Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be behind the scenes of the great movies that we see in theatres and on television? In this episode, movie executive Mark Pennell shares how the film industry has changed and withstood the test of time. Mark is the head of New Business and Special Projects at Beacon Pictures. He has over two decades of creative, strategic, and performance-focused executive experience. He has successfully secured funding for major stage shows and motion pictures and developed and written various film and TV projects. Diving into Hollywood 101, Mark shares how he originally wanted to be a banker and broker but stumbled into being an actor and fell in love with the siren call of Los Angeles.
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Hollywood 101 With Movie Exec Mark Pennell
We are living in the City of Angels with the mecca of the movie and media industry here, Hollywood. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes of Hollywood. It’s not just all fancy dresses, red carpet events and good-looking movie stars. There are a few people that do work and get the jobs done. They get the movies out there and put them on the big screens for you guys to enjoy. We have a special guest who I’m excited to have on the show. He’s a great friend of mine as well.
Our guest is most definitely one of the most successful film execs in Hollywood. Originating from Australia, he successfully secured funding for some major stage and film shows. He has developed and written various film and TV projects. He is the Head of New Business and Special Projects at the top production company, Beacon Pictures. It’s an honor to welcome to the show Mark Pennell. Mark, how are you?
That was a hell of an introduction.
You deserve it.
Mark and I originally met through your boss. He’s the founder and chairman of Beacon Pictures, Armyan Bernstein. I know Army through Terry Jastrow, who’s been a guest on our podcast. We met through Army because we had a show, Tara and I, that we were pitching to Beacon on the unscripted TV side. That’s how we met the fabulous Mark Pennell. It’s nice to have you.
Tell us Mark, when did you get here from Australia? How long ag and what brought you here?
I had a couple of educational starts. I did an Eco Law Degree at Monash University. While I was doing my Eco Law Degree, I could ride horses. They needed someone to do this ride in The Man From Snowy River, the movie. I ended up riding horses and being an actor in The Man From Snowy River. Activity begets activity. When you do one thing, it leads to another. All of a sudden, I found myself in Neighbours.
Can we talk about Neighbours since you brought it up? Neighbours, for our American audience, is probably one of the longest-running Australian soaps. Not just in Australia, it’s all over the world and especially popular in the UK. It was the day-time soap opera at 5 PM every day after school, after you’ve done your homework. You watched Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue where all these big stars originated.
I spent the loveliest evening with Kylie Minogue’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Minogue. They were adorable. She is the spitting image of them and I was in awe.
That’s where all these big stars started their career, in Neighbours. What was your part, Mark? What did you do on it?
I played a character called Jack Flynn. He was supposed to be an Errol Flynn kind of character. My storyline was I got to run around and kiss all the girls.
What year was this?
I did it twice. I did it once with Kylie and Jason.
Did you get to kiss Kylie?
No, I didn’t but they brought me back. I did it with Natalie Imbruglia and Kimberly Davis.
You were there in the heyday.
You got all the cute girls. Did you get to kiss all of them?
I got to kiss Kimberly, Natalie and Rachel Blakely. Rachel Blakely turned out to be my fiancé. I ended up with her.
In real life?
I got married in Queensland.
Were you wanting to be an actor or was it by default?
No, it was by default. I was going to go into broking or banking or something like that. While I was at University, I was pumping gas for $7 an hour. All of sudden, I found myself on a movie set making $3,000 a week. I was like, “I’m a millionaire. How do you keep doing this job?” I thought, “To hell with that.”
There’s a rivalry between Neighbours and Home and Away.
Yes, at the time. Neighbours are Melbourne and Home and Away is Sydney.
They were rivals for ratings.
Yes, but to be honest, we didn’t think about it. I only ever watched one episode of Neighbours in my entire life and I wasn’t in it.
It’s funny how everyone was obsessed with that show.
It spawned all these pop stars as well. It was a haven of young talent. We’d never been exposed to that many Aussies before and here we were. We were all obsessed with this Australian lifestyle. It all looked so sunny and beachy.
Were you a Melbournite or a Sydney boy?
