. My goal was to work with young actors and help them build their careers into becoming formidable film stars.
Are there new movie stars on the horizon, then?
I think there are some amazingly talented young actors. I'm excited about the future prospects. For me, in the 80s at CAA, that was my passion – working with young actors and helping them grow their careers and packaging movies with them and around them and for them. I'm bullish about where it's going, but we must develop movie stars. I think in the last five or six years I don't think young talent was being nurtured in the way it should have been. But now I think there's a realisation that's occurred.
Where do you think the business is going?
We're in a transitional time and where exactly the business is going to land is hard to say. I don't think anybody has all the answers. What we were discussing in Doha was digital distribution and what it's going to mean with video on demand and things like that. It's a great time because we're still on the cusp of the great Oklahoma land rush in the computer world. Right now I think technology is outpacing the creative. We've talked about the epic, big, technologically advanced film or the very small controversial film that costs nothing to produce. Avatar vs. Precious. We're in a time of extremes and I think you can see that in our culture. The middle of everything needs strengthening.