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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.”

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