Interview: Martin Katz Cosmopolis Producer Talks About His Fascinating Career
When you Google Martin Katz, a variety of interesting characters come up. A jeweller, a dentist, pianist and a short IMDB profile for one Martin Katz- producer. Well, talk about the understatement of the decade. Martin Katz is not only the chair of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, he is also most recently the producer of widely-released films, A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis starring Robert Pattison. Our in-depth interview reveals a riveting biography of a rather humble guy. From starting off as a lawyer to being one of the internet pioneers tasked with populating the internet with content (can you imagine?) to eventually becoming one of Canada’s leading film producers, Martin Katz’s career is the stuff of novels or movies.
Katz (pronounced Kates) hails from Winnipeg, Manitoba and holds degrees in law from the Universities of Toronto and Paris. He was also employee number 3 at Microsoft’s MSN Canada where amongst many other tasks he created the first web-umentary, interactive programming and successful first ever 3-D internet experience.
Read below about his fascinating career:
Real Style: Tell us about your early days of being an internet pioneer.
Martin Katz: My kids like to joke that I invented the internet. I didn’t invent the internet. I worked at Microsoft to promote the internet and to populate the internet with content at a time when no one knew what the internet was going to deliver.
RS: What year is this?
1996, 97 and 98. Most people didn’t have email at that time. Most people didn’t understand what the internet was. I was the executive producer at Microsoft on a product called MSN. My job description was to get people interested in being online. When we described to people what MSN chat did, they would respond that it was complicated. I thought if we could get celebrities online that you could chat to by typing, we would actually deliver some value that people couldn’t get otherwise by phoning their friends. I curated a series of celebrity chats. I think I was the first person in the world to do it. So that people who were MSN subscribers could communicate, by typing, with different well-known people.
The first person I went to was David Cronenberg. I knew David was interested in technology and was in the midst of filming eXistenZ. I thought he might be interested in the internet. I got in touch with him and said have you heard about the internet. He said ‘yeah I’ve heard about it, but I don’t know anything about it.’ We sent two engineers to his house to install internet access to his computer. Then we publicized this event which we called a celebrity chat. We went on to do them with other people including a Pulitzer Prize winning author in Winnipeg named Carol Shields and Rick Mercer. In fact that year we hired Rick to write what I think was the first blog ever. At the time we called it an electronic diary. He covered the election and he travelled coast to coast in a car and we bought him a digital camera and he would take photographs and upload these diary entries from payphones and hotels where he could plug in his modem to their phone lines. That was really the beginning of the internet and the first time I met David when I was trying to get him online.
I left Microsoft in about 1998. No one ever suspected that individuals would create so much content.
RS:Where did you go next?
MK: I went from Microsoft to the film business. I had been at Atlantis before the merger as a television producer prior to joining Microsoft. So after law school I had a career in almost every part of the media starting in publishing, then broadcasting then television and now film. I was the head of subsidiary rights and executive assistant to the president at McClelland and Stewart when Adrienne Clarkson was President and Publisher there. That’s really the job that pulled me away from law. I had been teaching. I was actually a lawyer and had taken a leave of absence to be a professor at l’Universite de Moncton, the only French language common law law school in the world. I taught business law and labour law there. I then got this offer, so I came back to Toronto, went to work with the publishing house and did not go back to law.
RS: Did you just love your new career?
MK: I did. I was always passion about culture, whether it was theatre or publishing or film. I was never an entertainment lawyer. That was never a goal of mine, but I enjoyed the opportunity to work in the industry. After that I took a job at CBC, where I was a programming executive and then became the head of business affairs.
RS: That is interesting that you went from law to publishing to program executive. How did you get into television programming?
MK: My job was really business affairs oriented. I worked in the programming department for Ivan Fecan, but really my job was to negotiate contracts for shows. I didn’t realize that it was odd at the time that the people on the creative side kept asking me to come to their meetings. I thought it was normal that I would go to creative meetings. It turns out that I was the only business guy who was asked to go to the creative meetings.
MK: I guess they felt that I had an opinion worth listening to even if they disregarded it. Ultimately, Atlanis asked me if I would join them as an executive producer and producer of television.
RS: Why did they feel that you had what it takes to be a producer? What does a producer do?
MK: A producer solves problems. That’s all. The biggest problem is where is all of the money coming from? That is the first problem you have to solve. The process of solving that problem is a process of understanding the marketplace. Understanding your product and its place in the market. You must think creatively about how to sell your product to people in the marketplace or you aren’t going to make any money. Your first problem – solving task is figuring out how to sell a dream: a package of a script, a director and talent. It’s a little different in television because they shoot a pilot, create materials, a teaser reel and then create one sheets. Television is very much based on your track record of delivery. There are lots of great ideas. The question is who can deliver great ideas consistently week after week? Lots of people with great ideas can deliver one half hour. It’s the 14th half hour that makes broadcasters nervous. I was working for Atlantis, which is a well-known company with a track record. We would often have an anchor broadcaster and our job was to put together additional financing from other broadcasters usually in other countries and produce shows as co-productions. We at Atlantis were among the leading co-production specialists in the television world. Canada did more English language co-productions than anywhere else.
RS: What are some of the shows you worked on?
