«The most important qualities for a producer are to be knowledgeable about the business, to be honest and focused on what you do», - says Bob VAN RONKEL, president of Doors to Hollywood Acting Academy and the first American producer living and working in Moscow. Over the last ten years he has brought more than a hundred Hollywood stars and bands to Russia and other CIS countries, for parties, festivals, films, TV commercials, special events and will be continuing his work for our enjoyment.
A few of those guests
include: Antonio Banderas, Kanye West, Steve Seagal, Jack
Nicholson, Jim Carrey, Sean Penn, John Malkovich, Mickey
Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Mila Jovovich, Irina Shayk, Pamela
Anderson, Mariah Carey, Katy Perry, Kiss, Nazareth,
Scorpions, Brian Ferry, A-ha, Thirty Seconds to Mars.
Q – Bob, how long have you been living in Russia?
A – My first trip to Moscow was in 1998 with Warner Brothers Studio, but I actually moved to Russia at the end of 2002.
Q – You were working in the entertainment industry in Hollywood. How did you choose Russia for developing your business?
A – It was by accident. I had a successful real estate business in Beverly Hills and decided to open a restaurant in Hollywood where actors and others in the film industry would dine and socialize. My goal was to get to know some Hollywood movie people and through those contacts, I wanted support from professionals to become a movie producer. I lacked a college education and had been relying on myself to gather business experience.
So, I started my Hollywood career by trying to get my own film financing. During that time, in 1998, I happened to meet a Russian film producer who was dating an American, a friend of mine. She asked if I would help her Russian boyfriend. I liked him and decided to help.
He had just produced an English language action film shot in Russia and called “Sacred Cargo”.
He was the first person I’d met who used the strategy of integrating big name American actors with a local cast to get international interest in a film, and so make a bigger profit.
His problem happened to be that he didn’t have the right contacts in Hollywood to market his film the way he wanted. I introduced him to a few of my friends in film marketing and sales. They were successful at selling his film to some international outlets, and that was the beginning of our friendship.
A few months after that, he called me to ask if I could bring a Hollywood studio representative to Moscow to meet the then Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who wanted to build multiplex cinemas, which did not yet exist in Russia. I was lucky enough to convince the head of Warner Brothers International Theaters (who I had originally met in my restaurant) to accompany me to Russia. Sixty days later we were in Moscow.
We had a successful meeting, a press conference and made another trip back to Moscow to decide on a building location. However, the 1998 economic crash prevented the project from happening, since Moscow had no money to build multiplexes and Warner Brothers became too nervous to invest in Russia.
A short time later, I received a call from the Moscow Film Festival asking if I would help bring an actor to their Festival event. They were now aware of my reputation as a Hollywood producer with contacts in Los Angeles. In reality, I had just started my film production career and it was that call from the Moscow Film Festival that really made things happen.
One of the few actors I knew, Martin Landau, came with me. The success of that festival led to my job as the Moscow Film Festival consultant. Over the next few years I brought such actors, as Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jim Carrey and Peta Wilson, so my career as a film producer in Russia began.
Q – In your interview with Moskva-24, you described your goal as introducing Russian culture to Hollywood through Russian actors visiting Hollywood. What impresses you about the Russian people and their culture?
A – I love the Russian people. They are amazing, intelligent, generous, warm-hearted, loving and some of the best friends I have in this world today. Everyone invites me to dinner, to spas which they call banya, private homes, private jets, yachts, and they are always offering me vodka! Russian people I meet are always ready to make a special effort for me.
When I started to work here, I was blessed to meet several Russian businessmen who were interested in my travels and friendships with Hollywood stars.
We all had some great times, involved ourselves with glamorous lifestyles, and I continued to make more friends. These experiences helped me learn more about Russia and its culture. I know now that we are all the same people, with the same hearts, bodies and souls. It’s only our language and governments that create the difference.
Over the past twelve years I have met many talented Russian dancers, writers, musicians, and, of course, actors.
Then, after these years of bringing American culture to Russia, journalists repeatedly ask me why I don’t take Russian culture back to America. So I decided to start doing just that.
