You'Re Only As Good As Your Next Oneby Mike Medavoy
"If I had a talent for anything, it was a talent for knowing who was talented."
Mike Medavoy is a Hollywood rarity: a studio executive who, though never far from controversy, has remained well loved and respected through four decades of moviemaking. What further sets him apart is his role in bringing to the screen some of the most acclaimed/b>
"If I had a talent for anything, it was a talent for knowing who was talented."
Mike Medavoy is a Hollywood rarity: a studio executive who, though never far from controversy, has remained well loved and respected through four decades of moviemaking. What further sets him apart is his role in bringing to the screen some of the most acclaimed Oscar-winning films of our time: Apocalypse Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Sleepless in Seattle are just some of the projects he green-lighted at United Artists, Orion, TriStar, his own Phoenix Pictures.
"The ultimate lose-lose situation for a studio executive: to wind up with a commercial bomb and a bad movie."
Of course, there are the box office disasters, and the films, as Medavoy says, "for which I should be shot." They, too, have a place in his fascinating memoir a pull-no-punches account of financial and political maneuvering, and of working with the industry's brightest star power, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, Meg Ryan, and countless others.
"Putting together the elements of a film is a succession of best guesses."
Medavoy speaks out on how movie studio buyouts have stymied the creative process and brought an end to the "hands-off" golden age of filmmaking. An eyewitness to Hollywood history in the making, he gives a powerful and poignant view of the past and future of a world he knows intimately.
- Atria Books
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Making Sausage
Until I got my first Hollywood job in the mail room of Universal Studios, I had no idea what an "agent" was, let alone that the formative years of my career would be spent agenting. Yet it was my agency days that established a network from which my entire career expanded. Working as an agent taught me how to talk to filmmakers, how to put together movies, and how to deal with strong personalities. Getting films made was like watching sausage be produced: the finished product was great but the process of putting it together was often messy.
But it's not what goes into a movie that's important; it's what comes out on the screen.
You're gonna have a hard time in this business as a Morris," Bill Robinson told me when he hired me to be an agent at his agency. "You got a middle name?"
"Mike," I told him. I was never crazy about my first name anyway. Besides, I had nothing to do with my naming.
"Mike...Medavoy," he repeated. "That works."
When Bill Robinson offered me a job as an agent, I was working in the Universal casting department, a job I had been given either because the studio figured I had paid my dues in the mail room, or because too much mail was getting lost. During my days at Universal, I was plagued with insecurities about whether I could actually get a real job in the movie business. Besides, Robinson's offer was also $25 a week more than I was making at Universal. The Robinson client list was composed of luminaries from old Hollywood that had fueled my imagination as a kid: Lloyd Nolan, Keenan Wynn, Van Heflin, and Barry Sullivan. Over the years, I ended up representing many of my childhood idols, including George Sanders, Wendell Corey, Jeanne Moreau, and George Cukor. These were old-timers who knew how to be treated, and they taught me how to get what they needed. But I found out that being an agent was an education into all areas of the business.
I knew from reading everyone's memos in the Universal mail room that the golden rule of Hollywood was relationships are the cornerstone of the business. One of the first things I did when I became an agent was to make a list of everybody I wanted to meet in the business. Most acquaintances are made at social functions and not by cold-calling like a telemarketer offering a free chimney sweep. However, since I didn't know anyone in power at the time, I didn't expect any of the industry's players to invite me to their parties. My sales pitch was simple: I would get them on the phone, introduce myself, and say that I just wanted to drop by and meet them. Then, after each meeting, I would send them a thank-you note and cross them off my list.
Once I called Otto Preminger, introduced myself, and asked if I could come by. When I arrived, his secretary asked me if she could take my raincoat. I assured her that wouldn't be necessary because I wouldn't be staying long. She showed me into Preminger's office, which was all white. The carpet was white. The curtains were white. Even his desk was white. The only splash of color was a glass of red wine sitting on his desk.
Preminger stood up from his desk, and I walked across the room to meet him. When I reached his desk, I extended my arm to shake his hand, and the sleeve of my raincoat caught the glass of red wine, spilling it all over his white desk. As I stood there watching the wine drip onto the white carpet, he slowly turned beet red. I half expected him to belt me. After he calmed down and blotted the wine stain with his white handkerchief, we had a pleasant meeting. As I was leaving, I remember thinking that he'd always remember me as the klutz who stained his carpet with red wine.