I’m a Melbourne boy, born and bred.
What’s the difference between those people that don’t know the difference or have never been lucky enough to get to Australia?
Sydney is fabulous. It’s beautiful. Beaches, sun surf and all that stuff. Melbourne is more restaurants, cafes and theatres and that’s the difference.
Do you miss it there?
No, I don’t because I love what I do. I get to visit. I go back, of course. I couldn’t do what I do at the standard or the level that I do it here in Los Angeles. When it comes to the movie business, film and TV, all decisions are made out of here even if they are for Australia, New Zealand or Europe.When it comes to the movie business, film, and TV, LA is the center of the world. Click To Tweet
Some amazing actors come out of Australia like Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Margot Robbie. They are huge talents.
You guys always end up in movies of the year. There’s always an Aussie somewhere, isn’t there?
We’re a bit like a virus, I think.
You are a good virus, not a plague.
A talented virus, not an epidemic. You went from a wannabe banker/broker, pumping gas, to $7 an hour, to landing a $3,000 a week actor’s job. How did you get to LA? What was the segue from being in Neighbours in Australia to coming to Los Angeles in that whole era of your life?
My first pass through Los Angeles was back in the ’90s. It seemed like every horse picture that was being cast or made or in Australia, I was in it. They can put me on a horse and I could do the stunts, hit the mark and deliver the lines at the same time.
Are you good then, are you a jumper?
Yeah, I was.
You could do all of those horse tricks?
How did you get to Beacon from show jumping, Neighbours and all that stuff in between?
I did Quigley Down Under with Tom Selleck, a horse picture.
What’s he like? He’s handsome.
He’s a nice guy. It was with Alan Rickman and Tom Selleck. We shot that out in the middle of Australia. From there, I came to America. The producer Alexandra Rose said, “I think you should come to America and do a bit of a walk around.” I came. I did the wander around LA, bumping into people and not knowing what the deal was. I came with nothing.
Wander around, for those not in the industry, is that you meeting and greeting agents, managers and producers just getting a feel of the landscape and what they think of you.
That’s exactly right. What was going to be a three-week visit turned into a three-year stay. I was coming and going. I was triangulating myself between Los Angeles, London and Australia. I was doing that loop because I didn’t have my papers in line to stay anywhere long enough. I would come in for three months, go out, stay in London for three months, Australia for a month, three months. I did that for three years.
That’s exhausting. I’ve been in that place.
What we found, we’re doing a lot of interviews with expats, is that people come for a minute to try it on six months a year. Everyone seems to end up falling in love with LA and staying. That worked for you, Mark. Do you know most people that come and stay or do most Aussies go back?
People come to LA and they go, “Sunshine, valet parking and good times,” and it can be seductive. Three years can go past in LA and you’ve done absolutely nothing. It’s like you’re there and it’s like, “I’ve arrived. What have I done in three years?”
A top attorney once said to me that you can feel like you’re on constant vacation when you live in LA. It’s easy to fall into that and to forget.
It is a waiting game and that is part of the problem. Time is running past you quickly. You can be as creative as you want and you can be as effective and as busy but you’re constantly waiting for somebody else to give you a green light, a go-ahead, a push and an okay. We’re not in control of our destiny here.
In that statement, I agree with you and I disagree with you. In the first part of that, you’re saying you have to be active in this town. In other words, you have to make things happen for yourself. You can’t wait because if you do wait, then that’s all you’ll do. You’ll stay over the phone. You’ll be busy with equinox and having coffee at Soho House. That’s all you’ll end up doing. You have to get off your ass and make things happen, whether it be a short film. I always say to actors that go, “What do I do? How do I get an agent? Can you introduce me to a manager?” I’m going, “No. What I can introduce you to is the next step forward and that is to go and be proactive.” In other words, go and make a short film. Get a bunch of people together. The town’s full of people wanting to do something. A lot of people don’t have any direction. If you can go, “I’m going to make myself a short film. I’m going to do something to be proactive so I’ve got something to show,” then you can make this town work for you.
