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Donald Zuckerman: Movie producer turned film commissioner

Donald ZuckermanTRYING new things has never been a problem for Donald Zuckerman, Colorado’s relatively new film commissioner.

He’s tried plenty of new things, many of them connected to entertainment in some way, some not. He has been comfortable on both the financial and creative sides of cinematic and other pursuits.

In his 67 years — he looks an easy 20 years younger, despite his silver hair — Zuckerman has succeeded at many of his ventures and failed at a few.

He doesn’t mind discussing any of them, including the clunkers.

Some years back, he was a pivotal player in an attempt to develop a major concert venue on the site of an “old and defunct” amphitheater in Queens, NY.

He partnered with big investors, and tirelessly worked a host of city politicians and community leaders, including a borough president whose crucial support for the project was assured.

“And he gets accused in this parking meter scandal and kills himself in his kitchen with a kitchen knife,” Zuckerman says, an expression somewhere between horror and irony on his face. The project was dead in its tracks.

“It would have been a life changer for me. I probably never would have been in the movie business because I would have been a major player in the rock and roll business in New York.”

Undaunted, he moved on.

In the 1980s, he was promoting rock bands and helping them create videos, back in the heady days when MTV became a major cog in the rock and roll machine. One of his artists was Patty Smythe, whose band Scandal had several huge hits in the early 80s.

“She hated us for making her sing ‘The Warrior’ and put on that cape in the video,” he says with a laugh. “It all seems very dated now.”

Zuckerman has also been given credit for having introduced a DJ-based form of karaoke to the US, a cultural achievement he does not deny.

He has a war chest full of such stories, most of them dealing with motion pictures, the mainstay of his varied and colorful career.

As a producer, executive producer or creative producer of more than 20 movies, ranging from the obscure to the celebrated, Zuckerman has worked with some of Hollywood’s top directors and stars.

Among his more recent successes was “Casino Jack,” a 2010 movie focusing on the ill-fated career of Jewish lobbyist and businessman Jack Abramoff, whose involvement in a massive corruption scheme led to his conviction in 2006.

The film starred Kevin Spacey and was directed by George Hickenlooper, who died unexpectedly shortly after it was released.

Zuckerman had worked with George Hickenlooper, brother of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, on several films and considered him a close friend. They had an excellent producer-director collaboration, he says.

It was that connection — and his work on the documentary “Hick Town” about John Hickenlooper’s bid to become Colorado governor — that led to his 2011 appointment as Colorado film commissioner.

Serving as film commissioner (formal title: director of the Colorado Office of Film, Television & Media) is a detail-oriented, business-heavy, office-based job, quite tame in comparison to Zuckerman’s work in Hollywood near the nerve center of the film industry.

That’s just fine with him.

“First of all, I’ve made 20 movies, so it’s not really a big thrill anymore to get a movie credit,” he says.

“Second of all, I wanted a challenge, to do something different. I also have a four-year old daughter. At the time she was two, I was making ‘Hick Town’ about John Hickenlooper. And George dies. At the same time, I’m thinking, do I really want to bring up my kid in West Hollywood?

“We loved our life there, but is it a great place to bring up a child?”

He remembers being in Hickenlooper’s office, when he was still serving as Denver mayor.

“I told him, ‘Hey, if you get elected, I might want to be the film commissioner.’”

Done deal.

In the simplest of terms, the film commissioner’s job is to encourage filmmakers to make their movies, or at least significant parts of them, in their territory – in Zuckerman’s case, in Colorado.

Film production can bring considerable revenue and jobs to the locations where it takes place, along with precious exposure and a measure of prestige.

Zuckerman, whose years in production led to plentiful contact with film commissioners in the US and overseas, knew the difference between good and bad promotion.

Until fairly recently, he says, Colorado was among the worst.

Although his sharp wit and dry humor might sometimes convey the impression that Zuckerman doesn’t take his job entirely seriously, the impression is wrong. When is comes to the film industry, he is a very hands on professional, an experienced veteran who knows the nuts and bolts of a very complex process.