I talked with my Hollywood friends and contacts and thought that the best way to begin was to focus on developing Russian actors. It became apparent that successful exposure for Russian performers in America required additional training for these actors before leaving Russia. This experience would increase their acting skills for both film and television and advance their fluency with the English language.
That caused me to start the Doors to Hollywood in Moscow. I brought teachers from America and the school opened in April.
Q – We, Russians, often view American movies as having high technical quality but also being preoccupied with violence. What is your opinion about the mainstream US film industry?
A – The film industry is driven by profit, and it is probably one of the most difficult businesses to make a profit in. It’s really a tough game. Probably less than one out of every hundred movies makes a profit. So, Hollywood prefers proven, profitable franchises. They would rather take the risk making sequels to the “blockbuster” successful films such as “James Bond”, “Mission Impossible”, “Spiderman”, and “Harry Potter”, rather than take any chances.
majority of moviegoers are young people who enjoy playing
violent video games and watching television shows with
violent action. So, the movie industry caters to that
interest so the films will be profitable.
Q – Can a movie have high morals and no violence and still be popular?
A – Definitely yes, but in most cases, unless it has a big named star to draw attention, it takes more money and effort. Such movies are more difficult to market and attract investors to, including spreading around advertising, buzz and word of mouth, than a big action film starring, for example, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, or, Steven Seagal.
Another problem is that thoughtful, dramatic films are more difficult to produce, because of the work required to translate the story into a good script and then it needs a more talented director to realize that story on film.
A good example is the award-winning film, “Forrest Gump”, which took about nine years to get made. It wasn’t until the popular and talented actor Tom Hanks accepted the starring role and then brought in his own writer and production company to rewrite the script that it finally was able to begin production.
“Rocky” is another example. It took Stallone about eight years from the time he first finished the script and started showing it to the studios to the time it was approved and he was given the money to make it.
There are hundreds of similar examples.
Not only is it hard to find a great script, but people who have a great story, have the challenge of translating that story into a script that is also great. Then the final challenge is to take that great script and turn it into a great movie!
Q – Movies portraying international characters frequently cast non-native speakers. This is especially obvious in both US and Russian films when the accents can be quite pronounced. What difficulties do film makers face casting actors to play foreigners?
A – In Hollywood, it is more profitable to use an American actor to play a foreign role, than to use a foreign actor. The reason for this is because foreign accents are difficult for many Americans to understand, especially on film, and Americans will not go to a movie that presents challenges to enjoyment.
This language problem is one of the main reasons I decided to open the Doors to Hollywood Acting Academy and bring American teachers to not just teach film acting, but to teach English pronunciation and accent reduction. Good speaking skills that make it easy for the audience to understand dialogue is most important for Russian and other foreign actors wanting to work in Hollywood. I think there are even many British actors that could also use accent reduction classes.
Some people say that Hollywood doesn't like Russians, and that's why they use American actors who play Russian stereotypes in films. That's not true! Accents cost Hollywood directors more money to produce a film, because they will need to re-edit or dub the film to replace the accented voice.
So, our concept for the acting academy is to train Russian actors who already have good acting skills and teach them how to act in film and television while also focusing on their accent reduction.
As for Russian films, they also don’t want to increase production costs by importing foreign actors for minor roles, so they, too, will use Russian actors to play roles of foreigners.
Q – You have worked on the television series “From Files of the KGB”. Please tell about this project.
A – During one of my flights to Moscow, around 2001, I wondered how I could earn money while living in Russia. I thought about Americans love of action and spy stories and how fascinated we are with the KGB. I wondered if I could actually create such a television series, telling stories about Russian spies involved internationally.
My idea included the hurdle of getting the former KGB to give me declassified stories of Russian Special Forces missions that occurred around the world and then do a docudrama series in Russia recreating those true stories for American television. So, I needed to find a way to get close to the heads of the former KGB, now called the FSB. It took me six years before I was invited to the KGB headquarters on Lubyanka. Then it took five more years for them to check me out and trust me enough to visit regularly. That was quite an experience! I would bet that few other Americans have been above Lubyanka’s first floor. Finally, they approved my idea and not only did I get great stories but also a blessing to use them in my TV series.
