Michael Clayton

On February 10th and 11th, 2008, the Harvard Business School’s Entertainment and Media Club (EMC) and the Harvard Law School’s Arts & Literature Law Society (ALLS) hosted a film screening of the Academy Award nominated film, Michael Clayton, followed by an engaging discussion on the filmmaking business with Producer Steve Samuels. Michael Clayton tells the story of Michael Clayton (George Clooney), an in-house “fixer” at Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, one of the largest corporate law firms in Manhattan, New York. Clayton cleans up clients’ messes, handling cases such as hit-and-runs, damaging stories in the press and crooked politicians. The career of Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the in-house chief counsel of an agrochemical company, rests on the settlement of a suit that Kenner, Bach & Ledeen is leading to a seemingly successful conclusion. It is Clayton who takes care of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen’s dirtiest disasters, and tackles the case when the firm’s most brilliant litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), suffers from a breakdown and tries to sabotage the entire case.

Samuels Media
Michael Clayton was financed by Samuels Media, an independent entertainment company headed by producer Steve Samuels focused on the financing, development, and production of feature films. The film was released domestically by Warner Bros. and internationally by Summit Entertainment and has been nominated for seven Academy Awards.

Real Estate and Film Business Parallels
With the discipline of a well-structured financing approach, Samuels has excelled in creating commercially viable films of exceptional quality by bringing together the artistic vision of talented creative teams. Samuels holds a strong background in real estate business. During his discussion at the Harvard community, he outlined the similarities between the real estate and film businesses from the risk perspectives. According to Samuels, both industries involve risk every step of the way. Additionally, both filmmaking and homebuilding processes may be divided into three general phases: “Pre-Production” (Financing, Planning, etc.), “Production” (Project construction), and “Post-Production” (Editing, Marketing, etc.).
Samuels is a real estate mogul who has built and redeveloped over fifty projects in seven states in the USA. His real estate company, Samuels & Associates, prides itself on success through building enduring relationships with its business partners, its focus on creating developments that enhance local neighborhoods and communities, and its impeccable reputation among the residents, community groups, regulatory agencies, lenders, investors and tenants affiliated with its projects.

Thus, it is to no surprise that when Samuels founded Samuels Media in 2004 after twenty years in the real estate business, his company immediately became a success because he applied his values and work ethic he developed in his prior business to his new independent entertainment company. Samuels Media also co-financed and co-produced with Summit Entertainment writer-director Paul Haggis’ harrowing dramatic thriller In The Valley of Elah, starring Charlize Theron, Tommy Lee Jones, & Susan Sarandon. The picture was also released by Warner Independent and has also been nominated for an Academy Award. Samuels is an executive who clearly understands how to make money work effectively in both the real estate and independent film businesses.

On the Hollywood Formula
Unfortunately, there exists one astute difference between the real estate and independent filmmaking businesses. While the real estate industry likely guarantees profits if one works hard and adheres to certain real estate formulas, the outcomes of the filmmaking business are oftentimes either hits or losses. According to Samuels, the Hollywood formula simply serves as a guideline. Once in awhile, a script that does not fit with any of the formulas will become a hit, such as Juno, a quirky film about teen pregnancies. Thus, following one’s gut feeling in Hollywood may play a more significance than adhering to the formula.

Additionally, the Hollywood digital media industry is always treading in ambiguous territory. According to Samuels, in five years, nobody will wish to posses DVDs physically. On the other hand, the film audience will care about lists and the content in the lists. The challenge here is to determine how to monetize this. This problem has not yet been nailed. The great challenge is that the most profitable part of the film industry rests in the sales of the DVD industry.

The Independent Versus Studio Producers
Samuels shared his reflections on independent producers versus studio producers. Independent films are generally classified as films under $30 million. They are quality-driven and content-driven. They may also be star-driven since stars today more are willing to receive a salary cut because they are driven by the intrinsic rewards of acting in passion films worthy of Academy Award Nominations. For an actor to survive in Hollywood, they must chose roles that stretch and satisfy them. Examples include actors Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, Hillary Swank, Heath Ledger, Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, and Bruce Willis. In the world of Indies, the goal is to secure a great director that has been sitting on his passionate project, providing them with creative control.In contrast, the studio films hold creative control and are blockbuster-driven because they must appeal to the largest section of the public film audience: the age range of 18 years to 25 years.

On Leverage
One of the most important words of advice given by Samuels was regarding leverage: “You cannot be the only person exposed.” Hollywood has been legendarily known, for approximately eighty years, for wealthy financiers walking in with their money and losing everything. According to Samuels, it is important to negotiate a deal where, if the film fails, then everyone loses: “The first money in is the first money out.” Steve Samuels negotiated a fair partnership with George Clooney to serve as executive producer on Michael Clayton, a real partnership where every dollar made was split with Clooney.

According to Samuels, the script was close to perfection when he first received it. Perhaps Gilroy’s realistic approach to storytelling portrays a reflection of both the world today and the world at Samuels Media. Remarks Samuels, “The main characters in Michael Clayton have chosen career paths that come with certain rewards and compromises. It takes tremendous courage for someone to risk losing everything in order to do the right thing.”

As a result of doing the right thing and making the right decisions, Michael Clayton has been rewarded with seven Academy Award Nominations, including Best Picture, Tony Gilroy for Best Director, George Clooney for Best Actor, Tom Wilkinson for Best Supporting Actor, Tilda Swinton for Best Supporting Actress, James Newton Howard for Best Original Score and Tony Gilroy for Best Original Screenplay.

The Michael Clayton event was hosted by the EMC of the Harvard Business School and the ALLS of the Harvard Law School. Contact: Brenda Vongova, Film Chair, ALLS of the Harvard Law School at bvongova@fas.harvard.edu