“There aren’t that many people who know much about film finance,” he says.

He clearly does.

Zuckerman is remarkably fluent in the behind-the-scenes nomenclature of making movies.

He knows how much different levels of actors and directors are paid, the often agonizing process of finalizing screenplays, how overseas sales and contracts can make or break a film’s profitability, why contracts in Hollywood are often not really contracts, why it’s virtually impossible to make money these days with dramas, why horror films almost never attract major stars.

He effortlessly flings around such industry phrases as “asking price and take price,” “marketplace affirmation,” “gap money” and “unsold territories.”

When it comes to actually financing films, Zuckerman complies with a request to make the complex formula understandable to the layman.

There are four primary elements in film finance, he says.

One is the “presales” to television and video-on-demand markets, in the US and overseas. These are contracts the producer tries to work out prior to a film’s release.

Another is investment from banks, which use the presales figures as security.

Another is “equity” — funds from private investors hoping to cash in on a box office success.

The final element is “soft money,” which translates more or less into the incentives that states, provinces or nations offer to filmmakers, most often in the form of cash rebates on production funds spent within their borders.

Such incentives can be crucial in making a film, Zuckerman says, often amounting to as much as 20% of a film’s total budget.

When he was a producer, he regularly shopped around for such incentives, taking advantage of those offering the best incentives.

Now that he is a film commissioner, he’s on the other side of the deal.

ONE of the first duties Zuckerman undertook in Colorado was to make the state more attractive to filmmakers. He was instrumental in pushing for the passage of a bill in the State Legislature last year that, among other things, boosted Colorado’s rebate for film production from 10% to 20%. The bill threw in a handful of other incentives, including a loan guarantee program, and also set guidelines for hiring from the state’s own workforce.

For years, he says, Colorado was a virtual non-contender in the competition to draw film production.

“There were two problems,” Zuckerman says. “One was attitude. People said, ‘We’re Colorado. People are going to come anyway.’ Which wasn’t true. When I got here, we hadn’t had anybody from Hollywood come in four years at all, none of the independents, nobody.”

Colorado’s bounty of mountain scenery and open space aren’t enough to sell the state, especially in this era of special effects and computer imaging, when virtually anything can be convincingly simulated.

“Let’s say I’m going to make a movie and I need mountains. I can shoot in Alberta, and they have great incentives. Or I can shoot in Utah, where there’s a 25% rebate. Each of the things that we have, you can find someplace else that has it.

“Remember, you’re trying to finance a movie and it’s really hard to finance a movie, so you look at your choices.”

Zuckerman’s own “Casino Jack” is a good example.

All of the actors in that film were shot on location in Canada, where the soft money was substantial. Although the movie shows the movie’s protagonist walking up the steps of the US Capitol, the scene was actually shot on the steps of a cathedral in Ontario, in front of a green screen, which allowed for the US Capitol to be spliced in for the shot’s background.

“We cheated it all,” Zuckerman says. “Today, you can cheat anything. With CGI almost anything is possible.”

Now in his second year as film commissioner, Zuckerman is already seeing results of the state’s new approach.

“My first year here all I did was work on getting the law passed. The phone never rang. Now the phone rings all the time.”

“Dear Eleanor,” a road trip and coming of age film by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kevin Connolly, finished shooting in the Boulder area this spring. The filmmakers originally wanted to film in Utah, but Zuckerman played a big role in talking them out of it.

Zuckerman has also been working with High Noon Entertainment, a Denver-based TV producer, on a new reality show based in Colorado. The series, “The Prospectors,” has been sold to the Weather Channel.

“It’s a hit,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s the Weather Channel’s number one show and now they reordered it as an hour show.”

Last year’s filming in Colorado for “The Lone Ranger,” starring Johnny Depp, was an unexpected bonus, Zuckerman adds. He didn’t work with the film’s producers at all, but the director insisted in filming some of the scenes in the southwestern Colorado town of Creede.