A quick anecdote, I was having lunch with Ruby Rose. I don’t know if you know who Ruby Rose is. Ruby Rose is being cast as Batwoman on CW. I said, “Ruby, what’s your journey?” She goes, “I was a DJ. I like the music. I want to be an actor and no one believed I could be an actor. I didn’t have an agent. I couldn’t get managers. I went off and I made myself a short film.” From that short film, she got Orange is the New Black, XXX, John Wick and now she is Batwoman. It was only because she was proactive. She went off and went, “I’m going to do this stuff for myself. I’m going to create my own vehicle.” She is where she is.
This town is the worst place in the world to come and wait because that’s all you’ll do. You have to come with something in your suitcase. In other words, you’ve got to come with a film running, a show running, or something going. You have to come with momentum or you have to come here and invent your momentum when you get here.
That’s what so exciting about LA. Dani and I have experienced this firsthand with our company, Dantar Productions, we’re pushing up boundaries every day of the week. We’re constantly creating, meeting new people and connecting people that we know with other people that we know. We’re forging ahead because you can’t just sit here. What’s interesting about LA is that it does give you this opportunity. I love London, but the opportunity there to do whatever you want is not embraced in the same way that it is here.
The opportunities aren’t open to everyone.
It’s different. It’s more closed. Whereas here, anything you want to be you can be as long as you fight and you work towards it. At some point along the way, someone is going to believe you and someone will give you that break. We’re experiencing that firsthand with Dantar.
The important part of that is first you believe in yourself. You get off your ass and you make it. You show it. It’s like, “There it is, I’m being proactive.” The industry is in complete flux. How movies are financed, made and disseminated has changed.
Let’s talk about what it was to what it is now. You’re at the forefront of how things are changing with the industry. How was it? What is it now?
In answer to that question, I’m interested in knowing because you have a lot to do with film finance and putting together budgets and funding big pictures. How does that work? How do you fit that into everything that you do?LA is the worst town to come and wait. You either need to be there with momentum or create your momentum when you get there. Click To Tweet
What was happening years ago was that we had videos and DVDs. That was affectionally known as the ancillary market. You could make a film for a certain amount of money and you know that if it performed okay at the Box Office, you’re going to get X amount of sell through ancillaries, DVDs, video sales, rentals and purchases. As a rule of thumb, you could go, “I’m going to do somewhere between 70% and 100% of my budget on ancillaries.” Your box office was not that important. In other words, you could take a film direct to video and still make money. That all went away. Netflix came in with streaming, digital and videos. Gone. That’s gone the way of the dodo. That entire business is all but dead. Walmart still sells a tiny amount of videos and DVDs through the Midwest and pretty much everywhere else in the world, it’s done. We get on to our computers and we either buy direct or we’re streaming. How we make money out of films has completely changed.
I employed a couple of mathematicians over the last couple of years. They’ve been tracking what was happening with the ancillary markets which went almost straight down. What was happening with the SVOD which stands for Streaming Video on Demand and TVOD is Transactional Video on Demand. That’s coming through a place with DVD and video. We had one graph going like this and the other graph going flat and not getting there. The delivery cost of SVOD, TVOD because it’s all digital, you don’t have to press this CD or DVD.
There are no physical products.
The physical delivery of it is much cheaper. What that allowed me to do was move my graph up a little bit. About September of 2018, those two graphs crossed. I realized that I could now make money in the movie business provided I did two things. One, cover my downside. In other words, make the movie for the budget that I can sell it into the market for and find some soft money or ancillary soft money revenue. If I have pre-sales and soft money and I’m making it for the right budget, then I can make my movie and I can make money out of it.
Do you have to check all the boxes before you get the green light?
I have a quick question. At Beacon, what is the average budget movie that you’re making?
It’s changed. Years ago, we were making $70 million in movies.
Throw out some of those names for those who might not be familiar with Beacon?
Spy Games, Air Force One, The Hurricane and Children of Men. We did all the Bring it On movies.
The big theatre blockbusters.
