Writers, don't look to the past, look to the future. This article can help explain the change the industry is facing.
By BROOKS BARNES and MICHAEL CIEPLY
JOEL SILVER stands on the Warner Brothers lot and points to the remnants of a house where he filmed parts of four “Lethal Weapon” movies. “We blasted a toilet out of that window,” he says, smiling proudly. “Over there, we drove a car straight into the living room.”
Ah, the glory days.
Behind Mr. Silver, the flamboyant producer of some of the biggest action hits of the last 30 years, is the modest set for one of his current films, an R-rated comedy with no stars, almost no budget and — for now — no title. Not that Mr. Silver was ready to call the production small. “It’s a little movie, but it’s a big little movie,” he says.
And therein lies Mr. Silver’s challenge: How does a larger-than-life, free-spending producer fit into a movie business that has been tightening up — and cutting some of its more grandiose characters down to size?
In the new Hollywood, stars count for less, whether in front of the camera or behind it. Financial firepower and technological wizardry matter more. And a generation of producers — whose principal assets were their industry connections and a remarkable degree of personal force — are having to adapt.
Mr. Silver, 58, has been a dominant studio moviemaker for over three decades, delivering blockbuster franchises like “Lethal Weapon,” “Die Hard” and “The Matrix.” The 59 movies he has produced have generated almost $10 billion in ticket sales, adjusting for inflation. The money he has made for Warner alone has won him lavish treatment from the studio — not just in compensation, but also in perks. To make him happy, Warner once went so far as to send movie props to his Brentwood mansion for his son’s birthday party.
Warner, at least in years past, has ignored Mr. Silver at its own peril. Six years ago, Jeff Robinov, then a top production executive at the studio, was hospitalized after a motorcycle accident. As he recovered, Mr. Robinov heard that Mr. Silver was exaggerating the severity of the accident — and telling people that Mr. Robinov was unable to function.
When Mr. Robinov asked Mr. Silver why he was doing this, the producer said it was because the Warner executive hadn’t been returning his calls promptly.
Despite such antics, producers like Mr. Silver used to be able to count on one studio or another to support them in near perpetuity. So what if they fell on hard times — as Mr. Silver has, recently delivering a string of flops like “Speed Racer” (one of the biggest money-losers in Warner’s 87-year history), “Ninja Assassin,”“Whiteout” and the aptly titled “The Losers.”
Studios no longer take such losses lightly. Bleeding from plummeting DVD sales and higher marketing costs, they’ve started reducing producer deals. Warner alone has cut the number of producers it carries by 20 percent over the last two years and has said more reductions are on the way. The producers Warner now favors are mostly young and inexpensive or come with financial backing of their own from outsiders, like Legendary Pictures, which teamed up with Warner to make “The Dark Knight.”
Warner has also been building up the production companies of directors and actors like Zack Snyder, Ben Affleck and Todd Phillips, all of whom now challenge Mr. Silver in a pecking order that changed when old images of Hollywood producers — who survived by wit, will and the occasional outrageous moment — began fading to black.
A particularly difficult point for both Warner and Mr. Silver is the cost of his production deals. In a frothier time, the lucrative arrangements struck by Mr. Silver allowed him to get a cut of the revenue from his films. That means he is entitled to about 8 cents of every dollar the studio takes in for his pictures, whether they are bombs or runaway hits.
Warner is also required to distribute films from Mr. Silver’s production company Dark Castle, which self-finances horror and other low-budget movies with $240 million in private funding. In theory, the deal gives Warner films from an experienced producer without risking its own production money. In practice, the arrangement has sometimes backfired, as it did earlier this year with “Splice,” a thriller about a pair of scientists who use genetic manipulation to create a monstrous child.
Mr. Silver acquired rights to “Splice” at little cost. But Warner spent about $26 million to market the film, only to see it come up short, with just $17 million at the domestic box office.
Against backdrops like this, Hollywood studios are nudging entrenched producers away from prized but risky projects, if only to avoid paying them millions of dollars in participation fees while the studio loses money.
For instance, Mr. Silver was entrusted for years with developing “Wonder Woman” into a big-budget movie. Warner recently took the superheroine away from him, to exert more control and to allow other, less expensive producers to take a shot at it.
So even though Hollywood has always been the fabled land of comebacks and second acts — and Mr. Silver recently found success with “Sherlock Holmes” — the megaproducer also knows that his head may be perilously close to the chopping block. His deal with Warner, which provides for a staff of about 20, expires in December 2011; negotiations for a new contract haven’t started.
