When Jordan Kerner, the prolific producer of tender family fare such as the “Smurfs” franchise, “George of the Jungle” and “Fried Green Tomatoes,” is asked to describe the root of his particular penchant for stirring stories that tug at audiences’ hearts — or make the little ones giggle — he brings up a pivotal moment in his childhood.
It was May 7, 1959. In the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the recently transplanted Dodgers and the New York Yankees were playing an exhibition game to raise money for the medical expenses of legendary catcher Roy Campanella, one of the first players to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier, who had been left paralyzed by a car accident. More than 93,000 people were in the stands, among them 9-year-old Jordan, dozens of World War II veterans in wheelchairs and a vivid cross-section of the country’s racial and ethnic mix, all united in their love for a wounded hero.
“All the images were there — about race, about parenting, about disabilities, about sports,” the filmmaker reminisces. “I was just floored. My little eyes saw all these things, and it all began for me at that point.”
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What developed from that moment in Kerner was a desire, he says, to tell stories “that make you laugh and cry, that give you a gamut of emotions, stories that will reflect your own feelings about yourself and your family.”
Thus were born such films as “The Mighty Ducks,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Up Close and Personal,” “Miami Rhapsody,” “Inspector Gadget” and its sequel. Even some of the movies for which he became known early in his career — such decidedly grown-up entertainment as “Less Than Zero” and “When a Man Loves a Woman,” two films about addiction — have personal relationships at their core, he insists. “There were always family themes, even though they dealt directly with important issues,” Kerner says. “For me, it’s really about making people feel more human.”
His movies are deliberately infused with social and political issues such as protection of the environment, family dysfunction and racial animus — whether overtly expressed or not. “Look at ‘Fried Green Tomatoes,’” he suggests. “Ageism, racism, sexual preferences. But we don’t hit you over the head with those issues. They’re just deeply embedded in the stories.”
Kerner’s mix of empathy, love of family and, lately, a strong affection for small, excitable creatures swathed in blue, have produced a string of theatrical hits that have elevated him to the ranks of billion-dollar producers.
“What’s impressive about him as a producer is his fantastic understanding of the family market,” says Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which backed the first “Smurfs” movie and is about to release its sequel July 31. “He’s extremely detail-driven, both in the making and the marketing of movies. No matter is too small for him to be concerned about.”
“The Smurfs” certainly earned a tidy profit for all principals involved, with 75% of its $563.7 million in grosses collected on foreign soil, which might have to do with the comic and TV franchise’s Belgian roots.
“He has a very clear idea of where he wants to go in terms of tone,” says J. David Stem, one of the writers of the “Smurfs” movies. “One of the biggest challenges in ‘Smurfs’ was, how do you create something that’s new in a movie while remaining true to the original story.”
Sherry Lansing, who was chairman of Paramount Pictures’ Motion Picture Group when she signed Kerner’s production company to a first-look deal in 2002, agrees. “He works tirelessly on the perfect script with the writer until he’s satisfied,” she says. “He goes to indie films looking for who’s really got the talent. He’s on the set every day. He’s out there fighting with financiers to protect the movie.”
Katy Perry, who provides the voice of Smurfette in “The Smurfs 2,” says Kerner has “a zen-like nature about him, which creates a really easy atmosphere to work and be creative in.”
“He’s in it for the long haul,” she adds. “He’s never just jumping on a trend. He brings the trend.”
One of Kerner’s most significant professional partnerships was with Jon Avnet, with whom he produced 30 theatrical and television films over 17 years, including “Less Than Zero,” “The Switch,” “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Fried Green Tomatoes” — the latter being Avnet’s first feature as a director.
“He leads with his heart, and he’s not the least bit shy about it,” says Avnet, who describes the filmmaker as a “proverbial force of nature” whose career moved inexorably to the “very top of the hill of family film productions.”
“He is not the least bit condescending, so his love is expressed in humor and in emotional connections, and it works,” Avnet adds. “The fact that he has made these films with different writers, directors and studios tells you of his ability to collaborate, nurture and survive the corporate culture.”
If Kerner invites unequivocal plaudits from collaborators past and present, he’s not always imbued with the Midas touch. Films like “The War” (1994) and “Red Corner” (1997), both directed by Avnet and despite their serious intentions, earned 27% and 32%, respectively, on critics site Rotten Tomatoes, and performed modestly at the box office, despite wide releases and bankable stars.
Nevertheless, Tony Thomopoulos, the chairman of the ABC Television Network when he signed Kerner as director of dramatic series development in 1981, views Kerner’s intensity as “his strong point.”
“What struck me was that he was extraordinarily bright,” says Thomopoulos of the producer who earned degrees from Stanford, UC Berkeley and UC Hastings, where he studied law, which he practiced for a year before joining CBS as a program and talent negotiator in 1977. “He was different from the young men of that time — a little old-fashioned, very buttoned-up.”
Both men recall the network’s difficulties in getting a couple of shows on the air in 1984, with Kerner threatening to quit if he didn’t get “Call to Glory” made into a pilot. Working on “Paper Dolls” that same year, Thomopoulos recalls telling Kerner, “Relax, it’s going to be OK.”
Neither series lasted long, but Kerner learned from such efforts and, according to Thomopoulos, “absorbed a lot” from producers such as Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg.
Ted Harbert, the former chairman of ABC Entertainment, who now holds the same title at NBC Broadcasting, calls Kerner “one of the most generous souls I’ve ever met.”
“He is a writer’s dream, respectful of their art but able to give just the right note to make a script better,” he says.
Karey Kirkpatrick, a writer on “Charlotte’s Web” and two “Smurfs” movies, says when they were making “Charlotte’s Web,” Kerner “became an E.B. White expert and the guardian of the material. On ‘Smurfs,’ it’s the same. He immerses himself in the worlds of what he takes on. As a writer, it keeps you on your toes.”
Raja Gosnell, the director of “Smurfs” and “Smurfs 2,” says Kerner “has great instincts. If something is bumping for him, even if I don’t agree, I continue processing his note because there is invariably a really good gut instinct behind it. I may end up coming at the note from a completely different angle, but the process almost always leads to a better film.”