"Do something while you’re waiting. There’s so much waiting in the business that you can’t afford to waste ANY of it on actually waiting. It took 22 years for The Meg to reach the screen from the time we first sold it to Doubleday-Bantam. During that time, I produced over 25 others films. Thank GOD, I didn’t just wait around."
Asa part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ken Atchity.
Ken Atchity has produced more than 30 films, including: The Meg (Jason Statham, Warner Bros — over $500 million worldwide!), Angels in the Snow (Kristy Swanson, UP! Channel), Erased (Aaron Eckhart; Informant), Hysteria (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy; Informant), The Lost Valentine (Betty White, Hallmark Hall of Fame), the Emmy-nominated The Kennedy Detail documentary (Discovery),Gospel Hill (Danny Glover; Fox), The Madam’s Family (Ellen Burstyn, CBS), Joe Somebody (Tim Allen; Fox), Life or Something Like It (Angelina Jolie: Fox), Shadow of Obsession (Veronica Hammel, NBC), The Amityville Horror (NBC), and the Shades of Love movies for Cinemax-Warner Brothers International. Atchity received his B.A. from Georgetown University and Ph.D. from Yale. Dr. Atchity was chairman of comparative literature at Occidental College, Fulbright Professor of American Literature to the University of Bologna, and Distinguished Instructor in Fiction, Non-Fiction and Screenwriting at UCLA Writer’s Program.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
I was born in Cajun Louisiana and raised with my father’s Lebanese family in Kansas City Missouri. I went to Jesuit high school and college (Georgetown). I’ve always been split between north and south, east and west, intellectual pursuits (“Narrative Strategies in the Quixote”) and backwoods humor (Cajun Household Wisdom). I love equally Los Angeles, New York, and Rome; and married a “sophisticated lady” from Tokyo.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been eclectic in my interests. One day, when I was professor at Occidental College, I was teaching a course on courtly love during the same term I was teaching another one on “Publishing Practices & Techniques.” During a meeting of the publishing course, I was listening to my guest speaker Patrick O’Conner at Pinnacle Books telling my class what goes into a good cover for a romance novel. Romance novels comprised, back then, roughly more than fifty percent of all books sold throughout the world — some readers buying as many as 12 a month! It dawned on me, as he listed the ingredients, that they closely resembled Andreas Capellanus’ (the chaplain of Marie de France, one of the icons of courtly love) RULES OF COURTLY LOVE. This moment evolved into my first venture into film, the Shades of Love series of romance movies that I ended up producing for a division of Warner Bros and that played throughout the world for years and led me to resign my tenured professorship and embrace entertainment full-time.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
During the filming of JOE SOMEBODY (Tim Allen, Julie Bowen) in Minneapolis’ Target Center, my client Governor Jesse Ventura (whose I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed, that we developed and sold, became a NYT Bestseller) asked me if I could introduce him to Tim Allen. Jesse asked if he could spend a few minutes with our makeup person and I asked why. He told me he just wanted to look his best for a photo with Tim! Hilarious! I played Jesse’s bodyguard in the movie, fyi — also hilarious since I’m 5’6”!
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Angelina Jolie — on the set of Life or Something Like It — so nervous between shots, I asked her what was wrong. She said she had to pee but didn’t want to interrupt the flow. I grabbed an AD and told him, and escorted her to the bathroom!
Meeting Betty White on the set of The Lost Valentine, and telling her how my mother caused this film to get made! She laughed and said she wished she’d met her — they looked very much alike!
Chatting with Maggie Gyllenhaal on the set of Hysteria in London. She was wearing a hoop skirt. I realized a few minutes later that her daughter was hiding under the skirt!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Norman Cousins, world-famous editor of Saturday Review, told me I should leave academia and go into entertainment. When I told him “I know nothing” about entertainment, he took his copy of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade off the shelf, opened it, and pointed to the line: “The important thing to remember about Hollywood is, “Nobody knows anything.” I was sold! It was a level playing field!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Hollywood, on a daily basis, is pretty danged brutal. Constant setbacks, constant discouragement, few moments of clearcut joy! But someone quoted agent Larry Thompson’s comment, “You can’t get struck by lightning if you’re not playing in the rain,” and every time I think of retreating to a safe place, I remind myself that I LOVE the rain!
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
America’s greatness is its diversity, whether it’s in the food we eat or the politics we practice. The entertainment world is a mirror of the contemporary world and can’t do its job unless it expresses that diversity.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I just finished the script for a Gospel Rock Musical called, STARMAN, based on the music by Thomas Hogge. Finishing up the financing for a horror film for which I wrote the script, and co-managing a $300-million film fund. Also excited to start my next novel!
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
I started into my second career, entertainment, in 1987–37 years ago now. What I’m proudest of is surviving this long and getting to work in the most exciting, most challenging, most volatile industry in the world where the challenges are infinite, mostly unexpected, and you earn the greatest respect not by succeeding but simply by lasting!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Don’t analyze rejections. Just go back out there and pitch. You only need one buyer!
Don’t waste time licking your wounds. As Barry Diller said to his crestfallen execs after losing a major auction: “They won! We lost! Next!!!”
Wait for the tide to change. Any story you think is a GOOD commercial story will sell, just maybe not right now. Hold it till its time comes.
To quote Churchill: “Never give up, never give up, never give up,” though he didn’t exactly say it that way.
Do something while you’re waiting. There’s so much waiting in the business that you can’t afford to waste ANY of it on actually waiting. It took 22 years for The Meg to reach the screen from the time we first sold it to Doubleday-Bantam. During that time, I produced over 25 others films. Thank GOD, I didn’t just wait around.
When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?
I try to make every decision based on ‘what is the most dramatic thing’ that we could do here. For example, when Norman Stephens and I were casting Angels in the Snow, we decided to cast the ‘lost family in the blizzard’ as BLACK, which was not in our plans. The result was a much more dramatic and moving film.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would make a film that would EDUCATE Americans on the massively conflicted history of this great country. Their widespread ignorance of history is a huge part of our civil discord and divisiveness. We MUST learn how to control our disagreements and reunite as a nation.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I would choose President Biden, so I could urge him to start an ongoing series of “fireside chats” during prime time to keep the American people abreast of his daily struggle to do the right thing to keep democracy alive in this country.
How can our readers further follow you online?
My main website is www.storymerchant.com. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group