Yeah, we specialize in making studio films for less money. Air Force One, we made for $75 million when everyone said it would have to be $150 million. Harrison Ford and a bunch of big stars, a big blockbuster, did $600 million. Thank you very much. We did okay. For the last several years, I took the company to the sidelines because I was like, “I don’t know how we make money out of this.” We went to the TV business. We had Castle at ABC. TV is a different formula because that’s pre-buy. You’re working for fees and hopefully a bit of backend as you sell it around the rest of the world.
When you look at movie trailers, they’re all saying, “Released in the theaters this Friday and on Netflix at the same time.” How do you make money at the box office if it’s going straight to on-demand at the same time? Why would someone go pay $15 for a movie ticket when they’re already paying their $9.99 Netflix subscription? Why would people do that? I like the movie theater experience but it’s a money thing at the end of the day for most people.
In the old days, they had to lug film around. They had to print the reel, take it to the cinema and then have 4,000 prints of this film that they would ship around the world. It was all staggered out. With digital, you hit a button and it opens in Tokyo, New York and Alabama on the same night at the same time with using the same master. The delivery of it costs you almost nothing. What you’re referring to are the release windows, the release dates. It originally was held back on those release dates. It might have been six months before it comes to DVD or video. It was another 6 or 12 months before it got to TV. In most days, no streaming or cable. That was the other window, cable and TV. With streaming, those windows have maybe a month before it turns around and finds itself on to streaming because those are deals that are done prior to the movie making it to the cinema.
How many movies are you working on at any one time at Beacon?
We have 40 projects in development on rotation. Think of it as a water wheel. We keep topping each project up as we come to it. Every now and again, one will tip over. The one that tips over is the one that we focus on and push into production. We’re constantly tipping them all up every day.
Have you got any movies that we should know about that are going to be hitting the screen soon?
Not hitting the screens but into production. We’ve only re-launched ourselves into production. I took us to the sideline and I watched many of my contemporaries go broke. A lot of them are closing up shop. We consider ourselves a boutique studio, even though we’d made 50 films and a bunch of TV shows but we’re still boutique compared to a studio.
We had an interesting chat, Mark, where you were telling us how as an actor there are no more movie stars anymore or they won’t be marketed in the same way. Gone are the days where Tom Cruise is getting $20 million a picture. Share with the audience your take on how the studios are all going almost back to how they were originally back in the day of signing people on for 5 to 10-year contracts at a time.
Yes, that’s the way it’s going. The agency system has concentrated or prides itself or has in the past, on keeping the talent close to the agency and then dishing it out to the studios accordingly. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, all those stars were controlled by each of the studios. MGM had their stars and they work for MGM. Universal, Fox and Disney had theirs. In the ’60s and ’70s, that system broke down and then the agency system came into play. That’s when the agencies became wherein each individual movie star was then being placed into various films. Those movie stars were movie stars and they’re all valuable because they opened a film. When I say open a film, it means you put Tom Cruise in a movie, a whole bunch of people are going to go to that movie because Tom Cruise is in it. That’s all changed because what’s happened with Marvel and those films that have now come out is not so much the actor that’s the movie star, it’s the role that’s become famous.
For instance, if you take Chris Hemsworth out of Thor and you put him in pretty much anything else, it doesn’t perform nearly as well as Chris Hemsworth in Thor. It’s because of Marvel the brand and everything else going with it. That’s the same with Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Robert Downey, Jr as Iron Man and on and on. What’s happened is the actors are not performing as they used to at the box office. Therefore, film is laissez-faire economy. Therefore, you can’t pay them the same amount even though the agency is demanding it. The studios are going back and going, “To hell with this, we’re going to put everybody on contract.” If you sign with Disney, now you sign a 7 to 8-picture deal if you’re doing a movie and then you’re a Disney player. They’ve got you. If you sign for TV, they’re signing you for seven years. As an actor, we’re seeing this shift back to the studio system which is basically vertical integration.
