Kevin is joined by one of the most prolific and successful film producers of all time, Neal Moritz.
Neal Moritz, Producer
Neal Moritz has produced over 70 films that have grossed over $11 billion worldwide. Neal founded the production company Original Film and is responsible for projects such as Sonic the Hedgehog, The Escape Room, 21 Jump Street, Passengers, XXX, as well as the TV series Prison Break and The Boys. He started with movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Cruel Intentions and went on to produce the Fast and the Furious franchise.
The only opinion that really counts (1:53)
Kevin and Neal jump right into the importance of audience research as Kevin asks Neal which test screenings stand out for him. Neal discusses the process and how it could be the best night of his life, an okay night, or a terrible night as he awaits the results. They go on to discuss major changes that were made to Escape Room, and how the audience reacted to the highly publicized redrawing of the Sonic the Hedgehog character.
The most important question asked in an audience screening (8:21)
Neal to identifies the single most important question asked in an audience test screening. This leads to an interesting discussion about the types of questions that are asked, how to sift through the noise, & how the findings can lead to important changes in the films.
Screening Fast and the Furious 7 after the tragic passing of a star (13:59)
Neal recalls his most memorable screening. Neal describes the decision to continue filming Fast and the Furious 7 after Paul Walker’s tragic passing. Neal shares the fear and nervousness he felt while finishing the movie. Kevin & Neal discuss the iconic final scene and how the audience’s emotional reaction at the test screening proved that Moritz and the studio made the right decision.
Neal’s favorite genre (17:29)
Neal talks about the challenges he enjoys when producing action movies. He discusses 21 Jump Street and how the combined use of action and comedy makes this his favorite type of movie to produce.
How a canvas backpack led to a Hollywood career (29:43)
Neal tells the story of how he got started in Hollywood. He talks about his childhood of growing up in a family-owned movie theater, then becoming an entrepreneur selling canvas backpacks that he saw in China, and his decision to sell his company to become a producer.
The future of the film industry (33:59)
Kevin and Neal discuss the moviegoing experience in the face of the rise of streaming companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Neal talks about the value of seeing a movie in the theater, and how he decides which of his projects should be released theatrically versus streaming. The conversation turns to the economics of moviemaking and the value of having a proven producer attached to a film project.
Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: Neal Moritz
Producer: Kari Campano
For more information about Neal Moritz’s upcoming projects:
For more information about Kevin Goetz:
Audienceology Book: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Audience-ology/Kevin-Goetz/9781982186678
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @KevinGoetz360
Linked In @Kevin Goetz
Screen Engine/ASI Website: www.ScreenE
Podcast: Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz
Guest: Producer Neal Moritz
There's a little-known part of Hollywood that most people are not aware of known as the audience test preview. The recently released book, Audienceology, reveals this for the first time. Our podcast series, Don't Kill the Messenger, brings this book to life, taking a peek behind the curtain. And now, join author and entertainment research expert Kevin Goetz.
Kevin Goetz (00:24):
How do I describe my guest today? Neal Moritz. I guess bold, unabashed, talented for sure, no BS, but always fair and relentless and always working <laugh>. I could get a call on a Saturday night at nine o'clock when I'm out to dinner. Kevin, how's my movie going to open <laugh> next week? How's the tracking looking? He is the most prolific producer I probably know or at least know well. For the last 25 years, we have worked on so many movies together. You may not know him by name, but you certainly know his body of work and the trail that he's left. Movies like Sonic the Hedgehog, The Escape Room movies, 21 Jump Street, Passengers, XXX, the TV series Prison Break and The Boys. He started with movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Cruel Intentions. Oh yeah, I left one out a little franchise called The Fast and the Furious. Neal's movies have grossed over 11 billion with a B dollars at the worldwide box office, and he's done over 70 films. Hey man, I am so excited to have you here, Neal.
Neal Moritz (01:42):
Me too. I love talking to people that I really respect in the business and feel like, you know, I can get knowledge from them and I just like talking to you.
Kevin Goetz (01:53):
Ah, man. Thanks. And we have been through it. I mean, boy. Oh boy. I was just going to say, we've worked on a lot of movies together over the years. My company, Screen Engine ASI has conducted research on, I think most of them. Is there one <laugh> that stands out, a movie, a testing experience in your mind where the test screening revealed something that you just didn't foresee and that you were able to sort of address to really improve playability?
*Neal Moritz (02:24):
I mean, I think I've learned a lot from kind of every test screening I've ever done. For me, the test screening is where kind of the rubber hits the road because there's kind of three outcomes that you can have. You know, we've worked in this kind of shell for years making a movie, and we all have opinions and really the only opinion that really counts is that audience opinion. So when we put a movie up for the first time in front of a real audience, you know, it's either the best night of your life, an okay night of your life, or a terrible night of your life.
