Who’s the boss?

Studio prexies perplexed as congloms keep shaking up corporate pecking order

HOLLYWOOD — “President of production” is a lofty title. It conjures up images of Darryl F. Zanuck and Irving Thalberg, individuals with strong artistic tastes and the clout to back them up. It’s an elite fraternity of power players.

Here’s the rub. Like many creative execs at the studios, the production prexies are having problems adjusting to the shifting rules of the global congloms that control the entertainment industry.

For one thing, they may be “presidents,” but they’re not the boss. They may have several layers of bosses above them. And while they tend to get the blame when things go bad, they are not positioned to get the credit when things go well. They have the right to say “No,” which they do with numbing regularity. But they usually don’t have the status to give the final “yes” — a fact that is no secret to the top agents and lawyers who do business with them.

In pre-conglom days, production presidents weighed in on scripts, deals and slates. Now, with growing reliance on opening weekends and foreign markets, they are also working with marketing and distribution departments.

As one head of production puts it, “the job never ends.” They’re carrying the weight of the studio’s entire pipeline on their backs; when the 2005 slate is complete, it’s on to 2006, and then 2007.

There’s another crucial factor: They’re caught in a generation gap with bosses who are decades older and who have markedly different preferences. For example, several prexies feel passionate about the vidgame biz, and its synergy with film, while their superiors scratch their heads.

The disconnect between prexies and their bosses often leads to contentious compromise. “Everyone is trying to deliver what they think their boss wants,” says one.

One agent observes, “Everything’s become more corporate, and movies are about franchises and ancillary merchandise: You don’t make ‘Scooby Doo’ because of the movie, but because of products. Ultimately, the president of production is less someone who works from his gut and more someone who works for a machine.”

And production prexies feel the pressure of that machine bearing down on them. Prexies act as bridges between corporate suits and the creative execs who are overseeing particular films. That role means being at the center of decision-making; it also means getting stuck between opposing agendas.

When things go right, the glory goes to filmmakers, agents and studio toppers. Further, agents, actors, directors and writers have a build to their careers: They know where they want to be in five years.But a production president doesn’t have a similar career arc. They have ascended the top of the studio exec ladder; when their job finally ends, where to go? (And, with fewer studios than there were a few years ago, an ex-prexy could be out of work for a long time.)

Most production heads move on to producing deals or entrepreneurial endeavors, to mixed results.

Success stories include Columbia’s ex-production president Peter Schlessel, who among other things is now helping Microsoft produce a film version of “Halo” outside the studio system. Gary Lucchesi left his gig as head of production at Paramount to become president of co-financier and foreign sales outfit, Lakeshore Entertainment, which just backed “Million Dollar Baby.”

Another former production head at a major studio says, “You never have time to reflect on what went right and what went wrong. You just keep pushing the rock up the mountain, and if you stop the rock will roll over you.”

While production presidents deserve compassion, it’s not completely a sad story. None of them was dragged into their post kicking and screaming. They’re handsomely paid. They get perks and they wield power as they oversee a staff of execs and an entire slate of films.

Doug Belgrad, one of the two Sony honchos, says production prexy is a better role than other creative execs at studios. “We have more input and a greater ability to control things. There’s more direct accountability on our shoulders for each of the movies.

“Those kinds of things in some ways are liberating, because you actually get to fight for things you believe in, and then if it works, you can say, ‘Oh, OK.’ If the whole thing doesn’t work, then you can say, ‘OK, let’s break it down and figure out how I’m going to do it better next time.’ That’s as opposed to when you’re in the senior VP job, where I think there’s a little bit of a tendency to say, ‘Well, I didn’t even see the marketing strategy on that movie.’ There are more excuses to make.”

Matt Tolmach, the other production prez at Sony, adds, “You’re put in a position where the decisions you make are decisions that truly reflect what the company does. More than ever you need to live closer to your gut and your belief in things. That’s a scary place to be and also what’s exhilarating about it. At the same time, you’re also managing a group of people, which is for me incredibly gratifying. You’re not sort of running your own shop within a company, you’re managing a group of execs and trying to get the best out of them. It’s more selfless in that sense.”

