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A Tale of Two Movie Studio Chiefs : Fox's Goldberg Makes It Big With 'White-Bread' Tastes

October 05, 1988|MICHAEL CIEPLY | Times Staff Writer

Goldberg doesn't like "horror," "stupid comedy" and "mindless action"--and he appears deeply suspicious of excessive sophistication in films, leaving him open to possible clashes in taste and style with the more worldly Diller, who 20 years ago was a young assistant to Goldberg, then head of programming for ABC. Before becoming a movie producer, Goldberg was Aaron Spelling's partner in Spelling-Goldberg Productions, which made "Charlie's Angels," "Fantasy Island" and other TV hits.

At Fox, both Diller and Goldberg lay some claim to picture-picking authority; yet associates say the pair don't have quite the same confrontational chemistry that made Diller a natural, if stormy, match with Michael Eisner during their decade at Paramount.

Diller strongly credits Goldberg with bringing the studio "an internal rhythm" that could make it a consistent performer. But he quickly adds: "I have always felt the chief executive officer--which I am, and remain--cannot delegate ultimate responsibility for whether or not a film gets made."

In Goldberg's version: "We basically talk every day. But the understanding I had with Barry when I came in here was that I was going to run things, and he'd be kept informed of and consulted on anything. . . . When I want to make a movie, I send it to Barry and we talk."

An early difference between the two arose over "Less Than Zero," based on Bret Easton Ellis' novel about wealthy L. A. youths snared in the drug culture. Diller, according to several studio executives, was extremely high on the project. "Barry saw 'American Gigolo' in it," says one close associate of the chairman.

But Goldberg despised the film, and was prepared to scrap it, along with $2.5 million in development costs. "I hated it with a passion. It was everything I'm against, (everything) I don't like, (everything) I resent," he said.

Ultimately, Fox made the movie, but only after softening its uglier edges and beefing up its anti-drug message at Goldberg's behest. The result failed with critics and audiences alike.

According to Goldberg, Fox was plagued by "lack of focus" when he took over in December of 1986.

Diller, who came from Paramount in 1984, had spent much of his time wrestling with a movie division that he says lost $300 million over two years. Some pictures had begun to register--for instance "Aliens" scored $79 million at the box office in the summer of 1986. But the company lacked stability, and was chewing up executives at a frightening rate.

Longtime producer Larry Gordon's brief reign as movie chief gave way to an 8-month stint by ex-Embassy chairman Alan Horn, who walked out in 1986 citing differences with Diller. For a time, Diller picked the pictures in partnership with production president Scott Rudin. (Rudin resigned earlier this year to become an independent producer affiliated with Columbia. Recently, Goldberg appointed former United Artists executive Roger Birnbaum as production president.)

Fox didn't lack projects when Goldberg arrived. By his count, there were approximately 125 films in development. But many, in Goldberg's view, carried an "art-house" stamp.

About one-fifth of the total, moreover, were being developed by Gordon, who had set up shop as an independent producer on the lot after leaving Fox. Goldberg, though Gordon's longtime friend, asked his Fox subordinates: "How can Larry directly supervise 24 projects?"

Gordon, who co-produced both "Predator" and "Die Hard" for Fox, declines to discuss his relationship with Goldberg or the studio.

Goldberg slowly pared back the development roster. He aims to carry about 60 active projects at any one time (less than a third of the number carried by heavy developers like Warner Bros.), and to produce about 12 movies a year. Paradoxically, however, he found that--other than several pick-ups, including Michael Cimino's ill-fated "The Sicilian"--Fox had no major movie in the works for the summer of 1987.

To get films quickly, Goldberg violated at least two of his principles. First, he commissioned a "stupid comedy"--"Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise," which could be launched because a script was already written. Second, he agreed to put an additional $2.5 million into "Predator," a fairly simple-minded action film that was being co-produced by Gordon, and had run out of money before the climax was shot. Both did well and eased Goldberg's regime toward Christmas, when he had "Wall Street" and "Broadcast News," two relatively safe bets, to bank on.

Movies are now a money-maker for Fox. Like most studios, Fox lumps TV production earnings and those from library sales to video and cable with their current movie profits. But Diller says that motion picture production is "cash positive"--and recent estimates by Daily Variety showed that Fox's four summer films brought the company $115 million from box-office receipts alone, but cost only $67 million to make.

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