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bill mechanic

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Bill Mechanic, now an independent producer, was chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Filmed Entertainment from 1994 to 2000, where he oversaw production of such hits as "Titanic" (1997), "Braveheart" (1995), and "Boys Don't Cry" (1999). Prior to that, Mechanic was president of international distribution and worldwide video at Walt Disney Studios. In this interview, he discusses the challenges of running a major studio in today's corporate Hollywood, the lure of the big salary for today's young actors, and why he still thinks Hollywood can turn the corner.

This interview was conducted in April 2001.

What was it like running a studio?

I would say it's not a lot of fun. What it was, was a lot of challenge. ... Fox was pretty much in the doldrums, and then we went on a pretty good seven-year run. Two years to kind of get going again, and then by the third year or fourth year, I think we were number one in the world. The last five years [have been the] most profitable years in Fox history. But it was a daily kind of grind. ... Something would go wrong, somewhere in the world, every day. ...

What kind of changes have you seen in the business?

The biggest change is you're just getting this conglomeratization of America. It's not America -- the world of business and the media conglomerates are just getting bigger and bigger and usurping all different things, even though they don't care about these things that they're amassing. So giant corporations own these little, to them, these little studios and television production companies. And they really don't care about the movies or television shows that they're making. They only care if they make money. The old paradigm of, "If you make something good, then it makes money," is completely secondary to, "Don't stick out, and make money." And I think it's driving the creative content into a terrible place.

How does the corporatization affect the studio as they approach a film?

... It affects the studio boss. ... It's one of those things where it's inevitable that you're going to lose. It's inevitable that you're going to make a movie that, despite your best intentions, the public says, "We don't want to see it," and you're not going to return your investment on a picture. That's been true for the history of movies. Nobody has ever defined that basic law of gravity. The old paradigm that the movie business ran on despite all the changes, all the technology, all the markets over all the years is still true -- that your hits have to pay for your losses.

And so what happens is people are afraid of the losses more than looking for the hits, and you start cutting off edges on movies. You start saying, "It has to have a happy ending." Well, the story is going in a direction where the correct ending may not be literally a happy ending. And the audiences look at it and go, "Well, it's stupid. How could that happen at the end of this picture?" And around the world, they have a different term for it. The international [movie-goers see it] and say, "It's too American." And it means, in a way, that you've sold out, and there's no creative truth to the product.

The corporatization of the studios is affecting what we see?

Absolutely, absolutely. There's no question. Everything's played short term. Nobody's looking at what's going to live on. They're worried about, "How do I live on? ... How do I avoid getting fired?"

The media's part of it, because it calls so much attention to executives. ... Today, people like myself, [are] in the news way too much, including right now. Other than the owners of the studios -- the Louis Mayers and the people like that, Jack Warner, from the past, other than Irving Thalberg -- people couldn't name three people who ran these companies.

How about the fascination with the weekly box office?

[It is] one of the factors that have made the movie business the worst business to be in, beyond these companies getting too big and not caring. [It] started with "E.T." ... The Wall Street Journal runs "Winners and Losers," [and] it just creates a mind-set of, "Who wants to go see a loser?" That loser might be the best movie on the list.

In spite of everything, there are people who will fight the system. I think the more fed up some people get, the better it will be because they'll walk away from the money.

In the past, you could start a movie off and it would do OK, and it was good. Week on week, you could pick up business or stay there. Now, if you're not number one or two -- and people are lying about what's number one and two half the time -- you're pretty much dead meat. In two weeks, you're not even in the theater.

It happens all around. I'll get a call from my mother, [who] says, "Hear your movie didn't open well." Why should she care? It doesn't have anything to do with the picture itself. ...

Talk about the relationship between the weekend grosses and stock market.

Not too much connection there. The movie companies are, again, parts of such big conglomerates. ... Somebody told me that Warner Brothers Film, the studio part, is 5 percent of the AOL Time Warner total gross. So you could have the biggest movie in the world, and it doesn't have that much affect.

[Note: For a breakdown of the numbers -- how much the studios contribute to the conglomerates that now own them, see "A Small Piece of a Big Pie" in the "Anatomy of a Monster" section of this website.]

What do you think is the mind-set of creative people?

There's a perversion inside the process that turns everything into money, more and more and more. So there's fewer young actors who, after they get a little taste of what happens, want to be Marlon Brando as much as they want to make $20 million, not understanding that the $20 million is a burden. ... You have to have a movie that justifies that kind of salary, that has a different kind of content than Marlon Brando going off to do "Streetcar Named Desire" or "The Wild One" or "More Flights Of Fancy" and "Last Tango" or the odder, more interesting choices that he made. It makes you make a choice to, "What's the biggest kind of movie I can be in?" And I think it subverts careers.

Talk about trying to hold the line against big salaries.

You can't hold the line. ... Producing a picture, you're defined by your stupidest competitor. ... So sometimes your job is to be stupid. It's a case of being smart enough to know when to be stupid; [that's] the correct definition of that job.