Kevin Goetz (03:02):
Neal Moritz (03:04):
And fortunately, and unfortunately, I've had, I've tasted all three of those things.
Kevin Goetz (03:08):
But I want to say you've had many, many more thank God of the great nights <laugh>.
Neal Moritz (03:14):
Yes. Well, that, that is, I'm lucky about that. But it's, I'm so excited for the first test screening, but I am definitely the most nervous I've ever been when you put that movie up for the first time in a dark room where it doesn't matter how many movies you've made, how many billions of dollars your movies have grossed, the audience is just reacting to what they see on the screen that time.
Kevin Goetz (03:41):
*Neal Moritz (03:43):
And so, you know, we put so much time, effort, sweat, tears into making these movies. It's like, well, doesn't matter what I think anymore. It's what the audience really thinks. So yeah, I've had a lot of different experiences. I think on Escape Room 1, we learned that we needed to change the ending of that movie dramatically, which we did. We went and shot a new third act, and it's probably what allowed us to have a very big success for that with that movie. I think that I learned a lot when I did the first Goosebumps test screening and on Sonic One.
Kevin Goetz (04:27):
Oh my gosh. So, I mean, really, that was tremendous.
Neal Moritz (04:30):
Yeah. We learned that we really didn't need our first act at all and that we needed to get into the movie much quicker.
Kevin Goetz (04:38):
How about changing the rendering of the character? I mean, that was a profound, profound research success story.
Neal Moritz (04:48):
Well, no, no. Where we learned that was when we released our first trailer.
Kevin Goetz (04:54):
Okay, sure, sure, sure, sure.
Neal Moritz (04:55):
Okay. We released our first trailer. That was one of the most interesting things I've ever had.
Kevin Goetz (05:00):
Yeah. But Neal, didn't we learn that first in the screening because the screening came out before the trailer? Maybe not to the extent of the backlash.
*Neal Moritz (05:09):
No. What we learned is when we tested it with the redone character, we learned that we had done the right thing. We honestly, what's interesting is that when we showed the movie with that character, we didn't have any of that reaction. That's what was so weird. And then when we put our first trailer out, and the audience, it was really interesting. It was one of those days where, oh my God, here's the good news. The good news is we've had more views on a trailer than almost any trailer ever. The bad news was, is that everybody who saw that trailer agreed that the design sucked.
Kevin Goetz (05:51):
Neal Moritz (05:52):
So I had to go into a meeting with Paramount the next day and beg them for a bunch more money and to delay the release of the movie so we can completely redo the character.
Kevin Goetz (06:02):
Can we both agree that it was probably the best money Paramount has ever spent? <laugh>? Maybe, Yes. World War Z would be another movie that we also redid so much of the movie because of the test screenings. But I do want to say that whether it was the character rendering or not the movie itself, and maybe that's what I'm referring to, tested pretty averagely the first time around. And after you made the substantial changes, it shot up. You really listened, is what I'm trying to get at.
*Neal Moritz (06:35):
Yeah, yeah. We really, what we learned on that thing was thematically the movie needed to be more about kind of the family element. And what we did was we went back and because so much of the movie was done in CGI, we were able to make major adjustments where the movie, the spine of the movie became about friendship and family and so on. And that's what we really learned in that test screen.
Kevin Goetz (07:02):
I love that you're saying that. You know, when I talk to Chris Meledandri, who runs Illumination, of course, we always talk about the fact that at the heart of a movie like that, you must have an emotional chord, a theme that resonates with the audience or you're relegated to just sort of good bits and not really a movie that can transcend to be a great experience, a great movie.
*Neal Moritz (07:30):
Yeah, I mean, here's the thing is, you know, I make movies that cost a lot of money, and the cheapest and best thing you can do in a movie is just have characters that people care about. If you can have that, they don't care how it looks. They don't care. All that stuff is gravy. What they care about mostly is characters that they can either identify with or care about.
Kevin Goetz (07:57):
And I call that the DNA, Neal.
Neal Moritz (07:59):
And I, honestly, I think that that's what's made The Fast and the Furious such a success is there was a character that everybody could relate to. You know, we had a group of mutts per se, and everybody could somehow relate to one of them and wanted to be one of them and wanted to be part of that family.
*Kevin Goetz (08:21):
I'm curious, in your opinion, what's the single most important question that is asked at a test screening for you? Like on the questionnaire, you know, the survey, or in the focus group?
Neal Moritz (08:33):
To me, it's two things. Which character do you like the most? And would you definitely recommend the movie.
Kevin Goetz (08:41):
And what you'd say about it, right? And how you would describe it or talk about it.
*Neal Moritz (08:45):
Yeah. I like when people can describe or tell their friends why they need to see this movie in the fewest amount of words.
