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Prod’n baby boom

Youth actors rev flurry of studio deals

Reese Witherspoon’s production offices at Type A Films are located in Intermedia’s building in West Hollywood, and they’re just as tidy as the shingle’s name suggests. It’s a compact room, perhaps seven feet by 12, barely large enough to contain the gray velvet loveseat, television and two desks for Witherspoon and her partner, Debra Siegel.

Across the hall, Ryan Phillippe’s Lucid Film is much the same, but instead of a loveseat there’s a worn red leather armchair, and the room is large enough to contain two bookshelves of scripts. (Type A has to keep its script shelf in the hallway.)

Clearly, young stars don’t necessarily get offices to match their heat. But don’t let the size of their surroundings fool you.

At a time when the majors are withdrawing many big-star deals because they’re more about vanity than production, young stars are, paradoxically, getting more deals than ever. And, surprisingly, their stuff is working.

Actors like Witherspoon and Phillippe, along with Ice Cube, Drew Barrymore and Leonardo DiCaprio, are at the forefront of a new trend of young thesp producers, but they don’t follow the classic actor-producer model of lavish digs and flattery from studios.

The standard-bearers are companies like Barrymore’s Flower Films, producer of “Never Been Kissed,” “Charlie’s Angels” and the upcoming “Riding in Cars With Boys,” and Ice Cube, who launched the “Friday” franchise for New Line Cinema.

Deals like these have paved the way for newcomers like Ashton Kutcher (who just produced “The Guest” for Dimension and has set up a second project at Miramax, “Popped”) and Julia Stiles, who has a two-picture deal at Paramount.

When a star’s magic works, a production pact can be a great deal. But when it doesn’t, a studio can spend $10 million with little payback; Columbia, for example, has only the 1997 flop “Excess Baggage” to show for its three-year, first-look deal with Alicia Silverstone.

Conventional wisdom said that actors’ production companies are wholly ego-driven exercises to create vanity vehicles or passion projects that no one wants.

Retirement plan

But the shrewdest young actors view a production company as the sort of 401(K) plan that their agents can’t provide. Rather than count on the fickle tastes of the public to create long-term financial security, actors use star power to create and develop properties in which they hold financial control.

Naturally, they gravitate toward subject matter that interests them. But the range of topics they’re producing extends far beyond teen pics — ranging from Barrymore’s fairy tale “Ever After” to Witherspoon’s actioner “Honey West” to Ice Cube’s gritty comedy-drama “The Players Club.”

DiCaprio does not want to duplicate the swoony, surefire romance of “Titanic”; only the unusual piques his interest (witness his participation in “The Beach” and “Gangs of New York.”) Sometimes the actors don’t even appear in the films they back.

What drives a young actor to trade a cushy trailer for the hair shirt of producing? New Line Cinema production president Toby Emmerich said it’s easy to understand why they do it.

“Money, creative control, ambition, boredom,” he said. “Even when you’re a big star, you’re still a highly paid hired hand. Artists like to be in control of their work, so I think there’s a natural instinct to want to be producers. You’re only limited by what interests you and what can capture the public’s imagination.”

Key to an actor-producer’s success is knowing where those two areas intersect. Just because an actor has enough clout to star in and produce a drama about a manic-depressive alcoholic with a mother fixation doesn’t mean he should.

But when an actor-producer successfully harnesses the audience’s expectations, the result can be a cash cow for both studio and star.

Ice Cube’s Vision

Case in point: Ice Cube’s Cube Vision has become a seminal force in the urban genre. It’s now in its second term deal with New Line, which will soon release the Cube Vision-produced “All About the Benjamins” and will begin prepping the third “Friday” installment in the fall.

“Cube brings a lot of money to New Line,” said Emmerich, who compares the multitasking Ice Cube to figures such as Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood. “Every film he’s made for the studio has been profitable and he finds good directors.”

But when an actor’s shingle proves simply a vanity deal, execs say it’s a heat-seeking missile that wastes massive amounts of money and has a capacity to destroy relationships.

“The pro is that they tend to be more committed to the material,” said one studio production head. “The con is that very few of them are good at it. The vast majority of these deals yield little.”

This is especially true, he adds, when dealing with younger actors.

“There, you’re betting way ahead of the curve,” he said. “They’re focused on sex and other things you care about when you’re 25-years-old.”

Experience necessary

One key to the success of a young actor-producer is knowing what the audience wants and how to supply it. As a result, the actors with the best shot as producers are the ones who come to the table with a decade or more of experience already under their belts.

The 32-year-old Cube, a former member of rap group NWA, has spent half his life in show business. And while Barrymore made her acting debut at age 3 and launched Flower at 19, it was another three years before she signed the company’s first first-look deal with 20th Century Fox.

“Drew was very insistent that she finance her own education as a producer,” said Flower partner Nancy Juvonen. “Her name could have gotten us through the door, but we wanted to have something to say once we did.”

Witherspoon and Phillippe each spent 10 years in Hollywood before hanging out their shingles, but Phillippe said that early meetings were spent convincing would-be buyers that he was driven by ambition rather than vanity.

‘Eager to learn’

“That’s always the assumption until you prove otherwise, and rightly so,” he said. “I tell people that we’re young, we’re inexperienced and we’re eager to learn. It’s ridiculous to act like you know it all when you’re young and unproven.”

Indeed, the privilege of an office and a first-look deal can mean less than the paper the press release is printed on.

After Jon Favreau wrote and co-produced “Swingers,” he signed a television deal with Touchstone that went nowhere. “It felt like I was playing house,” he said. “What many actors don’t realize is you are only going to be given as much influence as you are powerful.”

Of course, even an actor who’s humble enough to admit he’s learning the ropes of production will likely find the rigging a little easier than his rookie peers. In addition to the luxury of any clout they bring to the table, they also have someone at their side to do much of the heavy lifting.

Partner is key

Anyone who wants to maintain an acting career while launching a second one in production will find that a full-time partner is key — whether it’s Cube’s Alvarez, Phillippe and Witherspoon’s fellow married couple, David and Debra Siegel, or Barrymore’s Juvonen.

Besides, no one is moved to become an actor because they love to sit in an office and roll calls.

“If I go to my office, it’s primarily for meetings,” said Phillippe, who said that when not on sets he prefers to be at home with Witherspoon and their 2-year-old daughter. “I’m hyperactive, so I can’t sit still for too long.”

Ultimately, no matter how hot and young an actor may be, he has to earn his keep. That’s a lesson that Chris O’Donnell and Bing Howenstein learned after they formed George Street Pictures at Warner Bros. Pictures.

The shingle was launched in 1996 in the wake of O’Donnell signing on to reprise his role as Robin in “Batman & Robin.” Although Warners renewed George Street for two more years in 1999, that ended in February with George having produced no pictures for the studio.

To date, George Street has produced two features: 1999 O’Donnell vehicle “The Bachelor,” at New Line and the upcoming Rachael Leigh Cook starrer “29 Palms” with Alliance Atlantis, with O’Donnell taking a small role as a hitman. Company also produced two telefilms: “Miracle on the 17th Green” for CBS and “The Triangle,” a TBS thriller that debuted this month on TBS.

Howenstein, whose offices are now in Culver City, sums it up: “We’re taking what was a vanity deal and turning it into a real production company.”

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