CEO of Footprint Features Adam Saunders is living proof of the Napoleon Hill adage, “Do not wait: the time will never be ‘just right.’”
Like a modern take on those filmmakers of old who had only a dream, Saunders originally moved from NYC to Hollywood in 2007 to act – only to face the long, ongoing writer’s strike.
Undeterred and not “wanting to wait tables until I was 80,” Saunders immediately started up an independent production company called Footprint Features with a few buddies. Now he is the sole producer of the film “About Alex.” Executive produced by Oscar-winning producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the film was written and directed by Jesse Zwick. It stars Maggie Grace, Jason Ritter and Max Minghella – not bad for the company’s second feature.
Luckily, Saunders’ background prepared him well for both the Hollywood move and setting up the company – he was the co-founder and artistic director of the critically acclaimed theater company, Footprint on the Sun (1999-2005) and also an accomplished actor in plays, television shows and films.
Moviehole sat down with Saunders to see what the secret of his success is – and how others might find the secret too.
Moviehole: How did you get started in the entertainment business?
Adam Saunders: I started as an actor, I went to grad school (Yale School of Drama) for acting and I did things in New York City. When I moved out here to L.A. to act in 2007, the writers (Writers Guild) went on strike; I had run a theater company before, called Footprint on the Sun and it was the impetus for me in 2007. I got a few guys together and started a company called Footprints Features – they say that “all you need to be successful is ignorance and confidence.”
We (Footprint) wanted to create opportunities for Ben (founding member Benjamin Epps) to direct and for me to act, and it opened up a whole world of producing – I found I loved it and I felt doors were really opening. I also got connected to Ed Zwick and got Jesse’s (Zwick) script of “About Alex.”
Moviehole: What are you hoping the company will accomplish, project-wise?
AS: I want the company to really grow like Scott Rudin’s or Castle Rock with great character-driving films that reach a wide audience – we are increasing budgets with our films. I grew up on “When Harry Met Sally” and “A Few Good Men” type of films – these films may not be made in that way today as the studios are making superhero films. The audience still wants these kinds of films, as seen with the success of “The Fault in Our Stars,” or like “The Way, Way Back” or “The Spectacular Now.”
Moviehole: Who are your idols and why?
AS: From a character standpoint, it would be Phillip Seymour Hoffman for actor projects – as to producers, it would be Harvey Weinstein, Scott Rudin and Brian Grazer – they have a great ability to get films out there and to reach people with them. I watched Joe Roth (producer) do a talk, which was really inspiring – I look to them. Then working with Ed and Marshall, those guys are legends and they created great films which are incredible.
Moviehole: What have been some of your toughest challenges in the industry and how did you overcome them?
AS: Well, I think for independent producers, the challenges would be in acquiring material and money, and getting good actors to be in films – with all three of those things, you can have a good career. In terms of raising money, it gets easier as you go and now we have a track record of doing that. The agents are also wonderful gatekeepers of good materials – we are getting great relationships with agents and managers and getting great material.
The last thing is getting the cast, so now we are off and running. I also think there is a benefit to knowing screenplay structure – it’s harder to find good scripts from random submissions, we do read scripts sent to us but it’s harder to find diamonds in the rough.
Because I started out as an actor, I’m always reading for dialogue and character in the movies (scripts) we are sent – we don’t do genre or big explosion movies, we do movies with a lot of heart. Jerry Bruckheimer once said “you should make the films you love to see.”
Moviehole: What sets your production company apart from others?
AS: When we first started and created a fancy website which we showed to a book publisher, he said it’s great, now you have to do it. If we option something, we make it – we do what we say we’re going to do and don’t overextend. It’s also about relationships and when I sit down with a writer/director and say we are going to make your movie, I feel I have to honor it.
We also have the ability to finance, if you don’t finance the film it doesn’t go – and we partially or fully finance a film. I was talking to Jesse about a cast member who had dropped out of “About Alex,” and I said we are going to make this movie no matter what. We can’t afford to be in development for five years and not have the movie go, and it does set us apart from a big company who says we’ll option this and that and see how it goes. I do think in general, people (other companies) option a lot of things, while we want to make two or three films a year.
Moviehole: What’s the most important thing to remember when producing a film?
AS: Every problem has a solution – the one thing about producing is “to leap and the net will appear” – I think that’s something a lot of people are afraid to do. If you wait for everything to be on the exact timeline for everything to go, you’ll be waiting forever. The last two films, things came together at the last moment.
What happened was, we had picked a house and tried to talk ourselves into liking it and the DP (director of photography) was worried about not enough space and feeling really cramped. We talked to Steve Eddy, our production adviser from Summit pictures about it too – by searching for a whole new house it would set us back, but I just felt like we had to leap and the net would appear.
We hired a location scout and told him we had two days to find a house, and we found it out of several others and signed the deal the next day. That willingness to just jump out of the airplane is so critical, that you have to trust that you will land on your feet.
Moviehole: You’ve taught at UCLA – what kinds of things do you teach in your course and what do you wish for in a great student?
AS: They do a series of guest lectures, and every term they bring in amazing guests – I taught a class about independent film, where I walked them (students) through steps on how to get a movie off the ground, acquiring the movie and getting the cast.
I think the people who do well in the class are the people who take initiative and ask to take me to lunch and have questions. There’s a saying, “If you ask Hollywood for something, Hollywood will tell you no – but if you tell Hollywood you’re doing something, Hollywood will say ‘how can I join?’” The same goes for producers, you just have to create something and if you create something that’s good, people will take notice.
The people who have done well like Harvey Weinstein – he is a movie guy and has extraordinary taste, like Brian Grazer – they know movies. Mike Medavoy wrote a book (“You’re Only as Good as Your Next One”) where he says if I had one talent, it’s knowing who is talented. Also being able to identify what is a good performance, there’s a baseline of being able to recognize great talent and having the ability to convince them to work with you.
Moviehole: I know some millennials who are struggling to get their foot in the door. What would you advise them?
AS: I would say, just try to surround yourself with the best people that you can, to do the work you want to do – even if you have to start as an assistant or intern, to build relationships with people who are doing the work you want to do. Also be clear on what work you want to do, like an actor, producer or writer – be clear in your head as to what you want to do, then go do it.
Moviehole: What are your future projects with names of stars? What is your ten year goal?
AS: I’m working on a film called “When We First Met,” and another project I can’t name – we’re trying to do two films a year for a few years, then three after that.
Moviehole: What advice do you have for Moviehole readers?
AS: Keep reading and staying in the know.
“About Alex” opens on August 4.