Kevin is joined by the acclaimed producing team Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal, who give rare insights into their creative process and share lessons learned from decades of successful filmmaking.
In this episode, Kevin Goetz sits down with two of the most prolific, decorated, and respected producers in the business - Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal. As partners at Escape Artists, Jason and Todd have produced an incredible array of award-winning films spanning over 20 years. From critical and commercial hits like The Pursuit of Happyness, The Equalizer franchise, Seven Pounds, and Being the Ricardos, they have cultivated a reputation for making character-driven films with soul and meaning.
Jason Blumenthal’s Superpower [05:05]
Jason believes his superpower is being able to "create something from nothing" when developing film ideas.
Landing Denzel Washington for The Equalizer franchise [10:59]
After years of relationship building, Todd and Jason landed Denzel for The Equalizer by paying for the rights themselves and developing the script extensively before showing him.
The importance of character-driven movies [24:30]
Todd emphasizes having likable characters that audiences connect with as the key ingredient for successful films.
Nerves before every test screening [28:38]
Both Todd and Jason discuss their intense anxiety and physical symptoms before every test screening. Despite the nerves, the trio discuss how important the test screening process has been for the success of their films.
Memorable test screening moments that shaped their films [31:56]
To illustrate how important it is to listen to the audience, the producing pair discusses how cutting a love story from Equalizer 3 significantly improved test scores.
Will Smith's insight on why endings matter most to audiences [43:13]
After a test screening of The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith surprised the audience and gave Jason a valuable piece of advice about the importance of a good ending.
Tune in to hear Jason Blumenthal and Todd Black offer invaluable insights into producing in this wide-ranging conversation with host Kevin Goetz. The pair explain their creative ethos, share how test screenings have shaped their films, and recall sage advice received over their decades-long careers. Their passion for the test screening process illustrates a deep commitment to the audience above all else. With candor and humor, Jason and Todd impart hard-won lessons about the importance of likable characters, owning mistakes, and maintaining integrity in Hollywood. Their openness provides a rare look inside the art and craft of great producing.
Host: Kevin Goetz
Guests: Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal
Producer: Kari Campano
Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, & Kari Campano
For more information about Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal:
Escape Artists: https://escapeartists.com/
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.ScreenEngineASI.com
Podcast: Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz
Guest: Prolific Producers Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal
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):
Normally when you think of black and blue, you think of a bruise from an injury. But <laugh>, that's not what black and blue means on this show today. Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal are two of Hollywood's most respected blockbuster producers, and long ago, they actually had a production company called Black and Blue. For many years though, they have been partners with Steve Tisch and David Bloomfield in their award-winning studio and production company Escape Artists. Let me read you some of the movies that their company has produced, okay. The Weatherman, the Pursuit of Happyness, The Great Debaters, Seven Pounds, the Equalizer series, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, A Journal for Jordan, Emancipation, and Being the Ricardos. And this doesn't even include their incredible slate of television shows or their list of awards, nominations, accolades. Seriously, these guys have it going on. Guys, thank you so much for being here. I'm so excited about today's show.
Todd Black (01:22):
Thank you, Kevin. This is very cool to be here and knowing you all these years, and then to be here, it's fantastic.
Jason Blumenthal (01:27):
Yeah, it's awesome. It's awesome.
Kevin Goetz (01:29):
How did black and blue come to be?
Todd Black (01:31):
Black and blue came to be because Jason and I had worked together. Jason was actually an intern because he's a little bit younger than I am, just a tad <laugh>. And, he was my intern. And then he went to college. He went to Syracuse. To the new house. Yeah, the New School. And he said to me before he left, I'm going to call you when I graduate. That was four years later. And he called me the day he graduated, and he said, I'm driving back from New York, and I want to work for you. And I said, I don't have a job. And he said, I'll do it for free.
Kevin Goetz (02:03):
Oh lord. Smart, smart, smart, smart, smart.
Todd Black (02:04):
And that Monday, he showed up. And by that Friday, I'm like, you can't do it for free 'cause you're too valuable.
Kevin Goetz (02:11):
And well, he also couldn't legally do it.
Jason Blumenthal (02:13):
<laugh>. Right. Well, now you can't.
Todd Black (02:14):
Well, now you, you can't. Back then you could. This was in 1830 <laugh>.
Jason Blumenthal (02:18):
It was actually, it was 33 years ago. And I say that 'cause I've been married to my wife for 23 years. Christie. And I've been married to Todd for 33 years. Yeah. So Todd has tenure and seniority.
Kevin Goetz (02:29):
Two marriages that are working.
Todd Black (02:31):
Kevin Goetz (02:32):
Unbelievable. I mean, it's lucky to have one marriage that works in a lifetime, but that, that's, and by the way, let's call out right now to Ruth, who I love beyond.
Todd Black (02:41):
Yeah. Who, we just had our 34-year wedding anniversary. And we've been together 36 years.
Kevin Goetz (02:45):
Well, Ruth is an extraordinary architect and designer, and I called Todd and Ruth over to our house before I purchased it, and they walked in and Todd walked around. It's an incredible house, about two minutes and said, buy it.
Todd Black (02:59):
Yeah. It's incredible, buy it, it's really. <laugh>. Anyway, so, ason and I, we ran when Peter Guber formed Mandalay in 95, we ran Mandalay pictures together, and we made movies like Donny Brasco and I Know What You Did Last Summer and Wild Things and Seven Years in Tibet. And then from there we were there for three years. And from there we decided, um, that we wanted to be Peter Guber and not work for Peter Guber. So, we went to Peter and who we love and said, you know, we're going, we're going to start our own company. So we started Black and Blue.
Jason Blumenthal (03:33):
And best name of any company of all time.
Kevin Goetz (03:35):
Yeah. I think it's about the best.
Jason Blumenthal (03:36):
It really is.
Todd Black (03:37):
Welcome to the world of being a producer. Yeah, exactly. You, you get bruised every day.
Kevin Goetz (03:40):
<laugh>, Well, also as you <laugh>, but also, you know, that titles are the hardest thing to do in our business. Yeah, yeah. And you happen to hit.
Jason Blumenthal (03:47):
It’s all positioning.