And how do you do it, how you decide when and where, is really the issue. There are times -- Tom Hanks in "Castaway" -- wouldn't have made the movie without Tom Hanks. Not only was it his idea, but that movie without Tom Hanks -- which grosses $450 million or $500 million around the world -- is a movie that grosses $150 million without Tom. He's ... arguably the biggest star in the world. And in that movie, you couldn't put a better person. In that case, you pay what it takes to get the movie made.

Why I advocated the other is you can't live a lot on that. So "Dude, Where's My Car?" probably made more money for Fox than "Castaway" did, as odd as that may seem to people. And so I was always looking for ideas that are strong enough that they don't need that star in it. Then you have the choice of, "Is it worth it for me to pay the extra money?" because I know I've got an easier road.

This is, again, part of the process of what most people do. I get to sleep at night if I put Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts or anybody who really is a true movie star. ... Or do I take the chance and say, "I believe in this movie enough to bring some freshness to it and find somebody." And actually, I always found that a little bit more fun to do. ... Helping to create new stars was, to me, a lot of fun. And economically, it is why Fox was so profitable.

Is there a cultural divide between executives that started 30 years ago and executives starting now?

No. ... I think most people won't make the sacrifices to make "King of Marvin Gardens." I had Phil Kaufman, the fellow at Fox who made "Quills," who is one of those guys who's spanned multiple generations and had done great work and gotten to where he was doing all the big studio work. And we made "Quills" for $11 million ... and didn't have to make any compromises making the movie. It had a strong voice to it, and [it was a] very unique and idiosyncratic movie, as much as any movie from the past.

But you couldn't do it the way that Phil Kaufman had made "Rising Sun" or "Right Stuff" or even the "Unbearable Lightness of Being." That won't happen today, to make what used to be the million-and-a-half-dollar movie or the $800,000 movie. ... Now [the] bottom line is usually $30 million or $40 million.

If you make it for $30 million, $40 million, you have to have a mass audience. Ticket prices haven't gone up enough to take that same audience size in 1970 and the same number of people going in 2000, and you just lost $20 million. So you have to actually make it for less money, proportionally, to inflation from the past. But it's possible to do. ... I don't get 105 days or 90 days to shoot it. I've got to shoot in 30 days or 45 days. Or I've got to shoot it in Prague or I've got to double Toronto as New York. Or I don't get to build this beautiful set; I've got to shoot in a real location. So it's imperfect. But those are the things you got to do. When they made "Easy Rider," that's what they did. ...

What keeps you going?

I love movies still. ... I love when a movie works and it shuts everything down and you're transported in time and space and affected by it. And I think it's an amazing thing in my life that I've been able to do that for other people. ...

[What changed at the studios?]

... There's nothing in the system that stops, puts the brakes on. ... Saying "no" in Hollywood is a good way to get everybody turned against you so, it's a dangerous job.

You know, in the days when movies worked as a business a little bit better, where there were ... great films, and it still worked as a business, the people who ran the studios owned them. So, you know, there's a different mind-set in that, in that process. ... And now it's, you know, just all passed along because you're five percent of the total income [of a conglomerate] so it doesn't matter.

... Everything you can do that makes your job safer makes it less profitable. It's just a one-for-one kind of thing that happens. ... You know, like, the biggest grossing movie last year probably didn't make any money for the studio, so now your hit doesn't pay for your losses. So now you're in a really fundamentally bad business if you're running it that way. ...

If it wasn't for television, I'm sure that the conglomerates would shut down the movie business completely. ... If you're being honest about it, you'd say, I'm in a lousy business. I'm making no money. I don't know why I'm doing what I'm doing. I have to change it. I have to fundamentally start to say one word, "No." And nobody will do that. So, you know, I sit there with people, I used to pull out statements, show them, you know. It's not hidden stuff. Here it is. I got the most profitable studio in the business and, you know, I could be in the grocery business, making more money.

Is it harder making the kind of movies that you want to make?

Yes, always is. People are in your ear saying, "It can't work, it can't work, it can't work. Don't do this, don't do this. Too dangerous, too dangerous, too dangerous." I think you have to have a lot of resolve. You want people to come as seriously to the party as you are, and I think that happened more and more at Fox. And it's certainly happening here [at] Pandemonium. ... There are people who are coming to it because they know we're serious about what we're doing, and if you're going to fail, you're going to fail with dignity. ...

Talk about what studio heads were like 30 years ago versus today.

Again, I think it was much easier, because 30 years ago, the studios [weren't] vertically integrated. Two big things. The studios produced, controlled the contracts, so there was no salary inflation. [They] owned the theaters. And it was a simpler business. Thirty years ago, you have television, so your sequential distribution was pretty limited -- didn't take a lot of sophistication. Put it in theaters, sell it to television, get whatever money you can out of overseas, and that's the business.

