Some might be surprised to learn that the same team that produced the zany "Austin Powers" movies are also purveyors of such socially driven fare as HBO's mega-hit "If These Walls Could Talk," which addresses such touchy issues as abortion and lesbianism. But it's true. Team Todd, headed by 30-something sisters Suzanne Todd (the elder) and Jennifer Todd (the younger), produced all those projects, and more. Their wildly diverse projects include the masculine-themed "Boiler Room," and the horror flick "Idle Hands." Then there will be whatever develops during their two-year "first look" agreement with New Line Cinema.
Both women worked for producer Joel Silver's Silver Pictures in the early '90s, where their names were attached to "The Adventures of Hudson Hawk" starring Bruce Willis. The movie was a colossal flop, but in the odd world of Hollywood, anything done on a large enough scale, even a flop, can raise a player's profile. Suzanne next formed a production company with Demi Moore called Moving Pictures, which produced Ridley Scott's box-office winner "G.I. Jane" and the sentimental "Now and Then." She later worked as production executive at what many consider the premiere art-film house, Miramax, and supervised such credible fare as "The Opposite Sex" starring Courteney Cox and "Romeo Is Bleeding," before moving on to work at Willis' production company, Flying Hearts Films.
Team Todd was formed in 1997. The duo is working on a third installation of the "Walls" franchise for HBO, a feature film called "Single Gal Heaven" for Revolution Studios, and New Line projects entitled "White Trash Christmas" and "Arcadia."
Question: How do choose your projects?
Suzanne: We have an eclectic background that covers a broad range of projects. We've done everything from spoofy comedies like "Austin Powers" to the more serious stuff like "Walls." It is not a case of economics driving every decision. The movie business has been word-of-mouth-dependent for so long. The digital revolution has changed that over the last five years, five months and five minutes. Now somebody can upload a review on (aintitcool.com, a movie-industry Web site) and reach a million people. We simply look for things that speak to us.
Jennifer: The success rate for everybody in this business stays about the same. It's a common joke in the industry that the year a studio chief loses their job is usually the best year for that studio because of what they left in the pipeline. We still approach projects from the creative angle, pick things we like and think might work, and then figure out a business plan.
Q: Are the new technologies affecting the way you do business?
Jennifer: We haven't seen that much change in the way we do things from day to day, but people are talking about it, worrying a lot.
Suzanne: The way movies were done five years ago is not the way they are done today. It's not just the Internet. Financing is different and distribution is changing. Two guys did this funny spoof, "George Lucas in Love." Lucas is in film school writing "Star Wars," but he's living out the plot from "Shakespeare in Love." It wasn't released in theaters, it was shown on the Net and it sold in huge numbers. As people get more and more into watching from a home screen, it will be interesting to see how it affects what we will make. It's getting more difficult to figure out how something will fit into the new marketplace.
Q: But watching a film on a computer screen really can't compete with going to the movies, can it?
Suzanne: That's the big screen/small screen debate and it shows that, as a culture, we're hanging onto the idea of theater-going as an experience that you do with other people.
Jennifer: Roger Ebert says home video viewing is more "sedative" than movie-going. Still, every day in the trades you read of somebody having come up with some new format. The bottom line is, you have to be open to it all and keep up with what's going on, or get left behind.
Q: You seem to have a two-track approach of doing highly commercial fare like "Austin Powers" followed by artsy stuff like "If These Walls Could Talk." Do you pick commercial product first and then do something more serious once you've assured there's going to be some money in the bank?
Suzanne: Wouldn't that be nice! It's not what people envision. We're not lounging around our offices, talking on the phone, picking and choosing from a hundred scripts scattered at our feet. Essentially, you work hard at a thousand things, trying to get the rights, sign the talent and, of course, secure the money, which is something that has grown increasingly complex with the globalization of the industry and the new co-productions it has brought about.
Jennifer: People try to pigeonhole you. First you're a female filmmaker, then you make comedies. Of course, if the next five films we make are comedies, then that (would be) correct, but there's no strategy. It's who gives you the money. There are lots of things we don't get to make.
Q: For instance?
Suzanne: There's a children's book called "The Phantom Tollbooth" written by Norman Juster. It has a lot to say and has a hidden educational message that I like. I like the idea of teaching without letting on that you are. Anyway, it's a typical film-industry story where we had an executive at Turner Entertainment interested. We were on the verge of making it when the company went under. (Turner merged with Time Warner Inc. and the entertainment division was folded.)
Jennifer: I liked a script called "Teacher, Teacher," by Gigi Levangie, who we work with a lot. It's about three high school seniors who kidnap their teacher for a weekend. It's all timing. We had Natalie Portman, Christina Ricci, and Kirsten Dunst attached, but only Christina was a star at the time. We tried it out at Columbia Pictures and Tri-Star Productions, but they said we didn't have enough star power. Of course, if you had those three actresses attached to your project today
Q: "If These Walls Could Talk" turned out to be what critics call an "important" work.
Suzanne: Yeah, who would have thought that? We tried to develop it at Turner, but they didn't get what we were trying to do. We moved it over to HBO and they got it. We always felt like it was a labor of love. It was issue-oriented, if not altogether depressing. We didn't think anybody would watch it and figured we had pulled a fast one by getting them to give us the money. It holds the record for being the highest-rated HBO original movie ever.
Q: What's a typical day like for you two? How do you divide your labors?
Jennifer: It's not like she does prep and I do post. We each do everything and we take turns. She might be working on something for "Walls" and I might be in New York finishing up "Boiler Room." We fall into the "hands-on" producer category because we stay with the film until it's finished.
Suzanne: Some would say that's the less smart way, that we could make more money if we set the films up and then just let them go, but it wouldn't be as creative. There are better ways to make money than the movie business, as some of these big corporations that jump into the business figure out over time.
Q: Why would you go into business with your sister?
Suzanne: Lots of people work this way. Look at the Warner brothers, look at the mob. For me, it's nice to know there's at least one person who won't stab you in the back.
Jennifer: It's a family business. I know she only wants the best for me.
Q: There's been a great deal of talk about producers gearing up for a possible strike by actors and writers next spring. How is that affecting your business?
Suzanne: We're busy right now and this is usually when things are slow. Studios are rushing a bunch of movies into production. Chances are that a lot of them are not ready to go. If they're not, that's bad for the business.
Jennifer: Longer-term projects are definitely on hold. One executive told me that in a few years, you'll be able to go through a stack of videos and separate out the strike films from everything else (due to their inferior quality).
Suzanne: Like the Firestone "strike tires."
Q: Where is it you want to take your business?
Suzanne: Long-term goals are based upon the measure of your success. For us, it's still a question of creativity. Now we have more leverage and flexibility to make what we want.
Q: It's time for the inevitable question, what's it like being women in the film business?
Jennifer: When we first started, I was more naive. I would say, "I'm a woman and can do the same work as man can," etc., but it was much harder than I expected. There is an old boys network, and at the time, there were so few women executives. Now, the business has changed and things are more diversified.
Suzanne: We've delivered on some projects and that gives us a measure of respect. Still, there's a huge canyon between the way men and women are perceived.
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