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HOW I MADE IT

Columbia Pictures president had a knack for numbers

Financial analysis was Doug Belgrad's entree into the business.

January 15, 2012|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • Financial analysis was Columbia Pictures President Doug Belgrads way into the business as studios became more fiscally disciplined.
Financial analysis was Columbia Pictures President Doug Belgrads way… (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)

The gig: Doug Belgrad is president of Columbia Pictures, the primary film label for Culver City-based entertainment giant Sony Pictures and the home of such movies as "Spider-Man," "Grown Ups" and "Moneyball." The 22-year studio veteran's job is a mix of creative and business — giving notes on scripts, helping run big productions such as this summer's "Men in Black 3" and setting movie budgets and stars' salaries.

Reputation for numbers: Belgrad joined Columbia's executive training program in 1989 after two years following media stocks as a Wall Street analyst. "For a decade after I joined, people always assumed I had an MBA," the University of Pennsylvania history major said.

That reputation took hold because financial analysis was Belgrad's way into the business. After Columbia was acquired by Japanese electronics giant Sony Corp., he began doing spreadsheets and profit-and-loss analysis for top executives Jonathan Dolgen and Ben Feingold. Like other studios at the time, Columbia was becoming less of a freewheeling "go with your gut" club as Hollywood had been in the 1970s and more of a strictly run business focused on profit-and-loss statements and spreadsheets.

"It was this transitional period in Hollywood, and not many people were trained to do what I could do," Belgrad recalled.

A step down in hopes of two steps up: After 21/2 years on the job, Belgrad was offered a prestigious position under the studio's then-president, Alan Levine. But he determined that in order to reach the upper echelons of Hollywood, he needed experience actually making movies.

"On Wall Street there was this saying, 'You don't want to be a trader at a banking firm and you don't want to be a banker at a trading firm," he explained.

Belgrad turned down Levine to take a lower-status job in Columbia's creative department, where he read scripts and tried to develop them into movies.

Contrarian: In his new job, Belgrad was frustrated reading eight scripts a weekend and struggling to turn them into movies. As low man on the totem pole, he said, "I had to find a way to take things nobody else wanted and turn them into a success."

Belgrad's first was 1997's "Booty Call," starring Jamie Foxx, made at a time when Sony wasn't making many African American targeted comedies. "No one else wanted to touch it, but we made a lot of money on that movie," he said.

Forming relationships early: Key to his rise up the ranks was Belgrad's work in the late 1990s on "Men in Black" and "Big Daddy." The films were big successes, and he got to know stars Will Smith and Adam Sandler, who went on to make Sony hits "Bad Boys," "Hitch," "Grown Ups" and "Click."

Despite his loftier title, Belgrad still looks to form similar relationships with younger talent he believes could become Hollywood's next A-listers. One of his biggest bets recently has been on Kevin James, whose 2009 surprise hit "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" was championed by Belgrad (though James' "Zookeeper" was a disappointment).

A unique partnership: Running a movie studio during a tumultuous time, with DVD sales plummeting and international markets rising, is no easy task. Belgrad says his job largely involves solving the innumerable problems that come up during development and production and creating a financial "box" that gives his movies the best chance of becoming profitable.

It also means insulating his boss, longtime Sony movie chief and co-Chairman Amy Pascal. "I think of myself like the executive officer on a naval ship for her," he explained. "I make sure she spends her time and energy on the right things and keep stuff away from her that she shouldn't be bothered with."

Journalism to movies: Growing up in suburban Chicago, Belgrad was a fan of the TV shows "M*A*S*H" and "Good Times" and the films "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." But his inspiration to join the entertainment business came as a freshman in college when he read "The Powers That Be," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam's book about the media moguls of the time.

His original interest was in TV journalism, a path he left after committing to Sony and the film business. That led to a memorable exchange later with Sony Corp. Chairman Howard Stringer, who was previously president of CBS News. "Stringer said, 'You have the best job in the world, the one I wish I had,'" Belgrad said. "I told him he had had the job I always wanted. But the currents of life take you in different directions, and I have no regrets."

Personal: The 46-year-old Belgrad lives in Beverly Hills with his wife of 19 years and three children. While he still spends more time than he would like reading scripts on weekends, his other interests include traveling, golf, tennis, running and yoga.

ben.fritz@latimes.com

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