Kevin Goetz (08:55):
Oh, I like that. I like that a lot. That's a great question. I have to say, my favorite is, if you did not give the movie an excellent, you gave it a very good, or you gave it a good, why didn't you give it a higher rating? Because those are good ratings, but they're not excellent ratings. And that, to me is where the greatest change can be made and where you can really convert people. I don't think you really convert fairs and poors, but I think you can convert certainly very goods and some degree of goods. And that affects, of course, your definite recommend question. And you and I both know that is the single most important number at any screening.
Neal Moritz (09:33):
Yep. I mean, the best thing about a test screening is whether you score good or bad is that if you have clear pass to make your movie better, like if somebody says to me, okay, the movie was great until that ending, okay, and da da da, and I know, okay, if I change the ending, I can dramatically. But it's when that, it's the amorphous stuff that you're just chasing, chasing, chasing for the rest of your post-production period, that you're never going to be able to change the end result. But if it's a clear, definitive thing, like, okay, the movie is too slow. Okay, I can fix that. If it needs a better last scene, I can fix that. But it's just the malaise, it was okay. That's a very hard thing for me.
Kevin Goetz (10:21):
And as a researcher, it makes it really challenging to try to craft a story around ambiguity like that. You know, it's so funny. During the pandemic at home orders, we stopped testing for a period of maybe six months. And, before we moved to our new, you know, our online platform, Virtuworks, we were not testing. And I would see movies come out, and I know you're going to agree with me on this. I would see movies that never tested and were so long, 20 minutes, 30 minutes too long. And you would say, like, what did you think of the movie? It's really good, but it's 20 or 30 minutes too long. Not a thing you want to say when you're endorsing a movie to someone. Right. Not the greatest thing or the ending was completely confusing. I just didn't get what they were trying to do. Where if you had tested it with an audience, many of those movies would've had more clarity, not necessarily a happy ending, a bad ending, a tragic ending, but a more definitive sense of what the filmmaker was trying to communicate. Because often, I guess, what the filmmaker thinks they're communicating isn't communicated to the larger audience.
Neal Moritz (11:31):
Yeah. I mean, when we do the test screens and then we go into our focus groups, which I if your audience knows what that means, but let’s say we have 400 people in the movie theater, and then he calls it down to 20 people per se, in the focus group, to ask specific questions about, for me, like, I just want to hear the first few answers, and then I'm ready to get up and go, because I don't get as much information later on in the focus group as I do just at people's initial gut reactions.
Kevin Goetz (12:06):
Right. But I do want to mention that the focus group is designed to start with the positives and morph into the negatives. So it's no wonder that you like the first part of the focus groups.
Neal Moritz (12:16):
No, I just think it starts to become a pile-on thing and people aren't really thinking that. And somebody else says it. Yeah. And then they go along with it. So it’s a…
Kevin Goetz (12:24):
But you and I know how to sift through that noise to get to the heart of it because I think that sometimes you don't want to start with, if someone says, you know, what are your first words and phrases about the movie? And someone says, it's slow. You don't want to start probing slow, then the group sort of goes downhill from there. But you do want to circle back to it. And there's an art to moderating that you're aware of and have been very complimentary to me over the years. And I think it's…
Neal Moritz (12:50):
Yes, you do it amazingly well, and other people do it less well.
Kevin Goetz (12:53):
<laugh>. Well, when I say to me it's what makes the difference between well and not well, for example, or good or not good, is getting the information that needs to be gotten and at any expense. I always ask myself that question, even 35 years into it, I'll say right before the group, my objective here is to get Neal or the studio the best information. And I will be relentless in trying to get it for you. I'm curious to know if there's anything that you think should be different at a research screening since you've attended, I don't know, hundreds of them?
Neal Moritz (13:28):
Well, I like to get the research screenings going as quickly as possible. I hate the waiting around, making them the audience wait, you know, we're usually waiting for some executives or somebody. If it's called for seven, I want to start at seven. I just think it leaves a bad taste in the audience's mouth. And I just don't, I don't like that. I'm always like, If they're not here, that's too bad. Let's start. They'll learn about it.
Kevin Goetz (13:53):
But Neal, but Neal, they're paying my bill, but they're paying my bill. I know, I know. I agree with you completely.
*Neal Moritz (13:59):
It just bothers me. The other thing I would say is when you say about test screens, memorable test screenings, for me, the most memorable test screening I ever had was on Fast and Furious 7 after Paul's passing. Okay. And we, you know, we weren't going to go finish that movie. And then ultimately we came up with an idea about how we could finish the movie. And the next year of work in that movie was kind of the scariest time ever. I wanted to honor Paul really badly. I wanted to deliver, but I was very nervous how an audience was going to be reacting to seeing Paul on the screen. And we came up with this ending at the very end where Paul and Vin are driving down the road and the road separates, and Paul goes one way and Vin goes the other way, and the movie ends and it is silence in this, in the thing.
