By LAUREL BUSBY
Special to CTN
What’s it like to be a movie producer when movie production is no longer allowed?
For executive producer Joey Plager, a Palisadian who has produced dozens of movies for companies like Hallmark and Lifetime, the situation has brought a cascade of changes.
Instead of driving to his Beverly Hills office, he works from home. Instead of going into pre-production or production, he is waiting to see when either will be an option again. Instead of conducting pitch meetings at a studio, he pitches remotely via phone or Zoom.
“It’s possible to do a pitch via Zoom, but it’s not ideal,” Plager, 56, said. “When you want to pitch something to somebody and get them excited about developing it, it’s always better to be in the room…. People can play off each other. You can read body language and can see if someone isn’t really listening. There’s a lot of nuance to pitching that is more than just reading off a piece of paper.”
Nevertheless, he has already garnered success from his Zoom pitches, earning an offer from Amazon Studios and interest from other companies to develop his projects.
With his extra time, he has also started writing his first screenplay with a friend. Unfortunately, the big problem is that even if a studio approves a script for production, production can’t begin. He is hoping that might change by the late spring or summer, but it’s hard to predict a realistic timetable.
If production is again allowed, perhaps in an altered way, “we’ll figure out how we make movies in that new normal.” If not, he knows that the challenges for maintaining his workflow increase depending on how long the shutdown lasts.
“We’re open for development, but the studios have existing projects they want to put into production,” he said. “They have to clear the shelf a bit to make way for new productions.”
In a typical year, Plager flies to Canada to produce one or more Hallmark holiday movies. Last year, he spent six months in Canada producing four movies, and his usual production schedule includes approximately two weeks of pre-production, two weeks of shooting, and six weeks of post-production. For each script, it takes about three months to complete a movie ready for broadcast.
As is the case for most people around the world, his work schedule is now in limbo. Just like millions of others across the state, he has been working from home with increased distractions.
In addition, because school is also canceled, his kids are home. Like other LAUSD students, PaliHi junior Chase, 16, and Paul Revere 8th grader, Chaz, have been home for both spring break and online schooling, although his wife, Audrey, still works normally at the Palisades Bank of America branch, which is deemed an essential service.
“It’s a weird time,” he noted. “No one has ever experienced something quite like this in our lifetime. There’s a lot of uncertainty. Sometimes I wake up at 3 in the morning and can’t get back to sleep. It’s hard.”
Plager is used to change as he was an Air Force brat growing up. His father was a military ophthalmologist stationed across the U.S and abroad, but when his dad left the service, the family settled in Encino, where Plager attended first Portola Junior High and then Harvard School for Boys (now Harvard-Westlake).
At school, he became exposed to the film industry for the first time via his friends, many of whom were the children of actors, writers, and directors.
When he later studied at Princeton as a history major, he found himself drawn to the school’s Triangle Club, a musical comedy club, which has provided performance opportunities for actors ranging from Jimmy Stewart to Brooke Shields over the years.
Plager, who attended Princeton while Shields was there, cast her in two productions during his tenure there. “She was a total delight too,” he said. “A really hard worker.”
After graduation, he considered an entertainment career in nearby New York City, but the cooler, more humid weather, the lack of outdoor space, and the claustrophobic nature of the city deterred him.
“I hated humidity, and I hated winter,” Plager said. “I loved visiting New York, but I thought, ‘How could anyone live here?’”
Instead, he returned to L.A. to pursue an entertainment career. Over the years, he worked for Creative Artists Agency, Warner Bros., Lifetime, Showtime, and Hearst Entertainment. Then, seven years ago, he struck out on his own by forming his company, Shalom Amigo Productions.
Since then, he has shepherded a variety of Hallmark Christmas movies through production, including last year’s “Holiday Date,” the channel’s first combined Hanukah/Christmas movie.
Plager, a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple for 20 years, was brought in as an expert to ensure that the Jewish elements of the show were accurate.
“It means a lot to me to identify as Jewish,” he said. “It was meaningful for me to be that person on set.”
He finds that Hallmark sets in general are a pleasure to work on. Before focusing on these movies, he worked on a number of darker projects, such as “Bang Bang You’re Dead” in 2002 about high school gun violence and a raft of woman-in-jeopardy movies at Lifetime, including “Shame” in 1992 about a rape in a small Australian town, which he described as “beautiful, but incredibly heavy.”
In contrast, Hallmark movies have a warm, comedic touch.
“I don’t miss those other movies,” Plager said. “The feeling when you’re on the set of a Hallmark movie is always light. They entertain people. People love them, and they can watch them with their entire family. I like that. It’s fun when I’m out in public, and I say, ‘I make Hallmark movies.’ It amazes me how many people are rabid fans.”
For now, Plager has to wait before he can make another movie for Hallmark or any another studio. However, he hopes the wait is on the shorter side of estimates.
Perhaps, if a successful vaccine or treatment is discovered or if social distancing works well enough, his wish will be granted.
Plager wonders though what life on the other side of this quarantine will be like.
“Hallmark movies are usually very chaste,” he said. “Not until the end of the movie do the protagonists kiss. In this new world, will that seem racy?”