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How many producers does a movie need?

Ryan Kavanaugh is one of six producers listed for 'The Fighter,' but the film academy allows only three for its purposes. He was cut, he appealed, and he lost.

January 14, 2011|By Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times
  • Ryan Kavanaugh lost his appeal to the academy to be included as a producer for "The Fighter."
Ryan Kavanaugh lost his appeal to the academy to be included as a producer… (Toby Canham / Getty Images…)

Using a combination of smarts, charm, doggedness — and access to loads of cash — Ryan Kavanaugh over the last six years has become a bona-fide power player in Hollywood. Once a failed venture capitalist, Kavanaugh, 36, now co-produces movies with Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures and through his own company, Relativity Media.

The red-headed, freckle-faced would-be mogul, who prefers sneakers and jeans to loafers and suits, usually sees his name attached to lower-brow fare such as this month's Nicolas Cage-starrer "Season of the Witch." But it's clear he aspires to something greater, also financing films from previous Oscar nominees such as Ridley Scott ( "Robin Hood"). Awards glory has eluded him, but that seemed destined to change this year with the critically lauded boxing drama "The Fighter," which he co-financed at a cost of $23 million and has been actively championing for Oscar consideration.

On the morning of the Golden Globe nominations, Kavanaugh beamed like a proud papa when the movie, which stars Mark Wahlberg, reaped six nominations. "I've produced hundreds of movies, but this one, I saw every piece. I think these people are the best, and when others recognize how incredible they are it's validating, it's humbling," he said.

Alas, the brass ring that Kavanaugh so desperately covets remains outside his grasp. While "The Fighter" is getting plenty of love in the run-up to the Academy Awards, should the film's name be called on Oscar night for best picture, it will not be Kavanaugh jumping onto the stage to accept his statue. Audiences who see the movie will see his name listed as one of six producers on the credits, but in the eyes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, three people — David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and star Wahlberg — are the producers of "The Fighter."

Kavanaugh lost his final appeal with the academy this week, after already having been denied a credit by the Producers Guild of America. Kavanaugh has said that he was involved in all aspects of the filmmaking process, but two sources close to the movie disputed that. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of hurting its Oscar chances, said Kavanaugh was barely involved in the process and never was seen on the set.

At least 16 people sent letters on Kavanaugh's behalf, including director David O. Russell, producers Wahlberg, Lieberman and Hoberman and others involved in the physical production of the film. "Ryan and Tucker [Tooley, Kavanaugh's production partner] were definitely involved in the process, there is no question," said Ari Emanuel, Wahlberg's agent. "Does it reach the level of the criteria that is needed to be credited, I have no idea. But Ryan and Mark have a great relationship."

Fights such as Kavanaugh's have become something of an annual occurrence at Oscar time as producers' credits have multiplied — contender "The Kids Are All Right" has 20 people with some sort of producer credit. And it illuminates one of the more murky questions in Hollywood: What exactly does a producer do?

In truth, being a producer can be a time-consuming, exhausting job. Producers often serve as a starting point for a film, acquiring a script or working with screenwriters to develop a movie idea. They are instrumental in hiring directors and actors. Some also find the cash to make the movie, particularly crucial in an era when studios are reluctant to fully finance a film themselves. Once a movie enters pre-production, producers usually work on hiring various department heads, such as the production designer, the set designer and the head of wardrobe. They often spend time on the set, consulting with the director and solving time-sensitive problems. But the job doesn't end there — a producer often offers suggestions to the editor in post-production and works on the marketing campaign to sell the movie.

But because the job is so vaguely defined, producing credits can be given to those not even remotely related to the film, such as in April when financier Danny Dimbort attempted to give his teenage granddaughter producing credit on the Michael Douglas-starrer "Solitary Man," according to Vance Van Petten, executive director of the Producers Guild.

The Producers Guild and its counterparts at the academy take the issue seriously and vet credit claims for award contenders using investigative techniques worthy of the Justice Department. The process can be traced to 1999, when five producers — the most ever — bounded onto the stage of the Oscars to collect their golden statuettes when "Shakespeare in Love" won best picture. Harvey Weinstein, then Miramax studio chief, elbowed fellow producer Edward Zwick out of the way to give his acceptance speech. Though Weinstein remarked that "this was an ensemble film, and it took an ensemble to make it," his grandstanding left a bad taste with many industry insiders.

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