Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter moderator and director of the New York Film Academy Guest Lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.
Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the producer who helped bring the Netflix film To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before to millions of viewers. Producer Matt Kaplan as a producer. He’s got over three dozen film and TV credits from horror to romantic comedies, mostly geared towards younger audiences. Mr. Kaplan described how he remembers being a kid himself who dreamt of one day making his own movies.
Matt Kaplan: I think I always wanted to do this even as a kid like I loved movies and that was my passion. And, you know, I played football in college and I went to film school. And those are the only two things I liked doing for fun. So if you’re lucky enough to do what you love in business, then then you’ll have a pretty fun career. And so I’ve been fortunate to find something I love. And it’s not work because I work with my best friends and I get to wake up every day and read books like To All the Boys and then try to make it happen. And so I think I’ve always known in my heart like that was what I wanted to do. I think I like putting things together. I think I just looked at like what I was good at. I mean, when I was your guys age, I was at Columbia and I took writing classes and directing classes. And to be honest, I wasn’t that good at it, but I knew I was good at assessing material. And like I knew I had an instinct for what I felt like I could sell and market. And so I just spent a lot of my time making relationships with great writers and great directors. And then I focused on making relationships with the people who have to, like, sell the movies and distribute the movies. So for me, it was just like kind of a slow process. But again, I just tried a bunch of stuff and failed and figured out what I was good at.
Eric Conner: For Matt Kaplan, his trying and failing was making his own original content, so instead of only waiting and hoping and praying for the perfect job. Instead he went out and just made his own material.
Matt Kaplan: I went to Columbia University and studied film and when I graduated I started to make short form content and YouTube was just getting popular. And so I started making short like videos with my friends after I kind of had made enough videos that no one was paying attention to it. And I ended up at Lionsgate, which was a film studio, and I was an assistant and I just started working my way to be an executive. And I was part of the team that made The Hunger Games, which was really fun. And then I kind of knew as a younger executive, I wanted to be the one making the final decisions. And so they gave me an opportunity to run a division that made movies from like 1 to 10 million dollars, mostly like young adult films, comedies and horror movies. So that kind of became an area that I loved. And so I just kind of started to make a bunch of movies. And so I never worried about what price we were making for. Sometimes people only want to make Avengers movies and that was but I was passionate about telling good stories and not worrying about, you know, where they got distributed. And luckily today I think which you guys all get to experience, like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon like allows us to tell cool stories and it’ll find the right home. When I first started in the business, those things didn’t exist, so it was either theaters or no one really saw it. So it’s a cool time to make movies. So from Lionsgate, I ended up partnering with a guy named Jason Blum who does Blumhouse, which is a bunch of horror movies. So we made about eight movies together over three years, which was for me because I was an executive. So I was more from a marketing and distribution perspective. And then I learned from Jason how to really start to produce, which was an amazing time for me. And then I got a phone call after working with Jason from a guy named Jeffrey Katzenberg who ran DreamWorks, and he called to say there’s this random company awesomeness. There’s 13 people and we’re about to put in one hundred million dollars. Will you help go run it? So we grew awesomeness from, you know, 15 people to 400. And we were just focusing on making movies and TV shows and YouTube content for young adults.
Eric Conner: So before he produces material for these young adults, he first needs to develop an idea that’s going to be exciting to him.
Matt Kaplan: I was first trying to figure out what kind of movies your passionate about telling. For me, I love trying because a lot of other producers are older than me in the business. So I just always kind of felt like I should stick to movies for younger people, but I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into one genre. So I don’t want to only make comedies or only make romance or horror, but I just was like maybe I should just like, look at everything we look at from like a youthful perspective. So typically we will option a book or you know buy an article from the newspaper or whatever it is and then hire a writer. So like an example is I woke up to a text message from my two friends who who are directors who created catfish and they’re like, did you read about this story about this kid who’s 12 years old? And he, like his parents, were getting divorced and he like flew to Bali and I was like, what are you talking about? So then I Googled it. And like on the front cover of CNN was like some 12 year old kid stole his parent’s credit card, flew to Bali and like home alone style, like went on vacation. And like, then the parents who hated each other had to get on a plane and fly to go get the kid. And so I was like, that’s a cool idea. And so then a friend of mine who’s a big writer who wrote like a lot of the Will Ferrell movies, I called him and I said, take a look at this article. I think there’s something here. And then he was like, this is amazing. And then I got those directors who then had done this movie Nerve. And so we all just teamed up and then we sold it. And now we’re gonna make it for Paramount. So then I called. This is funny I actually have a video of it. Then I called the mom of the kid and I said, I want to buy your life rights. And so then I had a conference call on Skype with the mom and the kid that I videoed, even though they didn’t know that it was cuckoo, because the kid just was what you think he is. He was just a wild child, but he was amazing and he was like charismatic. And so we ended up sharing that with that writer. And so then we got the life rights and then Paramount bought them. And so it kind of just pay attention and read a lot, like read the news and pay attention to what you guys think is cool going on around you. Like whether it’s get out or us, like there’s so many interesting ideas to come up with and talk to your friends about it. And a lot of cool stuff will happen.