Todd Black (03:48):
Yeah. Our logo was great too. Anyway, so we, in 98, we sat down with Amy Pascal and John Calley, may he rest in peace. And we said, you know, we want to start our own Mandalay if you will. And Amy was incredibly supportive. She was running the studio at the time, Columbia. And so we formed a partnership and then we met through Patrick Wachsberger, Steve Tisch, and Steve Tisch was also looking to kind of bring in some foreign money and kind of rejigger his company as well, The Steve Tisch company. So we met.
Kevin Goetz (04:21):
Was this post Forrest Gump?
Todd Black (04:23):
Yes. Yeah. Right. So we met him, we fell in love on a first date, so to speak. And the three of us said, let's just merge our companies after a one-time lunch. And we merged.
Kevin Goetz (04:33):
Isn't that amazing how you can have those insanely serendipitous, just perfect.
Todd Black (04:41):
Kevin Goetz (04:41):
Connections? Don't you agree?
Todd Black (04:42):
You know when you know.
Kevin Goetz (04:45):
You know when you know. Yeah.
Jason Blumenthal (04:46):
Todd and I had something really good going and we'd been together for so long, and we had a shorthand and we just kind of were able to read each other's thoughts and we just, we had a real connection. So if we were going to join forces with somebody else, it had to be somebody that had the potential to…
Todd Black (05:01):
Fit in with us.
Jason Blumenthal (05:01):
Fit in, but also add to what Todd and I were able to do.
Kevin Goetz (05:05):
What's your superpower, Jason?
Jason Blumenthal (05:08):
I honestly believe my superpower is I can create something from nothing and I have done it time and time.
Kevin Goetz (05:15):
And you mean from an idea? Is that what you mean from?
Jason Blumenthal (05:17):
Before it's even an idea.
Kevin Goetz (05:19):
Ah, so it's, you mean, something that you know, you feel could be a good movie or television show.
Jason Blumenthal (05:24):
That's all I do. It really is my superpower. So if you sit in a movie theater before the movie starts and you see all those specks of dust running through the light, I'm able to take that tiniest piece of dust and create a movie.
Kevin Goetz (05:34):
Okay. I just want to say something to our young listeners, particularly young filmmakers, to hear the clarity and the fast nature at which Jason answered that question. He knew exactly what his superpower was. And that is so much about the key to success is knowing what you're great at, not what you're good at. 'cause you're good at a lot of things, but you're great at one thing, right? Yeah. Like, and it, and it should and hopefully will inform the rest of your life.
Todd Black (06:02):
And you're, you're completely right. And knowing what you're not good at.
Kevin Goetz (06:08):
Todd Black (06:09):
Kevin Goetz (06:10):
Todd Black (06:10):
One of the reasons our partnership is so strong is I know what I'm not good at. I'm really clear.
Kevin Goetz (06:16):
What are you mostly not good at?
Todd Black (06:19):
I would say I am not good at the original idea the way Jason is. We'll be in a room and Jason will look at the tree in the corner and he'll go, we should do a movie about the tree. And here's what it is. Wow. Now, once he's going with that idea, then I can come into it. I'll make this the analogy of a writer. Jason could take a blank page, and he can write a screenplay. I can take that screenplay and give the fixes. So that's why we're such a good team.
Jason Blumenthal (06:52):
Why it really works is 'cause I spend most of my time by design in the weeds.
Kevin Goetz (06:58):
But are you both onset producers?
Jason Blumenthal (07:00):
No, next to each other. We don't leave each other side.
Todd Black (07:03):
That's the thing.
Jason Blumenthal (07:04):
Not only that we can't do it if we're not next to each other.
Kevin Goetz (07:07):
So then you really are both closer than you are to your wives because…
Todd Black (07:10):
Well, we're, I mean, we talk to each other seven days a week.
Kevin Goetz (07:13):
I would talk to Ruth and say, Ruth, where's Todd? Oh, Black’s here. Yeah. Oh, and God knows Christy and you see each other.
Jason Blumenthal (07:21):
We do. We, we talk more and see each other more than…
Todd Black (07:25):
It also helps that we really like each other. I love that. We, we were just doing Equalizer 3 in Italy and for five months.
Kevin Goetz (07:31):
Oh, just dropped that one.
Todd Black (07:31):
Yeah. Jason and I lived in Italy for five months, all over Italy. Oh my God. And literally one day we were walking back to our villa in Amalfi where we shot and Jason looks at me and he goes, the movie's really getting in the way of our vacation. And that's really the way it felt.
Jason Blumenthal (07:46):
And we've done a lot of movies, and luckily we've been busy and successful over the years where we've had to split up. I was living in Philly, shooting a TV show with M. Night Shyamalan called Servant. Todd was in Louisiana. So there are times, fortunately, that Todd and I can't be together. That means that we're kicking ass at our jobs.
Kevin Goetz (08:04):
You know, when I worked on Equalizer, I kept thinking, damn whoever made this movie, meaning, I don't know, whoever, I didn't know it was both of you on set, really must have had the best time ever. Yeah. The scenery, the settings were so extraordinarily beautiful.
Todd Black (08:20):
I mean, we literally got to shoot in Rome, in Naples, in Amalfi for six weeks. We walked from our villa at the top of the mountain down to our little village, which we took over Atrani, and we walked to work every day.
Jason Blumenthal (08:33):
And it's nice on this one, especially because we have been fortunate at to do that on all the Equalizers. Equalizer 1, Todd and I were in Boston, Equalizer 2, Boston and New York, and Equalizer 3 in Italy. But this
Kevin Goetz (08:46):
And Equalizer 4 in Bali, Fiji?
Jason Blumenthal (08:49):
But this franchise particularly means something really special to not only our company, but to Todd and I. I mean we went out and bought a title 15 years ago with our own money. With our own money.
Todd Black (09:00):
We wrote a check outta our checkbook.
Jason Blumenthal (09:00):
We bought the title of Equalizer. Whoa. We bought no rights. We bought no story. We bought a title because we always knew what we could do if we had the right one.
Todd Black (09:08):
I never, Jason and I never saw the series. There was an Equalizer series.