While those two were willing to be quoted about their roles, other production heads spoke to Variety off-the-record. Most confirmed these assertions — even though production prexies hail from various backgrounds and have different job descriptions and authority, depending on their studio.

Adam Goodman took the reins at DreamWorks last year at the age of 31, making him the youngest of the 12 major-studio production prexies.

Sony’s Belgrad came to Hollywood via Wall Street. In conversation his brain almost palpably churns as he quietly discusses the financial pros and cons of the specialty units sprouting up at studios.

Tolmach, meanwhile, is most likely to start off a conversation relaying his latest cycling adventure as he steers you toward his computer (next to the huge stuffed “Spider-Man” doll), where the screensaver is a photo of him riding alongside Lance Armstrong.

The office of New Line’s Toby Emmerich, the son of an art collector, is adorned with a “Lord of the Rings” pinball machine, which the prexy encourages visitors to try out, as he wrangles with agents, pacing back and forth the room in white socks.

Rounding out the group are Disney’s Nina Jacobson, Fox’s Hutch Parker, U’s Mary Parent and Scott Stuber, Par’s Karen Rosenfelt and Warner Bros.’ Jeff Robinov.

The title “president of production” means something different at every studio. One factor is autonomy, and how much power the studio topper is willing to cede to the president. (Agents widely consider Warner Bros.’ Robinov and U’s Stuber and Parent among those with the most clout.)

Another factor is the corporatization. As each new parent company takes over a studio, it brings a new mandate, new shareholders to answer to, and new bosses.

U is the most extreme example, having been subsumed by the Canadians (Seagram), the French (Vivendi) and now the (non-Hollywood) Americans in General Electric.

But U is hardly alone. Columbia Pictures answers to Sony, Warner Bros. and New Line to Time Warner, Paramount to Viacom, Fox to News Corp.

The corporate thinking has spawned the inflation of titles throughout the studios.

Roger Birnbaum, who left his studio gig to go the indie route, jokes, “I was president of Fox so long ago, they only had one president back then.”

One top motion picture literary agent observes: “The titles have gotten inflated, so the role is different,” he says.

“The idea of someone being a president of production eight years ago versus today is completely different. Because of title inflation, an exec VP could hire a writer, but today he/she has to ask. Before, an exec VP actually meant something, but the titles have gotten so inflated that the title doesn’t reflect the level of experience.”

Some prexies feel nostalgic toward their former lives as a production VP, where, as one prexy says, “It’s perfect. You work on your movies, you know that those movies are coming out, and when they do, you start your other movies, but you’ll take a vacation in August. There’s an end in sight. There’s times when you kind of go dark a little bit.”

Kevin Misher, past president of production at U, adds, “I’ve always said that one of my favorite jobs was executive VP. You managed your own properties, in your own little pool, with just enough responsibility to get things done.”

Birnbaum is now a financier and producer. “I have the dream job now. I’m developing what I want, making what I want, not servicing the slate of a vertically integrated conglomerate selling washing machines somewhere.”

Birnbaum and his partner Gary Barber — an expert in the international marketplace — run Spyglass, a co-financing entity now based at Sony Pictures that’s backed hits like “The Sixth Sense” and “Bruce Almighty.”

As such, Birnbaum’s gig has become the not-so-secret goal post for so many production prexies.

“When you’re head of production, you’re handcuffed in every conceivable way,” says Birnbaum. “And it’s so very competitive: Every weekend, half a dozen movies open. What you’re rooting for is other people’s failure — in a lot of cases, they’re your friends. It’s a very dark, negative way to live your life, and I didn’t even realize it was until after I got out.”

Whatever the nuances and demands of being a production prexy, however, most concede there’s a certain headiness to being in the middle of the action, and therefore they’ll take the pain, thank you.

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