Years later, Preminger got even with me when he made a turkey called Rosebud for UA.
A year after I started working for Bill, he came into my small office and told me that he couldn't afford to pay me. We then made a handshake deal that, in lieu of a salary, I would get 50 percent of the 10 percent commission on any business I brought in. (Up to this point, I hadn't been allowed to sign clients because Bill insisted on keeping the agency small.) I immediately signed actress Diane Baker, which turned out to be a career-saver for me. She was coming off Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, with Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. I landed her the lead in a film called Krakatoa, East of Java, for which she was supposed to be paid $35,000. (Krakatoa is actually west of Java.)
The film went so far overbudget and beyond schedule that Diane ended up making close to $100,000 thereby raising my take to half of nearly $10,000, a hefty sum for a struggling agent. Had I not signed her, I probably would have had to get another job, which I wasn't terribly confident I could do. I had had only twelve months of experience as an agent, and very few people even knew who I was. Years later, when Diane lost her producing deal at Columbia, I gave her an office and an assistant at Orion. I was more than happy to pay back someone who had saved my career.
From an agent's point of view, however, the main problem with representing actors is that they need a new job every three months or so, while writers and directors typically spend a year on each film, sometimes longer. Actors also need more hand holding. Theirs is a profession where rejection feels (and often is) quite personal. By and large, they can also be a strange breed of artists. As Marlon Brando once said to me, "Can you imagine going to work every day and pretending to be someone else?"
I'll never forget visiting Dean Stockwell, another Robinson client, at his house and hoping that I never got that jaded about movies. (This was years before he became a reliable character actor with his work in Paris, Texas and Blue Velvet.) Movies had provided me with some of my fondest childhood memories, but they had scarred his childhood since his parents forced him to go under contract to MGM when he was nine. When I first met him, he lived in Topanga Canyon, which was still very rustic and undeveloped, and he hated working. He took five-year hiatuses from acting and made movies only for the money. I had such a pure love of movies, and I wondered what had soured him. I remembered actually wanting to be him after seeing The Boy With Green Hair in my youth. Now, I couldn't help but wonder how I really would have felt in his place.
During the late sixties a new generation of filmmaking talent began to form. By and large, it wasn't welcomed by the studios, which were controlled by the old establishment. Jack Warner was still running Warner Bros., Darryl Zanuck was still in charge at Fox, and Adolph Zukor still tooled around Paramount in his wheelchair. Today, youth is regarded as essential and it is coveted. These days you sometimes have a better chance of getting a film made if you've never made one than if you have a track record.
But during the late sixties, a small group of young filmmakers banded together like a battering ram and banged on the gates of old Hollywood. It was very much us (the new guard) against them (the old guard). It seemed as though the same counterculture that marched on Washington, protested the Vietnam War, and hung out in the Haight-Ashbury was now making inroads in Hollywood. Under the old moguls, the town had become creatively dormant, but the young revolutionaries, influenced by European and American masters like Federico Fellini and John Ford, were waking it up and putting an edginess in filmmaking.
It was a movement I not only wanted to become a part of, but one that I wanted to help lead.
As a young agent, I seized on the notion that the only way I would ever have any leverage was to sign up the young filmmakers I believed would revolutionize the business. The first person to set me on this road was a young actor represented by Bill Robinson named Tony Bill. Tony's acting credits included Bud Yorkin's Come Blow Your Horn alongside Frank Sinatra and a feature part in Francis Coppola's funky comedy You're a Big Boy Now, but his goal was to become a producer. Today, almost every actor is a producer, but back then, it was practically unheard of. Producers were guys like Ray Stark or major stars like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster.
Although Tony was my age, he became something of a mentor to me because he had experience that I didn't. We often socialized together. Unlike most actors, he was more interested in discussing art and society, rather than the latest part that he didn't get. Tony constantly encouraged me to cultivate the careers of young filmmakers and to stop merely holding actors' hands. The common bond in my relationship with Tony was that we could help each other cultivate new talent. The only way he could become a working producer was to get movies made, which I could help him do, and the only way I could make a name for myself as an agent was to find new talent, which he could help me do. So Tony began introducing me to young writers and directors, and I did the same for him.
