In Hollywood, where everything worth doing is worth overdoing, Fred Weintraub is setting a dangerous precedent. He is trying to make movies at cost.
At cost! That means cutting out such fat as union featherbedding, studio overhead and crystal ice buckets for stars. The idea!
"We can put the same production on the screen for one-third of what a studio would spend on the same thing," says Weintraub, a former Warner Bros. production executive who runs Fred Weintraub Productions like a boutique winery. "It is almost a pride thing for the studios to say, 'This picture cost us $15 million' when it could have been made for 5."
Weintraub is pretty jovial for a guy who started a Greenwich Village nightclub called the Bitter End and who dropped out of the studio system to raise small movies and giant horses with equal passion.
It's nothing personal, he says. Today's studio system is simply no place for a producer who wants to participate in his own successes. The truth is, aside from their greed and canyon-sized egos, most of the film people he meets here are all right.
"It's a wonderful business, 99% of the people are fantastic," Weintraub says. "It's just that today, with the cost of pictures being what they are, it is so difficult to get into profit. When you write that, make it 'sooooooooooo difficult.' It's almost impossible."
Here's the new math that convinced Weintraub to be his own man, to make movies with private funding and not to let the major distributors see them until he's done: With star salaries coupled with star profit participation, plus studio overhead (synonym: creative bookkeeping), the odds on a producer getting a piece of a $100- million hit are about the same as his winning the California Lottery.
"You wouldn't believe how rare it is for producers of the big hits to ever see any money beyond their fees," Weintraub says. "The way we're doing it, we can show as much profit from a $10-million hit as they (the studios) can from one that makes $100 million."
Weintraub, who launched the comedy careers of such people as Joan Rivers and Bill Cosby before turning to a film career, has set his company up to make two to three movies a year, at an average cost of $3 million. He has to leave town to do it.
"You can't make movies here for what they really should cost," he says. "One day of shooting here is like five days anywhere else except New York or Chicago."
Weintraub has made four movies in Yugoslavia in the last four years, including the Tom Selleck adventure "High Road to China" and the upcoming "Princess Academy," a comedy that he describes as a female "Animal House."
"It's been a pleasure working over there. A handshake is worth a lot more than it is here. I usually send the money before the picture starts, without a contract. I wouldn't do that here."
Weintraub hit a major studio-size home run his first at bat as an independent producer, introducing the late Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon," a $900,000 production that earned more than $40 million in film rentals. He has not come close to that since, but most of his films have ended up in profits and he was involved in the creation of two hugely successful TV series--"Kung Fu" and "The Dukes of Hazzard."
His production company, which he runs almost in partnership with his daughter, Sandra Weintraub, is funded by private money raised by a New York investment company. He makes the movies without pre-selling any of the rights (many of the small independents finance their movies by selling foreign territories and TV and videocassette rights before production begins).
Weintraub and his daughter do the day-to-day production of each film. Sandra, who started her career as 19-year-old protege to Martin Scorsese, is also a writer ("High Road to China") and just made her directing debut with "The Women's Club," a Fred Weintraub Production that co-stars Maud Adams and Michael Pare.
Once their movies are finished, they take them to market, shopping them for the best distribution deal with either the major studios--if they think they have a film with mainstream appeal--or one of the smaller distributors with special skills at releasing genre films.
If this sounds like a hands-on family business, that's the idea and, says Weintraub, the joy.
"I love making movies, and the only way you can do that is the way we're doing it," he says. "I used to do 5 to 10 development deals a year with the studios, now I don't do any at all. The odds of a development deal ever becoming a movie are about 1 in 100. You can go crazy waiting."
Weintraub says he and his daughter operate the company like a micro-mini studio. They have about seven scripts in development themselves. The difference is that each one is based on their own ideas.
"We only start on things we really care about, that we want to go all the way through with. And we work on them until we have them the way we want them."