Jason Blumenthal (09:11):
We didn't watch it, but we knew the seventies or
Todd Black (09:13):
Jason Blumenthal (09:13):
Todd Black (09:13):
Yes. Yes. I never saw, we never saw it. Never. But Jason and I liked the title. We both liked the title
Kevin Goetz (09:18):
And what it really means. He's equalizing karma. Correct.
Todd Black (09:22):
Jason Blumenthal (09:24):
A great way to put it. Justice. And we knew that from day one, justice. But that's a theme that isn't going to just disappear once. Right. Justice and fighting for people that don't have a voice and standing up for people that can't stand up for themselves. Amen. That's something that can run. And we've had not only the fortune of being able to tell these stories, but we've been able to do it with the GOAT, the greatest actor of all time.
Todd Black (09:46):
Well, what was fun is once we got the rights, Jason and I were like, we need the best actor to pull this off. And fortunately, we've had a long relationship with Denzel. 31 years.
Kevin Goetz (09:56):
Has it gone 31 years? Yeah, yeah, yeah. What was the first picture you did with him?
Todd Black (09:59):
Kevin Goetz (10:01):
Oh, I worked on that with you.
Todd Black (10:03):
Yeah. Very proud of that movie.
Kevin Goetz (10:03):
And wasn't the discovery of the actor.
Todd Black (10:07):
Kevin Goetz (10:07):
Todd Black (10:07):
Was, himself was a guard at Columbia Pictures in Culver City. And he was taking a screenwriting class after the riots from my old roommate in college, Chris Smith, who has since passed. And Chris called me one day and he goes, there's this kid, he's a guard at Sony Pictures. His name is Antoine Fisher. He has an amazing story.
Jason Blumenthal (10:28):
You need to hear it.
Todd Black (10:29):
And he brought him into the office, and we heard it. And I was crying in my office when he told me his life story. And he said, you know, other producers at Columbia want to buy it, but they won't let me write it. And I want to write it.
Jason Blumenthal (10:40):
But he doesn't know how to write.
Todd Black (10:41):
So Jason and I wrote him a check out of our checkbook. We bought him a computer 'cause he was writing.
Jason Blumenthal (10:47):
Well, he had a hundred pages on white pages.
Todd Black (10:49):
And we moved him into an office.
Kevin Goetz (10:49):
How much did you pay?
Todd Black (10:49):
Jason Blumenthal (10:53):
Which was a million to him at the time.
Kevin Goetz (10:55):
Absolutely. That's some balls, guys that you wrote a $10,000 check.
Todd Black (10:59):
That circles back to what Jason said, we bought the Equalizer rights.
Jason Blumenthal (11:04):
Todd Black (11:05):
With our own money. Right. You did.
Kevin Goetz (11:06):
The studio didn't.
Jason Blumenthal (11:07):
No, we paid for it.
Todd Black (11:09):
And then, we paid for it. And then, to top it off, not only did we buy the rights, we paid the writer Richard Wenk, who's written all three of them, we paid him out of our own money again to write the script, to write the screenplay. We owned it. And then once that happened, we went to Denzel. We took him to Craft for lunch in Century City. And I said, you've never done a franchise. Are you interested? And he goes, probably not, but what is it? And I told him, he goes, oh I, he goes, I remember that TV show. And I said, it's not the TV show. And he goes, if the character is great, I will do it. But don't gimme the script till the character is great. So we proceeded for another year to do, I don't know how many rewrites with Richard. Multiple. Multiple drafts. I mean draft after draft, after draft. You must've been so nervous giving it to him. We gave it to him on Monday, July 3rd.
Jason Blumenthal (12:01):
Todd Black (12:03):
I was going to Amy Pascal's house on Tuesday for a little barbecue. July 4th. He was in Paris with his family.
Jason Blumenthal (12:13):
On the first trip I had taken in forever.
Todd Black (12:15):
On the cabin. I get a call Tuesday afternoon before I'm going to Amy's, it's very hot on the fourth. On the fourth. Very hot in the house. I didn't put the air conditioning on. Ruth and I were upstairs, my phone rings. I see it's Denzel. I pick up, I say, hey. And he goes, hey, it's Robert McCall calling. And I say, what? And he goes, Robert McCall. And this is what he says. He says, I love the script. I'm doing the movie. I want to be pay or play by Friday. Let Amy know. Goodbye. Boom. Next call was his agent Andrew Finkelstein saying he's in, get the deal done. I have Ruth wrap the script up with a ribbon. We drive to Amy's house for the 4th of July party. We sit down, I put the script down. I said, I brought you a little gift. She goes, you don't have to bring me a gift. I said, no, you're going to want this gift <laugh>.
Kevin Goetz (13:07):
And open it now.
Todd Black (13:08):
<laugh>. She opens it up, she sees what it is. I said, Denzel Washington is attached and he wants to be made pay or play by Friday. That night, Tuesday night. Yeah. Late. Jason and I heard from Matt Tomac, Doug Belgrad, Ange Gianetti, and I think Josh at the time. Yeah. And they're like, we love the script, we're in. And he was pay or play by Friday.
Kevin Goetz (13:38):
Todd Black (13:38):
That's the week.
Jason Blumenthal (13:39):
And we just wrapped Equalizer 3.
Kevin Goetz (13:41):
Well, who would kill that deal?
Jason Blumenthal (13:43):
Right. Pretty fun story. But it was, and I'm not just saying it 'cause it's us, it was producing in the truest sense of the word. Okay. A title. Tell us about that. Okay. The title's only one thing. There is no movie without Richard Wenk, and Richard Wenk, our writer, has been there from day one till today. I think these scripts are so good.
Todd Black (14:01):
Jason Blumenthal (14:01):
Richard is the best in show.
Kevin Goetz (14:03):
But they're not, people can dismiss it as an action franchise. It's so much more.
Todd Black (14:08):
It really is a character piece. And it's Denzel. Yeah. It's, I mean, he breathes it.
