Former Warner Bros. exec on prodigious producer run

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Lorenzo di Bonaventura faced a challenge.

He had spent 13 years as an executive at Warner Bros., including as president of production and exec VP of worldwide motion pictures. And suddenly, he was a producer.

Although he had overseen the “Harry Potter” and “Matrix” franchises, he had never been a producer before, and although he’s a smart guy — he holds a bachelor’s degree in intellectual history from Harvard and an MBA from the U. of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School — he found his situation a little daunting.

So he set a goal: Make three movies in five years.

“That was challenging but reasonable at the time,” he recalls.

Now a producer based at Paramount, where he says CEO Brad Grey “gave me a soft landing,” di Bonaventura surpassed his goal. Since 2005, he has produced 13 films, including the “Transformer” movies, “Salt” and “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” With “Red” poised for release this week, his films have already grossed nearly $2.6 billion worldwide.

“Lorenzo is sort of a rare mix of being entrepreneurial, tenacious and creative, which is the perfect storm for a producer,” Paramount Film Group prexy Adam Goodman says. “A lot of people are big talkers — he’s a doer.

“Everything you hope a producer can be, he’s got those skills, and he’s just got a great eye for material to boot, so we couldn’t be happier to have him here at Paramount.”

Di Bonaventura, a symphony conductor’s son who grew up in the college town of Hanover, N.H., “thinks in a very big-picture way, and that comes from his studio background,” says the Weinstein Co.’s Bob Weinstein, who worked with di Bonaventura on the 2007 horror film “1408.”

“It’s a genre film, but it grossed more than $70 million,” Weinstein says. “He taught me that an audience can be broadened out.”

Generally, though, di Bonaventura is drawn to broader-appeal pics.

“As an executive, I’ve been largely in charge of big movies,” he says. “I gravitate toward my taste.”

And his taste is action — in film and in life.

After Harvard, di Bonaventura owned a whitewater rafting company, taking clients on New England rivers including Maine’s Kennebec and Penobscot. Even now, he tries to raft twice a year and hit the Grand Canyon annually.

“It’s 24 people out in the middle of nowhere,” he says, “with one thought on their mind: How do we maximize the amount of fun that we have?”

And he says his experiences guiding people down rapids on an adventure have come in handy in making movies.

“You learn how egos operate under extreme pressure,” he says. “We have a lot of that here. Extreme pressure, I mean.”

His long-standing friend, the producer and Academy Award-winning writer Akiva Goldsman, says di Bonaventura’s love of rafting is an example of his courage.

“He will grit his teeth, start shouting tyrannically like the captain of some long-lost naval vessel and lead you over the most daunting rapids you can imagine,” Goldsman says. And Goldsman, who produced “Constantine” with di Bonaventura, says his friend’s courage extends to business.

He remembers being new in Hollywood and getting a call from di Bonaventura, who was a creative exec at Warner Bros. “I sat down with him, and he took out a pile of scripts, about four of them … and he said, ‘I have no power here, so none of these scripts are meaningful to anybody. But I’d hire you for scale to rewrite any one of them.’ It was my first job.”

Goldsman says that di Bonaventura’s willingness to take a risk extends to his filmmaking — and makes him a great producer.

“Lorenzo has a huge heart, and he also has really big opinions, but he’s also able to listen, and that combination is elusive,” Goldsman adds.

Di Bonaventura likes to listen, likes to analyze, likes to read, likes to think. His major at Harvard applies to what he does now.

“That was the study of how people thought,” he says. “In a much less serious way, that’s what we do with the movies. … What is capturing peoples’ minds?”

Now, he says, he looks for stories that will resonate. “You have to entertain your audience,” he says.

Di Bonaventura attributes his success — part of it, at least — to three things he learned from Bob Daly and Terry Semel, his former bosses at Warner Bros.: how to be a strong advocate, how to see the many different elements of putting a picture together and how to make a decision.

“I’m a little bit of a grinder,” di Bonaventura says. “I like working hard, and I sort of feel like you can make up for talent by grinding.”

He says that the Warner Bros. culture taught people how to make decisions, and that when he works with people who have worked there, he knows they’ll make decisions, too.

“I recognize that in some fellow alums, like Rob Friedman,” he says.

Friedman, the co-chairman and CEO of Summit Entertainment, which is distributing “Red,” praises his former Warner Bros. colleague.

“He’s a very, very logical thinker, he’s very detail-oriented (and) he cares about your money like it’s his money,” Friedman says. “Those are all qualities in a producer and an executive that are irreplaceable.”

TIMELINE

1957
Born in New York.

1980
Starts river-rafting biz.

1987
Begins studio career at Columbia Pictures.

1989
Joins WB as production exec, soon promoted to VP of creative affairs.

1992
Named production VP, followed by senior production veep in ’93 and exec production VP in ’95.

1996
Named to share production chief post at Warners with Bill Gerber.

1998
Named WB sole prexy of worldwide production.

2002
After work on over 130 projects, highlighted by “Harry Potter” and “Matrix” franchises, ankles WB.

2003
Forms di Bonaventura Pictures, based at Paramount.

2005
Release of first film as independent producer, “Constantine.”

2009
Cracks $400 million in domestic B.O. with “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

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