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THE BIG PICTURE/PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

This producer's story is rated: parental guidance

June 21, 2005|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

"In this town, your character is measured by how you handle defeat, not success," Art Linson told me the other day, sitting at lunch, fiddling with the menu, cracking jokes about Bulgaria, basically doing anything to take his mind off the fact that his new movie, "Lords of Dogtown," has, despite a raft of favorable reviews, been taking an ignominious dive.

Having been a producer for 30 years, Linson has suffered this kind of box office indigestion before. He's been in the penthouse, having produced "The Untouchables" and "Heat" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." But he's been in the doghouse too, having made stinkers like "We're No Angels" and "Sunset Strip." He also made "Fight Club," which impressed the critics but gave a lot of other people a massive headache. Every movie is a struggle, especially a project like "Dogtown," which Linson produced, from start to finish, with his son John Linson.

"I've been through too many movies where by Saturday night, I'm up on top of the building, ready to jump off," he says. "If Sony made any mistake with 'Dogtown,' it's that they loved the movie too much. We were thrilled that they wanted to put it out in the summer, but it needed its own weekend without so many huge movies around. When [our market researchers] would ask kids about 'Dogtown,' they didn't even know what we were talking about."

Linson sighs. The last few years have been rough. The 63-year-old producer still makes a movie nearly every year, but the hits have been few and far between. "Let's order lunch," he says. "They say if you eat something really good, it helps dampen the pain."

Around Father's Day each year, I spend time with a pair of father-son industry insiders. This year's subjects are Art and John Linson, one of the industry's rare father-son producer teams, who offer their generational perspectives on family ties and the unending struggle to get movies made. As is evident from the experience of "Dogtown," the hosannas are often outweighed by the heartbreak.

"I remember the house being a little moody growing up," says John, 35. "When I was talking to my mom the other day about [the failure of] 'Dogtown,' she reminded me that we went through this, year after year. I remember my dad building model airplanes and taking saxophone lessons -- he always found a way to bob and weave through times like this."

On the surface the two men seem to be quite different. John rides a motorcycle; Art drives a black Mercedes. John never went to college; Art graduated from law school. But they are both outsiders with an affinity for mavericks. John is a Suicidal Tendencies fan -- he got the band to play the "Dogtown" premiere. Art revered Hunter Thompson, making "Where the Buffalo Roam" with Bill Murray as Thompson.

John has a scraggly goatee and calls people "Bro." He grew up in Malibu, "living in the water," surfing and skateboarding all day long. He produced rock videos before going to work for his father, starting as a low-paid gofer. He lives alone on a ranch in Santa Ynez, populated with a horse, a dog, two donkeys, five sheep, seven chickens, 13 ducks, a flock of pigeons and a tortoise.

After law school, Art worked for record producer Lou Adler. He then produced a series of music-oriented films, including "Car Wash" and "American Hot Wax." Being a successful producer essentially involves having a nose for good material and cultivating relationships with actors and filmmakers. Linson discovered that if he wooed writer-directors he could get nearly everything in one package, leading to friendships with David Mamet, Brian De Palma and Cameron Crowe.

Many of Art's pals, in particular Mamet, Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and De Palma, are famously prickly perfectionists. Asked how he managed to get along so well with such difficult types, he laughed. "Birds of a feather, babe. I'm one of them."

Of course, it's not that simple. "Art is always falling in love with people he thinks have talent," says screenwriter Mitch Glazer, who's written several Linson films. "Some people in this town are in love with money or power, but with Art, he's always chasing the talent."

Not everyone is a Linson fan, including the people who were unflatteringly depicted in his books about Hollywood, the most recent being "What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line." Linson has just completed a screenplay based on the book, which he plans to make next year, with De Niro as star and Barry Levinson as director. The book offers a sardonic, self-deprecating look at the world of a producer, who has to cope with everything from coldblooded studio politics to the madcap self-absorption of movie stars.

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