Jason Blumenthal (14:12):
Here's the thing. And I remember the first time Richard sat on my couch. I'd never met him before. I'd seen a couple of his credits. They were all kind of B-action movies, big giant things I'd seen. He sat on my couch, and I love Richard more than anything. But I remember this moment. And he was just defeated, even though he had been writing movies. Why? Here's why he says, I can write action all day. The best action anyone's going to read. But I'm writing 'em for guys that can't act. And I'm not going to mention those names. Okay. But when I said we're going to have Denzel Washington, then it went to another level.
Todd Black (14:44):
It elevated. When you're lucky enough, like we are, to get to work with, I mean, we've worked with him so many times as an actor and as a director and producer, you have to bring you’re a-game if you're a writer, if you're a producer.
Kevin Goetz (14:55):
I was just going to say, you can't keep going back to an A-list talent, one of the largest, biggest stars, arguably in the world, and not produce time and time again.
Todd Black (15:04):
And you have to be really good at it. You cannot phone it in.
Kevin Goetz (15:08):
And so, what's your superpower?
Todd Black (15:10):
I would say really understanding when a script is ready to go to a Denzel Washington or, or a director.
Kevin Goetz (15:19):
And or not.
Todd Black (15:20):
Or not, and then getting it to them. I'm very good at getting to that.
Kevin Goetz (15:23):
Gimme an example of something that you betrayed that meaning you, you didn't follow your instincts and damn it, the thing didn't go
Todd Black (15:30):
Well. I'm not going to say what the project is, but I have been not through Jason, actually through people that have worked in our company that are no longer in our company, that wanted me to go out with a piece of material that I kind of knew instinctually wasn't ready to go out. And I went out with it and I couldn't get it going. And it hurts me because my name's on it.
Kevin Goetz (15:50):
Yeah, you bet. It does. And fortunately, you've built up a pretty high stock price. It doesn't hurt you that much. But I will tell you this, second good lesson to young filmmakers and people listening, if you don't follow, and when you betray your superpower, it often backfires.
Todd Black (16:07):
A hundred percent. Could not agree with you more. You have to trust your instinct. Right. And, and the great thing with Jason and I is we keep fresh eyes on each other's material. So I don't give him something that I'm working on until I really feel good about it 'cause then he'll give me notes and his notes are really smart and vice versa, I like to think. So when we ultimately do go out with a piece of material to an agent, a director, an actor, a manager, it usually has our stamp on it. Until our stamp is on it, we will not go out with it anymore.
Kevin Goetz (16:37):
I love that.
Jason Blumenthal (16:37):
Yeah. We road test our material to that point to see, we want to shake it, we want to drive it bumpy and see can it last. And so, really back when you're asking about Todd's superpower, Todd is amazing at looking down at an entire field and being able to see three dimensionally, all the pieces come to play.
Kevin Goetz (16:57):
Were you ever a studio executive?
Jason Blumenthal (16:58):
No. No. He could.
Kevin Goetz (16:59):
Did you ever want to be?
Todd Black (17:00):
Jason Blumenthal (17:00):
They all came to him. Everyone. But that role would be wasted on Todd because Todd can continually deliver top-flight entertainment and content from his position. But when you're in an executive level and in a managerial level, your skillsets really aren't being used properly. If indeed you are a producer at heart and Todd is a producer at heart. And so where we work so good is, like I said, I'm in the weeds below. So I'm looking up, he's looking down and together we're covering the entire plane and we're able to work really well within those boundaries.
Todd Black (17:35):
And the other thing, to be completely frank, is Jason and I have been super careful as, as has Steve Tisch and David Bloomfield. We treat the entire town the way we want to be treated. Period.
Jason Blumenthal (17:49):
Todd Black does not have one enemy in Hollywood. And I say that I hope people are listening to this podcast so people can actually debate me.
Kevin Goetz (17:55):
I would, I would believe it.
Jason Blumenthal (17:55):
I'm not going to go that far with me, but I will tell you this, I have never heard one disparaging word about Todd Black. And I've been his partner for 33 years.
Todd Black (18:02):
But I think that is as important.
Jason Blumenthal (18:04):
That's a testament.
Todd Black (18:05):
Thank you. As important as it is with your knowing your superpower, like you're talking about, it's as equally as important to make sure, may it be the guy that cleans our kitchen at our offices at Sony, who I talked to for 25 years now. And I, I saw him the other day.
Kevin Goetz (18:21):
And he may have a good script idea.
Todd Black (18:23):
Whatever it is. But just treat everybody the way you want to be treated. Everybody, the guy that cleans the toilets in your trailer on the weekends and during the night when you go home, you better be nice to him.
Kevin Goetz (18:35):
I cannot tell you, and you know me well enough to know that that is my credo. I mean, I manage down and up. I don't have any.
Todd Black (18:44):
Well, I see the way you treat your staff, that's why you've had people for so long and it's why you're successful. Truly. Yes, you have all the knowledge and yes, you're inventive and creative, but Kevin, people like you. They work for you for a long time.
Kevin Goetz (18:54):
Thank you so much. But it goes back to a decency. Yeah. It goes back to a sense of honor. Yeah. And trust and integrity. Exactly. And trust. And I think those qualities are the long haul qualities. You know, you could be opportunistic and do all those things that might step on somebody, but it doesn't go the long haul. The long haul is long haul play to me is those values. And that's why my husband and I have been together for almost 30 years.
Jason Blumenthal (19:23):
Right. There you go. And that is, especially, you know, we're looking at the film business 2.0 right now. I mean, it is tough to make movies, to create content. It makes it harder when there's people becoming obstacles in your way that aren't actually helping you. And I think that this is the time. And I think what this strike is going to hopefully do when we come out of it and, and the strength that this summer has shown at the box office between Barbie-Heimer, and hopefully Equalizer 3, is that I think everybody's going to be rooting for everybody again. And I think we need that in this town.
Todd Black (19:55):
Yeah. I agree.
Jason Blumenthal (19:56):
I think everybody needs to come together.
Todd Black (19:59):
And really, root for each other. You can't root for people to not succeed. You have to root for movies to succeed. You have to root for executives to succeed.
Jason Blumenthal (20:07):
We all have to help each other.
Kevin Goetz (20:07):
I mean, I give advice to people all the time when they say, oh, so and so hurt me. So and so hurt me, or they wronged me. And I say, send them love. Well, you know, honestly, because it's never hurting them.