By the early seventies, I was working at Creative Management Associates (CMA) after it merged with General Artists Corporation (GAC), where I had landed after two years at Robinson, and I turned Tony on to Terrence Malick, whom I signed fresh out of the American Film Institute. I signed Terry by reading upside down a must-learn for any young agent. I was sitting on the opposite side of Monte Hellman's desk, and there was a treatment for Two-Lane Blacktop on his desk, written by an AFI student named Terrence Malick. I thought it was pretty good even upside down and even though Monte wasn't going to use it so I called Terry and offered to be his agent. I got Tony to hire Terry to write Terry's first full-length feature film, Deadhead Miles. Tony convinced Alan Arkin to play the lead and the film got made poorly. It was directed by Tony's partner, first-timer Vernon Zimmerman, and upon completion, it was deemed unreleasable by Paramount.
When Tony came across a talented younger writer out of UCLA film school named David Ward, he, in turn, asked me to help him "put together" two of Ward's scripts. Tony's company, American Biplane, had an overall deal with Warners to distribute its films, but first, Tony needed to raise money to buy the rights to the scripts. The first script was Steelyard Blues, which David Ward had written for his master's thesis at USC film school; the second was The Sting, which existed only as a pitch on tape.
When David first told Tony the story he had in mind for The Sting, Tony told him not to write anything. He simply pulled out his tape recorder and had Ward retell the story. Tony then went around playing the five-minute tape for anyone interested in investing seed money to get the script written. At one point, Tony asked me if I wanted to put up the money for The Sting and produce it with him. Unfortunately, I was too scared to leave a paying job, so I told Tony I was more comfortable representing the project as an agent a decision that cost me several million dollars and an Academy Award.
My campaign to be the go-to agent for the next generation of Hollywood filmmakers got a boost when I read an article in Time magazine about a talented group of aspiring young filmmakers emerging from college film schools. At the time, film schools were virtually ignored by the mainstream of the film business. Majoring in film studies was for people who couldn't find anything better to do after high school, or who went to college to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War and didn't want anything too challenging. Universities didn't take these programs too seriously. USC's film school was located in an old stable, and UCLA taught its film students in dilapidated World War II Quonset huts. But where others saw slackers, I saw filmmakers in the rough, and I knew that if I could control some of their careers, I would become an important factor in the business.
I immediately pulled out the phone book and began calling the students listed in the article to ask them if they wanted an agent. Right away, I signed a USC student named John Milius, who had collaborated on a short film made of pencil drawings with a bookish kid named George Lucas, who also became my client. Milius was something of a badboy mad genius in a teenager's body, but he was a good and fast writer with original ideas.
Soon I added Steven Spielberg, also straight out of film school, based on a 16-millimeter experimental film. Another of my promising clients was a director named Monte Hellman, who made Two-Lane Blacktop, one of my favorite road movies of the seventies. Carole Eastman, maybe the best of my writers, started out as an actress, became friends with Jack Nicholson, and then teamed up with Bob Rafelson to write Five Easy Pieces. I ended up selling her script for The Fortune for the staggering sum of $350,000 (1970s dollars) to Warren Beatty for him to co-star with Nicholson and with Mike Nichols to direct. Regrettably, she never found a workable ending for the film, and neither could the sure-handed Mike Nichols.
I tried to make myself something of a magnet for independent-minded filmmakers with edgy sensibilities, and my client list continued to grow throughout my years in agenting. At CMA, I signed the offbeat Henry Jaglom. I shared George Lucas as a client with another agent, and I represented Francis Coppola (along with CMA head Freddie Fields) when the deal was made for him to work on The Godfather. Later, at International Famous Agency (IFA), I added Hal Ashby, Phil Kaufman, Bob Aldrich, and veteran director George Cukor. At one point, I shared Michael Crichton with Lynn Nesbit, who was based in the New York office.
I had two requirements for my clients: that they be talented and that they be passionate about their work. Most shared a rebellious attitude toward films with conventional stories and a proclivity for European filmmakers like Antonioni and Truffaut, whom I had become close to professionally as well. Above all, these writers and directors regarded the medium of film as a religion. Nonconformity was the order of the day, which made everyone very interesting to be around. You never knew where the next crazy idea was coming from. As an agent who sold these ideas that shocked the establishment, I prided myself on being an innovator in my own part of the profession. The older clients, particularly Bob Aldrich, taught me how to keep studios honest with regard to directors' contracts. Aldrich, whose career I revived by getting him The Longest Yard, had a detailed list of controls he needed, and this became my template for the younger directors I represented.
