Are studio execs merely producers-in-training?

Di Bonaventura, Canton show there's life after being a suit

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If actors secretly dream about directing, what do studio executives dream about between myriad meetings, countless call returns and endless emails? Judging from the number of former execs who eventually make their way into the producer ranks, it’s a fair guess that the lure of developing and making their own projects is high on the list.

For some this is the fulfillment of a lifelong goal, for others a career adjustment they never expected to make.

“I think every executive thinks about being a producer,” says former Warner Bros. topper Lorenzo di Bonaventura. “It was a terrifying option for me, not one that I took on voluntarily. But it was definitely something that I thought I would eventually do.”

In the seven years since he took that frightening first step from studio chief to independent producer, di Bonaventura has racked up an enviable track record with the “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” franchises, plus this year’s breakout female actioner, “Salt.”

“I made a lot of action pictures (at Warner Bros.), and people know that I understand that genre,” he says. “Does that give you a little bit of an edge? Probably.”

Another advantage di Bonaventura and other former studio honchos bring to the table is their vast array of industry contacts. “I was blessed when I was at the studios to make an unbelievable number of good relationships both personally and professionally,” says Mark Canton, the former Columbia/TriStar head and Warner Bros. exec responsible for shepherding such blockbuster franchises as “Batman,” “Lethal Weapon” and “Men in Black” to the screen. “A lot of people came to me right after I left (Sony) and said, ‘How can we help you, what do you want to do?'”

Canton’s post-studio credits include “300” and “Letters to Juliet.” It had never been his dream to make the move from boardroom to producer’s chair, either.

“My goal was to work at a studio my entire career,” he admits, “but the transition to producer was made that much easier because my relationships in the community ran long and deep.”

Just having a large Rolodex is not enough, according to former MGM and Overture head Chris McGurk.

“Relationships are obviously hugely important in terms of getting access to material and talent,” he says. “But if you don’t know how to bring a movie in on budget or creatively deliver what’s in the script to the screen, you’re going to have real trouble.

“A lot of people think that simply because they have the relationships they’ve got it, but it’s not the case. They have to have a real knowledge of how the filmmaking process works.”

This was easier for Canton than for some.

“I started working on movies as a young man,” he says, “studied at UCLA and then worked my way up through the studio system, holding virtually every title in the business. I used to laugh at my business cards. ‘Executive in charge of creative affairs,’ what’s that? But that’s how you learn the process, how to put all this creativity into a beginning, middle and end that still fits within economic realities, so people have confidence that you can bring something both creatively to the game and also manage it.”

Others who have made the transition successfully, such as Joe Roth and Michael De Luca, have also worn numerous hats during their studio tenures — from screenwriter to producer to director — giving them real-life experience in the trenches of moviemaking.

“That was the deficit I felt I had to learn,” says di Bonaventura. “As an executive, you don’t get to spend as much time on movie sets as you do as a producer. There is nothing like being on a movie to understand how the egos of all these people work together. If you’ve been on a set a lot, over time you develop the instinct of how to manage some of these tougher situations. You can’t get that experience sitting in an executive suite.”

Risk is another big factor for the studio maven-turned-fledging producer. “When you’re running a studio, you have a portfolio of 20 or 30 projects, so you’re not so dependent on every one of them working,” says McGurk. “But as an independent producer, your butt is on the line with every single project, particularly when you’re starting out.”

Time and power are two other key changes. “In a studio job, you experience time in very quick bursts: Everything comes at you fast, so you are mostly reactive,” di Bonaventura says. “As a producer, the equation shifts quite dramatically. Now you have to be proactive because they’re not coming to you any more; you have to go to them.

“As a studio executive, you had the ability to get movies made. As a producer you don’t have that ability any more; you have the ability to advocate a movie getting made. That’s a big difference.”

Adds Canton: “When you have a lot of power, time is your ally, but when you’re an independent producer, time can become your enemy, because now you have to wait for other people with the power to do something your career is dependent on. You don’t have the same control you used to have.”

Another subtle difference is the wardrobe, according to Canton. “I used to have all these pictures of myself on the set for a day with the suit and tie and cuff links,” he says. “Now they’re all of me sitting in my producer chair on location wearing a T-shirt and jeans and a hat.”

“I wore blue jeans as an executive,” laughs di Bonaventura. He’s found that the benefits of being a producer far outweigh all the uncertainty and risk. “I’m really enjoying what I’m doing now. There’s tons of gratification creatively and a much greater sense of ownership with each individual picture. Plus, I don’t have to go all those meetings I did as an executive.”