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COMPANY TOWN

Fade Out on Old-Hollywood Style

Many say Warner execs Daly and Semel were last of a breed, but their old-fashioned formula for hits was less successful in recent years.

July 16, 1999|ROBERT W. WELKOS and JUDITH I. BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The year was 1992 and Warner Bros., basking in the box-office success of its hit Mel Gibson movie, "Lethal Weapon 3," rolled out a large cake decorated with a Hollywood trade ad recognizing that the film had just crossed the $100-million mark.

Studio Chairman Bob Daly pulled an envelope from his pocket and poured seven keys to shiny new Range Rovers onto the table.

"Just pick the color you want," Daly said. And, just like that, the cars were turned over to the movie's cast--Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci and Rene Russo, as well as producer Joel Silver, producer-director Richard Donner and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam.

It was a class act from a class studio. And it illustrated why many in Hollywood had long thought of Warner Bros. under Daly and co-Chairman Terry Semel as the "Tiffany" studio, one that defined loyalty and friendship in a business that often turns nasty and vindictive.

These were the men who were the handpicked proteges of the late Time Warner Chairman Steven Ross, one of the last great movie moguls.

"They have the perfect partnership," said actor Warren Beatty. "I don't know anyone who doesn't wish them well."

Now the era is ending. With the sudden announcement Thursday that Daly and Semel will be stepping down at year's end, there is a widespread feeling that Hollywood is witnessing a sea change in the sweeping arc of movie history.

For 16 of the 19 years they reigned, Warner ranked among the top three studios in North America in terms of market share. It placed first eight times and second five times. It was the stability of this long-established team that separated Warner from the pack. It was Daly and Semel, after all, who seemed to possess the magic key that opened doors to success while all around them studio chieftains lost their heads in corporate upheavals.

For years the formula worked. Warner Bros. not only turned out such lucrative movie franchises as "Batman" and "Lethal Weapon," it created dazzling special-effects films such as "Twister" and "Contact" and mounted thrilling dramas like "The Fugitive." At the same time, it managed to deliver gritty, thought-provoking films such as Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning western "Unforgiven" and films with social and political themes such as Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," Oliver Stone's "JFK" and Roland Joffe's "The Killing Fields."

It was Daly and Semel who stood behind their talent when controversy flared, from films like Stone's "Natural Born Killers" to rap music like Ice T's "Cop Killer"--an attitude that permeated the company's top management.

"Bob and Terry are the only two guys in our era who achieved a kind of old-Hollywood continuity with movie stars and world-class filmmakers, whether it was Stanley Kubrick, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson, Kevin Costner or Dick Donner," said producer Bill Gerber, a former Warner Bros. co-president of production. "They were long-term players. They never pointed fingers. They took responsibility for everything, and on Monday morning they were the same guys, whether a new picture did $40 million or $4 million. Their attitude was always, 'Let's get back to work.' "

Their formula was simple on the surface: Cast big stars in big movies and, more often than not, the public would flock to see them. But to entice the talent to work at the studio required attention to detail and pressing the flesh, and that's where Daly and Semel shined.

Across Warner's vast Burbank lot, virtually every filmmaker and executive was stunned at the announcement by the co-chairs that they were leaving.

"How do you react to something like this? I don't know," said veteran filmmaker Donner, who has had a close relationship with Daly and Semel since 1977, when he directed "Superman."

"Everything we've had with Bob and Terry dates back so long," Donner added. "This place was just home. It's strange to think they would be gone. Sure, I'll miss them in the business world. But it's so much more than that. This is the place you chose to be because of them. . . . I would say their legacy is this: They continued the history of the great American studios. They never let that down. Whoever comes in will have to follow that."

Once the dust settles, the real impact of Daly and Semel's departure will surface in the longevity of the talent relationships with the studio, be it producers, directors or stars. Across the board, filmmakers and producers say it is too soon to know whether they will stay or go, depending on who the successor is.

Some believe the studio's fortunes began to turn when Daly and Semel chose Gerber and Lorenzo di Bonaventura to take charge of running the studio's day-to-day operations. That decision was later dropped when Gerber was made a producer on the lot. But changes were occurring in the vast movie marketplace as well. As the public's tastes changed, Warner Bros. found that the old formula of placing big stars in big movies didn't always work.

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