Eric Conner: Here’s the great news about an interesting idea. It doesn’t have to be expensive to get noticed, though, if it’s too small or too niche or just unbelievable. Well that writing better be amazing.
Matt Kaplan: Start with a great big idea that doesn’t mean it has to be expensive, but if you start from a small idea no one can access, then you better be the best writer ever. Because if your story is just about two people who work. I don’t know at the studio city Starbucks like it’s going to be tough to like get Will Ferrell to be in that movie versus like we have a movie we’re about to make and it’s about the pope is possessed in the Vatican. So it’s as big of a big idea as like you can come up with. But it’s not for a horror movie. It’s like not that expensive. So I think start by trying to come up with depending on the genre of story, you want to tell something that really feels sticky and modern and zeitgeist-y. So that when you pitch it back, it can really resonate. And I think even today more than ever even with to all the boys. Like what I was so passionate about was like I haven’t seen a Korean American family have, especially for teenagers like have their story told. So for us, like as popular as the books were like that was the thing that I was like, even if no one wants to see this, like, that’s what I cared about. And I felt like other people will, too. And we ended up being right. So try to pick ideas that you think are sticky.
Eric Conner: With the recent film adaptation of To All the Boys. Matt Kaplan produced a movie that’s reached everyone starring NYFA alum Lana Condor and DP’d by former NYFA instructor Michael Fimognari. The movie has become one of Netflix’s most watched properties of all time, and it showed that romantic comedies could still be fresh, original, funny and yeah romantic. Not bad for a movie that was frozen in development for years.
Matt Kaplan: So it was funny. It was actually set up at Sony Pictures and the book had been out for about four years and I had read it back at Lionsgate when I was a studio executive. And once I had started awesomeness, we started to look at what cool projects we had looked at over the years and Sony hadn’t made the movie. So I called some friends over at Sony and said, if you’re not going to make this, can I buy it from you? I didn’t love the script they developed, but I did love the book. So I called the book author and said, would you be willing to allow us to buy it from Sony for you. And so we did. And then we hired this amazing young writer who was a playwright who hadn’t really written many screenplays, but all her plays were amazing. Her name is Sofia Alvarez. So she did a pass on the script and turned out great. Then we hired our director and we met Noah Centineo and Lana Condor, and we just felt like they were the perfect match. And so we greenlit the movie six months later. And I called some friends over at Netflix and I said, I made this movie. I think you guys are gonna like it. And they watched it and bought it.
Eric Conner: Even though the movie was based on a series of bestselling books, it still took a really long time to reach the screen. But once it was actually in production, the book’s author, Jenny Han, stayed on set pretty much all the time to make sure that the film accurately captured the life of its Korean American main character.
Matt Kaplan: We love adapting books because I feel like you can always go back to the original source, which is that author, and talk to them about what inspired them and why they wrote it the way they wrote it. And even in this movie in particular, like I didn’t really understand Korean American culture the way that one should to produce this movie. So I had to spend hours with the author and ask her but like why would she wear this piece of clothing versus that? What kind of food are they making in their house? So we spent months deliberating on what those choices were. And ultimately, like, we invited the author to come to set. She stayed on set the whole movie. And so that’s really fun when you’re collaborating with people to have another person to bounce ideas off of, because sometimes when you developed an original script, you’re just with yourself and the writer and you have no idea if people are going to dig it.
Eric Conner: For Mr. Kaplan, part of collaborating with talented artists is knowing when he needs to step in and maybe even more importantly, when he doesn’t.
Matt Kaplan: I think it’s all about who you’re working with. So like as I mentioned earlier, like Michael Fimognari who’s a cinematographer, has a really amazing handle on aesthetics. And so I on this particular film. I am totally hands off because he has such a good handle on like how we shoot it versus as he would admit, like he’ll say, Matt, I need your help on what we do with Noah’s wardrobe or the production design. Like what do the bed sheets look like to the wallpaper? And so I get really deep in some of those decisions. And I had no idea what Lana should be wearing. And so I had to have many consultants and especially the author, because it was very personal to her.
Eric Conner: I actually went to film school with Michael Fimognari, the cinematographer, and I can see why Matt Kaplan trusts him. He is a maestro with that camera. These collaborations and relationships in the industry, well, they’re important at every step. Whether you’re producing your 20th feature film or whether you’re just starting out.
Matt Kaplan: People in this business want to help. So if you put yourself in a position to ask for help, I would say start off by trying to like, you know, get experience, go to a agency or a management company and just watch, but then don’t just watch, like try to make friends with these people and be helpful. And I think once you start to do that, good things can happen.
Student: If you like get rejected the first time do you still follow up?