Neal Moritz (14:53):
You only hear some crying basically. And I'm like, oh my God, did it work? Did it not work? It kind of felt like it worked, but like, I wasn't sure. And I remember standing on the lobby waiting for the results of the test screening, and some audience members came up to us and I guess they knew me from whatever they had seen in the past. And they came up to me and thanked me for making this movie. What I had forgotten was as close as Paul was to me, and to the cast and the crew, and how much we cared about him. I forgot how he meant the same for the audience. And they needed the closure as much as we did. And it was truly one of the most fulfilling things I've ever done in my life, where people were like, thank you for doing this for me.
Kevin Goetz (15:42):
Neal Moritz (15:43):
And the movie scored incredibly high. And, you know, there was still work to be done to the movie because there's always more work that you can do to any movie. But that was the test screening that stands out to me the most of anything I’ve ever done.
Kevin Goetz (15:56):
Wow. Let's take a moment. First of all, we're referring of course to Paul Walker, who was the actor who passed away way, way, way too prematurely during the making of these movies.
Neal Moritz (16:09):
We were in the middle of making that movie. We took a Thanksgiving break. We were all in Atlanta. Everybody kind of separated for that holiday. And unfortunately, he passed that weekend of Thanksgiving weekend. And I was away with my family and I got the news and it was just like, I just couldn't even believe it. And kind of everybody's, our initial thought was, we're just going to stop. We're not going to finish the movie. And there was going to be a big insurance claim and it was all this thing. And then when Chris Morgan kind of came up with the inkling of what the end could be, and then we figured out like, could we use technology actually make that happen? And then we pitched to the studio, we pitched it to, to all the casting. We came up with this idea that like, we were dedicated to making this work for him. And then so to see a reaction and a test screening like that, like we had never showed the movie to anybody.
Kevin Goetz (17:05):
Yeah, no, I know. But the class and the grace with which you showed and the studio showed was exemplary. And I really, really compliment you for that. You've made so many movies in your career of so many different genres.
Neal Moritz (17:23):
I get bored, I get bored of the studio...
Kevin Goetz (17:25):
I was just going to ask you, do you have a favorite genre, Neal?
*Neal Moritz (17:29):
I mean, I would say my favorite genre is action only because I really like making action because it's more interesting on a day-to-day basis. And also, there are more challenges, which obviously makes my job harder, but it makes it more interesting. And I've made so many movies I'm kind of looking for a challenge each time out. I think that that's my favorite movie to make. But I think if you make a comedy that works, there's nothing better than that because when you're sitting in an audience and people are laughing together, there's nothing better. So, if I say like, you know, the Jump Street movies are combined action and comedy, so maybe that's where I, when I really think about it, that's the kind of movie I like to make the most. Because I love having to make an action movie, but I like the reaction to comedy the most.
Kevin Goetz (18:23):
And how do you choose your scripts? And I know everyone has the sort of corporate speak about how they choose it, the process, but how does it work for you?
*Neal Moritz (18:38):
Yeah, I make all my major life decisions, whether they're professional or personal, just based on my gut. So, if I hear an idea, I know pretty quickly, like, is that an idea I'm interested in? Just an idea. And then I go from there. Okay. Then I read the script and I'm like, okay, yeah, I want to do that. Or I don't want to do that. There are plenty of movies that have been shown to us that got made that are good movies that I have, I don't care that I didn't make the movie, it's fine. I just, I come from a marketing background in terms of just my family too. So when I hear an idea, I need to know what my angle is of opening that movie. So whether I mean, I've said this, say this in our staff meetings all the time. I would much rather find a great idea and have okay execution than an okay idea and great execution. I'm idea driven and I think that way. And the things that kind of capture me are the things that have just really good solid, simple ideas.
Kevin Goetz (19:53):
You also acknowledge that this is a business first and foremost. And so having the, I call it the capability, the DNA, the underlying idea be at the sort of cornerstone is the greatest sort of commercial success I think that you can have. Right? Because, as you said, people will go to see something even if it doesn't turn out to be great, if they're really buying into something.
Neal Moritz (20:25):
Yeah. I mean, you said it's a business. I'm 62 years old. I've made, you know, a lot of movies, but the thing that keeps me going is I still love doing it. I really do. I really do like making movies still. And the only way I get to keep making them is if I make people money.
Kevin Goetz (20:46):
And I'm not, you're absolutely right, I'm not being funny when I'm asking this question, but what is the alchemy of Neal Moritz? What makes Neal Moritz so successful? Because arguably, you're one of the, I don't know, 10 most successful producers that I've ever worked with purely on box office, but also just the fact that you're prolific. I mean, you have so many movies in your arsenal.
Neal Moritz (21:11):
I hate losing.
Kevin Goetz (21:13):
Neal Moritz (21:14):
I really don't like to lose.