The deck was stacked against change, causing the young filmmakers to act more like brothers than competitors. There was an overwhelming feeling that they were all in it together. Francis Coppola, who was the first film school graduate to make it big, was the big brother to the group. He established himself as demigod to the young set by coming out of UCLA film school in 1963, actually directing a feature film, You're a Big Boy Now, and then signing a deal with Warner Bros. for his company, American Zoetrope, to develop projects with young filmmakers. It was under that deal that I sold him Milius's script for Apocalypse Now for $15,000, plus another $10,000 if the movie got made.
Zoetrope was a haven for young filmmakers, and Francis functioned as their leader. Among the filmmaking banditos who ran with Francis were John Milius, Carroll Ballard, film editor Walter Murch, and George Lucas. Zoetrope was like a commune, where they all freely exchanged ideas and protected one another to the point that they even shared profits on one another's films. The most famous example turned out to be when Lucas gave Milius one point (or 1 percent of the net profits) in Star Wars in exchange for Lucas taking one point in Big Wednesday, which bombed. John Milius has earned roughly $1.5 million from that deal over time.
Francis, however, was always the first among equals. When one of the guys declared that since Zoetrope was a Marxist-Leninist organization, everyone should be allowed to ride in Francis's limo, Francis casually replied, "Some of us are more equal than others."
I handled my clients differently than most agents and radically different from the way agents work today. My two main mantras were: Make the deal work if the film is worth doing, and Get the movie made. When I made Milius's first writing deal, a term deal at Universal, I asked him how much money he needed to live on for a year. He told me $15,000, so I rounded up and got him $20,000 plus a brand-new shotgun that was part and parcel of every Milius deal. Milius was a strict constructionist when it came to the Second Amendment: he wanted guns to field a militia in the event it became necessary to overthrow the government. At the time, there were executives making $20,000 a year, so this was a decent amount of money. In fact, when John told his father about it, his dad cautioned him not to take the job, theorizing that it must be dirty money because his son had never written a script that had been made into a movie.
What Milius and the other young writers needed was to get their work produced. The only way these guys would gain any credibility or power with the studios, and therefore make any real money, was if their work made it to the screen. I told them to ignore the big-splash announcements in the trades about some unknown writer getting $50,000 for a script because often those guys were never heard from again. I didn't want clients who felt like lottery winners when I got them a job; I wanted filmmakers who wanted to build careers.
I was a solid agent, but negotiating the fine points of a deal wasn't my strong suit, and it usually bored me. I found the deal, introduced the people, and then helped package the movie to get it made. If I thought we could get the movie made faster, I'd make almost any deal the studio wanted. The two guys who were best in negotiating when I was at CMA were Jerry Steiner and a twenty-two-year-old go-getter named Jeff Berg, who had an instinct for the kill that I never had. Jeff was the pet of CMA head Freddie Fields, the superagent of his day, and his talent for pushing through deals that studios weren't even sure they wanted to make took him far in the business; in fact, he is now the chairman of ICM, which is what CMA became after it merged with IFA.
There was a slight arrogance to the way I operated, which was not a trait that is conducive to working as a Hollywood agent. At the time, it was one of the only ways to mask my shyness. This attitude both helped and hurt me, and it ultimately even led me to abandon Steven Spielberg as a client.
One afternoon Spielberg was sitting in my office, his small frame barely taking up any space in the chair, his words accented by a nasal twang. At the time, he was under contract at Universal, making episodic TV and TV movies for very little money. Universal was a schlockhouse in the feature film department at the time the studio's idea of art was its upcoming film Airport and I had recently pulled another client, Phil Kaufman, out of a contract there. I wanted to get Spielberg out, too. I was convinced that if Spielberg stayed at Universal, his career would amount to nothing.
"Look," I told Steven, "if you ever want to do an interesting movie, you're not going to do it there. All they're doing is movies like Airport. If you stay there, your career will be doomed."
"They gave me my start," he protested. "Sid Sheinberg is my friend." Sheinberg had signed Spielberg on the basis of a short film, Amblin', and Steven regarded him as a mentor. "I can't leave there; I have many friends there. Besides, I need the money."
"You're crazy," I insisted. "Your career is doomed, and I can't represent anyone whose career is going to be over before it gets started." I was playing my trump card, trying to force my point and gambling on the outcome.
"Mike, I can't do it," he muttered.
"Okay," I declared. "I can't represent you, and I'm giving you to someone else in the agency."