Todd Black (20:19):
Yeah. Ed Limato had the greatest expression, may he rest in peace. He was Denzel's agent amongst many major movie stars' agents forever. He said, you can only be mad at somebody in the business for one year, 'cause he said, if you stay mad longer than one year, you're going to miss out on so much business.
Kevin Goetz (20:35):
Can I tell you, I've had relationships where there's been real tension, usually not from me, but, but the person towards me. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and I have actually actively healed those relationships. Me too. I just go back and I say, let's talk. Yeah, me too. Let's work this. Yeah. Work this out. I've almost, I don't think ever been rebuffed, but it's so healthy to do that. I'm going to tell you a very, very quick story. I was in Boston a couple weeks ago. I went off on somebody 'cause I wanted to get into a museum, and they wouldn't let us in. And my husband's producing a series about this museum. So I went off on this guy because he wouldn't let us in. And I didn't get what I wanted. And I was a, I was a dick, I was an asshole. And I was obsessed thinking about it.
Kevin Goetz (21:29):
Neil said, just drop it already next night. I was still thinking about it. So I wrote him a letter and I apologized. Wow. And I said, I was immature. I didn't get what I wanted. And you were doing your job. And uh, please accept my apology. And then he wrote me back and I wrote him back. And that's how I cleaned my karmic plate.
Todd Black (21:43):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's the way you do it.
Kevin Goetz (21:44):
And I just wanted to share that.
Todd Black (21:46):
That is the way you do it. So anyone that's listening, you gotta, you gotta make it right even if you are right, you gotta make it right if there's a problem. You gotta give.
Kevin Goetz (21:59):
Especially if you're wrong.
Todd Black (22:00):
And especially if you're wrong.
Kevin Goetz (22:02):
By the way, the guy was a dick. He was. He was a dick. Yeah. But I didn't care. Right. It didn't matter. I couldn't control his behavior. But I could certainly control mine. And that's the moral of the story.
Todd Black (22:12):
That's maturity. It's maturity.
Kevin Goetz (22:13):
I just didn't want that baggage. Why am I holding onto this? Yeah. Because it didn't make me feel good about my reaction. Right.
Todd Black (22:19):
You know, it's so funny. I was talking to a major, major, major person in the movie business years ago at lunch, just kind of trying to seek advice and learn 'cause I think it's always important as you're coming up in the business in your twenties, thirties, forties, even fifties, to go see people that are even more successful than you are to learn. And one of the things I said to this person at lunch is, give me a piece of advice. Give me something to walk away from lunch. And they said that the main thing is to own your mistake. Own it, fully own it. And to be completely open to knowing what you don't know and asking the question and going, I didn't know that. Thank you for telling me that. Because if you walk into a room like you own it and you know everything, no one's going to be there to help you.
Kevin Goetz (23:18):
We're going to take a break. That was really good advice. We'll be back in a moment.
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 (23:59):
We're back with Jason Blumenthal and Todd Black. And we were talking about, I think, a lot of profound life lessons. I want to ask you about your secret sauce in the success of your movies. And there's an underlying, often, reason for them to exist. More than that, a meaning, some kind of depth to your pictures, which I really, really appreciate. Do you have a secret sauce?
Todd Black (24:30):
I think we do. I don't want to say every single one of them because sometimes they're just for entertainment value, which is a great thing. But I'm glad you noticed that. I think we work really hard at characters, and I think secret sauce of characters, may they be Barbie or may it be Antoine Fisher or The Equalizer or name the name of other people's movies. Usually when they're successful, it's because you like a character. It can be a bad guy, it can be a good guy, it can be a secondary character, it can be a lead character. I think you have to like a character.
Kevin Goetz (25:08):
That's innate DNA stuff right there.
Todd Black (25:09):
Yeah. If you can like a character when you're watching a movie that you're either rooting for or rooting against or connecting with in some way. Either 'cause you can relate with them, or you want be like them, or you admire them, or they're sexy, or they're whatever. Nine times outta 10 you'll have a successful movie. There has to be a likable character or characters. And one of the things Jason and I always talk about with writers and with directors is we must make sure whatever story we're telling, it doesn't matter what it is, action, it doesn't matter what genre we have got to like our characters, and we've gotta delineate the characters. I have a secret when I read scripts, if I can cover the character's name up when I'm reading on my iPad or a hard copy of a script, I'll cover their names up. If I don't know which character is saying that, then I know I have a problem, and I gotta go back. Ooh. And work with the writer. Wow. We’ve been doing that forever.
Kevin Goetz (26:07):
Yeah. There's so many scripts I read where you're like, who, who's saying that? No. But like, you gotta go back. That's the same voice as what?
Todd Black (26:14):
So it's character delineation that's really working with a writer.
Kevin Goetz (26:17):
And, and, and I took piano lessons, and we call that voicing. Right? When you have different kind of characterizations within a piece. Right. And so that's very similar to a script, I think.
Todd Black (26:27):
Very important. I think it's probably one of the most important things we've talked about is you gotta make sure your writer understands character delineation and different colors of voices.
Kevin Goetz (26:37):
Well, I want to move to the test screening process. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, because obviously, that's where we all come together and have for years. I think Jason, we met on I Know What You Did Last Summer years ago. Yes. So you have a reverence for the audience. There's no question you embrace the process. Always have. Listen to the audience.
Todd Black (26:55):
You're making movies for audiences. You're not making movies for yourself.
Kevin Goetz (26:57):
But you also know that when you have characters, almost everything is fixable. When you have characters that people will invest in and want to follow their journey, you can edit around that plot-wise. You can reshoot, but you can't manufacture authenticity in relationship. So, I would agree with you probably a hundred percent that that is, that is the most important of all of the boxes to check.
Todd Black (27:29):
And by the way, we learned that from the testing process.
Kevin Goetz (27:32):
Tell me about that.
Todd Black (27:33):
Well, I mean we both have learned, I mean, we've tested so many freaking movies. Hundreds over our careers.
Kevin Goetz (27:39):
I mean hundreds of screenings.
