In 2007, as the first two of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels were making their way up the bestseller list but were still far from becoming a global phenomenon, Paramount Pictures did what now seems unthinkable: The studio allowed its option on the books to expire. The project had been in development for two years and showed no signs of ever seeing the light of a big screen.
That's when the upstart studio Summit Entertainment picked up the option -- and quickly hired a screenwriter (Melissa Rosenberg, who previously wrote Step Up) and director (Catherine Hardwicke, who made thirteen).
And that's when Fort Worth-born, Los Angeles-based producer Marty Bowen and his business partner Wyck Godfrey got the phone call that changed the course of their careers.
Recalls Bowen: "We had a relationship with Catherine Hardwicke (who directed the 2006 Bowen-Godfrey production, The Nativity Story), and we had a relationship with Erik Feig, (the president of production) at Summit. They needed help trying to figure out how to get this project up and running."
Three years later, the Twilight films have thus far grossed nearly $2 billion worldwide, with two more -- both based on the fourth novel in Meyer's series, Breaking Dawn -- due for release over the next two years. Bowen is credited as executive producer on all of the films. Godfrey, who oversees the day-to-day production on set, is credited as producer. ("I make sure Wyck's pillows are fluffed when he comes home," Bowen jokes.)
The Twilight juggernaut also has helped cement Bowen's position as perhaps the most successful Hollywood executive to ever emerge from Fort Worth. Formed with Godfrey in 2006, Bowen's company Temple Hill Entertainment produced last winter's Dear John, starring Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried, and based on the Nicholas Sparks novel, and Management, a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn that opened in limited release last year.
A thriller called Dark Tide starring Halle Berry is in post-production; another of their titles in active development -- a Janis Joplin biopic with Amy Adams attached as the lead and Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener) as director -- is the stuff that fantasies of Oscar glory are built on.
The Arlington Heights High School graduate's reach even extends into the realm of low-budget indie dramas. Bowen will travel to Fort Worth this weekend to participate in the Lone Star International Film Festival, where he'll screen his latest producing effort: Everything Must Go, a low-key drama inspired by a Raymond Carver short story, starring Will Ferrell and Rebecca Hall, that was partly financed by a group of Fort Worth investors. (The film's director, Dan Rush, is also scheduled to attend the screening.) I'll be interviewing Bowen at the Fort Worth Public Library at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, where he'll talk about the new film and his career in show business.
Perhaps the most remarkable detail of all: Bowen has only been a producer for four years. Until forming Temple Hill, he was a talent agent at the prestigious United Talent Agency, where his client list included the likes of Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (Brokeback Mountain) and Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). He chucked that career, he says, because a sense of restlessness had settled in. He wanted to take a more active role in the experience of making movies.
"I'm not someone who's ever going to be satisfied."
Combining risks, hard work
"You never had to say, 'Marty, go do you homework,'" says his father, Martin Bowen, vice president and chief financial officer of Fine Line Inc., an investment firm in downtown Fort Worth -- and one of the driving forces behind Cowtown Cinema Ventures, the group that invested in Everything Must Go.
"You'd have to say: 'Marty, why are you doing this extra homework. You don't need the extra credit. You're already getting the grade you want. You're wasting your time.'"
"He has such an amazing work ethic," adds Godfrey, "generating new projects, and pushing the rock up the hill ... I envy him sometimes that at four o'clock in the morning, he's coming up with ideas and e-mailing them to me while I'm still sleeping."
Bowen, 42, graduated from Arlington Heights in 1987 and went on to study American history at Harvard University. After college, his father advised him to get a job on Wall Street, but Bowen went to the opposite coast, found a job in the mailroom at UTA and began working his way up the ladder. Bowen had a reputation throughout his 20s and 30s, for being the sort of work-hard-play-hard type you frequently see on TV's Entourage. In fact, the fast-talking, foul-mouthed agent played by Ron Livingston in the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Adaptation is said to have been inspired by him.
When he and Godfrey announced plans for their production company, though, they were eager to embrace a set of more conservative values: Movies that would play well in the middle of the country, for a traditional-minded family audience.
It seemed like a foolproof idea, too: The Passion of the Christ, The Dukes of Hazzard and even the Tyler Perry films had all over-performed in flyover zone, surprising the executives on the right and left coasts. Bowen even expressed interest in creating a number of Texas-flavored films, including Paper Wings, a romance set within the world of bull riding. (It's still in development, with Tom Cruise attached as a possible star and Will Smith as one of the producers.) A vast market, he believed, simply wasn't being served by the big studios.
