Hollywood: Behind the Scenes from the Producer of the Founder

Ram Ahluwalia & Don Handfield

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Episode Description

This engaging episode delves into the intricate and emotional realities of Hollywood. Ram Ahluwalia, Chief Investment Officer at Lumida Wealth, hosts an insightful conversation with Don Handfield, a Hollywood movie producer and actor, discussing the complexities of movie production from script selection to its economics.

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Welcome to Non Consensus Investing. I'm Ram Ahluwalia, your host and CIO at Lumida Wealth, where we specialize in the craft of alternative investments. At Lumida, we help guide clients through the intricacies of managing substantial wealth so they don't have to shoulder the burden alone. Through this podcast, we draw back the curtain to reveal the strategies employed by the best in the business for their high net worth clients so that you too can invest beyond the ordinary.

If you like this video, give it a thumbs up and subscribe for more non consensus investing content. And I'm in the, my, I'm in the emotional business. With McDonald's, it wasn't just an idea about doing a biopic of McDonald's. To me, it was like a Rorschach test for America and American capitalism. It's a 10 million movie and someone gives me 10 million.

They get 50 percent of the equity in the film. The creative side gets 50 percent of the equity. The investor is paid back 120 percent of their investment before the splits. All right, I'm pleased to be joined by Don. Don is a [00:01:00] Hollywood movie producer. He produced one of my favorite films, The Founders of Story, about the growth of McDonald's, and we'll come back to that story.

And Don himself has had an incredible journey. He grew up in a small town called Herndon, Virginia. I've been there more than a few times, and he had this incredible journey of going from starving artist to Hollywood producer and running an independent studio. We're going to talk about, first, the economics of making movies and who makes the money in the movie industry.

What are the roles from producer to directing to the acting? How does it come together? And then also storytelling. How do you pick a good plot and a script and execute that and make that come together and Don's personal story also. I'm going to start off by playing this clip, which is an excerpt from the founder.

I know what you're thinking. [00:02:00] How the heck does a 52 year old over the hill milkshake machine salesman build a fast food empire with 1, 600 restaurants and an annual revenue of 700 million? One word, persistent. McDonald's, we wanted something different. Orders ready in 30 seconds, not 30 minutes. Unique, original.

There's nothing like this. McDonald's can be the New American church and it ain't just open on Sundays. Boys, what you ought to be doing is owning the land upon which that burger is cooked. You're not in the burger business, you are in the real estate business. I have a contract. Contracts are like hearts.

They're made to be broke. I think you've got an incredible job 'cause you've gotta take a vision and bring it to reality. And that's what entrepreneurs and founders do. And it starts with an abstract concept, starts with a plot. There's no characters, there's no really scene, and you make it come together.

Don, maybe we start with, what do you do as a producer? Yeah my job as a producer, I came into producing through [00:03:00] writing, my job as a producer, you're really taking something from nothing. It's, I think it is a lot of parallels to entrepreneurship. You're, you come up with a concept or an idea, or you find a script or something you like.

Yeah. And you have to convince people of your vision for it. And a friend of mine defined vision as being able to see things that other people can't see. A partner of mine, and often partner of mine in the film business, Jeremy Renner, he's, he also flips houses. And I'll go in, he'll show me a house and he'll be like, yeah, we're going to, and this is a house that doesn't look great.

And he'll be like, yeah, we're going to put this here and this here, and he'll explain it to me. And I'll just, my eyes will glaze over and I'll be like, and I was an architecture major and I'll still look at it and be like, okay. Come back to the house six months later. And I'm like, Oh my God, like you see the what's done the movie business or the TV business, the same thing you come up with a concept or an idea and you have to nurture that idea and convince people to come help you convince them to help you build it before you have any money.

Convince them to fund it once you have something that's viable, and then you can take it to market and all the way through this life cycle and it starts with one person and when you're on a movie like the founder, it's [00:04:00] hundreds of people that are all working to make this vision happen. And the first set of people you have to convince are like investors, cause you're an independent investor.

Studio as opposed to say a Warner Brothers where it's in house. Yeah. I would describe myself as a creative producer. There's producers that are just money people that finance stuff. There's producers that work for studios that kind of produce in house for studios and have the studio behind them.

I'm a creative producer. I work independently. So I start with an idea. The first person I have to convince often is either the people around me. If I'm going to write it, it's the people around me. Is this idea and you can tell if you have something, people will be like, Oh, that's great. If not, then you're like, Oh, maybe that's not the one.

And the ones that I always say, it has to be something, whether you're starting a company or a new idea or a new business, it has to be something that's more than just a good idea. It has to be, it has to be something emotional, something thematic, something you can dig into this meaningful to you. I always approach theme and look at theme like that.

With McDonald's, it wasn't just an idea about doing a biopic of McDonald's. To me, it was like a Rorschach test for America. American capitalism and what is it? Is it going to [00:05:00] be sustainable capitalism? And that idea is bigger than a movie. It's bigger than McDonald's. It's what our society looks like today and what the battleground for that, which happened in the fifties and who won and what it looks like and all the admirable qualities of Ray Kroc too.