Todd Black (27:40):
Yeah. I mean, so over I, I don't even know how many. And you learn every single time. Both after the screening in the focus group, getting the book afterwards. You know, talking to you guys the next day and taking us through the way you guys beautifully take us through it all. It always comes down to the characters every single time.
Jason Blumenthal (27:59):
But if you're actually looking at the process, I remember maybe it was, I Know What You Did Last Summer, but as a young producer going through the science and the rigor of a testing process, I think that's when I first realized in that first test screening, oh wow, we didn't make the movie for the studio. We made the movie for the audience. This is what really matters. Because the studio is the studio. The audience is the audience.
Kevin Goetz (28:32):
And the audience will decide its fate.
Jason Blumenthal (28:34):
Right, and the audience doesn't care what the studio thinks.
Kevin Goetz (28:38):
You know what it's like when you guys come into a screening, you're probably nervous as hell. You're opening your kimono, you're putting yourself out there, your child out to…
Todd Black (28:47):
And it never gets the world. That's nerve-wracking.
Jason Blumenthal (28:50):
I gotta share something.
Kevin Goetz (28:51):
Martha Coolidge, by the way, was a guest and she said that she got into usually a car accident on the way to every screening. I want to, did she say that Gar?
Todd Black (29:00):
I want to, I want to vomit before every screening.
Jason Blumenthal (29:02):
Oh yeah. Oh, I have diarrhea every…
Todd Black (29:04):
Oh, hardcore every time.
Kevin Goetz (29:04):
Three Jews in a room talking.
Todd Black (29:04):
It's true. <laugh>. I mean, but you know, you have to deal with us. You deal with all of us. Oh my God. I know. You deal with every person in Hollywood at these screenings. You understand?
Kevin Goetz (29:16):
I think part of my job often is more of a consigliere and a rabbi than it is as a researcher.
Todd Black (29:21):
And then you have to calm us down afterwards if the numbers weren't where we wanted it to be. And you have to, you have to. You have to help get us to that place.
Kevin Goetz (29:28):
But you also know Todd and Jason, I mean it when I say but your characters, they really are embracing these characters. Right. If that is said, you know, it's all fixable. Right. Because you can reshoot an ending, right? As I said, you can truncate the movie and make it shorter. Right. You can add comedic moments if you wanted to go back.
Todd Black (29:49):
What's good about you though, Kevin, is you don't sugarcoat it. You'll go, guys, this is, this is why it's not working. I suggest you do A, B, and C. Or at least understand you got a pacing issue, fix it how you want. But you have a pace, like you are very good at identifying why you think the audience didn't score something or why they didn't get something, because you've been doing it so long and you understand the process of what we're trying to get to. And oftentimes we're holding on so tight we can't see it. Whereas you are very smart and fresh eyes and seasoned where you can say to the director and the producer and the studio guys, here's your problem. It's up to us. Correct. To either take that…
Kevin Goetz (30:29):
Did you notice I just stopped short of making my own editorial suggestions. Right. Every now and then someone will say, what do you think? And I'll try by example. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I might say, you, you have a dream sequence. They're not seeing that it's a dream or a flashback, guys, you need to show some kind of treatment or something to let us the audience know that we're back in flashback or something like that. Yeah. I'll give an example.
Todd Black (30:29):
You're very good like that.
Kevin Goetz (30:29):
Thank you so much. But the truth is, is that my job is to interpret what the audience is saying and then guide you to hopefully see that as well.
Todd Black (31:03):
And making it better.
Kevin Goetz (31:03):
And by the way, this podcast is called Don't Kill the Messenger for a reason. There are people not like you who don't like what I have to say or any of the people that work with me have to say because they don't want to hear the truth. Right. And all we're doing is being the conduit to the filmmakers and the studios almost never get upset because they really do want to hear it. But often filmmakers are so emotionally invested. So I try very earnestly to be sensitive to that fact. But still in all they have to hear it.
Todd Black (31:36):
You're in a tough position because there are lots of directors and producers that we all know that really are afraid of the testing process. And when you can finally get to a place and 'cause Jason and I have been doing it so long. Yes, it's nerve wracking, but we learn so much from it, and it does make our movies better.
Kevin Goetz (31:56):
Let's talk specifics. Yeah. Jason, Jason, talk to me about a moment you remember that is a seminal moment that the audience informed something that just made a difference.
Jason Blumenthal (32:09):
Well, I will say, 'cause now obviously learning that maybe the movie will have come out before the podcast, but I will talk about Equalizer 3 'cause I could not, Todd and I can be not more proud of this film. And I think it's going to be hopefully the most successful and it could really be the best of the three. But there was a storyline that we pursued in the film to try to give Denzel's character Robert McCall one more layer that we didn't know he was possibly going to be given another chance at. And cards on the table, was a love story.
Todd Black (32:44):
It was a love story.
Jason Blumenthal (32:45):
There was a little love story.
Todd Black (32:46):
And we shot it.
Jason Blumenthal (32:48):
It was beautiful, but we spent so much time developing it and trying to figure out the right way to tell that type of love story and that type of way to this type of character. And Todd, Richard, and I, and Antoine thought, yeah, we nailed it. We think we've done it.
Todd Black (33:03):
And Denzel was thrilled with it. It really worked.
Kevin Goetz (33:06):
And what happened? I know the answer, but you tell me.
Todd Black (33:08):
Well, you, you, you, thanks to you <laugh>, we tested it thanks to, seriously, thanks to you. We tested it in Chicago and the audience fully rejected it. Now we would've never known that had we not tested the movie.
Jason Blumenthal (33:22):
But we also wanted to understand why. Yeah. Not just that, the fact that they…
Kevin Goetz (33:26):
What was the, what was the why?
Jason Blumenthal (33:27):
Here's really the why. This is the third in a franchise, right? And in these first two films, the audience has become so connected to Robert McCall and so invested in what Robert McCall stands for to an audience that feels they need him most, which is a voice to the voiceless, a purpose to power.
Todd Black (33:46):
And they don't want to share him with anybody. They don't want to share him.
