John Davis cranks out hits below the radar
Producer John A. Davis is the most unlikely casting choice to play Hollywood’s Most Regular Guy. Yet he’s so perfectly pedestrian — in a Bel Air sort of way — that it makes him remarkable.
Son of the late oil wildcatter and Hollywood interloper Marvin Davis, he’s one of the film industry’s most prolific producers of mainstream fare, from “Predator” to the “Garfield” franchise to “I, Robot.” He’s had a number of moderate hits and his share of disappointments. All told, he’s produced 40 films that, combined, have made nearly $4 billion — an impressive record by any measure — yet he stays comfortably below the Hollywood radar.
“I’m not a narcissist, which helps,” confesses the 52-year-old Davis as he sits in his Brentwood office, where the mantel is lined with perfectly placed video covers of the pics he’s produced. “It’s not about me.”
No, it’s about the films. “Norbit” was a surprise hit and kicked off a year that will see three more releases — “Daddy Day Camp,” “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Alien vs. Predator: AVP2” — consistent with a prolific output that has seen his name on 10 films in the last three years alone.
It’s common for trust-fund babies to use their flush position to dabble in the movie biz — often spending way too much — but Davis, a Harvard Business School graduate, isn’t among them.
He may have gotten his first studio job because his pop owned 20th Century Fox (however briefly before selling it to Rupert Murdoch), but John Davis has otherwise made his own way, running his production company for more than two decades on a thrifty business model that has served him well.
He’s notorious for refusing to use seed money, instead getting someone else to buy source materials. He also relies on young, hungry development execs and producers who will trade cushy salaries for experience. In turn, he gets to keep more of the producing fee than he might otherwise.
“John has a really acute work ethic for someone with that kind of dough,” says one longtime colleague. “It’s all about not being a rich guy.”
Davis spends his free time watching movies and, like so many parents, driving his kids around, since he doesn’t trust a stranger behind the wheel.
He’s also bucking tradition in another way. At a time when moguls make their money in other fields and then start gobbling up media assets (as Marvin Davis did), John Davis has made his mark in showbiz and is starting to invest in outside companies.
He has a stake in Jane Cosmetics, Pasta Pomodoro, retailer Gumps and biotech company Bioren, which works with human antibodies for drugs and other products. Closer to home, he is an investor in Lighting Technologies Intl., which develops specialty lamps used in film and video cameras, among other things.
There’s little doubt that Davis got his father’s keen business sense, although the elder Davis never loved movies the way his son does. “Fox was a waystation for him,” the son recounts.
When Marvin Davis, a Denver oilman, bought Fox in 1981 and moved to Los Angeles, he and his wife, Barbara, became instant Beverly Hills royalty, buying the Knolls mansion and shooting to the top of the social order with their semiannual charity ball, Carousel of Hope.
Marvin Davis bought Fox just as John was finishing Harvard Business School. The younger Davis knew he wanted to work in sports or entertainment, so he accepted his dad’s offer to work in Fox’s low-budget unit. That meant working under Barry Diller, whom Marvin Davis had brought in to run the studio.
“I took the time to learn the movie business,” Davis says.
As a result of the sale, relations between Murdoch and Marvin Davis had soured, so John Davis left and set up his production shop, Davis Entertainment.
But coming full circle, he ended up inking a first-look deal with Fox in 1992, after almost signing a pact with Columbia. He made the pact after Diller had left the studio. (As with Murdoch, relations between Diller and Marvin Davis had been strained.)
He also has stayed out of the drama that goes along with being part of a high-profile family (his clan, which includes four brothers and sisters, is considered to have been the inspiration for nighttime television sudser “Dynasty”).
John Davis doesn’t wince or get defensive when asked about his family’s trials and tribulations.
Last fall, bad-boy nephew Brandon Davis, with Paris Hilton dangling on his arm, landed in the tabloids again after calling Lindsay Lohan a “firecrotch” and deriding Lohan for “only” being worth $7 million.
Then there was the lawsuit filed by his sister, Patricia Davis Raynes, before Marvin Davis died in 2004 alleging that her father beat her up to get control of her trust fund.
“It goes along with the territory,” Davis says, shrugging. “Doesn’t every family have something like this?”
John Davis has kept his Fox deal all these years, although he’s done plenty of projects at other studios.
“How do I decide which movies to make? I make the ones I want to see,” he says. “I love actions, I love comedies, I love animated and I love horror-suspense. I also like to remake movies I remember from childhood.”
This helps to explain Davis’ eclectic slate, which includes everything from “Waterworld” to “The Firm” to “Courage Under Fire” to the “Grumpy Old Men” franchise. He’s had several high-profile duds, “The Flight of the Phoenix” remake, “The Chamber” and “First Daughter.”
His first movie was “Predator,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Davis has the predator costume in the foyer of his Brentwood office). Released by Fox in 1987, the film grossed a tidy $54.3 million.
A decade later, Davis forged an important talent relationship with Eddie Murphy.
“Doctor Dolittle” remains Davis’ second-highest grossing pic at the domestic box office, earning $144.1 million, just shy of the $144.8 million grossed by the 2004 “I, Robot.”
Murphy has stayed loyal to Davis, with the two going on to make “Dr. Dolittle 2,” “Daddy Day Care,” “Fat Albert” and, most recently, “Norbit” at DreamWorks. “Norbit,” released in February, has grossed $95. 3 million domestically.
Davis also has kept the “Predator” franchise alive without Schwarzenegger. “Alien vs. Predator,” released in 2004, grossed $80.2 million domestically.
Davis Entertainment, which also has a TV unit, is in production with “The Express” for Universal. Comparing it to “Brian’s Song,” Davis says the film tells the real-life story of football player Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, whose career was cut short by leukemia. Gary Fleder is directing the drama.
Davis has a number of feature projects in active development, including “Fantasy Island,” the bigscreen adaptation of vidgame “The Sims” and “It Takes a Thief,” based on the TV show.
“I wanted to pick a profession that was fun,” Davis says. “Can you imagine having to dig ditches?”