It was “a crazy fluke” that paid off nicely.

BENDING over backwards to please film production companies is all about Colorado’s self-interest, Zuckerman says. “It profits in a lot of ways. First of all, it’s an employment program. We have a lot of people here who are technical people, plus actors and the like who are in the film business, but there’s no work here, except for commercials and industrials.”

Zuckerman has gone on record, on his office’s own website, in stating his objective to attract as many as 1,000 new permanent jobs to Colorado, all paying better than average, in the film production industry.

“At the same time we have 1,100 students in our three major film schools, Colorado Film School, CU Boulder and CU Denver. We subsidize those students through tuition support — two million dollars a year in tuition support and we’re training them to go get a job in another state.”

Encouraging the movie industry to spend its money in Colorado has beneficial ripple effects.

“Every job you create,” Zuckerman says, “means people pay rent or a mortgage, they go to the drycleaners, to the Starbucks, they buy cars and gasoline and groceries. The money has a multiplier effect in the economy. The money comes back into the community and works in the community.”

Slightly less tangible, but no less important, are the benefits that movies bring to tourism, long a major component of Colorado’s economy.

Zuckerman points to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, a tourist destination that draws something like 100,000 paid admissions to its ghost tours every year. That is a direct result of the fact that author Stephen King used the Stanley as the model for his sinister Overlook Hotel in the hugely successful novel and motion picture “The Shining.”

Today, the Stanley Hotel accounts for over 30% of Estes Park’s revenue, “and keeps the place on the map.”

After “The Lone Ranger” shot in Creede in 2012, the town’s tourism revenues were up nearly 25%.

“It’s all about awareness,” Zuckerman says.

ALTHOUGH Zuckerman was raised in a very Jewish part of New Jersey, and later lived and worked for years in Manhattan and Hollywood — also areas with many Jews — Jewishness has never been a big part of his life.

“I’ve been very unreligious my whole life,” he says, “but now that we have a child we really believe it’s important for her to be a Jew. We believe that it’s important for her to get some Jewish education.”

Zuckerman’s father was born Jewish. His mother, who was born Episcopalian, converted to Judaism.

“We were Reform Jews,” he says, “who didn’t do a lot.”

In a remarkable coincidence, Zuckerman’s wife is the daughter of a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother.

“She now is taking conversion classes at Temple Emanuel,” he says of his wife. “It’s her decision. We’ve taken our daughter to holy day services at Temple Emanuel, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover. We’ve taken her to three seders.

“I’m a big believer in keeping the culture alive. I support Israel, although I don’t necessarily support everything they do. They’re a little hard line for my taste, although I have many friends who are into the hard line.”

Jews and Jewish subjects have occasionally slipped into movies he’s been involved with, especially “Casino Jack,” since its subject, Jack Abramoff, was at least ostensibly an Orthodox Jew.

Abramoff, as played by Kevin Spacey, was portrayed somewhat sympathetically in the movie, Zuckerman acknowledges.

“When we talked about making this film, we said you can’t dislike this character. If you dislike this character you’re not going to see the movie. You’ve got to be rooting for him in some way, whether he does bad things or not, and I think Kevin Spacey delivered a good portrayal.”

He does admit to having a few second thoughts about the portrayal, however, since the real-life Abramoff, like Bernie Madoff, did a lot to damage the reputation of American Jews and may have contributed to ill feelings against them, if not outright anti-Semitism.

The bottom line for Zuckerman, however, is that art ultimately has to be given priority over such considerations.

Besides, “Casino Jack” came out three years ago. As far as Zuckerman is concerned, it’s already part of film history.

He much prefers looking ahead, to the next challenge.

He says he’s not sure when that will come, or in what form it might arrive.

Serving as film commissioner has so far been “an adventure,” he says.

“I’m here at the pleasure of the governor and at best, he’s here for another five-and-a-half years. Many things could happen. I came here to build something. It won’t be forever. I still got a couple of movies inside me, I think.”

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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