Hollywood on the Hudson with Film Producer, Peter Saraf
Peter Saraf is an independent film, television and theatre producer and production company executive. He was the founder and president of the production company Big Beach which he led for 16 years. Recent credits include Robin Wright’s Land, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Mariel Heller’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, Yoruba Richen’s The Sit-In, Jeff Nichol’s Loving, and the series’ Vida and Sorry For Your Loss. Other film credits include Little Miss Sunshine, Adaptation, Away We Go, and Everything Is Illuminated amongst others. Upcoming projects are Ry Russo-Young’s documentary series Nuclear Family which just premiered at Telluride and will air on HBO later this month as well as Don’t Make Me Go directed by Hannah Marks and starring John Cho which is in post-production.
Peter has been nominated for Academy, Golden Globe, Emmy and Tony Awards and has won multiple awards including the Spirit, Gotham, and Producers Guild Awards. He was the chair of the Producers Guild of America East and a Vice President of the PGA from 2012-2016 and currently sits on the board of directors. He is also a member of the executive committee of the Producers Branch of the Academy.
To kick off our series, Hollywood on the Hudson, we sat down with Peter Saraf and Woodstock Film Festival Co-Founder and Artistic Director, Meira Blaustein, to talk about the streaming industry, the growth of the film industry in the Hudson Valley, and a special connection to Bruce Springsteen.
Read the Full Interview Below
HOLLYWOOD ON THE HUDSON
With Peter Saraf, Film Producer
Hosted by Meira Blaustein, Co-Founder, Executive & Artistic Director Woodstock Film Festival
Meira Blaustein: Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking was not just a hobby; instead, it would become your life and your living?
Peter Saraf: I took a circuitous route to producing, and even really to the film business. I was a theater major in college, lived in Indonesia for a while, and while there, I worked in theater. When I came back to the US, I couldn’t figure out a way to make a living in theater – I wasn’t a focused, driven young person. But I knew that storytelling was what I wanted to do, and I have always loved movies. So, I made a half-assed attempt to go to film school; that didn’t work out. And then, I ended up getting a job working with the filmmaker, Jonathan Demme – this was about 30 years ago. It was there that I learned what producing was, learning as I went along, and I really loved it!
I don’t know if there’s an aha moment. Jonathan hired me as his office manager. So you know, I was responsible for payroll and bills and making sure the phones worked, and this thing called a fax machine. But, about six months into working there, we started filming the movie Philadelphia that he was directing. He wanted to make a documentary about one of the real people who inspired one of the characters in the film, and he said, “Peter, you produce it”. He was very generous that way. And so, I had to figure out how to produce a documentary, and I just did it, and I loved the process. When we were making the film, Bruce Springsteen wrote one of the songs for Philadelphia called “Streets of Philadelphia.” When we went to shoot the music video for that song, Jonathan asked me to produce it. I remember being in the hotel in Philadelphia the night before we were shooting, and my phone rings. It was Gary Goetzman, a legendary producer who had worked with Jonathan for many years. He was on the other end of the phone. He was in LA, and he goes, “So how do you feel being a producer”? And I was like, Well, wait, what? Maybe that was the pivotal moment.
Meira Blaustein: So, that’s how you started producing music videos – with Bruce Springsteen. Not too shabby! You have worked on so many films and in television. And I know that you’re among the most sought-after successful producers. Can you put your finger on what makes a producer a great producer?
Peter Saraf: I think the most important quality that a producer needs is “optimism.” The reason I say that is because a producer’s job is to take an idea and turn it into something. To take a script or a book, somebody’s vision for telling a story, and to create a movie, a documentary, a television series, an animated film, whatever it is–you’re creating and turning that into reality. And, to do that, you have to believe that it can happen. You have to be optimistic. You need to have incredible perseverance and great organizational skills. You have to be able to inspire people to do their best work. You have to have a sense of story, a sense of business, a sense of marketing, and an understanding of finance. There are a lot of different qualities, and that’s kind of what I love about it. But first and foremost, you have to believe, and you have to be optimistic.
Meira Blaustein: Peter, tell us about how you see the future of film and talk about the streaming industry and if it affects the quality and the content of today’s visual storytelling.