There’s pros and cons to that though because as an actor, it is a very inconsistent and precarious career to have. You never know when your next job is. Whether you are a big star or not, that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get another role or a paycheck. That’s the biggest problem with this industry is it’s too inconsistent. In one way, it’s great because you’ve got guaranteed work or a guaranteed paycheck for the next 7 to 10 years and you’re going to be in that recurring role and everything that comes with it. On the flipside, the negative side is your artistic integrity is compromised a little bit and it doesn’t allow you to be open to everything out there at all times because you’re exclusive.
What’s interesting when you look and you listen to everything you were saying, there are only very few people now who are the big movie stars. For example, I was reading an article about Leonardo DiCaprio. Leonardo DiCaprio stands in a league of his own because every movie that he’s ever done has been thought out in a strategic way. They’ve all been massively successful and they’ve been box office hits. The way that he operates his career is a work of genius. You have George Clooney. You have old school actors like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Of the younger ones, Leo has had the most remarkable career. A career that stands out in a completely domineering AAA league way compared to the actors and roles that you were talking about earlier, who have fallen to the studio, Marvel, etc.
He’s calculating with the roles he takes. He’s extremely specific. Again, it’s not guaranteed that those movies ever are going to work out.
No, but it’s the way that he does it. He has brilliant advice and he makes brilliant decisions. He also holds out and he doesn’t overwork. You have to look at the history of his career to see the success that he’s had and why he’s had that success.
Do you think a lot to do with that, Mark, is luck or is it to do with his strategy? I think there’s a lot of actors with strategies, but they don’t work out in the same realm as maybe Leonardo.
He’s also a brilliant actor.
That goes without saying. What do you think, Mark? Is it a strategy or a bit of luck?
It’s a combination of both. Let’s face it, life’s a bit of luck. When you go into a film, you go into it hoping or believing that it’s going to be a great project. No one goes into any movie going, “I’m going into this because I want to make a piece of crap.” Everyone believes or hopes they’re going to make something worthwhile. DiCaprio’s been smart about how he’s positioned himself. He took himself out of the agency business year ago. To engage Leonardo DiCaprio, you engage his production company. He’s your partner in the movie. That means he has a say right through the process and that gives him control. That gives him, most importantly, control over the market of the film. That’s what’s incredibly important about this. A lot of films suffer from bad marketing. His people control that process. He also surrounds himself with good talent. We have worked together on a number of occasions. That’s also part of it.
I was seeing that you don’t just do the film, but you’ve done stage. I was excited when I was reading about you to see that you were involved and produced Xanadu, It is one of my favorite musicals of all time.
I went through an interesting exercise with Xanadu. This is a word to the wise. I had this great idea about taking Xanadu and putting it into marquee like Cirque du Soleil.When you go into a film, you go into it hoping or believing that it's going to be a great project. Click To Tweet
Well, you would have thought so. The rule with theater is never take anything out of its own habitat. In other words, don’t try and take a stage and put it in a marquee.
Grease was one of the best ones ever. That was a stage show and went to film, didn’t it?
No, it went the other way around.
I’m not saying stage to film. That’s fine. What I’m saying is don’t take something out of the theater and put it in the tents. Don’t take something out of a tent and put it in a theater unless your theater is purpose built. What I did is I took Xanadu out of the theater and I put it in a tent. It was a bad move.
Still great music though. I went to a Xanadu roller disco. It was brilliant.
Before we wrap this up, did you have a crush on Olivia Newton-John, Mark?
I did. When I did Xanadu, I got a chance to hang out with her. She’s an incredible lady.
I’ve heard that.
She’s such a nice person and beautiful.
Olivia Newton-John is one of those that everybody loves. She’s another great Aussie. We could talk for hours. You’ll have to come back on again. We’ll have to have you as our La La Landed guest once again if you’ll be happy to join us. I felt like we could talk for three more hours on any given subject on any given day.
I was worried that I rambled.
No, it was informative. We’ll get Mark back on again for another episode about how to get into the business and laugh and learn that we can offer our audience then. Thank you to movie exec, Mark Pennell, a top head honcho at Beacon Pictures. Don’t forget to check out LaLaLanded.com for all information and our future episodes. Check us out on Instagram @LalaLandedPodcast and Facebook at La La Landed. Thank you all for your time and we will join you all soon.