I wanted Russian actors to play all Russian roles, and recreate what actually took place in each mission.
Some stories I've told to American friends and nobody can believe them. One was the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan when he came to visit Gorbachev in Moscow. Great stories!
Q – In one of your interviews, you have stated that you had cried reading the script for “The Tic Code”. What elements of that story touched you so deeply?
A – I was just getting into being a film producer and was reading many scripts. “The Tic Code” script was sent to us by Polly Draper, the lead actor and producer. I was impressed by the strong characters. The male lead was Gregory Hines. He plays a black musician who falls in love with Polly Draper's character, a white, single mother of a son with Tourette’s syndrome. Her son is a loveable child and talented pianist and as the story goes on we learn that Hines’s character, is a great jazz musician and he also has Tourette's.
The story first describes the boy’s feelings of alienation because of his illness, and then the bond of friendship he develops with Hines’s character who had experienced the same problem as a child.
As the movie progresses, Hines’s character convinces the boy that Tourette’s syndrome can also be something special. The boy’s relationship with Hines helps him to believe in people, accept differences and live with a positive attitude. Truly a film that can help people accept themselves and their own unique qualities and one I suggest everyone see.
This movie is a rare example of having a great script and also having a talented director who knows how to translate that script to film.
So, even though I consider myself a macho guy and am proud of being less emotional than other people I know, I cried reading the script and I cry every time I watch the movie.
Q – Films as media have power to enhance, affirm, or degrade societal values. What are your thoughts about current trends in movie stories in relation to improving society?
A – I believe that almost everybody makes, and must continue to make, movies for commercial value, not social. It’s sad, but they must in order to pay bills and make a profit.
Unfortunately, as I have already said, the majority of people who buy tickets to see movies today are the young who grow up watching violence, and who continue to want to see blood, speed and action, so that’s what producers give them to sell tickets.
Yes, we need many more talented writers, producers and directors who can make movies with good stories and a positive message, but actually putting all those pieces together is easier said than done.
I believe filmmakers would rather make meaningful movies and many are trying; it’s just very difficult to put together the ideal script with the ideal people.
Q – Many Russians feel that Soviet-era films were better than current Russian movies. How would you describe today’s Russian film industry?
A – Since I don’t speak Russian, I can only describe your film industry the way many of my Russian filmmaker friends have.
From what they say, it seems there were more talented writers and directors in the past and all were spending more time and focus on telling great, instructive stories rather than being driven by commercial success.
Apparently, they say, the biggest problem now is that since good writers are few, many Russian producers are approaching Hollywood to hire established screenwriters who will write the story in English and then the Russian producers will have the scripts translated into Russian. They feel that this will ensure them a successful film.
Another big problem today is trying to compare Russian movies with those from Hollywood. Since most Hollywood films are given much larger budgets comparisons are not reasonable.
As filmmakers in Russia usually have such small budgets they frequently need to make a scene work on the first take. On the other hand, a director in Hollywood is able to do four to six takes until he gets the scene the way he wants it. The more times you shoot a scene, the better raw material the editor has to work with, which means, the better end product you’re going to get.
Russian actors have told me they might come to the set in the morning ready to shoot only to discover their lines have been changed from the day before. If they don’t like them, they might rewrite the scene themselves, right before the shoot.
When things like this happen, it can be difficult to make a quality production.
Russian filmmakers face more challenges when they must work with bad writing, small budgets, short deadlines, and so on. Under such circumstances, I’m sure American filmmakers would have a hard time turning out quality films.
Q – You are quoted as saying that most Americans are uninformed about Russia. In general, Americans are poorly acquainted with life outside of the US. Foreign films are generally not in demand by Americans. Do you think this ethnocentric myopia is a result of national politics, cultural difference or American producers just focused on commercial success?
A – As I said, the first priority of American filmmakers is commercial success. Russians and others in foreign speaking countries have grown up watching subtitled films, because over the years, most of the biggest and best films they have seen have been in English and subtitled.
As for American audiences, they are not patient enough to sit and speed-read subtitles while watching the action. The original language of the film plays a big part in the potential number of dollars the film will earn. When you are trying to make money producing films, you want to be able to sell them everywhere, so you must do what is the most profitable and shooting in English increases worldwide sales.