Peter Saraf: If it’s okay, I’m going to take the opportunity to talk about why I think film festivals are so important and why I believe the Woodstock Film Festival is important. And I’m not just doing this because I’m trying to get in your good favor. Although, I have submitted a film to the festival, The Rise Movie. But seriously, I do want to talk about the role that festivals can play. I think when we talk about streaming, we can talk about how it affects the business. And it has affected the business in many ways. But it’s just kind of there. What I’m most interested in is how streaming is affecting the way people experience film storytelling. It’s turned the experience into an isolated solitary (not necessarily solitary, as you may watch with friends, family, whatever), but it’s isolated people. And so it’s become individualized. And one of the great powers of film, television, and theater is the communal aspect. When you experience a story in community, and this goes back to the very foundation of storytelling in our culture and humanity, the communal nature gives it extraordinary power. When we experience emotions together, we process them in different ways. If you wanted to see a Buñuel film, or something else, you had to show up at the local art-house theater. Now, I can queue up any movie in the world on Criterion anytime I want; that’s amazing. I can see films from all over the world. It’s incredible. People from all over the world can see movies, in any language with subtitles or dubbing. I mean, the access is extraordinary, but we’re isolated. So I think there’s this responsibility for film festivals to provide the vital function of bringing us together for that communal experience. It’s extraordinarily important for the community in which it exists. It’s extraordinarily important for the filmmakers. And there’s a community beyond the exhibition part created by film festivals, where filmmakers get to come together and have the chance to interact. And, film festivals like Woodstock, can do labs throughout the year that helps educate, foster and incubate the next generation of storytellers, or help the current generation of storytellers. So these are vital functions that film festivals play within communities and the storytelling infrastructure. When we go to a film festival, we need to be reminded of that communal experience.
“People from all over the world can see movies, in any language with subtitles or dubbing. I mean, the access is extraordinary, but we’re isolated. So I think there’s this responsibility for film festivals to provide the vital function of bringing us together for that communal experience”.
Meira Blaustein: I’m totally in agreement. Do you want to juxtapose that with the power of subscription? I know you have spoken about how subscriptions affect what “streamers” are interested in and how that may affect the content and the quality.
Peter Saraf: First and foremost, let’s talk a bit about what we mean when we say streaming because people think immediately of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Disney+, and Paramount+. In there, everybody’s a streamer. Now it’s become the business model that even the traditional studios have adopted, except for Sony.
So what happens? What are the economics? What’s driving the subscription-based model? It’s different from what’s driven the film and television business for a long time. We’ve been very focused on box office and theatrical performance. How did it do for its opening weekend–which is about an individual title. Or, what are the ratings of an individual show? That’s what determines success and factors into what gets made next because we always want to follow success.
In a streaming model and a subscription-based model, you’re trying to attract as many subscribers as you can and retain them; and continue to do so because you’re trying to impress Wall Street. Did we hit the target? Did we exceed the target? Were we a little shy of the target? Do we have churn, which is a term for when subscription subscribers cancel? All of those things affect stock prices which affect what these companies are trying to do. So it takes the distinction of the individual title away. That has effects, which we’re still trying to understand and we don’t really know; but it does factor into decision making in ways that affect the choices made. And then, of course, a lot of what drives subscriptions are these algorithms, which I don’t really understand. I was a theater major, so don’t ask me about that. But I think they are trying to tell you, or predict, what you want to watch to keep you engaged. You know, keeping you engaged is very important. One of my favorite quotes from the founder of Netflix was, “Our competition isn’t the other streamers. Our competition is sleep”. So you have these algorithms, and the only way an algorithm can work is based on what’s already happened. So it’s trying to predict what you like, based on what you watch, to keep you in a loop, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for innovation or distinctive storytelling.
Meira Blaustein: So Peter, you have lived on and off in the Hudson Valley now for a few decades. You work primarily outside of the Hudson Valley, though I know that you are playing with the idea of doing some work here. Does living here affect the way you work and the kind of work that you do?
Peter Saraf: I would love to shoot here in the Hudson Valley. I’d love to work in the Hudson Valley. The things that determine where a movie or a TV series gets shot are the creative imperatives and the financial imperatives. I’m so excited to see the birth of these new studios and a lot of production here, which is wonderful. But you know, the Hudson Valley has long been an inspiring place for creative people, and it’s just an extraordinarily physically beautiful environment. There’s something in the air. You go back a century ago to the founding of the Byrdcliffe Colony–the utopian artists’ colony. I love that. And I love that after a few years, Herve White, who was part of the original Byrdcliffe Colony (who didn’t like Ralph Whitehead’s strict rules about what you could do), broke off and formed the Maverick Colony. You have this incredible history of creative enterprise and creative expression in this environment. And[Thomas Cole’s] Hudson River School too! The physical beauty, there’s something in the air that artists respond to. I know, I do. I feel very grounded here, and I feel free, and I can work very expansively.
Meira Blaustein: Do you want to talk a bit about what would make the filmmaking industry in the Hudson Valley grow?
Peter Saraf: Well, one of the things that we saw over the last year and a half during the pandemic was that people wanted to get out of closed-in areas. They wanted to be in open spaces and get out of cities, so they started looking afield. It opened up people’s minds to working outside of the cities, outside of New York. It’s a natural thing to come north, there’s a community here, and there are people who work in the industry who live and work here. But I think it’s growing. We’ve seen the growth of upriver studios, and we’re starting to see production come to the area. I think it makes a lot of sense – it’s close to the city. You have a small city like Kingston, which has all sorts of resources available to it. You have all the great small towns for incredible locations. All it takes is just enough critical mass to build momentum so that people keep coming back.
Meira Blaustein: All good news for the Hudson Valley!
The 22nd Annual Woodstock Film Festival will be back in action from September 29-October 3, 2021.
Enjoy in-person screenings, panels, and other special events! Don’t miss out, tickets are available now.