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About Mark Pennell
HEAD OF NEW BUSINESS & SPECIAL PROJECTS
PRODUCER/WRITER/GLOBAL ENTERTAINMENT EXECUTIVE
Mark is a creative, strategic and performance-focused executive with 20+ years of innovative, energetic leadership in Australia, US, and UK. Mark is an expert in developing product, sourcing and securing finance, leveraging relationships and presenting complex large-scale productions. Motivational leader known for calm and clear delivery of mission objectives, aligning people and resources and delivering results that exceed expectations.
- Successfully secured funding for a number of stage shows and films.
- Successfully controlled the operations and creative direction of a number of large-scale musicals and motion pictures.
- Successfully delivered the operations for the $35m Australian Pavilion at world expo (Japan) and turned an operating profit for the commercial stakeholders.
- Holds a Bachelor of Economics from Monash University with a major in Law & Business Management.
Head Special Projects and New Business Beacon Pictures (Los Angeles) 2011 – present
- Reports directly to the Owner & CEO Army Bernstein.
- Established relationships in China. Sourcing investment, Co-production partnerships and Distribution.
- Successfully established a relationship with Executive Management at eOne Entertainment and leveraged that into an operating Television joint venture between Beacon and eOne.
- Involved in strategic development of new business and company expansion.
- Attend international film festivals and liaise with sales agents and distributors.
- Developed and wrote the TV projects: Spade & Archer’, ‘Girl On Couch’
- Developed and wrote the Film Projects: ‘The Sea Hawk’, ‘The Rescuers & the Catchers Curse’, ‘Our Man from Monaco’, The Righteous, ‘The Sacred Jade’. ‘Once A Year Man’
- Developed the nonscripted projects: ‘Celebrity best in show’, ‘Wedding Wish’,
- Developed and financed the digital Gamers series ‘Randoms’
Producer: Xanadu the Musical 2010 & 2011
- Successfully negotiated the performance rights, sourced and closed the $5m production funding.
- Became expert with the operations of Marquees and temporary venues.
- Sourced and secured the cast and creative team, oversaw the marketing and publicity.
- Navigated statutory authorities and stakeholders to secure all relevant approvals and licenses.
Producer/Executive Producer: Resolution Independent 2005 – 2009
- Conceived and constructed a vertically integrated film production company.
- Drove the company through start-up to development of 8 ready to go projects.
- Sourced funding and assisted in structuring the production finance for 2 films.
- Attended the major film festivals and oversaw the distribution of the motion pictures produced by the company.
- Storm Warning. Sold to the Weinstein Company for an immediate profit. Distributed in 39 countries.
- Prey: Oversaw the post-production and turned the film around from no sale and no market interest, to a US DVD sale and Australian theatrical release.
Owner & Commercial Director Australian Pavilion Operations 2003 – 2006
- Successfully created the tender document and won the contract for the $35m Australian Pavilion at the World Expo in Japan.
- Oversaw all aspects of staffing and team building.
- Implemented protocols and liaised with the Federal Government and other stakeholders.
- Implemented and oversaw the retail division of the company and successfully generated over $2m in profits through the expo period.
- Established Hugh Jackman’s production company 2001-2003
- With close personal ties to the Hugh Jackman and the family
Theatrical Producer Penncorp 1997 – 2004
- Negotiated the licenses and rights, raised the production funds and ran the operations of 4 major musicals.
- Sourced and secured the crew and cast. Oversaw the creative elements of marketing and merchandise. The productions had a combined turnover of $55m.
- Sweet Charity – $2.5m pre-production $260,000 per week running cost. 60 staff. Season turnover approx $24 million
- Fiddler on the Roof – $4.2m pre-production cost. $400,000 per week running cost. 72 staff. Season turnover approx $14 million
- Countdown – $1.2m pre-production cost. $130,000 per week running cost. 24 staff. Season turnover approx $6 million
- Blitz – $800,000 pre-production cost. $110,000 per week running cost. 20 staff. Season turnover approx $4.5 million