When screenwriters Zack Penn and Adam Leff were pitching a satire about political correctness on college campuses, the first producer they approached was Paul Schiff.
Not only was Schiff a fellow graduate of Wesleyan University; at 34, he impressed them as someone who would "get the joke," which was important to Penn and Leff after seeing their first clever idea--"Last Action Hero"--get ground up in the Hollywood development process.
"It was a natural fit," Penn said in a telephone interview. "He had gone to the same school. He had even headed the (student residence) we were satirizing. He was also a nice guy and a lot closer in age to us than a lot of other producers."
Twentieth Century Fox will release "PCU" in March, in hopes of catching the "Animal House" crowd in full spring break frenzy. But Schiff's plate is so full that he may have a hard time making the premiere. Besides "PCU," he has two high-profile remakes in development: "Niagara" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," with Sean Connery in discussions for the lead in the latter. Schiff also produced "Ghost in the Machine," a modestly budgeted science fiction movie that came and went in a flash this month after taking in about $4 million.
That's a lot of work for a guy most people have never heard of, but Schiff has profited from a good rapport with both talent and the studio. Alluding to Schiff's growing list of projects and his hands-on style, one fellow producer described him as "the poor man's Scott Rudin."
Schiff shrugs off the comparison to the more established producer, whose films in the past year alone included "The Firm," "Addams Family Values" and "Searching for Bobby Fischer."
But it's clear that a similar work ethic is at play when he describes his 18-hour days and admits to occasional epiphanies such as "I forgot to have a life." Recalling a recent magazine article in which Rudin confessed he had never eaten a meal in his own home, Schiff says, "I actually have eaten a few meals at my house . . . but I didn't cook any of them."
Schiff doesn't seem interested in food anyway as he picks at his grilled whitefish during an interview at Delmonico's Seafood Grille. After seven years in Hollywood, he's at a point where he could soon become a big-name producer if things fall into place. Yet his appearance is still that of a gangly college kid, except for the patch of gray hair that he says expands with each film.
After earning an art degree from Wesleyan, Schiff expected to become a cinematographer. But his work as a free-lance TV cameraman in New York led to a producer-director job at a fledgling network called MTV, which led to an introduction to his mentor, producer Joe Roth.
Roth hired Schiff to work with him on a film called "Streets of Gold." Schiff then became a vice president of production under Roth at Morgan Creek Productions. When his boss was named chairman of 20th Century Fox in 1989, Schiff again followed, helping to make "My Cousin Vinny" and "The Vanishing" under a production deal.
"This is the only protege relationship I've ever fostered in 20 years," said Roth. "I'm not sure why. There was something about him. I thought he was terribly bright, that he was going to learn quickly and that he was really ambitious. He was also trustworthy and loyal."
Good qualities in a pet, perhaps, but often terminal for a producer when his mentor leaves, as Roth did in late 1992 for a lucrative deal at Disney.
Schiff admits he worried about his future under the new regime headed by Peter Chernin. As it turned out, Fox extended his exclusive production deal for another three years.
Fox Worldwide Production President Tom Jacobson says the studio is high on Schiff's movie ideas and his proven ability to get things done at a reasonable cost. Jeremy Zimmer, one of the partners at United Talent Agency, says agents like Schiff because "we can depend on him for straight answers."
One of those UTA agents is Schiff's brother David. When the two are deadlocked in a negotiation, Paul Schiff says, "One of us usually threatens to call Mom."
Schiff's challenge now is to move to find that hit or string of hits that will propel him to the next level.
He's already encountered some classic resistance. Sources say Schiff had signed on to produce "Overkill," a hot script that Fox recently purchased in a bidding war, until he was out-muscled by mega-director-producer Ridley Scott.
But Schiff's not complaining about his career: "I'm pleased with the course of events," he said. "But this is hard work. Making movies is still as close to impossible as anything I can imagine."
Reality check: The phrase Hollywood hyperbole is more than just a tired alliteration. It's a common form of expression among people who stoke the image of the industry or themselves.
Take these examples. While everyone knows that celebrities usually agree to be honored at fund-raisers for the laudable purpose of supporting causes, the groups that select them still insist on imbuing them with Gandhi-like qualities.
In announcing plans to honor Clint Eastwood at a dinner next week, the American Jewish Committee described him as "an outstanding leader in the entertainment industry whose efforts to promote intergroup understanding and cooperation have furthered the cause of human rights." While Eastwood is surely a cherished member of Hollywood's creative community, his human rights contributions are more questionable.
The AJC notes that in addition to the usual celebrity charity work, Eastwood "has been deeply involved in civic affairs in the town of Carmel."
Then there's the case of realtor to the stars Stan Herman, who recently began an ad for his business in a Beverly Hills magazine with these words: "My expertise is legendary!"