Interview: Colin Vaines, Producer – Part I

Feature Image for Interview with Colin Vaines.

“With film-making, everything has to coalesce around the momentary zeitgeist.  That’s the Producer’s role.  The right story, the right script, the right director and the right actors.  All at the right time.  Then you need the money, which needs the distribution.  There’s an art to it for sure.  But once you get there, it really is magic.”

Who is Colin Vaines?

Colin Vaines is the quintessential insider within the film and television industry with a career that has spanned four decades. He has bore witness to some of the industry’s most significant transitions, including the rise of international co-productions, the digital transformation and the eruption of today’s “streaming wars”. 

He began his journey on the streets of London’s Soho in 1977 as a journalist for Screen International, rising to co-Editor and establishing a reputation as a “gentleman scholar” with a distinct feel for the business of film development.  He left journalism in 1984 to run the UK’s National Film Development Fund and advise British Screen Finance, both initiatives of the British government to build the UK film and television industry into what it is today.

Poached by Columbia Pictures to oversee UK development in 1987, he went on to hold key positions on both sides of the Atlantic with David Puttnam’s Enigma, the Film Consortium, GK and Miramax Films. 

Throughout his career, Colin Vaines has been at the forefront of film and television development, overseeing production and executive producing some of the most iconic pictures over the past several decades.  His filmography includes Memphis Belle, Gangs of New York and The Rum Diary.  Through his litany of pictures he has managed to develop a global contact network of the industry’s most powerful production and acting talent. 

Today, Vaines is a highly sought-after freelance producer known for his dedication to developing high-quality film and television projects, including the recent Netflix Original, The Unforgivable with Sandra Bullock.  Retaining his reputation as a “gentleman scholar” after four decades in the business, Vaines remains a well-known figure in his beloved Soho neighbourhood in London.

The Media C-Suite had the pleasure of sitting down with this film industry icon for an in-depth 3-part interview about his storied career and his thoughts on the business of film making. So, let’s dive in and hear from Colin Vaines himself.

The Media C-Suite:

Colin, let’s start with a baseline question:  What is your favourite movie?

Colin Vaines:

Oh, gosh, that should be an easy one. 

But there are so many great films and my mood changes.  So I would say my favourite film varies from time to time.  I recently loved Tár , from Focus Features.  I don’t think many other distributors would have backed this one. I loved the mixture of intellectual and thriller elements, with just enough emotional heart. 

Todd Field, who wrote and directed, did a wonderful job and Cate Blanchett was superb as Lydia Tár.  I think Alexandra Milchan deserves her reputation as one of today’s top Producers for helping to realise that film.  

But the film that triggered my love of this job is an oldie.  I would say it was, and still is, a perfect film.  That is Michael Powell’s 1946 film called A Matter of Life and Death.  It was released in the US as Stairway to Heaven.  David Niven played a British RAF pilot who must jump from his airplane without a parachute.  He survives, due a mishap in the afterlife, and falls in love with an American radio operator. He is then put on trial in the afterlife for his right to keep living.  It’s a delightful romantic fantasy of course, but it is so well made.  It has the intellect, the drama and the emotion that I feel every film should have. 

The Media C-Suite:

You mention intellect, drama and emotion.  Are these the elements that all Producers look for in a story that they want to build a film or television project around?

Colin Vaines:

The emotional element in particular is really important to me, and that needs a degree of intellect and drama that many scripts just don’t have.  Even when a story has these elements, it takes so much effort to develop a script into a professional production project that we really must be selective.

Every Producer I know would say the same about the time and effort needed to do justice to a story we believe in.

Each Producer has their own motivation, of course.  But at the end of the day, our job as Producers is to shepherd a project into production and deliver it for distribution.  More often than not it takes a team of Producers to do it right and our separate motivations and skill-sets align on certain projects. 

the rum diary a novel by hunter s media c-suite
The Rum Diary, a novel by Hunter S. Thompson adapted into the film by Bruce Robinson and staring Johnny Depp. Image Credit: The Media C-Suite.

The Media C-Suite:

You have been in the room working on teams with some of the film industry’s most powerful Producers.  What situation stands out as being most important or influential on your career?

Colin Vaines:

I don’t think its possible to narrow it down to just one or two moments.  There are so many moments that shaped how I work today.

In terms of my being in awe, and feeling so privileged, I remember a particular protracted negotiation between Dino de Laurentiis and Harvey Weinstein for a number of projects they wanted to collaborate on.  This was around 2005, so Dino was already in his mid 80s and still a force to be reckoned with.

We were on a yacht, because of course, they had to be on a yacht.  Experiencing these two very different characters, with so much gravitas negotiating a deal was incredible.  But the real value I got from that encounter was a new relationship with Lorenzo De Maio who was with Dino at the time and went on to run Endeavour Content and now De Maio Entertainment, which is partnered by Fremantle .  He is a colleague I value greatly to this day.

I would also include having to help manage the production and cost overruns during the production of Gangs of New York.  That was a deep learning experience for me. 

Martin Scorsese had been developing that project, and there were boxes and boxes of scripts and notes that all needed to be taken into consideration as we were working towards production.  Development at that point was an intense period.  It was a film which Scorsese had struggled to get off the ground for decades, but when Leonardo DiCaprio signed on all restraint vanished.  Graham King managed to pre-sell all of the international rights based on the combination of Scorsese and DiCaprio, and Miramax came on board for North America.

After that, development had to catch up and keep up in the face of so many years of conceptual work.  I learned so much and established so many relationships during that period of my career.

martin scorsese directing leonardo dicaprio on the set of gangs of new york media c-suite
Martin Scorsese directing Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of Gangs of New York. Image credit: Dan Perri.

The Media C-Suite:

Collaboration seems to be an important theme to you.

Colin Vaines:

Oh yes.  Of course that should be true.

The collaborators that one collects over a career are essential for a Producer. 

There’s an unspoken consensus that one looks for, and it coalesces around a shared vision for any film or television show that has real merit.  It’s often at that moment that a project gains traction.

The Media C-Suite:

Is that the moment investors should be looking for?

Colin Vaines:

Perhaps.  Investment is a tricky topic.

As a Producer, I am already investing much earlier in terms of the time and effort to reach that moment.  But it would only be from that moment that a single project becomes a business proposition.  By then, we have invested a lot of time, money and effort into the project ourselves.

I think that too many projects are being pitched to investors before anyone understands if and how it will make money. 

The Media C-Suite:

Is knowing that answer the result of the development process?

Colin Vaines:

Well, development is a bit more fluid than that.  The goal posts are constantly changing.  But ideally, yes.

The script has to be well crafted and compelling.  There has to be a capable and relevant team of production and acting talent within confirmed reach.  There has to be a very good estimate of the budget needed to produce that script with that talent.  With that an investor can make an informed decision.  Before that point, you really can’t. 

That’s also the proverbial “Package” that is needed to sincerely attract distributors or streamers, who are also investors.

Investment at that point provides the capital needed to sign contracts with the talent, prepare the accounting and production scheduling and to begin negotiations with distributors and streamers.

There’s also the audience and an ever changing view on what the audience wants.

With film-making, everything has to coalesce around the momentary zeitgeist.  That’s the Producer’s role.  The right story, the right script, the right director and the right actors.  All at the right time.  Then you need the money, which needs the distribution.  There’s an art to it for sure.  But once you get there, it really is magic.

Join us for Part II of our Interview. Colin Vaines discusses the role of Producer, his own career path and where the centre of the industry is today. Later, in Part III, we will hear about investment in film, what Producers get out of it and the trends being pursued by large Private Equity investors today.


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