His voice became filled with anger. "No, wait...you can't do that. How would you like that done to you?"
"I'm absolutely going to do it. As a matter of fact, just to prove it to you, I want you to get up and walk down the hall with me. I'm going to introduce you to your new agent right now."
Steven looked shell-shocked. Without saying a word, he got up and followed me to Dick Sheperd's office. Dick was the head of CMA's talent department. "Dick," I said, "I want you to meet your new client. He is a very talented director. He wants to remain at Universal, and you are very friendly with the Universal guys. You may be able to do something for his career there that I can't."
I turned and walked back to my office, leaving Steven Spielberg standing in the doorway, staring at Dick Sheperd. As arrogant as I was, I expected Steven to be back in my office within minutes, pleading with me to get him out of his deal with Universal, but he never came back.
History obviously proved me wrong to put it mildly.
Steven ended up making his home at Universal. His first feature film there was Duel, but over time he delivered them Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, and Schindler's List. His career didn't end by staying at Universal.
Looking back, I'm just glad this wasn't the defining point of my career, but rather another part of my learning curve. Maybe I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. This was the lesson that taught me that arrogance is one of the deadliest sins in Hollywood. I learned to be humble the hard way. Ironically, years later Spielberg said in an interview that he should have left Universal early on because it might have caused him to make more interesting films at a younger age.
I guess everything turned out fine for both of us. We even worked together on a film, Hook.
Today, studios have become more content to act as banks, distributors, and copyright holders for films. They often abdicate the responsibility of picking and choosing the elements for those films to agents. But when I was an agent in the late sixties and early seventies, I had to be creative with my packages to get the studios to notice them. It was the only way I could really be involved in what made it to the screen.
Freddie Fields and David Begelman, the co-heads of CMA, taught me that being a good agent is usually synonymous with being a good packager. They taught me that agenting wasn't about selling actors, writers, and directors individually; it was about putting the pieces together and handing them to the studio so that all the executives had to do was nod their heads yes. While I packaged some duds, like Steelyard Blues, four of my favorite movies to this day are packages I had a hand in: The Getaway, The Sting, Young Frankenstein, and Jaws.
Learning how to package would prove to be critical when I became a studio executive. The three simple rules of packaging are: Writers get directors; directors get actors; and the right combination of all three gets the money.
There were several ways to put together a package. Typically, it started with the source material, such as a book like The Getaway by Jim Thompson, the manuscript for which came from a most unlikely place: a dingy, one-bedroom apartment in a run-down area of Hollywood. Thompson was a washed-up writer who was living on the brink of poverty, and the book existed only in photocopied form. Tony Bill tracked down the writer and introduced me to him. At the time, Thompson was an underground writer, with almost no following. But on the basis of some sweaty, whiskey-stained pages that told the story of an ex-con getting out of jail and going for one last score, I agreed to sign Thompson as a client. His dark vision of the world, where much of what went on between characters was unspoken yet understood, fit right in to the types of films I wanted to be involved with.
The only way I could get a studio to pay attention to The Getaway was to attract the interest of a star. The perfect guy was Steve McQueen, then the biggest star in the business, so I made a deal with producer David Foster to option Thompson's book and the rights to the script. Foster had become friends with McQueen while working as his publicist, and it was exactly the kind of role that McQueen wanted, one that Bogart might have played, in which the character straddles good and bad. Jim took a shot at the first draft of the script, but no one was happy with the result, so Walter Hill was hired to revise it. Hill updated the setting from the forties to present-day Texas and changed the ending.
Getting the film made was the usual series of advances and setbacks. First, the film needed a director. Peter Bogdanovich, a very hot director at the time, agreed to come aboard, which made Paramount take an interest in backing the film. No sooner did we have Bogdanovich than we lost him to Warners, where he went to write and direct What's Up, Doc? According to Paramount production chief Robert Evans, Bogdanovich quit because Evans insisted that his wife, Ali MacGraw, play the lead. McQueen then called Sam Peckinpah, who had directed his last film, Junior Bonner. Stella Stevens was considered for the female lead, but she was unavailable. In the meantime, David Foster was sued by actor Jack Palance, who was upset that Peckinpah had dropped him after he thought he had the part. By the time Palance dropped his suit he didn't have a signed contract Paramount put the film in turnaround despite the fact that Ali MacGraw was committed, which is the film industry equivalent of Siberia.
