As newly minted film producers, ex-studio hotshots have to adjust egos and expectations

Lorenzo di Bonaventura’s back still aches.

A year and a half after leaving as production head of the town’s biggest and most prolific movie studio, his considerable executive stress — which he’s always carried in his lower back — has morphed into producer anxiety.

Since his exit from Warner Bros., di Bonaventura has served as a producer on one film, is about to shoot another, and has set up more than a dozen pics at various studios.

He’s not alone these days. Di Bonaventura is the latest in a long line of ex-heads of production who’ve hung out their shingle. Most say the transition is an exciting but sobering experience that leaves them feeling vulnerable and daunted, but also relishing new creative and personal freedoms unimaginable at a studio.

Lately, though, the town’s coursing with emigres from the studio exec suites, including Par’s Michelle Manning, MGM’s Alex Gartner, DreamWorks’ Michael DeLuca and U’s Kevin Misher. Some of their predecessors have found major success, such as ex-Fox production head Roger Birnbaum. Some returned to their former jobs. As former Fox topper Richard Zanuck likes to quote, “You can’t afford to get off the bus,” meaning you leave the biz at your own peril. It can often require a re-assessment of ego and self-image.

After heading production at Warners, for example, Dick Shepherd went back to his gig as an agent. Still others exited the production business altogether, such as Bob Daly (the L.A. Dodgers), David Puttnam (U.K. politics) and Disney’s Ricardo Mestres (now in medical school).

But whatever their final destination, these ex-execs’ internal adjustments are only one change among many. As fledgling producers they must figure out which way the wind is blowing creatively; reconnoiter the internal politics of each studio and recalibrate to the role of someone who pitches projects, rather than someone on the receiving end of those pitches.

“It just feels different having to sell,” says one ex-studio president. “It’s harder to sell than to buy. I can’t bring myself to sell something I don’t believe in just to sell it — I’m not there yet, but I know I have to get there.”

Instead of the hundreds of projects they used to shepherd, they are starting from scratch with an empty portfolio — and that blank slate, many say, is probably hardest of all in a tough buyer’s market dominated by congloms.

Another challenge: They’re doing this at a time when the role of producer is diminished. It’s rare to find a producer with the autonomy and personal stamp of Jerry Bruckheimer or Brian Grazer — who both have steadfastly refused the role of studio exec.

And there seems to be an inverse ratio of time in the executive suite and success as a producer: Scott Rudin’s stint as production head was short, but his producing success is long-lived.

Given all this, it’s easy to see why some former execs are never again heard from.

“There’s less stress as a producer, but more anxiety,” explains di Bonaventura. “You don’t feel that daily pounding that puts your nerve endings on edge — but you’ve entered the unknown, so you feel a certain amount of anxiety.”

Several execs say the change in daily tempo is a source of frustration, albeit a necessary one.

Explains one ex-topper, “When you’re a studio chief, you can land meetings one on top of another, like an aircraft carrier. People come to visit you. But when you’re a seller, you can’t be as efficient.”

Many ex-production heads say it’s not only the transition from buyer to seller that fazes them. After all, even as a studio exec you are always selling someone — your boss on the project, or convincing someone you’ve got the right movie star or director — but it’s the uncertainty and lack of structure inherent in being a seller that fuels their angst.

“As a buyer, you always have more coming at you; you can say ‘no’ and don’t have to buy (anything) that day,” explains one former exec. “As a producer, you feel you have to make some progress. If you don’t, no one else will do it for you.”

Michael DeLuca, who joined Sony this month after decamping as head of production at DreamWorks Pictures, points out, “You’re really at the mercy of your own skills and instincts.”

Knowing the complicated internal politics of a studio might be useful, but it can also be depressing. Former MGM prexy of production Alex Gartner explains, “What surprised me most about being president of production was how hard it was to get to agreement within the studio about which pictures to make.”

Gartner adds that being a producer now “is equal parts exhilaration and fear, but a lot of my fear comes from knowing how many ‘yes-es’ you have to get after the first ‘yes.’ ”

Silver linings

But as producers, former production executives have several advantages. For one, they are used to juggling multiple projects.

After a three-year run at Universal, Kevin Misher says he’d burnt out managing 250-300 film projects. After that experience, he made a decision to keep a low development-to-production ratio.

“How many projects you are going to work on is a huge factor in defining yourself,” says Misher, who’s currently producing the Sydney Pollack-directed U.N. assassination thriller “The Interpreter.” Since starting out, he’s produced a picture a year, including 2002’s “The Scorpion King” and last year’s “The Rundown.”

