Years ago, Mike Medavoy advised himself, “Don’t peak too early. Life is, at best, a marathon.”
Now in his fifth decade in showbiz, the one-time agent and studio chief seems to be riding yet another crest as the producer of such profitable films as “Shutter Island” and “Black Swan.”
“It’s simply a matter of trying to stay alive because so many people are clamoring to get here,” says the bizzer who launched his career in 1964 in Universal’s mailroom. “For every one of me, I would imagine there are a gazillion people trying to figure out how to get here. Some have it and merit it but may never get here. I’m very lucky.”
It would be easy to forgive Medavoy if he had peaked during his first incarnation as an agent. After all, his roster in the early 1970s showcased a who’s who of some of the most influential filmmakers of the period, including Steven Spielberg (whom he signed based on a 16-mm experimental film), George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Terrence Malick (nabbed fresh out of the American Film Institute).
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He also handled a rogue’s gallery of the era’s most iconoclastic talents, such as John Milius, Monte Hellman, Philip Kaufman and Hal Ashby, while putting together projects that helped define the decade, such as the Steve McQueen vehicle “The Getaway.”
“I learned that it was all very well to spot talent,” Medavoy says. “But to make something happen with that talent, to help fulfill its potential, is the key second part of talent development. Once I actually got out of the agencies, and developing projects at studios, and then running one, then I was really able to do that.”
Medavoy says he is driven by stories that elicit an emotional response. “I grew up with the great old Hollywood movies,” he says in the large, booklined study of his Bel-Air home, “and probably saw ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ 50 times, since I was a huge (Errol) Flynn fan. That was my grounding, as a lover of great film storytelling.”
By the mid-’70s, Eric Pleskow, president of United Artists, along with partners Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, were touted as one of the industry’s tightest and most respected leadership teams. In 1974 they invited Medavoy into the fold just in time for the group to develop an astonishing slate of films, including “Raging Bull,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Annie Hall,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Rocky,” which was made on a shoestring budget of $1.3 million.
“They saw me as bringing in new blood,” recalls Medavoy, “that was my add-on to what they had built. I brought them new filmmakers, like Marty Scorsese and Milos Forman.”
When UA owner Transamerica demanded Krim and Benjamin’s retirement, they all left, including Medavoy, who had quickly won the veterans over. Just as quickly, Orion was formed by the four, with Medavoy remaining in Los Angeles to run production while his partners remained in New York — a separation that eventually created insoluble problems.
“I tried to play a bigger part in Orion, and I learned more about the production end of the business,” Medavoy says. “But if someone had asked me to run a company at that point, I wouldn’t have been capable of it. We were extremely proud of what we achieved at Orion, especially in an era when the quality of Hollywood movies was clearly in decline.”
At Orion, Medavoy became known as something of a heat-seeking missile for untested filmmakers. He greenlit the directing debuts of Oliver Stone (“The Hand”) and Nicolas Meyer (“Time After Time”).
“When he turned to me and said, ‘Make a good movie,’ I just about hit the floor,” recalls Meyer. “He is someone who wants to go out there and make good movies, which already puts him in a class by himself.”
The company, which was never sufficiently capitalized to branch out as an independent but developed a reputation as a filmmaker-friendly outfit, pulled off such landmarks as “Platoon,” which was made long after Hollywood’s interest in Vietnam had cooled; “Amadeus,” which was dismissed by rival studio execs as a highbrow costume drama with limited box office prospects; the three-hour Western “Dances With Wolves”; and “The Silence of the Lambs,” which ironically upset Warren Beatty’s TriStar-produced “Bugsy” at the 1991 Oscars — ironic since, by then, Medavoy had left Orion to take over as head of TriStar on the Peter Guber-governed Sony lot.
“He’s unique in Hollywood in that he is never one to rush into things, and he is motivated creatively more so than financially,” says Universal president and chief operating officer Ron Meyer, who like Medavoy spent the formative years of his career as an agent. “He could have probably made more films, but he made things he believed in and was never concerned with making a quick buck.”
“(As an executive), he read a script like a producer reads a script, which is different than most studio people,” says Robert Chartoff, who produced “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” at UA under Medavoy’s watch and is developing Seymour Reit’s true-crime tome “The Day They Stole the Mona Lisa” with Medavoy.
“He understands the nuances of a script. He was not only thoughtful with his support, but he was constructive with his comments. Whether you agree or don’t agree, he brings a point of view that is intelligent and consistent with the material.”
Medavoy admits his biggest learning curve was at TriStar, where he had to school himself on every aspect of the business — something he never needed to do as Orion production head — including that all-important marketing world, one in which Guber specialized. Still, his tenure at TriStar included a bevy of popcorn fare hits and envelope-pushing fare ranging from “Sleepless in Seattle” to “Philadelphia,” which Medavoy cites as his greatest accomplishment given that it was the first mainstream film to tackle the AIDS epidemic.
“I’m at a point now where I’m able to look back, and consider my career as a whole, and I’d say that at TriStar, I learned the most, even though it was by far the most trying and stressful period of my life. I held back from the knee-jerk thing that new executives often do, which is to fire the current people and hire people you know, but I probably waited too long to change things.”
In a further irony, after Medavoy was fired by TriStar in 1994, his new company with partners Arnie Messer and Peter Hoffman, Phoenix Pictures — now going strong in its 18th year, his longest tenure with any company — was situated across the street from the Sony lot. “I had a view of that, but what I was really thinking about when we formed it was what Arthur and Bob and Eric did at UA, and to continue that tradition.”
This translated into such films as Forman’s “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” and the return of Malick to filmmaking after a two-decade hiatus with “The Thin Red Line.”
Unlike many Hollywood moguls, Medavoy embraces his foibles. After all, he titled his 2002 memoir “You’re Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films and 100 Films for Which I Should Be Shot.” And he readily admits to major gaffes, such as the fact that during his agenting days, he had the chance to finance and produce “The Sting,” but passed.
“I’m the last guy who ought to say I know more than anyone else,” quips Medavoy. “I think I’ve learned from my mistakes more than I’ve learned from all of my successes. I’ve had an equal number of movies that are terrific and those that are OK. And then there are those I wish had never seen the light of day.”
“Mike has been up, he’s been down, he’s won them, he’s lost them, he’s made mistakes, he’s had triumphs, and he’s worked with everybody,” says Nicholas Meyer. “Nobody has ever accused him of not being smart.”
Or as Ron Meyer sums up, “His longevity is no accident.”
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