Working with Foster and my colleagues at CMA, we set the picture up at First Artists with the following deal: The CMA-created actors' production company agreed to take over the film for a fee, and McQueen cut his price to 22.5 percent of the net plus a share of First Artists' gross. Based on these machinations, a distribution deal was struck with National General.
Finally, the package was complete and the movie could be made.
The Getaway had an important lasting impact on Hollywood and on my life. The movie created a Jim Thompson renaissance that continues to this day. Based on his newfound fame, he was able to make a European publishing deal for his books. His old novels were dusted off, resulting in a couple of films After Dark, My Sweet, which was directed by James Foley, and The Grifters, directed by Stephen Frears. The man who had been lost and forgotten became not only a working writer but a cult figure. It's unfortunate that it climaxed after his death.
My job often was to keep the damn thing from falling apart.
The Sting was one of the most complicated packages I ever worked on, largely because the film was put together at one studio with a director and a primary cast but landed at another studio with a different director and cast. Because of the dynamic personalities involved, there was a land mine at every turn.
The three producers, Tony Bill and Michael and Julia Phillips, made a series of rookie mistakes. First, they promised screenwriter David Ward that The Sting would be his directorial debut, despite the fact that the film was an expensive 1930s period piece. One Friday afternoon when I was out of town, the three of them went to see Dan Melnick, the head of production at MGM, and made some sort of vague deal. Besides Ward directing, they also attached Peter Boyle to play the part of Henry Gondorff, the washed-up gambler.
This created a situation fraught with peril. For starters, we had submitted the project to Dick Zanuck and David Brown, who had been supportive of a previous Bill-Phillips project, Steelyard Blues. Dick and David were setting up a production company at Universal, where a film like The Sting could become a high-profile project. In the back of Dick's mind, it would also be a reteaming of director George Roy Hill and stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which he had greenlighted at Fox.
Early Monday morning, Tony, Michael, Julia, and I gathered in a conference room at IFA to meet with Dick Zanuck and Rudy Petersdorf, the head of business affairs at Universal. Dick started the meeting by locking the door and declaring that he wasn't leaving without a deal. In the end, it was agreed that the film would be made at Universal, not MGM; Tony, Michael, and Julia would be the film's producers and get the lion's share of the profits; and Dick and David would be credited as "presenters" of the film.
After everyone shook hands on the deal, I told them there was one last order of business before we left. I had to call MGM chairman Jim Aubrey and inform him of what had transpired not a pleasant task. With the smell of stale sandwiches and cigarettes in the air, I took a deep breath and dialed. When Aubrey came on the line, I told him that what I was going to say would be hard for him to accept. After berating my clients and me, he curtly informed me that I was henceforth banned from the MGM lot.
I learned that day that any agent worth his salt must be willing and able to take a bullet for his clients. However, it is rare that a client will take the sword for his agent, which is one of the reasons I finally left the agency business.
Somehow, Tony, Michael, and Julia all ended up annoyed at me. Once George Roy Hill came aboard the picture, they were relegated to the sidelines. Hill was an experienced, authoritarian director who was going to make the movie he wanted to make, so there was really no need for the three of them. In fact, Hill allowed only one of them on the set at a time.
I've always felt that I saved their film. None of them had ever produced a successful film, so it was unlikely that Universal would give them much power on a Hill-Newman-Redford film. At the end of the day, they struck gold when the film became a monster hit. For developing the script and going along with the deal, they ended up making millions of dollars.
They also won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Controlling the elements of a package is even tougher than keeping them together. On Jaws, it proved to be impossible.
I was working with Lynn Nesbit, a literary agent in IFA's New York office, to sell the movie rights to Peter Benchley's novel Jaws. We both sensed we had a hot property, so I sent it to Dick Zanuck and Lynn sent it to David Brown in New York simultaneously. After the success of The Sting, they were two of the hottest guys in town. I explained to Dick that there was a lot of interest in the book and told him that a condition of Zanuck-Brown buying the rights would be that they hire a director we represented to make the film. From a list of five names, he picked Dick Richards, whose only produced film was The Culpepper Cattle Company, produced by his then-partner Jerry Bruckheimer.
As soon as Zanuck and Brown read the book, they wanted to buy it. Before I closed the deal, I insisted that the two of them have a creative meeting with Peter Benchley and Dick Richards to make sure that everyone was on the same page. Zanuck agreed and the four made plans to meet at the "21" Club in New York.