Q – What about having films dubbed? It seems like Hollywood is not interested in that.
A – It’s very hard to find theaters or investors that will spend money to promote those movies. Distribution is the hardest thing to get and the most important part of a film’s successful exposure.
With all the films produced each year, independent films are much more difficult to put into the Hollywood pipeline. About ninety percent English language films will never be distributed. Although I feel dubbing is more sellable than subtitling them, it's still very difficult to get distribution.
Q – Please tell about your work on a Russian comedy that was to be filmed in the US last year. When do you expect this movie to be released? Is the film intended for the American or Russian audience?
A – It's been moved to September of this year because the script needed to be rewritten. It's a Russian language comedy for the Russian market currently called “Excursion”. The producer is my partner and good friend, Timur Khvan. He worked on the script with a Hollywood writer and is now having it translated into English so that I can read it and comment. As of now, it’s set to shoot this September in Las Vegas. This is our second film together. We made our first comedy, “All Inclusive”, a few years ago. It did really well.
Q – Do scripts by non-professional writers have any chance of being considered by Hollywood?
A – I think they have a great chance, if you mean good English scripts – good writers are always in demand. Every famous Hollywood writer at one time was a no-name scriptwriter before that first script sold.
If you mean non-professional Russian writers, then it’s another story. I know of no one in Hollywood who can easily read a Russian script.
A Russian writer should hire an established American writer to rewrite the script into English, and then find a quality producer and director who can help with financing and get the movie made.
Q – Potential business partners from all over the world would truly like you to make a movie in their country. What inspires you to collaborate with certain people?
A – I'm a deal maker, so I look for deals. Just last week someone came to me from Sri Lanka. She has a script they want to shoot in English and she said the government of her country has agreed to commit almost 50% of the budget to make the film. If I can verify that 50% of the financing is there, then this is something that interests me, because if I can attach one or two Hollywood actors that are well-known names, I can easily raise the other 50%.
I would then attach a good producer and director and make that movie in Sri Lanka.
Producing a movie is about putting all of the elements together. You may have a great script, but without financing, nothing happens. Financing is everything. There are many unfinished films from producers who took money from investors and started making the film with only part of the budget and couldn't get the rest. Now they are sitting with unfinished films.
I am not the type of producer that finds one great script, falls in love with it and spends the next five years trying to get it made. I'd rather be working with twenty different producers at one time, who are all working on perfecting one script. When I see the pieces falling into place, I will step in and bring the final piece that allows them to get their movie made.
Q – What kind of character makes a successful producer?
A – I believe the most important qualities for a producer are to be knowledgeable about the business, focused and honest. That can be difficult because producers need money to make films, so they have a tendency of promising the investors that the film is going to be a big success, when they don't understand anything about marketing and selling a film.
Most independent producers haven't done enough research and have no idea how to sell a film and to return money to investors.
Another important quality is to be able to get along with a variety of personalities, to prevent ending up in battles with producers, directors, and actors. I think it's important to communicate with everyone constructively and fairly. There are already too many egos in this business and you need to be sure that one of them isn’t your own.
Q – Do you think that you have convinced Hollywood film producers that it is worthwhile to make movies in Russia?
A – I believe that I have convinced a couple of them. The thing stopping most producers and directors seems to be expenses, such as the cost of accommodations in Russia and the supposed lack of experience of Russian crews working together.
It's not cheap to shoot in Russia. Many producers I know are going to places like Bulgaria and Czech Republic because labor and local expenses are less.
Most of the time, you can get great hotels for fifty dollars a night, whereas in Russia, it's hard to find a hotel room for two hundred dollars a night. To feed and house a thirty or forty person team for a month results in much higher overall production costs when compared to other eastern European cities. In addition, there is no tax credit. Many independent producers use a financial evaluation guideline that includes the production expenses, tax credits offered, and the availability of film crews and equipment needed to complete a movie. All these issues make you think twice before you start a project in Russia.
–Thank you very much, Bob, for sharing your fascinating experience.
– My pleasure.
The publication: May 2014