Mr. Robinov, now president of Warner’s motion picture division, declined to comment on whether the studio would renew Mr. Silver’s deal or simply pressure him into a more restrictive contract.
“Joel is an incredible cinephile, who is incredibly intelligent and incredibly passionate about his job,” says Mr. Robinov. “That’s a lot to bring to the party.”
For his part, Mr. Silver is playing the role of the stoic.
“Maybe I will continue with Warner and maybe I won’t,” he says over a dinner of goulash and brussels sprouts inside his trailer. “I hope I do.”
Still, some of his powerful friends seem worried. At the very least, they are rallying around him.
“Warner’s is very fortunate to have Joel Silver,” said Ron Meyer, president of Universal Studios.
“Let’s hope he doesn’t take a bullet from anybody. He’s a good guy,” says Terry Semel, Warner’s former chairman. “Even home-run hitters have cold streaks. It’s the nature of sports and it’s the nature of movies.”
BRUCE BERMAN, the chief executive of Village Roadshow Pictures, who has known Mr. Silver since 1979 when they worked together on “Xanadu,” says no producer working in Hollywood better understands the pull of mass entertainment.
“That’s incredibly valuable,” he says. Even so, Mr. Berman allows that his pal “is a 20th-century man in a 21st-century world.”
Mr. Silver, burly and bearded, has been parodied in several movies, most recently by Tom Cruise in “Tropic Thunder,” but he is far from the only megawatt producer under pressure or needing to figure out a new way forward.
Brian Grazer, who operates under a deal at Universal Pictures, stumbled in the spring with “Robin Hood,” which managed to squeeze about $310 million at the global box office but cost more than $200 million to make — when including higher-than-normal start-up costs and excluding tax credits — and more than $100 million to market.
Scott Rudin has one of the most buzzed-about movies of the fall in “The Social Network,” but Walt Disney Studios, where he is based, has made clear that its new strategy leaves little room for the kind of highbrow films in which he specializes.
Even Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of such fare as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, is struggling to move beyond four high-profile disappointments in a row, including “G-Force” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” both of which required Disney to take quarterly write-downs.
Mr. Silver’s fortunes may be turning. Warner is bullish on his next movie, “Unknown White Male,” a Dark Castle thriller starring Liam Neeson that is scheduled for release in January. And Mr. Silver rightly points out that “Sherlock Holmes” was a smash hit that cost $80 million to make and sold more than $523 million of tickets globally. Mr. Silver is starting production on a sequel.
“Sherlock Holmes,” however, comes with an asterisk on Mr. Silver’s résumé. The picture was already well under way when he came on board.
Warner and the longtime producer on the project, Lionel Wigram, wanted Robert Downey Jr. to play the lead role. Mr. Downey said yes — but only if his wife, Susan Downey, helped produce it.
That created a pickle: Mrs. Downey worked for Mr. Silver, who told Warner that he would lend out his executive — but only if he was brought on the project, too. Mr. Robinov said O.K., in part because of Mr. Silver’s close relationship with Guy Ritchie, who directed the movie.
Mr. Downey says he owes the resuscitation of his career to Mr. Silver, who cast him in the 2005 thriller “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” despite the actor’s prison and drug record.
“Joel just kept telling me, ‘We’ve got to get a gun in your hand,’ ” Mr. Downey says. “Joel is one of the few relationships I care to have with a producer. Look, he’s vast and voracious, and he definitely has the ability to break into a scream about a point he would like to make. But he can also be incredibly warm and generous.”
Questions about money — how to get it, how to spend it, how to pay it back — have loomed unusually large in Mr. Silver’s Hollywood life.
“Fantasies about spending are irresistible, the best!” Mr. Silver was quoted as saying in the production notes for “Brewster’s Millions,” a 1985 fable in which Richard Pryor was supposed to waste $30 million in 30 days in order to inherit a much larger fortune. “Who wouldn’t want to indulge the luxury of squandering millions and millions of dollars?”
In 1989, Mr. Silver used the Warner jet to fly a bevy of pals and business associates to party at Auldbrass Plantation, his South Carolina home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Hollywood, still in its boom years, saw such extravagance as part of his charm.
“I’m not in this business to make art; I’m in it to make money to buy art,” ran a much-quoted Silver quip that the producer now regrets as a shade too glib. His art collection, however, includes a 20-ton sculpture by Richard Serra; it is kept on the grounds of Mr. Silver’s Brentwood estate, Casa de la Plata (Spanish for “House of Silver”).
Expensive taste — he also owns a Malibu house and is chauffeured around Hollywood in a Maybach sedan — has at times appeared to leave Mr. Silver pressed for funds.