Kevin Goetz (21:15):
Neal Moritz (21:16):
And, if I'm going to spend this much time and energy, I want my movies or television shows to be seen by the widest possible audience. And you know, it's interesting. It's like, you know, because of all these streamers and because of all these studios trying to change the financial deals and models, it's funny, you know, I'm a first dollar gross producer on a lot of my movies. And honestly, those are the ones I put the most amount of effort in <laugh>, you know, I mean, I hate to say it, but like that does move me. Like, I'm going to work my ass off on a movie where I feel like, you know, I can really bring it home.
Kevin Goetz (22:01):
That's great. That's great. And I remember Sherry Lansing told me a great story about Forest Gump and how Zemeckis and I want to say it was Steve Starkey or whoever, you know, were work, they were working together at the time, right? I'm not sure Jack Rafferty was with them, but, I know she green-lit the movie. She had to go to, I think Gulf Western to get the approval and to corporate New York. And she got the 67 million, whatever it was. And then they came back like a week later and said they needed additional money. And she said, I know it wasn't like 250 or $500,000 because I could have authorized that, but it was like another 6 or 7 million bucks or something right in that neighborhood. And she said, I can't do it. And she then said, well, why don't you waive your fees? And they didn't hesitate apparently. And said okay. And she said at that moment, she had never been more confident in green lighting a movie in her life.
Neal Moritz (23:07):
I've done that multiple times. Okay. I will take zero money up front. Luckily I'm in the position where I can do that. I will take zero money up front from way more of the back end any day of the week. I've put my own money into movies in the past, whether it's Cruel Intentions, or you know, I've done that skulls, I've put, I would do that today. I was going to do those deals.
Kevin Goetz (23:29):
That is where you and I come together. We are both entrepreneurs. And that is a very, very important distinction about having the guts and the nerve to be able to do that. And then to stand by your own talent and your own belief.
Neal Moritz (23:45):
You also have to be able to do that. Like, you know, a lot of people can't do that, but luckily I can now. And when I did that early on in my career, I didn't have a family. I didn't have kids and wife to support. So I could do it. I could live on nothing. I mean, it was, that was, you know, I didn't even have to think about it. Now, early in my career when I started to have a wife and kids, I probably couldn't have done that as easily. I don't know if you've seen the show, The Offer?
Kevin Goetz (24:13):
I just saw it, I'm literally up to date. I saw the most recent one last night. I'm really digging it.
Neal Moritz (24:18):
I love it.
Kevin Goetz (24:20):
First of all, can we say one thing? How good is, is it Matthew Good?
Neal Moritz (24:24):
Matthew Good is amazing.
Kevin Goetz (24:25):
What he does to Bob. The Bob Evans stay good. He talks with the, with the nasal thing. And he, you, we got to get this of you. So I'm like, that is Bob. I worked with Bob, I remember Bob.
Neal Moritz (24:37):
And Miles Teller’s great too. What I was, I'm watching with my wife and I said to her last night, I said, This is the closest thing to what I do. Okay. And like I really, I really, I really admire already because you know, whether or not it's all true or not, if half of it's true, that's a producer. Like he went in there and did it. He bucked this in.
Kevin Goetz (25:03):
You betcha. And then went to, then went to Charlie Bluehorn and said, you know what? You going to fire me, fire me. And he did fire him. Of course, he hired him back. But, he fired him because he was angry at the time, but the man had conviction. I've always, let's do a shout out to Al Ruddy who happens to be my neighbor in Palm Springs. What a great, great guy and a terrific, terrific producer to your point.
Neal Moritz (25:33):
Yeah. He was old school. And I, I kind of like to think of myself as…
*Kevin Goetz (25:37):
You are 100%. Let me say it so you don't have to. You are that guy, the personification of the producer. And the reason I'm going to say that to our, to our listeners is because you are involved in literally every aspect of the production. And I know you're getting on a plane to London for Fast, they're 12 days into shooting. You are there in all of the key decisions. You're there in the development of the script, you're selling the thing, and then you see it through, through all of post-production, which I can vouch for because I've been with you in the weeds, in those in, in combat, I call it, or warfare when we are really needing to change a third of the script or whatever and reshoot it, whatever it takes to get you to that success. I so admire, I so admire you, Neal. Truly, truly, truly.
Neal Moritz (26:26):
I appreciate that. Here's how I look at it. I look at the movie as my client, okay? And that's all I care about is what is best for the movie. And yes, I have long-term relationships with a lot of these studio people. And during the making of the movie, we could be adversarial. But deep down, I think that any of the studio executives that I've made movies for, no, I'm not doing it. It's not about my ego, it's just about winning. Like, I'm just going to do what's best for the movie. That's it. That's all I care about.
