Stars and their silent partners

Production co. co-toppers keep slates on track

Since the days of Charlie Chaplin, actors have attempted to exert more control over their cinematic destiny by taking on the role of producer.

But until a few years ago, the star who had a production company was not taken too seriously, with vanity deals given by studios as a kind of perk to keep the stars happy.

However, several stars take their production banners seriously. Adam Sandler, Will Smith and Tom Hanks are money-making machines. Ashton Kutcher heads up a company that employs 22 people, cranking out hits for the bigscreen and TV, while other stars have smaller operations (Drew Barrymore’s company employs eight; John Malkovich, four).

Behind each star company is a partner. Stars have enlisted friends, managers and sometimes strangers to become their producing partners — one of the most coveted and door-opening positions in Hollywood.

Producing partners like Jack Giarraputo (Sandler’s company), James Lassiter (Smith), Gary Goetzman (Hanks) and Stuart Cornfeld (Ben Stiller) have become forces in the community through their fortuitous relationships.

“It’s a lot easier to get a movie made with a star,” laughs Cornfeld, who produced Paramount’s upcoming comedy “Tropic Thunder” with Stiller, who also helmed and toplines. “I was an independent producer for 15 years, and it’s much easier having Ben Stiller as a partner.”

Cornfeld and Stiller were strangers when they teamed up, brought together by mutual friend Jerry Stahl. By contrast, Malkovich formed Mr. Mudd Prods. a decade ago with his former college roommate Russell Smith and their fellow theater maven Lianne Halfon.

The trio have created one of the more envied banners associated with an actor, with an eclectic slate of projects. Their films include Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” and last year’s critical and box office darling “Juno.” As with “Juno,” the three often produce material that is never intended for Malkovich as an actor.

“He’s a producing partner, and sometimes we think about him for a role in a project, but it’s usually long after the genesis,” Halfon says. “With ‘Juno,’ John was never involved with it as an actor.”

It’s not always easy. Many studio and network execs don’t take a star’s company seriously, and agents sometimes assume the thesp only wants a starring vehicle (which is often not the case). And then the producing partner is frequently relegated to the background and must deal with the star’s temperament, which is not without its headaches.

The star usually is accustomed to taking center stage, which is fine with the partners. All those contacted were eager to talk about the star or the company, but shy about saying much about themselves.

In 1993, Cruise joined forces with his then-CAA agent Paula Wagner, launching one of the most successful actor-producer partnerships in showbiz. Any visitor walking into the pair’s former headquarters on the Paramount lot — offices once occupied by Howard Hughes, Lucille Ball and Sherry Lansing — was instantly reminded of the pair’s producing prowess. Posters of C/W Prods.’ films graced the walls complete with their box office tallies.

By the mid-1990s, studio vanity deals became the perk du jour for budding stars. Columbia Pictures, for one, inked a three-year, first-look producing deal with a then-red- hot Alicia Silverstone’s First Kiss Prods. shingle. But after it yielded only the 1997 disappointment “Excess Baggage,” a backlash ensued.

“When we first started Flower Films (in 1994), the notion of the vanity deal was hitting the front page of the trades,” says Drew Barrymore’s producing partner Nancy Juvonen. “Then ‘Excess Baggage’ opened and got a lot of (negative) attention. We had an uphill start from the start.”

Nevertheless, Barrymore and Juvonen’s Flower Films proved to be a prototype for the successful star-driven producing banner. The challenges were Barrymore’s age (she was 19 at the time) and Juvonen’s inexperience. (She laughs, “I bought a book ‘What a Producer Does,’ and I basically highlighted the whole book.”) But Flower has since produced a number of successes including “50 First Dates” and “Charlie’s Angels.” Next up for the banner is romantic comedy “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

Juvonen estimates one-third of the films they develop are not intended as Barrymore vehicles. Stiller and Cornfeld’s Red Hour banner (which employs 10 people) also nurtures a great deal of material that Stiller neither stars in nor directs, such as the Will Ferrell topliner “Blades of Glory” and horror pic “The Ruins.”

“We like working with first-time directors,” says Cornfeld, citing “Dodgeball,” “Blades of Glory” and “The Ruins.” Cornfeld says having Stiller as part of the producing team gives an advantage to first-time directors, since Stiller himself has helming experience.

Jason Goldberg, who partners with Kutcher at Katalyst, has taken a more traditional approach to the bigscreen projects they work on, developing mostly Kutcher vehicles.

“I am focused on material for him and his career,” says Goldberg, who joined forces with the star in 2002. “Katalyst is different than a pod that has a movie star as a partner. We’re running a bigger business.”

Katalyst’s thriving TV side, which produces “Punk’d” and “Beauty and the Geek,” has made Kutcher one of the top earners in Hollywood.

But Goldberg says he and Kutcher for years were focused on building the Katalyst brand rather than chasing studio deals, though they now have a bigscreen pact with Sony and smallscreen deals with CBS Paramount and Fremantle.

“We did not want to fall into that vicious cycle,” he says. “A lot of people take on deals off the heat of film. They get supported by a studio. But in a lot of cases, nothing happens. We talked about that when we first started. We went independent for a very long time.”

Smith notes there is one distinct advantage to having an in-demand actor in the company, even if his producing material rarely features him: Your calls get promptly returned.

“A lot of times these deals are put together because studios like to have stars in house, particularly as producers,” Smith says. “So, if you want to deal with the studios, go get a deal with a star.”

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