Bertram H. Fields, the Hollywood überlawyer who has long worked for Mr. Silver, says Mr. Silver has relied on a longstanding series of loans from Warner. He declined to describe the size of the loans but said that Mr. Silver had the ability to repay them.
Filings with the secretary of state of California show that Mr. Silver’s debt is secured against his interest in various films, including, most recently, “Splice.” Mr. Fields says the financial relationship between Mr. Silver and Warner is comfortable.
“He’s their prime supplier and they do lend him money,” he says. “It’s kind of a running account between them.”
Mr. Silver, who on occasion rumbles through the courts with the same animal spirit he brings to the Warner lot, is now suing Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, and a pair of movie companies, Alliance Films and Momentum Pictures USA, for $35 million.
In a complaint filed in May, Mr. Silver contended that Goldman and the film companies had breached an obligation to pay him that sum for his interest in Dark Castle after he helped Goldman find financing for an acquisition of Alliance.
Lawyers for Goldman and the film companies filed a response opposing all of Mr. Silver’s claims, calling some of them “absurd.” A Goldman spokeswoman and a law firm representing Goldman, Alliance and Momentum declined to comment.
EVEN brief chats with Mr. Silver are embroidered with a cinéaste’s knowledge. During a recent conversation in his Warner office, he recounted, beat for beat, Adolphe Menjou’s long walk through a newsroom and virtually every aspect of a paper’s daily life in a memorable scene from the 1931 version of “The Front Page.”
Inevitably, the talk also turned to the costly trappings of the office, which was built for Frank Sinatra in 1963. It had fallen into disrepair, Mr. Silver explains, so he persuaded Warner to allow him to refurbish it.
Now, the office boasts accouterments like eel-skin furniture and exterior walls washed to look like William Randolph Hearst’s castle at San Simeon. (An adjoining part of the complex was once used by Mr. Hearst’s lover, Marion Davies.) Among the trophies on the inside are photographs of Mr. Sinatra in his rat-pack heyday and the head of a zebra that Mr. Silver is quick to note was bought, not stalked.
“I hunted that with a credit card,” he says.
Mr. Silver grew up middle class in South Orange, N.J., the son of a public-relations-executive father and a journalist mother. (She wrote a food column for the New Jersey section of The New York Times.)
Mr. Silver had a number of passions during his New Jersey years — one of them was Frisbee. In the fall of 1968, while in high school, he jokingly proposed adding a Frisbee game he had created with some friends to the school curriculum. After the game spread to local colleges, Ultimate Frisbee was born.
But, at heart, Mr. Silver was a movie lover first, taking in “Lawrence of Arabia” at a Times Square theater in Manhattan and obscure art films at the Museum of Modern Art.
Mr. Silver recalls watching film credits scroll by on television and looking up the names of crew members in the Los Angeles telephone book. “That’s how fascinated I was with movies,” he recalls.
Mostly, however, he was drawn to the producers, men like David O. Selznick. “I was fascinated with the lifestyle of these guys — how they lived, how they ran the show,” he says. “These guys lived like Saudi princes.”
After arriving in Hollywood in the 1970s, Mr. Silver got his break from the producer Lawrence A. Gordon, who needed an assistant. Mr. Gordon eventually employed him as an executive at his company and later worked with him as a partner. Mr. Silver quickly absorbed Hollywood’s rough-and-tumble ways. In 1991, he and Mr. Gordon parted ways and still do not speak to each other.
Mr. Silver now has over 25 films in active development, including a splashy adaptation of “Logan’s Run,” a 1976 movie about a futuristic society in which humans are terminated when they turn 30. Another project involves the comic book character Sgt. Rock.
“The core of the movie business remains intact,” says Mr. Silver. “And it’s not descending in scope. Studios want movies that are bigger than ever.”
PERHAPS, but studios also want small — something that Mr. Silver is trying to address with Project X, that unnamed teenage comedy in production on the Warner back lot.
Wearing a pair of his limited-edition Bathing Apes sneakers, Mr. Silver monitors a rehearsal of a fight sequence in the film. An actress, Kirby Bliss Blanton, runs over to him and gives him a hug.
“I love you!” she beams, before walking away.
Mr. Silver is startled by the hug, but it barely registers because he is too focused on other things, like a tricky scene coming up involving nudity.
“There aren’t a lot of guys like me left,” Mr. Silver says during a break. “But I’m a war horse. I’ve been through it all. And you know something about war horses? Through the sleet, through the snow — they just keep going.”