Kevin Goetz (27:00):
And I have to say, I don't think you've changed one iota, and I know the zeros have changed in your bank account, but as a man, I remember working on I Know What You Did Last Summer and Cruel Intentions with you back whatever, 20 something years ago. You were always that guy. And I want to say one thing, you always had a Hamish quality. You are always a mench. I felt fair. Are you, you know, demanding? Absolutely you are. Are you short with folks? Absolutely you are. It's all in service of the movie.
Neal Moritz (27:38):
I prefer to be, and I prefer to be blunt. I'd rather just like, let's say it, let's do it. Let's everybody can say what they think and let's move on. Like, let's make it happen.
Kevin Goetz (27:50):
But, like you've called me before and we've gotten into it on certain issues because I'm the same way, as you know, like I'm not a pushover. Yeah. But what happens is we never lose respect for each other. And we just are guys who can be candid, say what we mean, mean what we say, et cetera, and then move on with it, you know? But you're always fair and you're never, you know, you're never, um, you know, unreasonable. And if I push back and I say something makes sense, you listen.
Neal Moritz (28:20):
Yeah. I will listen to everything and then ultimately I'll make a decision. Like I want to hear it, but I just want to make, but then I like, I want to make a decision. If you looked at my desk right now, it's like I don't keep stuff on my desk because I look, I make the decision, and then it goes in one pile or another. But I want to make decisions.
Kevin Goetz (28:41):
Yeah. And when you don't listen to me, you usually make the wrong ones. You know, it's as simple as that.
Neal Moritz (28:44):
I think a producer is an entrepreneur who's gotta keep pushing that ball uphill. Like, just keep pushing.
Kevin Goetz (28:51):
We're going to take a break and when we come back, we'll get into it again.
Get a glimpse into a secret part of Hollywood that few are aware of, and that filmmakers rarely talk about in the new book, Audienceology by Kevin Goetz. Each chapter is filled with never before revealed inside stories and interviews from famous studio chiefs, directors, producers, and movie stars, bringing the art and science of Audienceology into focus. Audienceology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love from Tiller Press at Simon and Schuster. Available now.
Kevin Goetz (29:30):
We're back here and so excited to continue our conversation. Talk to me about your background. You mentioned your background and you come from a family that was in the business. So can you just let us know about that?
*Neal Moritz (29:43):
Sure. So my Grandfather, a Polish immigrant came here, had a bunch of small businesses, you know, hardware store, a bakery, bought a movie theater downtown Los Angeles, and then another one. My dad and my aunts kind of ran them. I was always around it then. One of the ushers at my grandfather's theaters was a guy named James Nicholson. He came to my grandfather and asked for a loan to start a distribution company. It turned out to be a company called American International Pictures, where James Nicholson and Arkoff partnered. They made all the beach party movies, the Vincent Price movies, the Billy Jazz movies.
Kevin Goetz (30:19):
Is that Donna's father? Donna Ross, Yeah. Wow.
Neal Moritz (30:24):
Donna Ross's father. So I grew up with them. My grandfather was the treasurer of the company. My father ran marketing and distribution for the company, for the entire life of that company. So I was always around it. And as a kid, we had a screening room in my house and they'd screen there every Friday and Saturday night, and me and my brother had to alternate one of us Friday night, one on Saturday to be the projectionist. And that was in the old days where it was film and I'd cut my fingers and I wouldn't be able to go out with my friends that night. So, I rebelled against the movie business because of that.
Kevin Goetz (30:54):
Neal Moritz (30:56):
I went to UCLA. When I was at UCLA, I went on a program called Semester at Sea, where you go around the world on a boat for school with 600 kids. When I was in China in 1981, every kid there carried these canvas backpacks with these two little clasps. I bought 'em. I brought 'em home as presens. They had this Chinese writing on it. People were like, those are cool, where do we get those? Me and my buddy who I was on the ship with decided we were going to start a company trying to sell these things. Three years later, we had a pretty good size company selling to every major department store, <laugh> and I had one of these moments where I was driving on the 405 to the Valley off of Roscoe. We had a warehouse where we kept all, you know, our offices and the warehouse with all the inventory.
Neal Moritz (31:40):
And I remember one day I was like 20 or 21 years old. I was driving there and I was like, there's just no way I can do this the rest of my life. I pulled into the parking lot, walked into my partner's office, I said, We gotta figure a way out of this. I can't do this. This isn't what I see my life's goals as. And we were lucky and we sold the company not for a ton of money, but for enough money for a couple years I didn't need to worry about making money. I went to graduate school at USC in the Peter Stark program and when I got out, I tried to get a job. There were no jobs available, so I just said, screw it. I'm going to hang up my shingle and try and make a run at it. And I've never had a job since.
Kevin Goetz (32:21):
What was your first movie?
Neal Moritz (32:23):
My first movie was Juice with Tupac Shakur that me and David Heyman made together. David Heyman.
