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A survivor who's seen it all

The Mogul

May 21, 2006|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

For all the talk about how radically the entertainment business has been transformed in the past few decades, the sense of change never felt more vivid than when I walked around the 20th Century Fox lot the other day with Dick Zanuck. A stone's throw from the studio's executive office building, where Zanuck's father, the legendary Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck, reigned supreme, stands a little bungalow that, for a few years in the 1960s, was the only place on the lot where the lights were burning.

When he was made head of production at the studio in 1962 at age 28, Dick Zanuck was given a lordly title to a dominion in ruins. In the course of losing millions on the catastrophic "Cleopatra," Fox was going flat broke.

"The studio was bankrupt," the 71-year-old veteran producer recalls, brushing a wisp of white hair out of his eyes. "We didn't have a movie shooting on the lot and we were down to the last episodes of 'Dobie Gillis,' our one hit TV show. So we shut down the studio. We closed the commissary, the executive office building, everything." He gestures toward the bungalow, which now houses the staff of Fox 2000, one of the studio's many production subsidiaries. "That's where I operated the studio for two years. It was me, a legal guy, a couple of janitors and a guard at the gate. You could literally see the tumbleweeds."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Dick Zanuck: A profile of Dick Zanuck in Sunday's Hollywood section included "The Sting" among the movies he has produced. His formal credit in the 1973 film was "presented by."

Today the tumbleweeds have been replaced by satellite dishes and sleek office towers. Hollywood has undergone a seismic transformation in the past few decades, evolving from a hunch-driven, boom-or-bust business to an enterprise dominated by media monoliths raking billions out of cable and satellite companies, TV networks, theme parks, book and magazine publishing, film libraries, record companies and home entertainment divisions. At most studios, the theatrical film business is a tiny slice of the pie.

At lunch in the Fox commissary, Zanuck says hello to a stream of visitors, including director Brett Ratner, who is finishing work on the latest installment of the studio's "X-Men" franchise. It's the kind of summer behemoth popular at studios today. And its budget -- rumored to be nearly $200 million -- is probably close to what Zanuck spent on all the movies he made running Fox in the '60s. Though he's produced dozens of quality films over the years, including "The Sting," "Jaws," "The Verdict" and "Driving Miss Daisy," Zanuck's recent efforts have been films such as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," a well-made family movie, but one that could be marketed as a brand, with promotions and merchandising spinoffs. Zanuck also recently remade "Planet of the Apes," which he did the first time around at Fox 35 years ago.

He is currently in pre-production on "Ripley's Believe It or Not," a Paramount picture that stars Jim Carrey and will be Zanuck's fourth collaboration with Tim Burton, one of the industry's most idiosyncratic filmmakers. Zanuck is shrewd enough to know that if the film is a success, its financiers will demand a follow-up. "I know, without asking, that they're thinking about sequels," he says of the film, a period adventure saga that is largely set in China. "If it works, we can go to Africa or India for the next one."

When Zanuck was running Fox, the process of green-lighting a movie was considerably less formal. Many decisions were made in a steam room that his father had built in the basement of the executive offices. Zanuck's staff would drop by for a steam and a drink after work. "We didn't have any development executives," he recalls. "If we bought a script, we'd make it." One day an agent named Ingo Preminger gave Zanuck the book "MASH" to read, on the condition that if he liked it, Preminger could produce it. Zanuck called the next day. "I told Ingo, 'Sell the agency. You've got an office on the third floor. We're making the picture.' "

Not long after the film became a hit, Zanuck lost his job, fired by his own father. "I did a stupid thing," he recalls. "We were having to lay people off and I made the mistake of saying, 'I won't make any exceptions,' and I laid off my dad's girlfriend. That was the straw that broke the camel's back."

Zanuck went off to produce films with David Brown. When asked to describe the difference between dealing with studios then and today he recalls his first meeting as a producer with Lew Wasserman, czar of Universal Pictures. Zanuck had just been given a script for a road picture by a rookie director named Steven Spielberg. There was just one hitch -- the script, called "The Sugarland Express," had just been put into turnaround at, of all places, Universal.

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