Jason Blumenthal (33:48):
And that the idea that maybe Denzel/Robert McCall was going to settle down with this woman who he deserves and they deserve each other, but maybe not be there for the rest of us, was something that maybe viscerally the audience was experiencing but not understanding completely. And yet the scores told us something wasn't right.
Todd Black (34:12):
And then because of that test screening in Chicago, and the next day you guys taking us through all your findings and your thoughts about here's your problem. We went in, we recut, we reshaped, we took out most of that love story.
Jason Blumenthal (34:28):
And, and finding just the right elements.
Todd Black (34:29):
And then all of a sudden it went up 21 points.
Jason Blumenthal (34:32):
And then the next time.
Todd Black (34:32):
21 points. That's a lot.
Jason Blumenthal (34:35):
And that's a…
Kevin Goetz (34:35):
We call it significant, statistically significant.
Jason Blumenthal (34:38):
And it's wonderful to watch the process work in that way. Right? Because we've had movies, one in specific, we had, we did a movie called The Upside with Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart. Oh, I love that movie. Yeah. And that movie tested right out of the gate. The highest test I've ever had. 96%.
Kevin Goetz (34:52):
But I don't mean any disrespect. I even like the original movie.
Jason Blumenthal (34:56):
Yeah, but I say that…
Kevin Goetz (34:57):
So you were able to not ruin original debate and make me really enjoy your movie.
Todd Black (35:02):
And we're doing two now.
Jason Blumenthal (35:02):
But I say that Kevin, because the first test was through the roof highest test score we've ever had. And that was it. We knew we had a hit. That said, there is something satisfying about that. But having gone through what Todd and I just went through on our baby here with The Equalizer and having something that the audience kind of didn't truly embrace, and we could not let that be particularly women, women didn't embrace. And then going through the process.
Kevin Goetz (35:24):
And if women are not embracing the love story, you’ve got a problem.
Jason Blumenthal (35:25):
And then going through the process, working the film, making sure the audience felt the same way, the filmmakers felt, and trying to find that bridge retesting. And then getting to a place where I think we have fucking nailed it. We have nailed the dismount and we have actually produced something.
Todd Black (35:40):
But, to Jason's point and Kevin to your…
Kevin Goetz (35:43):
And that's not hyperbolic. I'm just No, no, no. I'm saying to you Jay, because you are an enthusiastic supporter of the film. Yeah. But you're speaking the truth.
Todd Black (35:52):
Jason Blumenthal (35:53):
That's how the sausage is made.
Todd Black (35:54):
Kevin, not to blow smoke up your ass 'cause we've been friends forever. That test screening in Chicago, had we not done it, had you not interpreted it the way you interpreted it to us and zeroed in on your love story's the problem guys.
Jason Blumenthal (36:10):
And really had the windows opened at the Peninsula Hotel on the 18th floor where Todd and I was, we would've jumped, we would've jumped <laugh> and thank God Peninsula for keeping the windows closed.
Todd Black (36:20):
Because we've never had that movie test low.
Jason Blumenthal (36:22):
Yeah. And we were scared.
Todd Black (36:24):
And then to have that jump, it was a huge jump. And then our third test screening, we just tweaked some stuff and it went up seven more, six more points.
Kevin Goetz (36:31):
But I just want to say also that I knew when it didn't test to the level of the others that it was going to get there.
Todd Black (36:40):
Oh, you did. You immediately, that was part of the, you said guys, you were actually great that night. You said, don't worry, don't worry, it's all there. You kept saying it's all there. Just you gotta take.
Kevin Goetz (36:49):
And why did I say that? Because the characters.
Todd Black (36:51):
Jason Blumenthal (36:52):
But you also knew that Todd and I were never going to give up in this thing. So.
Kevin Goetz (36:56):
Oh, well that's another story.
Jason Blumenthal (36:57):
Right. But that's just important because we never give up on our project.
Todd Black (37:01):
But I am curious about something. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you know all of us in Hollywood. You know all the producers, you know all the directors, I mean, you know all of us. You've been doing it forever. And you have a huge company, and you're, you're Kevin Goetz. Are there ever times with filmmakers that you go, you know what? They don't, I'm not going to test that movie because they are impossible.
Kevin Goetz (37:24):
Oh, I just went through it. I have two examples. One was a very important movie coming out that the filmmaker, I did not moderate this, but our company tested it. The filmmaker did not want, or didn't stay for the focus group and didn't want to hear, except to read the book privately, didn't want to hear what the research really had to say. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And they asked me to fly back east. And I said, no, I just don't want to go to that effort because I'm running a company.
Todd Black (38:01):
You're not going to change his mind.
Kevin Goetz (38:02):
And I, I'm not even going to be heard. Right. So why does it matter? Yeah. That I do that. Yeah. And it really wasn't an ego thing. Yeah. It was just like, you know, that's doesn't make sense.
Todd Black (38:10):
That's interesting. That’s interesting.
Kevin Goetz (38:11):
And then the other recent time is someone who just refuses to listen to the notes. So you, so we've tested it, we've tested the movie now three times, and it's the same scores over and over. And it's so obvious what needs to be done. And you get to a point of like, I don't, I'll take your money, but I really don't even want to take your money because you're not listening.
Jason Blumenthal (38:34):
You're, you're there to help the movie.
Kevin Goetz (38:36):
But not everyone sees it.
Todd Black (38:38):
But you are. Case in point, look at our movie.
Kevin Goetz (38:40):
Yeah. But, but you all, I mean that I don't, not everyone listens. They really don't. There's either an arrogance or there's a, it's fear, but if you're fearful, you probably should listen and say, okay, what are they saying? Let me go away a little bit and process this. And you know me well enough to know that I'm not going to, I'm not going to bludgeon them, and I'm going to present it in a sensitive way.
Todd Black (39:04):
Well, you did that with us. I mean, we did get back to our hotel in Chicago that night and we were both like, where's the alcohol? Oh my God. And then when we spoke to you the next day you, you're like, guys, it's fixable by doing these things. It's, it's just in this area.
Jason Blumenthal (39:22):
So, when you asked me back, was it more satisfying to hit the come out of the gate with a 95 or was it more satisfying to go through this process and now we're about to launch our movie and we know that we're sending it out there, the best version, the best shape it's ever been. You bet. Honestly, that's the most satisfying for me.