MK: We co-produced Ken Finkleman’s first project in Canada called Married Life. It was a co-production between Atlantis and the Comedy Network in the US. We took over a show that was on Nikelodeon called Wild Side that was about two kids in the San Diego Zoo looking at animals. I said, “You known what would be great? If we could take the kids to South Africa and look at real animals on safari.” They said that was insanely expensive. I said, “But if we could do it for the same amount of money would you buy it?” They said of course we would. The challenge was there. I went out and made one of the first Canada South-Africa co-productions.
RS: Fast forward 20 years and now you are making huge movies. After Spider there were a few and then A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis with Robert Pattinson and this huge recent scandal [with Kristen Stewart].
MK: I don’t know if it is a scandal. I think it was great for us and the movie that Rob was interested in making that type of move at this time. I think he is great in the movie and he will bring a new type of audience to David’s world. His relationship with Kristen is private, but the intense focus on it is bizarre. It’s a funny world. It brought us a lot of publicity for our US launch. We could not in a million years have bought that much publicity. I’m sorry it came at the expense of his personal life, but he’s a celebrity.
After Spider, I did a couple more movies. I left the company that I was working for and started my own production company, Prospero Pictures. The first movie I produced there was Hotel Rwanda, which was a big deal. The story behind that is that a friend of mine in Los Angeles called me and said we have a beautiful script, but can’t find interest for it here. It’s about Africa, and you’ve worked in Africa. I had worked there twice. I thought we could find a way to bring money from there and find some equity in England as well. I read it in July, I flew to LA just after the July 4th weekend and met with my partner and the physical producer of the movie and we talked about the challenges of getting the movie made and I talked to them about using the same kind of financing elements that we used on television at Atlantis. At that time most people in the feature business believe that co-productions were way too complicated for them to worry about because there was sufficient money in the theatrical world to finance films. Fast forward five years and my phone is ringing off the hook.
RS: You are the guy who practically invented the co-production in Canadian film and television. Once again-one of the pioneers.
MK: I am not alone, but I was definitely one of the pioneers of co-production financing in film. That’s the same joke as the one that my kids tell that I invented the internet. The remarkable thing about the film industry is that, every time, you are starting from almost nothing.
RS: But you have been doing this for so long, you’d think it would get easier?
MK: Oh, yes. The good news is that I can get people on the phone now. The bad news is that they can say no just as easily. I have a broader range of people who will say no to me, which is great. It’s a great blessing to work on movie that you are proud of. In our business not everyone gets to do that. And to work with collaborative directors like David is a great joy. To be able to bring value to a project, which is greater than just my financial acumen is a great gift.
RS: In what way? What else do you do?
MK: In order to be helpful to a movie, you have to be able to understand both the marketplace, the movie and the movie’s place in the market place. Intermediating between the money and the creative partners is a very specialized role and one that I seem to have had some success with.
RS: What is a situation where that type of a skill comes into place?
MK: We will go back to the beginning with the series Wild Side, where my job was to find money for the television show. I suspected that a television show that had an ecological aspect with kids actually in the wild experiencing animals in their natural habitat would have a greater audience worldwide than two kids from southern California in the San Diego zoo. That was my suspicion. I had the ability to produce such a show for roughly the same amount of money as this other show if we could do it as a co-production. I also had to sell it to people, who would not have bought the show about the San Diego zoo. We were pioneering in a lot of ways. It was a pioneering effort of international co-production and it was a reality show. It was “kids on safari” the reality show, before anyone called anything a reality show. Before reality shows existed.
Another example is the television show I produced recently, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With. This was a television series which was pitched to me by a music journalist as a live interview show with a musician interviewing other musicians the night before or after a live concert show. My reaction was that I don’t know anything about live shows, but with the right host this could be a television series. We set about finding the right host which was Elvis Costello. We went on to sell the project to CTV in Canada, Sundance in the US, and Channel 4 in the UK. In order to do that you have to be able to understand both the creative elements of the project as well as the financial elements. You are selling something that doesn’t exist yet. You are selling a dream. It is particularly difficult in co-productions because you are selling the same thing to three or four buyers at the same time. This has buyers on two continents and you have to make them believe you are selling something they want. That is a challenging thing to do.
RS: Tell us about your role as chair of the Academy Of Canadian Cinema and Television.
MK: The Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television is the professional organization that represents people in our industry of film, television and new media, whether they are working in front of the camera as actors, behind the camera as directors or cinematographers, writers, lighting technicians, wardrobe, makeup artists. It is the only organization in our country that brings together all of these people who are working in either English or in French. We organize the award shows that honour excellence in our industry and raise the profile of work in this industry. These are the awards that used to be called the Genies and the Gemini Awards and now, as of March 3, 2013, will be called the Canadian Screen Awards and will recognize excellence in film, television and new media all in one blockbuster show that will be broadcast for 2 hours nationally on CBC Sunday night March 3rd from 8 to 10 pm. It will be broadcast live from Toronto. Martin Short will be our host.
RS:What’s next for the ever evolving Martin Katz?
MK: I have two things that I am excited about. I am working on my fourth collaboration with David Cronenberg called Maps To The Stars. It is an absurdist comedy about the entertainment business. We hope to be able to work with many of the people we have worked with before including Rob Pattinson.
The other is a project which is very close to my heart called The Journey Is The Destination about a young journalist named Dan Eldon who was a photographer, journalist, and artist who left a legacy of beautiful collage artwork and photojournalism. He was killed by a mob at the age of 22 in Mogadishu. Before that he had a fantastically interesting career and life.
I hope to be shooting both of them in the new year.
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