MEMO TO: Frank Mancuso
FROM: Peter Bart
SUBJECT: Creative stalling
THIS COLUMN, as you may know, regularly dispenses advice to people who don’t need it, and this week we have targeted you.
You have, after all, embarked on a unique mission. You are simultaneously hiring new operating staffs for two separate movie studios. Now that the august bankers from Credit Lyonnais have decided to replenish MGM and resuscitate United Artists, you are clearly in serious need of management support.
So here’s my advice: Stall.
This may sound frivolous, but I’ve been talking to filmmakers and studio exex this week, and nearly all agree that your mission faces several serious problems. For one thing, there’s a shortage of top talent in the management ranks, and you’re offering jobs at two companies that will surely be sold within three years. Given the built-in insecurity of studio jobs, you’re offering something new: guaranteed insecurity.
Then there’s another consideration. Before you start dangling jobs, Frank, think back for a moment to those regimes that produced the most hits and biggest profits. All appear to have these common denominators: They had very small staffs and uniquely unbureaucratic operating styles.
By contrast, present-day studios, stymied by creative gridlock, employ layers of as many as 60 development and production executives, but often fail at their primary task: turning out a flow of viable product.
I know it’s not chic to review the past, Frank, but consider for a moment Warner’s under Ted Ashley and John Calley, circa 1969-77. They had a staff consisting of four or five truly disorganized guys, but they jammed out “Deliverance,””A Clockwork Orange,””The Exorcist” and “Klute,” to cite just a few. You couldn’t even find a story department during the Bob Evans era at Paramount, but somehow films like “The Godfather,””Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” kept appearing. The Mirisch Co. employed a development department of one, but managed to turn out a 17-year hit parade of films directed by Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, Norman Jewison and the like.
AND YOU WERE distribution maven at Paramount in the late 1970s, Frank, when a small group of mavericks and iconoclasts including Don Simpson, Dawn Steel and a barely post-pubescent Jeff Katzenberg, working under the direction of a young TV-trained exec named Michael Eisner, ran off an astonishing list of megahits beginning with “Saturday Night Fever.”
“The system as it stands today is cockeyed,” says one of the production chiefs of that era. “With all the layers that exist at studios today, the pictures have become like the people — homogenized.”
Most of the filmmakers I’ve been talking to, Frank, realize that while you can’t replicate regimes of the past, you can at least replicate certain structures.
Consider, for example, the notion of First Artists, wherein such stars as Newman, Hoffman and McQueen shared ownership in a company and also shared in the decision-making. A key flaw of that company, to be sure, was that the stars were non-exclusive — hence McQueen would make a commercial film for an outside studio, then an art flick like “Enemy of the People” for First Artists.
OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS a number of important players in the business have come forth with some interesting structures involving clusters of producers, directors or stars. For one reason or another, these plans have been shot down. At the same time a variety of filmmaking entities have made their appearance, ranging from Castle Rock to Interscope, designed to respond to similar needs. Somewhere, somehow, there has to be a means whereby filmmakers can communicate their visions directly to an individual who can utter a simple “yes” or “no”– and who won’t toss either the idea or the filmmaker into the throes of a committee hearing.
There are a lot of people involved in the film business who would like you to think about these issues, Frank. The process doesn’t seem to be working. As Jeffrey Katzenberg has put it, there seems to be an invisible wall that separates those with talent from those who are able to mobilize that talent.
Think about that wall, Frank. Meanwhile, I’ll forward all those resumes.