Why is he so selective?

“Because there’s only so much material you can develop before you’re acting like an executive all over again,” says Misher. “Then the desire to run the company overwhelms your desire to run the projects.”

Di Bonaventura, a self-confessed action junkie, has kept himself in almost perpetual motion since he exited WB. His first pic, “Constantine” is in the can, but it’s one which he came aboard as a producer after it had been greenlit by Warners. While he developed it as an exec, he is now producing it with fellow producers Erwin Stoff, Lauren Shuler Donner and Akiva Goldsman.

Next up is the Jennifer Aniston starrer “Derailed” for Miramax, which starts shooting in October. Reaching him for this article was initially difficult, because he was scouting locations at an Illinois prison, where guards take an understandably dim view of cellphones.

Currently, he’s got projects set up at Universal, DreamWorks, Paramount (where di Bonaventura’s production deal is based), Revolution, New Regency and a potential franchise at Miramax’s Dimension Films.

After having rejected so many projects as execs, it seems that nouveau producers might have to eat crow. However, most say that if you were fair as an exec, you can expect to be treated fairly after switching roles. One studio ex-topper clarifies that being treated fairly only guarantees that your pitch will be heard, not that you will hear an automatic “yes” from old colleagues.

“After all, fair is fair: If someone asked me for a greenlight favor based on an old friendship, I’d tell them to go screw themselves,” says one clear-eyed ex-studio president-turned-producer.

The biggest learning curve, it turns out, is discovering how other studios and execs operate: Few production chiefs know their old rivals’ tastes and quirks.

“Each studio has its own personality and you tend to live in your studio’s culture,” explains former production chief Gartner, who just produced “Barbershop 2” for his old haunt, MGM. He adds: “It’s an isolated life.”

Others point to the advantages of having been an exec when dealing with other execs. “There’s a natural rapport you feel with anyone in that job,” says DeLuca. “Having been a studio exec, you know what they’re looking for. You totally have a shorthand.”

That shorthand also applies to former execs’ relationships with creatives.

“Often directors don’t feel they can creatively trust the guys who write the checks,” says Peter Berg, the helmer of Universal’s actioner, “The Rundown,” which Misher produced last year. “When you’re a director writing scenes, you know exactly in your mind how it’s going to look. An executive won’t always. Kevin knows that studio execs can be what he calls ‘subtlety-challenged.’ He was good at explaining the idea behind the idea behind the idea.”

Misher amplifies: “You can say what the studio really wants, in a way that’s not scary to the director.

“Say a movie’s going over budget: Maybe you need to show a little of the movie to the execs to demonstrate that this movie is working, that it’s worth the extra money and time. Whereas filmmakers tend to be very protective of their films and don’t want to show anything until it’s done and perfect, you can provide a liquidity between the two sides.”

Relief pitchers

The close ties and relationships with an old studio aren’t always easy for execs-turned-producers. While he’s produced studio pictures like “Barbershop 2,” Gartner’s also delving into indie projects, like “The Upside of Anger,” a $12 million Kevin Costner and Joan Allen drama financed by Media 8.

“I don’t think we could have made that movie at a studio,” admits Gartner. “In fact, several of them passed. There’s a risk aversion, because the studio business has become one of hitting only home runs. I like being able to make movies that are a little more risky than a studio is comfortable with.”

To that end, Gartner last week decided to end his first-look deal with MGM a year and a half early. In its place, he’s partnering with producer Chuck Roven (“Batman Begins,” “Scooby-Doo”) in order to open up “a wider variety of options” when it comes to making movies. After all, with MGM on the block, the studio is hardly the place to set up a new franchise, let alone an expensive one. And making indie movies has turned out to be fun.

Most of these people seem fairly unfazed by the loss of exec perks and status, because the town ultimately respects reputation over regalia.

“At my age, people know what you’re like, and you’re left with their impressions of you. Titles and all the crap stopped meaning anything a long time ago,” DeLuca says. “Movies get made by 10% of the people in the business. Once you break into that 10%, that’s it. The people who are concerned with titles and all that bullshit aren’t going to get movies made.”

He pauses.

“You’re still in (the office) early in the morning, you’re still reading late at night,” says DeLuca. “What changes is that there’s a total relief being your own boss.”

Then DeLuca hangs up; he’s probably running late for a meeting with a suit, and you know how the suits just hate that.

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