Neal Moritz (32:33):
It's a great story. I was in London last week. I was on the set of Fast. He was on the set of Barbie. We were shooting directly across from each other. He and I were partners for many years. We split because he wanted to move to the UK. I wanted to stay here and I didn't know how we were going to make it. Um, uh, being on two different continents and he went on to do the Harry Potter stuff. I went on to make the Fast and Furious stuff. And the great news is that we are still amazing friends. And I sent him a little article the other day because there was a thing on, you know, the top producer, top grossing producers in history. I think he was number three and I was number four. And it's kind of changed…
Kevin Goetz (33:16):
Oh, my lord Neal, that is the greatest story ever. And so great.
Neal Moritz (33:23):
It would've been bad if one of us had had huge success and the other one didn't. But it's, it's really sweet and we're really great friends today. So, it's nice to see his success and I know he's happy for mine.
Kevin Goetz (33:35):
Wow. What a great f’ing story that is. That is really cool. And, you know, gosh, you have been lucky enough to be at this new precipice of change in platform and I'm curious to know where you stand on it. I know you love, love, love the movie-going experience, but…
*Neal Moritz (33:59):
I'm all about the movie-going experience. Look, we've made movies for Netflix, we do stuff for Amazon. We just made a movie for Hulu. It's all great. Okay. There's great stuff like The Offer and all these shows, the Theranos shows, and there's so many great things that I've watched on streaming. But if I'm going to watch a movie, it's a very different experience to me, a movie in the movie theater than on my television or on my iPad or on a plane or whatever. I like the movie theaters. And honestly, I really believe that the value of movies that are released in the theaters is much more than the value of anything that will ever be released on stream.
*Kevin Goetz (34:46):
I don't disagree with that at all. But you and I did speak about this in the past where we come together on the fact that this is a world of the haves and have-nots in terms of theatrical movie going and that there are maybe more people that will actually go to see movies, but they're seeing far, far fewer films. And so when you're in your development meetings at Original, how do you talk to your folks about whether that movie should be a theatrical or should be a streamer? Do you think about it beforehand? Because doesn't it change the economics in a very big way?
Neal Moritz (35:24):
I think about it from the very, very beginning. The good news for me is, is that I think that my movies, whether or not they've worked or not, I think they always were movies that had the capacity to be the haves. Okay. Because I think the way I think is big broad-based movies with very high concept ideas, and whether it's based on IP or not. Look, I take a lot of pride that we, the Fast and Furious is not based on IP and it's become IP. And I take a lot of pride in that. I was able to take Jump Street or Sonic that were IP, but it wasn't like people were saying, oh, we have to have a Jump Street or Sonic movie. But we took great IP and turned them into great movies that people then had to see. Sure. So, I just think about it in a way where I admire a lot of movies that are made that are smaller movies that I like to watch. I just wouldn't know how to make them because that's just not how my brain thinks.
Kevin Goetz (36:35):
You guys are in pre-production, I believe on a remake of Cliffhanger?
Neal Moritz (36:41):
We're talking about it, yes.
Kevin Goetz (36:42):
I just want to tell you something funny from the book Audienceology. My book. There's a great story that Renny Harlin tells, might be relevant. The original movie, you know, featured a stunt called A King's Leap, and Stallone was like in great shape, but the King's Leap required an experienced stunt double who literally leaps from one like sheer rock face to another. And it was a difficult shoot. It was done in the Italian Dolomites with really rough conditions and all that jazz and included everything from blizzards and mudslides, whatever. So getting the King's Leap took a lot of days to film a very perilous stunt. But the kicker was that when the test audience saw the early cut of the movie, they thought the leap was way, way too far-fetched and made Stallone's character seem like a superhero. So it was a classic example of taking the audience out of the movie for a beat and for the next screening, Renny made like just one change. He took the stunt out and the scores shot up. It was a difficult decision because they took so much time doing it, but it was the right thing for the sake of the film. Have you ever been faced with a situation like that where you think you could have made that decision or had to make the decision that Renny made?
Neal Moritz (38:01):
I'm sure we have, I can't remember specific incidents that would happen, but I do think one of the most important things in a movie is tone. And I think that there's many times where you can break the tone of a movie, where even if it's a comedy and it's a really funny comedy, but maybe you just go too far and you know, so yes. But the good news is, is that when we test these movies, you find out things like that and you can make the changes.
*Kevin Goetz (38:30):
We kind of did that on Goosebumps. I remember it really that the tonality of that movie was extremely important. And I think you worked hard to hit the perfect pitch there. So it wasn't too young, it didn't go too far in the scariness.
Neal Moritz (38:45):
We were worried about being too scary. But then again, we were also worried about not being scary enough. So, we needed to somehow find that perfect range so we could let kids aspire to be a little older because they thought they were able to handle the scares. It's right. You know, that's the line.
