Richard Zanuck has a simple explanation for the durability of his long and productive partnership with David Brown: “He’s the best possible friend you could have. We talk to each other every day no matter where we are.”
Though they no longer have a company together, this year’s ShoWest Producers of the Year continue to develop projects as a duo. Case in point: the thriller “The Ninth Man,” in the rewrite stage at DreamWorks; no director or cast has yet been attached.
“We think alike,” adds Brown. “If we’re both not 100% behind a given story, then we don’t do it.”
Based on the facts of a World War II incident that saw eight Nazi saboteurs captured on Long Island, N.Y., the Blake Masters’ script follows the hunt for a ninth man who got away. Zanuck and Brown bought the rights to the novel almost 25 years ago. They pitched it to Steven Spielberg after their mutual success on “Jaws” but nothing came of it.
“They know how to get movies made and that’s why people in the business trust them as much as they do,” says Masters.
The scribe says that every time he handed in a draft, Brown would call him and offer his encouragement. “He read each version right away. Both he and Dick are old-school gentlemen with a lot of great ideas.”
Because Zanuck and Brown are busy with their own slates and companies, the number of projects they have in the works together are few.
“In the Blue Light of African Dreams,” for example, which was once on the front burner with Tom Cruise’s company two years ago, is in limbo, says Brown.
The two first met on the lot at 20th Century Fox in the late 1950s. Zanuck was a rookie producer in a studio run by his father, Daryl F. Zanuck. Brown was the studio’s new chief story editor, hired away from his job as managing editor at Cosmopolitan magazine by the senior Zanuck.
Four years later, in 1963, the younger Zanuck was named president in charge of production at Fox, the youngest corporate head in the history of Hollywood. One of the first things he did was shut down the entire operation. The studio was reeling from the box office disaster of “Cleopatra,” the “Heaven’s Gate” of the early 1960s.
“I had to let David go,” recalled Zanuck in a Daily Variety interview two years ago.
But in an industry where firing your friends is sometimes an odd necessity of doing business, there were no hard feelings.
“It wasn’t personal,” adds Brown. “The studio was in a mess.”
Some eight years later in 1972, Zanuck would get a taste of his own medicine when he was fired as head of Fox by his own father.
Instead of harboring grudges, Zanuck and Brown decided to open their own indie venture — and the Zanuck/Brown Co was formed.
“Two years after we’d set up our company, we outgrossed Fox,” says Zanuck.
In the next 15 years, Zanuck/Brown found, developed and produced, among other films, “The Sting,” “The Sugarland Express” (helmed by then tyro director Steven Spielberg), “Jaws,” “Jaws 2,” and “The Verdict.”
It was the phenomenal box office success of “Jaws” in 1975 ($260 million domestically, $573 million in inflation adjusted dollars in 2001) that many industry observers credit with transforming the economics of the modern movie biz. In an unprecedented wide release supported by a massive TV ad campaign, “Jaws” essentially invented the summer thrill-ride pic.
“(The film) changed the business forever,” says Peter Biskind in his 1998 tome “Easy Rider, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.” “(The film’s box office grosses) whet the corporate appetite for big profits fast,” Biskind continues. “Which is to say that studios now wanted every movie to be ‘Jaws.'”
After Zanuck’s wife, Lili Fini Zanuck, joined the company, Zanuck/Brown went on to produce “Cocoon,” “Cocoon: The Return” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” At the end of that string of box office hits, the medal count included 30 Oscar nominations, 16 Oscar statues, a shared Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award and the David O. Selznick Lifetime achievement award from the Producers Guild of America in 1993.
“Receiving the (ShoWest) award is an honor made much more gratifying because I’m getting it with David,” Zanuck says.
The two former partners are nothing if not persistent. When they made “Deep Impact” four years ago, for example, it marked the end of a 22-year journey for the story.
“David and I presented it to Barry Diller at Paramount in the late 1970s,” Zanuck recalled in a 1998 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “We went through a series of scripts, including one written by Anthony Burgess, and then Barry Diller went on to other things and so did we.”
Finally, eight years ago, Brown and Zanuck took it to Steven Spielberg who gave it the greenlight. Two decades from initial pitch to finished product.
“They’re all hard,” Zanuck concludes.