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HOLLYWOOD NOW | TOP GUNS

The Players Club

What Makes Hollywood Run? Four Heavyweights Reveal the Shocking Truth: Money, Relationships and Sheer Dumb Luck.

March 22, 1998|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein's last article for the magazine was about minor league baseball

In college, director Barry Sonnenfeld majored in political science. After mastering charts, polls and graphs, he decided the subject had very little science to it. He eventually became a filmmaker, which is not quite the stretch one might think.

"Hollywood knows it's not a business," says Sonnenfeld, director of "The Addams Family" and "Men in Black." That's why people in Hollywood desperately want research and tracking charts, "so they can feel that there's some structure and predictability. It allows the people who run Hollywood to pretend it's a business. But what it's really about is guessing and instincts. It's all in the ether."

Behind nearly any successful Hollywood career, you can smell the heady aroma of Basic Instinct, that ineffable combination of intuition, relentless drive, carefully maintained relationships and dumb luck. Recently, four Industry players--a studio chief, a producer, a director and an agent--sat down to talk about how they work the system.

* Joe Roth, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, has been a producer, director and successful studio executive. He named his first production company, Morgan Creek Pictures, after his favorite Preston Sturges film.

* Brian Grazer, who runs Imagine Entertainment with partner Ron Howard, began his career as a studio law clerk and agent. He was fired from both jobs before hitting his stride as a producer of "Splash," "Liar Liar" and "The Nutty Professor."

* Sonnenfeld, who started as a cinematographer for the Coen brothers, was so nervous directing his first film that he fainted on the set.

* Jeremy Zimmer, ousted from ICM after telling an industry seminar that talent agencies are "all like animals, raping and pillaging one another," is now a top agent at the United Talent Agency, where he is a member of its board.

The four men share a zest for the visceral nature of the business, where intuition trumps intellect. "I'm an emotionalist," says Grazer. "Either I'm convinced by someone's acting or I'm not. Either I laugh or I don't. It's like your best sex. It isn't when you think, 'That was good.' It's when you're lost in the experience."

Perhaps that's why the most quoted maxim in Hollywood is screenwriter William Goldman's "Nobody knows anything." Asked why they made a movie or liked a script, filmmakers respond with fuzzy phrases such as "it moved me" or "it felt right." Sonnenfeld says he cast Will Smith in "Men in Black" largely on the advice of his wife, a fan of Smith's TV show, "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." "There's no way to quantify what makes Will great," he says. "The script needed a little utz--a twist--and he was it."

Disregard the high-tech advances and corporate takeovers of the past decades. There is no science to show business--no rules, no formulas, no simple equation for success. As Zimmer likes to joke, "Hollywood is Jews in the Wild West."

Hollywood films are the signature product of America. Year in and year out, they are one of the few things we do better than anyone.

Since its inception, the movie industry has reflected the nation's democratic ideal of prosperity and upward mobility. Early Hollywood was dominated by Eastern European immigrants eager to assimilate into mainstream American status and respectability. Today's industry is nearly as wide open. Among the industry's top moguls, the MBAs and Ivy League graduates are easily outnumbered by college dropouts (such as DreamWorks mogul David Geffen), ex-Marines (Universal Studios president Ron Meyer) and former concert promoters (Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein). Given the multifarious backgrounds of its principals, it's small wonder that Hollywood operates by its own law of the jungle.

Asked why he is reluctant to name his best-known clients, Zimmer matter-of-factly explains that if he gave their names, "by Monday morning my competitors will have faxed copies of your story to all my other clients, saying, 'Do you really want to be with an agent who didn't think you were important enough to mention your name?' "

*

The grease that often gets the ball rolling in Hollywood is relationships. Early in his career, Grazer befriended Eddie Murphy, then starring in his first film, "48 HRS." Years later, when looking to revive his career, Murphy turned to Grazer, who has now produced two Murphy films, "Boomerang" and "The Nutty Professor."

"Everything in this business is done on relationships," says Roth. "The cost of making movies has gone up so much that it makes you go back to the old ways of doing things--relationships with actors and agents and directors and producers. It's hard to be comfortable making a $100-million movie, so at least you want to be comfortable with the people making it."

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