Kevin Goetz (39:07):
Where do you fall on the spectrum of opportunity with where this business is going right now? Are you excited about the future? Are you nervous about the future? Are you disappointed that the haves and have-nots have sort of taken hold? I mean, where do you stand on where things are going?
*Neal Moritz (39:31):
I mean, look, if you were to ask me the same question a month ago, I'd probably give you a different answer than I gave today. Like the fact, you know, it was Netflix, Netflix, Netflix, Netflix, and then kind of with the tanking of the stock and subscribers, like all of a sudden, like the theatrical business, like everybody's celebrating it again. So, if things just keep changing, all I know is that if we keep making great content, it'll find its place. There is more demand for content than ever. Where it ultimately will be shown, I don't know exactly, but I know there's a need for content and I know there's a need for good content and that's really what we try and do.
Kevin Goetz (40:19):
The only thing I want to say to that is the fiscal responsibility. I have a mantra that I've used on this podcast before and in others that I've participated in. Every movie, every movie, if made and marketed for the right price, should make money.
Neal Moritz (40:37):
It's hard to market a movie today without spending a lot of money. I mean, it, it really is, unless it's just one of these complete word-of-mouth movies. It's very hard.
Kevin Goetz (40:47):
But as a first dollar gross participant, you have got to be extremely conscious about what something costs, right?
Neal Moritz (40:55):
No, it's actually the other way around. Because if you're first, which I don't really, if you're first dollar gross participant, then costs are not your concern. What your big concern is, you just want the revenues to be as high as possible.
Kevin Goetz (41:10):
Well, you mean first dollar gross, just to be clear means right after the first dollar out, not after recoupment of P and A.
Neal Moritz (41:19):
Exactly. That would be like a cash break zero is after recoupment, whereas first all the gross is the gross is the gross and you're taken from the gross.
Kevin Goetz (41:29):
So, the only time that you would be conscious of it is, I guess if you were financing your own movie, have you ever thought of that?
Neal Moritz (41:38):
Yes, but I also, you know, not every deal that I'm in is the first dollar gross. That's changed quite a bit over the years. Look, I try and be good partner and I think the reason why I've made a lot of movies is if you're a studio head and you've got 12 or 16 movies a year you have to make and release. And you can take a few of those off your plate and say, okay, Neal's doing that one. Or Lorenzo's doing, you know, people, people that you trust that you know, can take it from A to Z. I think that's worth a lot of money for a studio head.
Neal Moritz (42:21):
Amy Pascal, Amy Pascal used to love having me on the movies because I couldn't guarantee every time it was going to work. But she knew it was taken care of.
Kevin Goetz (42:29):
Yeah, you bet.
Neal Moritz (42:30):
She didn't have to worry about that movie or on Sonic, you know, I think Paramount comes out and says, okay, thank God we had Neal on that movie. We didn't have to worry about it in trying to make a movie under the incredibly different, difficult covid situation. And I don't mean just during production, I'm talking about the post-production of that movie was incredibly different, difficult because, you know, it was very hard to get visual effects done during this period.
Kevin Goetz (42:55):
And if we go back to what you, we started this discussion earlier today, we did mention and you said, you know, look, whether or not you are a first dollar gross participant or whether you, you know, need to wait until it recoups a certain amount of money, if your folks are losing money who are putting it up, it may be one of your last times you ever work with them. So therefore, it forces you, I suppose to have a fiduciary responsibility in that position as producer.
Neal Moritz (43:28):
A hundred percent. Look, I'm as close…
Kevin Goetz (43:31):
Everyone should win. In other words, right?
Neal Moritz (43:33):
It’s the only way because, you know, there's really like three completely different parts of making a movie. There's, there's the development, which is one part. There's the pre-production and production, and then there's the marketing and you're kind of dealing with different departments all the way through. You know, it's always strange to me that production and marketing are so separated. Like, oh, here we made the movie, now we toss it over to this guy that's gotta market it. And so I feel like I'm the one constant through the whole process. First man in, last man out.
Kevin Goetz (44:16):
Wow. How true it is. And Neal, I just cannot thank you enough for joining me today. It's been fantastic chatting with you. It always is. To our listeners, I hope you enjoyed today's interview. Neal is on social media, including on Instagram at NHMoritz. For other stories like this one, please check out my book, Audienceology at Amazon or through my website at KevinGoetz360.com. You can also follow me on my social media at KevinGoetz360. Next time on Don’t Kill the Messenger, I will welcome veteran producer and former Disney co-head of production, Todd Garner who has overseen over 170 films throughout his career including Mortal Kombat, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Zookeeper, and TAG to name a few.
Until then, I'm Kevin Goetz and to you, our listeners, we appreciate you being a part of the movie-making process. Your opinions matter.
Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: Neal Moritz
Producer: Kari Campano