Matt Kaplan: Dude we get rejected every day. I think that’s the thing. Like there’s so many times I work on a script for a year and I send it out to Warner Brothers and Lionsgate and Sony and they they they pass on it. And then I try to understand why they don’t like it or what’s wrong with it. But I think if you’re gonna be in this business, you’ve got to wrap your head around like rejection is is meaningless. Just do it again. That’s just the first stop. The set’s a different story. I think the harder part’s actually the stuff in the navigating Hollywood, like the managers and the agents and the scripts and all that. Once you’re on set, you usually hire a depending on where you’re shooting the movie or TV show, like whether it’s like we shoot this in Vancouver. And so there’s a individual named Chris Voss that we always use in Vancouver because he lives in Vancouver. So he helps me hire like all the grip and electric and all the people who work the hundred and ten people that work on the movie. But once we get to the place of where we’re actually shooting, I’m I’m really just worried about the performances and making sure we’re not spending too much money.
Eric Conner: Mr. Kaplan’s movies tend to have lower budgets and only modest box office goals these days. Netflix, Amazon and those million other streaming services help these smaller movies see the light of day and reach an audience. But just a few years ago, that was not the case.
Matt Kaplan: Just to go back into my life a little bit like I made a movie that I was so proud of that you guys. I don’t even know where you can find it, but it was called they came together and it’s like a spoof movie about romantic comedies. It’s Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd and like a million other famous actors from the guys who created Wet, Hot American Summer. And so, like, I was such a huge fan of this guy, David Wayne and this writer, Michael Showalter. So for me, being able to make a movie with them for like under five million dollars was a dream come true. But there was no Netflix, there was no Hulu. So it was either like put it out in theaters and spend 30 million dollars in advertising, which was a lot given the movie only cost us four point five million dollars. But in today’s world, we could’ve made that movie, sold it to Netflix and you guys would have all seen it the day it came out. Back then, it was basically just put to like a version of Blockbuster. And so the fun part is you can make stuff and ultimately all we want is to have people see it. And so I think there’s an amazing moment that we’re in to like make cool stuff. And instead of it just going to Blockbuster, like you can actually have it be seen around the world.
Eric Conner: Although as Netflix has continued to grow, getting a movie produced or distributed by them. It’s become a bit more complicated.
Matt Kaplan: They have so many divisions now because these companies have become so large. If you have a book and an idea, you will go to one group. And if you have a finished product, you go to another group, which is called acquisitions. Most of the stuff we sell is to the acquisitions group because we sell finance and then we make it and then we sell it to them when it’s done. But you know, Netflix has the capability to reach the biggest audience and has a lot of money now to chase the right project. So you can go in through an agency. But the truth is, it’s better to make your own relationship with those buyers directly and just call them and say, hey, I got something cool for you.
Eric Conner: Matt Kaplan explained how a big part of producing is learning how to deal with people, whether it’s trying to get someone to read your script or finance its budget or just getting the movie made.
Matt Kaplan: I deal with a lot of people’s emotions every day, including my own. So you’re just you have a writer who wrote something. Who wakes up feeling like I wrote this. I hope you like it. And now I have to read it. And then I’d be sensitive towards how much time and effort they’ve put into it. You have a director who makes a movie that I watch. Either I do or I don’t like it or if we’ve made a movie and now I’ve got to go sell it, I need to like make sure everyone wants to buy it. But there’s a lot of people’s feelings in all of this because it’s not the same as like being an accountant. Like people pour out their either true stories or even if they’re not true. Like you’ve written this script or if you’re an actor, you’ve like you’re literally crying on screen like there’s a lot of emotions at stake. So you’ve got to be really sensitive about that process. And so just be sensitive towards other people around you.
Eric Conner: Yeah. If you want to produce, you might want to take a course or two in psychology and perseverance.
Matt Kaplan: Passion and tenacity to learn I’ll always help. Like if you follow up with me three times, even if I haven’t hit you back, like I will always get back to you because then you’re just like this person cares as much as I do. And so why would I not want to help people? Like I think that’s that’s that is my responsibility. That’s why I’m here tonight. I feel like I had a lot of people that influenced my life and helped me and propped me up. And I’ve got to give back. What would I not want? I don’t know you’ve got to be a real asshole not to want my help, but yeah, I don’t know what the the negative is, but just be passionate and be a nice person and good things will happen.
Eric Conner: Well, that’s a pretty lovely note to end on. So thanks to one of Hollywood’s good guys, Matt Kaplan, for coming to New York Film Academy and sharing his experiences with our students. Check out his newest movie, the sequel To All the Boys, To All the Boys. P.S., I Still Love You. Coming to Netflix on February 12th. Directed by former NYFA instructor Michael Fimognari and starring NYFA Alum Lana Condor. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A’s. Check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner. Edited in a mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself executive produced by Jean Sherlock, Dan Mackler and Tova Laiter with a special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson. Melissa Enright and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. You be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.