Over lunch, the deal nearly fell apart.
I happened to be in London when the phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Dick Zanuck calling to relate what a disaster the lunch had been. Dick Richards sat down at the table and began telling Benchley, Zanuck, and Brown how he saw the movie: "The picture opens. We're in a quiet fishing village. People are going about their business. The camera pans out over the water and suddenly, swooping out of nowhere is the giant whale."
Whale?! Zanuck quickly corrected Richards. It was a shark. Richards continued his pitch, again calling the beast a whale. Benchley, who was downing one martini after another, became quite upset. As Zanuck kept pressing Richards to call the man-eating fish a shark, Benchley went from frosty to downright livid.
From three thousand miles away, Zanuck implored me to let him get rid of Richards. He was paying $175,000 for the book, a nice price in those days, along with 5 of his 50 net-profit points in the film. While I wanted the package to have as many IFA clients as possible, I realized our first loyalty was to Peter Benchley. Besides, only one other studio had bid on the book, so we didn't have a lot of options. Zanuck also volunteered to call Dick Richards and soften the blow. I agreed to let him off the hook on the director. He could set up the picture and choose a director who wanted to make a film about a killer shark.
The film was one of the first blockbuster-event films that Steven Spielberg directed. Dick Richards went on to do Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, a soon-forgotten film.
The package I am proudest of as an agent was something of a whim.
I was sitting at my desk one day when funnyman Marty Feldman walked into my office. What a face, I thought. His cheeks were sagging to his knees and his eyes were bulging out of his head. I had already agreed to represent Marty, and now I needed to find him a movie. Five minutes later, another client, Peter Boyle, lumbered in. "The two stooges," I said to them. "All we need is a third stooge and we've got a movie."
I picked up the phone and called Gene Wilder, who had been talking about writing a film.
I put Gene on the speakerphone, introduced him to Marty and Peter, and told him that if he wrote a treatment for the three of them, I would set it up at a studio. Ever the client who needed to be pushed and pulled at the same time, Gene hemmed and hawed and said that he only had something for himself to star in. I told him to write it for all three guys. He said he would try.
A few weeks later, the treatment for Young Frankenstein arrived. Doing a satire of all the Frankenstein movies with the physical comedy that Gene, Peter, and Marty brought to it was one of the funniest ideas I've ever come across. I gave the treatment to producer Mike Gruskoff, who hadn't worked in a while. He immediately thought to pair Gene with Mel Brooks. They had done The Producers together and were finishing Blazing Saddles. Mel agreed to do it, so I was able to set it up at Columbia with my friend Peter Guber, the studio's head of production.
The deal was for Gene to write a script based on the treatment and then for Columbia to finance the film with the package of Mel directing and Gene co-starring with Peter and Marty. But when the script was finished, the film was budgeted at $2.3 million. Leo Jaffe, who was then chairman of Columbia and part of the town's old guard, would only commit $2 million to the film, and he wasn't crazy about Mel's idea to shoot the film in black and white, so he let the picture go. That night, the script went to Alan Ladd, Jr., a friend of Gruskoff's who had just started at Fox. I made the deal the next day. Dropping the film cost Columbia at least $50 million.
This is a business of missed opportunities.
Hollywood is often a place where no one disagrees with talent. An agent will always get a lot further by agreeing with his clients. But the longer I spent as an agent, the less I was able to do that, so I decided to move into making movies.
As rewarding as handling talent was, it was often a tiresome job. Take Gene Wilder, for example: an absolute comic genius who could make a slapstick masterpiece out of anything he touched. But Gene also had wild mood swings. When I first approached Gene about bringing him to IFA, he told me he wanted to be loyal to his New York agent, Lily Veidt. This seemed honorable on his part, so I was more than willing to be fair and split the commissions with her. Nevertheless, Gene kept threatening to walk out on us for no apparent reason. (This wasn't as bad as the suicide note that George Sanders left: "I'm bored.")
Even directors could be tough to deal with. I remember getting a call one day from Steven Spielberg's lawyer, Mike Emery, before I fired Steven as a client. Emery, to whom I had introduced Steven, complained that his client was unhappy with the job I was doing. I immediately called Steven and asked him exactly why he was unhappy. Instead of telling me what was wrong, Steven got pissed off at his lawyer for telling me that. Then Emery got upset at me for telling Steven what he said. This juggling of human emotions took up much of my day and, as I saw it, had little to do with getting movies made.