It just, it was such a, it was bigger than just, Oh, I'm doing a biopic of McDonald's. It was like, when people dig into it, the plot is amazing. The characters were amazing, but the implications for society are just stunning and the world are stunning. So that really transcended. A good idea. And I think anything I do, especially as I get older, it takes so much chi to generate ideas and take things.

It's like creating a new company. And I think the first one, you're just excited. The second, third one, you're just excited to buy the sixth company. You're like, okay, I got to make sure this one's really. Where I want to put my life energies and you want to make every movie count, because it's an incredible investment of time and energy.

And I love what you said about McDonald's has done more for American capitalism by teaching entrepreneurship. By saying, here's how you run a business. There's a scene from Coming from America, classic Eddie Murphy movie, where he's washing the floors, or [00:06:00] he's hiring people. I love what he's. Providing security for a staff, there's care and attention placed on the verdict.

Yeah, I like how you're taking a thematic approach, which is what we do as investors as well. How does the idea generation start? Does someone say, Hey, here's a script, or do you conceive of this idea of this? Here's this overlook story in America that you want to focus on? Yeah, everything's different.

Sometimes I get a script. In the case of the founder, I heard a song by Mark Knopfler called Boom Like That. Actually, to take it back further, my dad took me to McDonald's as a kid. I was probably six or seven years old. I remember standing in McDonald's and looking up at the plaque. Inside every McDonald's is a bronze plaque that said, Founder Ray Kroc.

And I remember thinking to myself as a little kid, like, Why is a place named McDonald's founded by Ray Kroc? And it's just, there was a cognitive dissonance there that even as a little kid, I recognized. And then I heard a song by Mark Knopfler called Boom Like That, which if you listen to the words, it's about McDonald's, it's about Ray Kroc.

It's the story, it's the song. And I was like, what is this story? And I just, I get obsessed. I started diving into biographies or people and I just become like insanely [00:07:00] obsessed and just get as much data and information about it as I can. And I said, this is the most incredible story. It took me about 12 years from.

That initial, wow, I want to tell this story to getting it all together. And first for that one, I had to break the story. So oftentimes you have, okay, it's a biopic, but biopics are challenging. You can't just tell cradle to grave. You have to find a moment or a situation or something. There's always like a, I always call it story, like cracking, like a safe, cracking the safe.

And with that one, the challenge was like, these guys sold to Ray Kroc. They didn't have to, they owned most of the business. Why did they sell to this guy? Why did they do it? And that was the big question. That I had to answer that no one has really answered except this movie. And what I did in my research, what I found was one of the brothers was very sick.

He had diabetes. He was dying and a court case or drama can exacerbate your health conditions. They were finally just fuck this guy. We're going to start another business. And they were like, let's just cash out. And they were going to start moving. Yeah. The hospital scene in your movie. Yeah. That's the reading between the lines of the biography of why did these guys decide to sell?[00:08:00] 

And that's the thing, once you, yeah, go ahead, sorry. No, go ahead. I was gonna say, that's the, and so once I had broken the story, we felt, and I had the, I wanted to get the rights from the McDonald's family. So I tracked them down. I tried to get a couple of books. They were non existent. I feel like the McDonald's corporation buried the authors in cement or something.

I couldn't find any of the authors or the books, but I finally tracked down the McDonald's family and I reached out to them and the guy got back to me and the nephew got back to me and we've been waiting. And the grandson that took it down and got back to me and was like, we've been waiting 50 years for someone to tell our story.

Oh, wow. So you pick up the yellow pages and you look up Kroc family and you dial for dollars. It was random. I read about the motel thing that they had wanted to start a motel chain. And I was Googling just, I started the company with Renner, Jeremy Renner, and I was pitching him ideas I had in my hopper.

And I tried to get books and couldn't get them and had a dead end. And he was like, I love that idea. Let's try to really chase that down. I ended up finding that they were like an old news article about them being part owners of a motel in New Hampshire, and it wasn't even related to the [00:09:00] McDonald's thing.

That was way in the, that's fine. Yeah, and I reached out to the manager, I said, does the McDonald's family own this motel? yeah, they're a part of it. And then I just said, can you give him a message for me? And the guy called me a couple days later. What's funny about that, I think that's the same way that entrepreneurs raise money from Silicon Valley venture firms.

You find someone that knows someone at the DC to get a warm intro. You also demonstrated a lot of hustle in putting this together too. Was the story optioned in any way or no? Yeah, so I optioned their life rights. So I went to the McDonald's family, I optioned their life rights. And it's funny, they met with their lawyer who also did the Ninja Turtles.

He was the Ninja Turtle guy's lawyer. I guess that area it's, he was, that was his claim to fame. And when they had the first meeting with them, he was like, just so you know, this movie's never going to get made. And it was helped me. And so the McDonald's family was like we had no expectations. They got as close as it would never get made.

Yeah. I optioned the rights from them. And then look, that became my kind of sword and shield. Like I had something unique that no one else had. And beyond that, I had access to the family archives. They had an attic full of documents. Audio tapes of the McDonald's [00:10:00] brothers. They used to do these things called dictaphone recording.