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Keeping Company With Disney

By Hollywood standards, director Jon Turteltaub has remained remarkably loyal to one studio, from '3 Ninjas' to his latest, 'The Kid.'

July 05, 2000|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The front door to director Jon Turteltaub's production offices in the Disney Animation building is a dead ringer for an elevator door, complete with up and down buttons. You find yourself standing in front of it feeling like an idiot, hoping no one sees you scratch your head, trying to figure out how to get in.

"Don't feel bad," says Turteltaub. "Lots of high-ranking Disney executives have tried hitting the up button the first time they came here to see me." (Just push, and the door opens.)

Turteltaub has opened a lot of doors at Disney. He's something of an anomaly in today's "show me the money" Hollywood. The 36-year-old Beverly Hills High graduate has made six studio films in his career, all released by Disney. Turteltaub knows the names of virtually every staffer on the lot, he's survived three Disney Films chairmen, and he can find his way to the studio commissary in his sleep.

"I would've left years ago," he jokes. "But it's hard to pass up the 35% discount on everything at the Disney Store."

Turteltaub's latest movie even has the studio's name in its title: "Disney's The Kid." The film, which opens Friday, stars Bruce Willis as a brusque, self-involved image consultant who is transformed after being visited by his nerdy 8-year-old self on the verge of his 40th birthday. Industry observers say the $55-million film has strong cross-generational appeal and benefits from being a family-oriented movie in a summer crowded with outrageous comedies and action films.

Studios often sign directors to multi-picture deals as a way of retaining them after they've had a hit movie. Michael Bay, who made "Armageddon," is under contract to Disney, as is Mike Mitchell, director of "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo." "Romeo & Juliet's" Baz Luhrmann has a five-year deal at 20th Century Fox. Tom Shadyac, who made "The Nutty Professor," has a director's deal at Universal, where he's made his past three films.

Miramax Pictures has a number of directors under contract, including Oscar winners Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient") and John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love"). The studio not only gets its next films but also uses the deals to gain access to top-drawer material at other studios. Paramount Pictures, for example, partnered with Miramax on "The Talented Mr. Ripley" in return for Miramax loaning out Minghella to direct it.

But most directors go where their projects take them. John Woo had a production deal at Sony Pictures, but he never made a movie there. Jan de Bont's production company was at 20th Century Fox, but his last film, "The Haunting," was made for DreamWorks. Ron Howard's Imagine Films has a deal at Universal Pictures, but he went off to Disney to make "Ransom."

Turteltaub has been different. He's made sleepers, big hits and flops, all at Disney. After Turteltaub directed "3 Ninjas," a modest 1992 Disney success, then-studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg gave him the job directing "Cool Runnings" in return for Turteltaub agreeing to direct his next two films at the studio.

"Jeffrey played hardball with me," Turteltaub recalls. "He said, 'If you want to direct a movie at this studio, I get exclusive rights to your next two movies. And in return,' he said, 'I'll pay you scale for "Cool Runnings." ' Everybody told me it was unfair, but I wanted to do the movie, so I had no choice. I don't blame Jeffrey. He had the leverage, and it was a very smart deal for him."

After "Cool Runnings" came out, Turteltaub asked Katzenberg to let him out of the deal so he could go make a movie at New Line Cinema. "Jeffrey said, 'You're an idiot, but if you really want to make that aardvark of a movie, go do it.' And then the next day he called back and said, 'No, you can't, I've got a great script for you,' which turned out to be 'While You Were Sleeping.' "

The smash romantic comedy, which starred Sandra Bullock, put Turteltaub on the map as a director. When he asked for a raise, Disney offered him more money in return for extending his director's deal. When Turteltaub's next film, "Phenomenon," was an even bigger hit, he got another raise in return for committing to another movie.

"It puts you in an interesting situation," he says. "You start out as a relative unknown, but after you have a hit, you're working for 25% of what you could get on the free market. It gave me a sudden sympathy for Ken Griffey Jr."

Turteltaub had the good fortune to work with several supportive producers. "Cool Runnings" was produced by the late Dawn Steel, who Turteltaub says taught him to believe in himself. "She was fiercely protective of the film. When we'd get notes from the studio, she'd say, 'Remember, these are notes, not rules.' "

After Turteltaub made "While You Were Sleeping," Joe Roth, the film's producer, became chairman of the studio. Turteltaub says: "Joe is very realistic and philosophical, and he's the biggest reason why I stayed here so long."

Events May Have Led Him to a Turning Point

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