Colleagues were often treated as disposable and worse. When Freddie Fields and David Begelman retired veteran agent Marty Baum from CMA, they gave him a Cartier Tank watch. One day, I went with Marty to get the watch adjusted. It turned out to be a $280 Japanese knockoff one that didn't even tell time.
But what most wore me down as an agent was constantly having to ask for favors and jobs on behalf of my clients. Though this changed in the eighties when the balance of power shifted to the agent, being an agent in the seventies meant that you had to ask everyone for everything, from morning until night. Because of growing up the way I did, it was not in my nature to ask others for help. I've always liked to make my own way through life. Maybe it was pride. Every deal was about getting more money or more control for the client than he or she had had the time before.
Some deals are just not worth it.
When I was at CMA, I represented producer Chuck Barris, who had bought the rights to the book Or I'll Dress You in Mourning, the story of the Spanish bullfighter El Cordobes. In order to make the film, he needed the matador's permission, and that proved much harder to get than we thought. For two years, Chuck pursued Cordobes by phone and mail. Finally, he agreed to meet with Chuck, so the two of us flew to Mexico City, where we sat in a steamy hotel room for two days waiting for his call. Just as we were ready to call it quits, the summons came: we were to meet him at his hotel at 5:30 P.M.
When we arrived, the hotel was surrounded by fans screaming Cordobes's name. We were taken to an underground garage to meet the famous bullfighter and then whisked off to a local watering hole, which was a place where the party never stopped. The combination of bottomless glasses of wine and a rowdy mariachi band had people dancing on their tables. After two hours of this and too much wine, Chuck told me to press the issue. I climbed onto our table, where Cordobes was dancing as if the bulls were chasing him, and I asked if Chuck could have the rights to his story.
"Tell him to meet me in Costa Rica next week and we'll talk," Cordobes said to me in Spanish, as he shimmied across the tabletop.
I leaned down and gave Chuck the news.
"Tell him to go fuck himself," Chuck said, smiling at the great bullfighter.
Continuing to stomp my feet to the sound of the Spanish music, I moved close to Cordobes's ear, cupped my hands, and said, "Mr. Barris would like some time to consider your offer. A long time."
An agent has to keep the arena open even when he knows that the bullfight is over.
Sometimes it was dangerous. On one film a nameless producer was hopelessly slow in paying my clients. Halfway through the movie, he hadn't paid anything. Fed up, I called him and exerted pressure. "Unless I get this money today by three o'clock," I told him curtly, "everybody is going to walk off." At precisely five minutes to three the guy walked into my office, carrying a black bag filled with $500,000 in cash, looking as if he was packing. He gave me a stern look and asked if I wanted to count the money. Slightly shocked, I muttered, "I'll take your word for it."
Often, doing my best job as an agent created conflicts with my friends and made me out to be something of a heavy. When I gave The Getaway to David Foster to produce because he had access to Steve McQueen, Tony Bill was mad at me. Tony felt that this was an act of betrayal, since he had introduced me to Jim Thompson. At the time, I felt that I needed to get Thompson some money (which Tony didn't have) and find a producer who could get the movie made (which Foster could do quicker).
Looking back, I realize that I was caught up in the agent's life and I was wrong not to include Tony as a producer, but what I regret most is not talking it through with Tony at the time. It is always awkward to represent all the parties in a deal, and agents should admit that more often than they do.
An agent's responsibility ends the moment he makes the sale. I was much more passionate about movies than deals. The more packages I put together, the more I wanted to be on the other side making the decisions. This is why agencies became such a fertile training ground for studio executives. Certainly, there was no better place to learn the business.
Over the years, there had been opportunities for me to leave the agency business, but I wasn't ready. David Foster had asked me to produce The Getaway with him, and Tony Bill had asked me to do the same with The Sting. Both times I felt that it was too big of a risk to take. I wanted to be on more solid ground when I left the cocoon of agenting. I wasn't far enough along in my career to cover up a misstep, and besides, I had a family to support.
While those films turned out to be successes, that all happened before I learned that nothing is a sure thing.
Copyright © 2002 by Mike Medavoy and Josh Young
Meet the Author
Mike Medavoy started his career in the mailroom of Universal Studios. He became a talent agent at age twenty-four, Joined United Artists, went on to co-found Orion Pictures, and then became chairman of Sony's TriStar Pictures. In 1994, he formed Phoenix Pictures.
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