Hex on ex-prexies?

Sweet prod'n deals can sour on former honchos

In the ever-mystifying world of Hollywood severance packages, studio presidents and chairmen who quit (or are ousted) are routinely given production deals.

But for these often-pricey pacts, the success rate over the last decade has been shaky at best.

The most dramatic example of the dangers is Sid Sheinberg, who signed a dream deal at Universal Pictures after stepping down as longtime prez of U’s corporate parent, MCA Inc.

Bubble Factory, set up with Sheinberg’s sons Jon and Bill, was to have put pictures and truckloads of financing. Yet two years later, after several flops, Bubble and U parted ways, with a press release explaining it was by mutual consent.

Last week, Mark Canton inked a production deal with Warner Bros., joining the long line of newly anointed producers that some industry wags have dubbed “The Dead Presidents Club.”

Canton, who was a senior exec at WB for 11 years before his Sony stint, has had the welcome mat laid out for him — but if history is any guide, there are no guarantees once he steps inside the door.

The reasons for such difficulties are numerous, but there are two key stumbling blocks. For one thing, studio suits are not necessarily suited to the job. A producer spends his time promoting possible projects, but execs have spent their studio years in the opposite camp: saying no to new works. Studio vets are numbers people, forced into a creative role that’s new, and often uncomfortable.

Second, the definition of producer has changed: With few exceptions, they no longer command attention and power the way they did in the days of David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn. Studios now take charge of projects in a way they never did.

Aware of such pitfalls, Tom Pollock — until March 1996, chairman of MCA’s film and TV enterprises — is one of the few who walked away from his own shingle. “There aren’t many producer-friendly places left — which is one of the reasons I never thought too hard about becoming a producer.”

Canton, however, is unafraid. He joins an A-team list of top-ranked executives who are relatively new to the producing game: David Hoberman, Ricardo Mestres, Lisa Henson, Hal Lieberman, Sid Ganis, Tom Jacobson, Sheinberg, Barry Josephson and Bruce Berman.

Like the vets before them — including Frank Price, Alan Ladd Jr., Stanley Jaffe, Ned Tanen, Lee Rich and Frank Yablans — the newcomers are struggling through the rocky transition into producing: learning new skills, shifting emphasis and, lastly, swallowing some pride.

Does having been a suit — even the suit — really prepare you for the day-to-day realities of being a producer? Can you smoothly go from being a buyer to a seller?

“There’s nothing gradual about it,” said Hoberman, who ran Walt Disney Pictures and Touchstone Pictures for seven years before taking a production deal at the studio. “It literally happens overnight. You have no preparation, no precedent, no understanding of what the transition is. It’s a shock to the system.”

Hoberman admitted it becomes a huge identity crisis for the one-time toppers: “Just as everyone is judging you, you’re judging yourself.”

Disney smoothed Hoberman’s path by immediately giving him the Ellen DeGeneres/Bill Pullman starrer “Mr. Wrong” to executive produce. The pic bombed, but Hoberman was still off and running. Less than two years later, he has produced “The 6th Man,” the current hit “George of the Jungle” and Dimension Films’ upcoming “Senseless.” He’s also about to get “The Negotiator” into production for New Regency.

Other exec-to-indie stories run the gamut, from success to checkered track records:

Scott Rudin, prexy of production at 20th Century Fox in 1986-87, has dominated the ex-prexy club by producing hits like “Ransom,” “The First Wives Club,” “The Firm” and “The Addams Family.”

Lawrence Gordon, prexy and chief operating officer at 20th Century Fox from 1984 to 1986 and later CEO of the mini-major Largo Entertainment, has been equally successful with “Field of Dreams,” “Predator,” “Die Hard,” “Die Hard 2,” “48 HRS.” and “Another 48 HRS.” Lately, he has produced the less stellar “Waterworld” and “Devil’s Own.”

Jon Peters, who briefly ran Sony Pictures Entertainment with Peter Guber, teamed with Guber on “Batman” and “Rain Man” when they were a producing team in the 1980s. In his own deal, which is now split between WB and Columbia, Peters started slowly with disappointments “Money Train” and “Rosewood.” Now, he has two potential franchise properties for WB in the Nicolas Cage starrer “Superman” and the Will Smith-George Clooney starrer “Wild Wild West.”

The late Don Simpson, who ran Paramount’s production in the early 1980s, later teamed with Jerry Bruckheimer to produce blockbusters “Top Gun,” “Days of Thunder,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Flashdance.” Industry titans almost unilaterally agree that Simpson was probably the most adept at the segue from topper to producer.

* Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman John Calley, who was head of production at Warner Bros. more than a decade ago, left to become an indie producer, with limited success. He made “Remains of the Day,” but years later jumped back into the executive ranks.

Stanley Jaffe, former president of Paramount and head of production at Columbia, did well at first, producing numerous boffo pics, including “Fatal Attraction.” However, it hasn’t been so easy lately: He set up a deal at Sony when Peter Guber was chairman, with Sony giving him the ability to greenlight his own pics. But in the new regime under Calley, those put pics have disappeared.

Frank Yablans, who ran MGM and Paramount at different periods, took a shot at producing with “North Dallas Forty” and “Mommie Dearest” to show as profitable. In 1995, he inked another production deal with Par and was an exec producer on “Congo,” but has yielded little since.

Former toppers like Guber (ex-CEO of SPE) and Mike Medavoy (former chieftain of Orion Pictures and TriStar Pictures) have moved into stand-alone production companies. They partially finance projects themselves so that they in effect perform tasks similar (albeit on a smaller playing field) to those of their studio exec days.

Among the newcomers:

Barry Josephson, former prez of production for Columbia, is about to embark on a lucrative deal with director Barry Sonnenfeld at Disney. Josephson drew praise for a lineup of Col actioners that included “Men in Black,” “Air Force One,” “The Fifth Element” and “Anaconda.” Disney is hoping the two Barrys will duplicate their “Men in Black” success.

Lisa Henson, former president of Columbia Pictures, has set up shop on the Sony lot with former Oliver Stone partner Janet Yang. The pair, sporting the daunting name Manifest Films, has cobbled together an ambitious slate of development projects and has the Ben Stiller-Bill Pullman starrer “Zero Effect” due out from Castle Rock/Columbia in early 1998.

Hal Lieberman, former prexy of production for Universal Pictures, has set up Lieberville Prods. at U with an unusually lengthy five-year deal. Though he has nothing yet in production, Lieberman is exec producer on the Bruce Willis starrer “Jackal” and has assembled a 10-person development staff. Lieberman, a former screenwriter, calls the deal “a natural marriage between the two legs of my career.”It might seem a natural switch to go from hearing pitches to offering them, but the perils are numerous. “It’s difficult to change roles in your own family,” said Gareth Wigan, vice chairman of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group.

Gary Lucchesi, a former production president at Paramount Pictures, found that as a producer, he calls less upon his exec skills than his experience as an agent at the William Morris Agency.

“You’re very much wrapped up in selling a commodity, as an agent or as a producer,” said Lucchesi, who is truly independent, since his production company is based in Beverly Hills, rather than on any studio lot. “Those skills are completely applicable either way, and believe me, I have applied them.”

Canton considers his return to WB as “going back home” and expects that the studio will back him with big-ticket, big-budget projects.

“I want to make the movies, not just the deals,” he said. “This is what I’m choosing at this point. If I do them well, everyone will profit from them.”

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