In Hollywood, though, the best-laid plans tend to get thrown off-course. Temple Hill's first movie, The Nativity Story, was greeted mostly with shrugs of indifference from critics and audiences alike; the studio with which they initially struck a production pact, New Line Cinema, was folded into Warner Bros. in 2008.
That's why Twilight proved so critical for the young company. As the economic downturn hit and dozens of production companies shuttered -- and studios were suddenly green-lighting fewer and fewer films -- Temple Hill had landed a critic-proof blockbuster franchise.
"It always cracks me up when people ask me why I think I've had success," says Bowen, who lives with his wife, Catherine, in the hills of West Hollywood. "It's as if people think I happen to know a secret that they don't know. The simple truth is, I would say that at least 90 percent of my days end in failure. You have to be OK with that. You have to be OK to move forward despite that feeling of rejection and disappointment."
The screenplay for Everything Must Go, written by director Dan Rush, was one of those efforts that floats around Hollywood for years: Everyone raves about how great it is, but somehow it never seems to get made. It came to Bowen through the same agent who had first given him the script for Management.
Like everyone else, Bowen loved the script. Yet were it not for his persuasive powers and creative fundraising abilities, it probably never would have been made. Will Ferrell had agreed to play the lead, a man who loses his job and gets dumped by his wife and who then decides to sell everything he owns in an epic yard sale. There was only a narrow window of time, though, in which the star would be available for shooting -- and there was still a considerable budget shortfall.
At which point, Bowen made a call to his father. Might he and some of his friends be interested in pitching in?
"I had been talking to him for some time about the possibility of participating in a movie," explains the elder Bowen, who subsequently gathered a group of investors at the Bluebonnet Cafe in Haltom City to float the idea. "They knew Marty's track record. Some of them knew Marty since he was a kid. We liked what we saw in terms of the actors and the budget. We felt like the chances for making a profit on it were good."
Cowtown Cinema Ventures was formed. The money was quickly raised. (Martin Bowen says the total amount was "in the seven figures.") The film soon went into production. And whatever doubt these neophyte film producers might have had when first signing those checks, those doubts were quickly assuaged. Turns out that a hard-driving, detail-oriented guy like Marty Bowen is very effective at explaining to people how he is spending their money. Even when those people might not entirely understand what he is talking about.
"I've done a lot of investments in my life, and I've never had the amount of information I got from Marty," says Greg Kent, risk manager for Bass Enterprises and another member of Cowtown Cinema Ventures. "At 10:30 p.m. at night, he was writing us e-mails [after the day's shoot], saying 'Here's where we are. Here's how much footage we shot. Here's what shots we missed.'"
Everything Must Go had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September; and though the reviews were all over the map (The Playlist called it "surprisingly tender and winning"; Variety said it was "neither entertaining nor profound"), the film was quickly snapped up for distribution by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate, who partnered on a reported $3 million deal. (Five other distributors were also said to have made bids.) According to the senior Bowen, the investors hope to see their capital returned from the domestic distribution sale and future foreign sales; DVDs and video-on-demand should eventually earn them a profit. The film is presently set to open in limited release in March.
Meanwhile, Marty Bowen and his Fort Worth-based investors are hopeful that this might be the start of a long and mutually fruitful collaboration.
"If this one had been a train wreck, then maybe I'd be hesitant to do it again," says Kent. "But it's been right on point."
"These guys really came to our rescue in many ways," adds Bowen.
The life of the modern-day Hollywood producer is not all red-carpet premieres and champagne receptions and hanging out with Taylor Lautner in his trailer. Bowen spends most of his day in his Sunset Boulevard offices, reading scripts, collaborating with writers on projects in development, working the phones and trying to get one of the big studios to loosen its purse strings.
"You don't know which of those rocks that you are polishing is going to turn out to be a gem," he explains. "You have to polish all of them and see how they come together."
Temple Hill certainly has no shortage of possibilities: If The Nativity Story didn't quite turn out to be the modern-day family classic they might have hoped, they have a couple of other efforts in the pipeline -- a big-screen treatment of the Babar the Elephant book series; a remake of The Wizard of Oz -- that they hope might do the trick.
Bowen is also developing a nonmusical reboot of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
He adds, "Although it's nice to get lucky, the real secret is perseverance."
So does that mean he's going to be a movie producer for the rest of his life?
Well, not exactly. "Becoming a producer was my second career," he says, "and I fully think about a third or a fourth."