×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Greenlighting Movies: A High-Risk Game

David Picker’s memoir 'Musts, Maybes and Nevers' recalls era of Bond, Beatles and the Britpack

Studio executives are very talented at running for cover. Hence when a movie tanks it’s often impossible to determine who gave it the greenlight. Who really said yes to “The Lone Ranger?”

Picking movies is a perilous job, as I was reminded in reading a candid new memoir, “Musts, Maybes and Nevers,” by David Picker, a savvy executive who presided over the slates of United Artists, Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures during his studio years.

Picker’s smart decisions helped trigger such memorable films as “Midnight Cowboy,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Tom Jones” and the James Bond sequels. But he also owns up to those projects he let get away — “The Graduate,” “Bonnie & Clyde” and “American Graffiti” among them.

“If I had made all the projects I turned down and turned down all the projects I had made, I probably would have had the same number of hits and flops,” Picker concludes facetiously.

In his book, as in person, Picker exudes a modesty rare in his profession. He lucked into a dream job at UA in the mid ’60s — a moment when an array of brilliant young filmmakers (mostly English) burst on the scene — Tony Richardson, Richard Lester, John Schlesinger et al. Though suspicious of Hollywood, the young filmmakers liked Picker, and loved UA’s newly pro ered deal: The studio offered to put up the financing with no creative constraints, giving directors final cut provided budgets were adhered to. Income was split 50-50.

UA feasted off its English connection, and Picker was charmed by Europe’s auteurs. Even the wary Ingmar Bergman was eager for a meeting, and signed a four-picture deal.

Picker’s appetite for more commercial fare met with both success and frustration. He was avid in his pursuit of the Beatles, and thrilled to learn that they were eager to make a movie. The match with director Richard Lester (who was an expat American) was perfect until Picker discovered that UA’s legal department had clumsily given away its rights to re-release the film (Harvey Weinstein was the ultimate beneficiary).

Picker was equally persistent in his pursuit of the James Bond books. Ian Fleming, Picker learned, simply didn’t like movies. Lew Wasserman tried to help, offering interest from Alfred Hitchcock, but that didn’t work either. After many months, a $50,000 six-month option was finally negotiated through producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and Picker glommed onto the deal, then considered exorbitant. It didn’t turn out to be.

Over the next several years UA’s presence in the U.S. movie business expanded exponentially, but Picker is candid about his stormy encounters with several American filmmakers at UA and at other studios. Elaine May fought fiercely over the cut of “Mikey and Nicky,” and two reels of the negative mysteriously vanished from the lab. They magically reappeared when Picker made concessions on the cut.

There were battles with Stanley Kramer, who delivered a four-hour cut of “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World” and refused to trim a frame. Picker’s relationship with Robert Altman was also one of continuous combat — “Altman was a prick,” Picker concludes.

Picker’s memoir is steeped in praise for UA’s founding fathers, Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, two seemingly sedate lawyers who harbored a passion for film. But at Paramount, Picker writes that Barry Diller pulled the rug out from under him after only a few months. “Diller was star driven,” Picker explains, while Picker was bent on pursuing fi lmmakers and good material.

At his several jobs later in his career, Picker (now 81), never matched his success at UA, but then no single studio since that time ever equaled UA’s parade of hits. As Norman Lear points out, directors like Billy Wilder, Fellini, Bertolucci and Bergman chose to work for UA because “Picker’s focus group was his gut.” Said Lear: “His handshake was his word, and his investment in talent gave him free rein.”

Picker responds with typical modesty. “The history of Hollywood decisionmaking,” he writes, “is replete with people taking credit for things they had little responsibility for while distancing themselves from any disaster.”

Popular on Variety

More Biz

  • Barron HiltonBarron Hilton 1990

    Famed Hotelier Barron Hilton Dies at 91

    Barron Hilton, a famed hotelier who helped expand the Hilton Hotels empire and a founding owner of the Chargers NFL football team, has died, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation announced. He was 91. “Today the world of hospitality mourns for one of the greats. Barron Hilton was an incredible family man, business leader and philanthropist. [...]

  • Patrick Whitesell and Ari Emanuel WME

    Endeavor Targets Sept. 27 for Stock Debut, IPO Video Tells Company's Origin Story

    After years of preparation, Endeavor is set to make its formal Wall Street debut on Sept. 27, when its stock will begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Endeavor has targeted Sept. 26 for the final pricing of its shares. The stock will trade publicly the following day. Earlier this week, Endeavor said its [...]

  • Netflix - Apple TV

    Netflix Stock Drops After CEO Acknowledges 'Tough Competition' Coming From Disney, Apple

    Netflix shares fell as much as 7% Friday to a nine-month low, coming after CEO Reed Hastings commented that the November launches of Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus will introduce a “whole new world” of competition. Hastings, speaking at the Royal Television Society conference Friday in Cambridge, England, said, “While we’ve been competing with [...]

  • Charlie Rose Sexual Harassment

    Charlie Rose Sued for Sexual Harassment by Longtime Makeup Artist

    A makeup artist who worked for Charlie Rose for 22 years has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, accusing the former CBS and PBS host of years of unlawful behavior toward female employees. Gina Riggi alleges that Rose was verbally abusive with her and would often make derogatory comments about her weight. She also alleges that [...]

  • Rob Stringer

    Sony Music Chief Rob Stringer on Sustaining Growth and Recovering From the 'Dark Times'

    The Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference, now in its 28th year, gives top executives at major companies the opportunity to make their case to investors — and the Goldman analysts the opportunity to keep things on the up and up. While the analysts don’t necessarily grill the executives, they don’t lob softball questions either. That was [...]

  • Frank Grillo'Avengers: Endgame' Film Premiere, Arrivals,

    Matt Phelps Tapped as President of Joe Carnahan, Frank Grillo's Warparty

    Frank Grillo and Joe Carnahan’s Warparty productikon banner has appointed Matt Phelps president of the company. Phelps will head the Los Angeles office and be responsible for overseeing all film and television projects. “We searched long and hard to find the right fit for Warparty and felt that Matt embodied everything that we were looking [...]

  • Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent,

    Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent, Dies at 88

    Jack Gilardi, a longtime ICM Partners agent who represented such stars as Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Jerry Lewis, Charlton Heston and Shirley MacLaine, died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88. Gilardi was known for his gentlemanly style, love of the Los Angeles Dodgers and his skill at representing top actors. He [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content