During the waning days of summer, in the calm before the storm of Sept. 11, producer Jane Rosenthal had a talent crisis on her hands. And the stakes were high even for a veteran Hollywood player who’s gone mano a mano with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Martin Scorsese and longtime partner Robert De Niro.
“I have this book signing at Barnes & Noble to go to later this afternoon,” she said.
The signing was for “Goodbye Tonsils,” a children’s book written by her 6-year-old daughter, Juliana, and Rosenthal’s husband, real estate magnate Craig Hatkoff.
“Goodbye Tonsils” just hit the New York Times bestseller list, and the author kept wandering into the living room of the family’s spacious Dakota apartment, several stories above Central Park’s Strawberry Fields, where her mother was trying to keep her attention trained on two Daily Variety reporters working away at the story of her two-decade-plus career in show business.
“You’re going to read back quotes, right?” she asked, sounding suddenly like a producer. She might not have been expecting two reporters, but she was going with the flow.
As if Rosenthal doesn’t have enough hats to wear: In addition to being the mother of two young girls — the other is Isabella, 2 — she’s an active Democratic campaigner and De Niro’s partner in Tribeca Films, the Tribeca Grill, Nobu Restaurant, the Tribeca Film Center and other ventures.
Add to these distinctions that of altruist, as evidenced by her and De Niro’s efforts — with Tribeca Grill head chef Don Pintabona — to feed firefighters in the week after disaster struck the World Trade Center. Hot meals were provided, 500 at a clip, to New York’s rescue workers using luxury cruise ships.
Though she was born in Providence, R.I., she’s practically an institution in Gotham. But somehow she manages to keep a low profile. One thing she’s not is a shameless self-promoter. Guarded at times, she exudes modesty: “Tribeca is synonymous with De Niro. I sort of come with the package.”
In fact, it may be the other way around. While De Niro hired Rosenthal away from a studio exec job some 13 years ago, it’s she who appears to be running the show. Whether she’s speaking of her daughter and husband’s book, a fund-raiser she co-hosted with Weinstein for Clinton or how she helped mold the father figure in the script “Meet the Parents” to suit De Niro, this is a woman you want on your side.
Rosenthal seems to have an uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time. She muses that her autobiography, if she ever writes one, will be called “Skipping Through the Minefields: My Life in Hollywood and New York.”
While still a student at NYU’s School of the Arts, she produced “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” The play went on to Broadway and helped launch her career. She must have told the tale of how she went from theater to television to film a thousand times but like the actress she briefly aspired to be, she’s able to deliver fresh line readings.
CBS as springboard
While still at NYU, Rosenthal worked for CBS Sports. After graduation, she moved to L.A. to work in movies and miniseries for the Eye net. In the late 1970s, she produced TV movies for CBS – enough to fill four nights of programming each week, she recalled. “We covered every major and minor current event, every disease of the week.”
She then segued to Universal Pictures to work for Frank Price and Shawn Daniels before landing a gig at Disney, where she helped supervise production on “The Color of Money,” directed by Scorsese.
Rosenthal quickly established a rapport with Scorsese, who invited her to watch the dailies on his film.
“He asked me why I was a studio executive,” she remembered. “I was unhappy as a studio exec. I was much more interested in the process, in a more detailed way than you can be at a studio. So much of studio life revolves around politics.”
When Scorsese told Rosenthal that De Niro was looking to start a company and hire someone to run it in New York, Rosenthal’s first thought was that she was not interested in moving back to Gotham. And she questioned whether she was suitable to work for an actor. But Rosenthal and De Niro began to talk, and nine months later, they married their interests.
Rosenthal found herself telling people she was moving back to a place called TriBeCa, which in the 1980s was still an urban wasteland.
“It was truly as if I were living in New Jersey,” she said.
Like the men who first inhabited Hollywood and created the studios, it’s not hard to imagine Rosenthal as the type of person who doesn’t just have a dream; she’s someone capable of persuading followers to execute it.
“Bob talked about the film center as a place to give something back to the community,” Rosenthal recalled.
Little did she and De Niro know that their little center would help centralize and foster a new breed of New York independent producers. Once the 60,000-square-foot office space had been completed, the building De Niro and Rosenthal had created attracted such tenants as the Weinstein brothers’ Miramax Films, producer-director Ron Howard, producer Art Linson and lit agent Jack Tantliff.
Harvey Weinstein credits De Niro and Rosenthal with revitalizing Tribeca “both as a neighborhood and as a filmmaking center.”
As he put it, “Jane is owed a debt of gratitude by not just the filmmaking industry but by the entire city of New York.”
Tribeca Films strove for independence from Hollywood, much like ’70s icons Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas had done by moving to San Francisco. But Rosenthal knew how vital it was to retain a production deal with one of the majors.
“I am not an indie producer trying to borrow against my credit line to make a movie,” she said. “Indie to me means if the studio doesn’t want it, I can go wherever. I can get my material from wherever. I can live in New York.”
Tribeca struck a first-look pact with TriStar Pictures, which released its first film — “Thunderheart,” directed by Michael Apted and starring Val Kilmer. Next up were “Night and the City,” “Mistress” and “A Bronx Tale,” which De Niro also directed — all projects with the kind of gritty realism and political edge that have become Tribeca hallmarks.
Meanwhile, Tribeca’s first-look shifted over to MGM and then to Universal, where it remains.
Trust the key
“The key has always been a certain trust,” reflected Rosenthal about her successful relationship with De Niro. “He’s always said, ‘Here’s what I want to do, go do it.'”
And while De Niro is off making such films as “Men of Honor” and “The Score” with no Tribeca involvement, Rosenthal has done just that.
The Tribeca-U production of “Meet the Parents,” directed by Jay Roach and starring De Niro and Ben Stiller, the shingle’s most successful pic, grossed $166 million domestically. But it’s not just movies that drives the company.
Rosenthal says when she is not in production, she spends 75% of her time on Tribeca Prods. business such as development or post-production. The other 25% goes toward such ventures as the First Look film series and Tribeca’s media convergence festival, now a quarterly evening series (see sidebar). She is also launching a Tribeca Film Festival.
Amid all the activity, Rosenthal somehow manages to squeeze in time to actively pursue more real estate, a space that would allow Tribeca to build a studio and thereby be even more independent from Hollywood.
But Tribeca’s specific plans for a studio, following it and Miramax’s thwarted bid to build one in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, are off-limits as an interview subject.
“Let’s just say that we are in discussions on this,” Rosenthal said.
The producer is back: Rosenthal knows as well as the best of them that it’s practically sacrilege to reveal to whom one is talking before that party commits.