Kevin Goetz (39:38):
No question. No question. I think that's really beautifully said. Any other stories that come to mind that sort of change the trajectory of the picture that you can think of?
Todd Black (39:48):
Kevin Goetz (39:48):
You've seen so many. We have. There's so many stories. I probably have to say that every one of your movies probably had some change made to it because of the test process.
Todd Black (39:59):
And I will say this, I'll give you a great example. We made Pursuit of Happyness and we were flipped out because A, there was only one actor that we could get. And again, it was a project Jason and I put our own money into.
Kevin Goetz (40:13):
You mean they'd only make it with Will?
Todd Black (40:16):
Yeah, of course. We knew that Amy Pascal was not going to make that movie with anyone but Will Smith. And she's like, but you don't have Will Smith. I'm like, but we'll get him. You gotta trust. We'll get him. She's like, Hmm. And after doing a hundred rewrites with Steve Conrad on the script and giving the script on Christmas to JL, Will's partner and Will, and then them calling us December 31st and saying…
Kevin Goetz (40:40):
What is it with holidays and you?
Todd Black (40:42):
Well, I know, right? We're in. Exactly. And then giving it to Amy, and saying, here's a script, and Amy didn't even know about it. Here's the script.
Kevin Goetz (40:49):
Did you bring the, did Ruth wrap this one?
Todd Black (40:51):
Not this one. No, no, not that one. Okay. And, and giving it to them with Will attached. And Amy's like, it's a great script. You got Will. It's not in a superhero movie, so she never thought you'd get him. Right. I can't give you enough. I can't, I'm not going to be able to give you enough money. And we're like, that's okay. And we're going with a director that doesn't speak English. That's okay. Which, who's the director? Gabriele Muccino.
Jason Blumenthal (41:12):
He did that and Seven Pounds for us.
Todd Black (41:13):
And, and like, and everyone's hanging on like this and cut the movie. And we hadn't shown it to Amy. We hadn't shown it to anybody. It was me, Jason, JL, Will's partner, and Will, and our director, and the editor. No one else had seen the movie. No one. We literally took our 10 weeks shape. Ba ba pa. We liked it. We had no idea though. I mean, it's a homeless man story. Okay. We didn't have a clue. We set the screening up for Amy and all the executives. We go back to our offices. We're in our offices in Thalberg.
Jason Blumenthal (41:51):
They're, they, they, they're screening in at the backstage theater. They're at the backstage.
Todd Black (41:53):
And our offices are next to Thalberg. And so it's me, JL, Will, we're all sitting there. We're nervous. We knew it was two hours. We're like, oh, dying. We were dying. It's 10 o'clock in the morning. 12:04 we hear the elevator beep outside of our offices. And we hear Amy and the group. Where are they? Where are they?
Jason Blumenthal (42:14):
They came to our offices. They had never been to our offices once.
Todd Black (42:17):
Yeah. They came in screaming. Best movie. Best movie Columbia's made. She called Howard Stringer. Oh my lord. And John Calley. What a story, So then so, so cut to we still didn't know what we had. We go to Seattle, we tested in Seattle. Will decides to come to the screening and come in when the lights go down. Yeah. You know about this Kevin. You have to deal with actors all the time that do that. He sneaks in. The movie comes up, people are standing, clapping, clapping, standing after a test screening. That doesn't really happen. Do the focus group at the very end, Will's like lucky thing you all said nice things about me. They turned around, they hugged. It was great. We get the scores. It was 94 in the top two boxes. 94. That's pretty good. It's pretty good. <laugh>
Jason Blumenthal (43:03):
Todd Black (43:06):
But you mean you're only six points away from… And, we get on the plane, and we're all just so happy. And Amy looks at us and she goes, lock the picture. Oh, that was it.
Jason Blumenthal (43:13):
And I'll leave you with this 'cause one of the things that Will said to me on that night that's never left me. And I've quoted it, and I say it still, and it's one of the smartest things that I've ever heard. And the truest thing I ever heard. It was after the audience erupted and started applauding and everybody was crying and I was crying 'cause it was so wonderful.
Todd Black (43:32):
And we didn't know what we had.
Jason Blumenthal (43:33):
We didn't know. And I remember hearing it and the thunderous applause. And there was a little moment where Todd, Will, and I are just off into a corner. And he looked at both of us and he says, you know what, when they tell you they like a movie, they're telling you they liked how it ended because they don't remember how it started. And when they walk out of that theater and they say they loved it. Will said that.
Todd Black (43:52):
Jason Blumenthal (43:53):
It's because they liked how and loved how it ended.
Todd Black (43:56):
And he's obsessed with endings.
Jason Blumenthal (43:57):
Because that's what they're telling you. They don't remember how it starts, but they remember how it ends. Oh yeah. And when they walk out and they tell you they loved it because you gave an audience something that they wanted and something that they deserved, and you delivered. Wow. And that's the secret to a successful film.
Kevin Goetz (44:11):
Wow. Well guys, thank God you have leaned into your superpowers and have given us so many great movies, and given me the opportunity and the honor to work with you, two great producers. I'm so happy to call you friends.
Jason Blumenthal and Todd Black
You're a good friend, Kevin. Yeah, Kevin, thank you so much. Personally and professionally.
You know, I love you both. Yeah, I really do. You're very, very special to me. And I hope you come back again because I have to tell you something, there's so many questions I have that I didn't even ask because it was such a free-flowing conversation. So, thanks again.
Jason Blumenthal and Todd Black
Thank you, Kevin. Thank you.
To our listeners, I hope you enjoyed our interview. I encourage you to check out EscapeArtists.com to learn more about Jason and Todd's work and to follow them on social media. 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'll welcome Robbie Brenner, who heads up the film division at Mattel and who is largely responsible for this summer's hit Barbie. Until then, I'm Kevin Goetz, and to you, our listeners, I appreciate you being part of the movie-making process. Your opinions matter.
Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal
Producer: Kari Campano
Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, Kari Campano
Audio Engineer & Editor: Gary Forbes
Produced at: DG Entertainment, Los Angeles