Now, you're in theaters, you're in pay-per-view, you're in home video, ... you're in cable, you're in free network, you're in basic cable, you're back on something else. ... So, very sophisticated business. You don't own the theaters, so you have to fight to get your film booked properly. So this highly sophisticated world is going on around you with costs that are going crazy.

Every time you want to get somebody, you don't say, "OK, Bette Davis, this month, you're in this movie." And she might complain and act up a little bit. But basically, she was under contract to Warner Brothers at that time. She had to go do that movie. And this director, John Ford, made five movies a year. He didn't sit there and say, "I've got to have a longer shooting schedule," and "I'm not going to turn the movie. I want an extra eight pay weeks and another $50 million," or whatever it is. And the system moved, worked much more efficiently. You're basically in control of the world, 30 years ago. And if you're doing the job today, you're as much a pawn in this system as anybody in any other job. ...

What's the most disturbing trend you've seen?

I think the movies are kind of lousy. ... If you wanted to go see a movie this week, I promise you, there's barely a movie to see. And yet, [there are] 40 movies or 50 movies in distribution. I wanted to go to a movie last week, and there wasn't anything I wanted to see. There hasn't been for a few weeks. ...

To me -- and I don't mean this with any disrespect at all to the film -- there was no best picture last year. Was "Gladiator" the best of the choices? Not for me to judge. ... "Gladiator" didn't transport my life, and nothing on those top five movies did. Erin Brockovich didn't change my life. They're good movies, well made, good pieces of entertainment. I enjoyed them. Do I think they're the ultimate test of greatness? Ridley Scott made "Blade Runner," and "Blade Runner" is, to me, a much better movie than "Gladiator." "Alien" is a better movie than "Gladiator." Those movies will stand the test of time or have stood the test of time.

So to me, the worst thing that's going on is this: The way of the world is kind of faceless movies, pop entertainment. ... But movies can do more than that. And you can make money doing movies that do more than that.

Is it going to get better or worse?

Probably worse. It's very hard to reverse the trend. . ... You have people who will always fight it, but it's harder for an independent to make a movie today than it was before. What Miramax has done in marketing of independent films, which everybody applauded, is part of the destruction of the process. Now you make a movie for a couple of million dollars, but you're spending $20 million to market it. It has to do $30 million, $40 million dollars at the box office. And most independent films can do $10 million at the box office and that should be a success; $20 million should be a home run. ...

"Traffic," I developed at Fox and then had to put in turnaround, because it cost too much money. It's a movie [that] should have been made for very little money, and it was made for way too much money. So it had to do $100 million to work. And in the end, it did. But you're betting on a very, very, narrow margin of success, and that you don't want to do too often.

Any encouraging signs?

In spite of everything, there are people who will fight the system. I think the more fed up some people get, the better it will be, because they'll walk away from the money. And there is talent that can make things happen in a completely positive way. ...

There's something to the fact that an owner/operator will take more chances and do more interesting things than a conglomerate. ... I think we did some stuff at Fox, but that was fighting the system from the rest of the world. "Matrix," and "Three Kings" came out of Warner Brothers, and there's a movie here, a movie there. But I think what Miramax did 10 years ago, when they were independent and they had to fight for their lives, it was great. I think what New Line did 10 years ago, when they were independent, was interesting in a very different way -- fresh, vital, taking chances. And I think what DreamWorks has done in the five years of their existence has gotten better and better.

So I'm hoping my little owner/operator thing will do the same thing. You're responsible, good or bad, for what you're doing. Financially and creatively, there's nobody to hide behind, and you're only alive if you do something that's worthwhile. ...

[Note: Read more about the state of independent filmmaking today.]

Why pay [stars such large salaries]?

... I'm trying not to use names. I don't burn people, but you could do it from Fox. With DreamWorks, we made "What Lies Beneath," [with] Michelle Pfeiffer, Harrison Ford, Bob Zemeckis directing. [It was] I guess the seventh or eighth biggest movie of the year. [It] barely made a profit, because it was expensive to make.

A lot of the back end of the movie goes off to the talent. What's left for two studios to split up is fairly minimal. So there's a big hit that has nothing to pay for a loss, barely enough to pay for your overheads and the cost of operations. So why do you do it? As an occasional appetite, it's something, because if you're doing all no-name, no-nothing movies, a lot of those movies will perish, and there's no floor. ...

If "What Lies Beneath" had not worked, it would still do some business, and you need a couple in there to prop it up. What happens, I think, more than anything else, is people are, again, wanting to justify their jobs and wanting to say, "Look it, I put Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer and Bob Zemeckis together. I put Jim Carrey in "Grinch," put Mel Gibson in "Patriot." Wouldn't you do that?" It's very hard to say, "Well, no. I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't put anybody in it." ...

The stronger the idea, the less you need a cast. Then it's your choice, as opposed to, "Oh, this isn't really a strong idea, but I think it's a good movie, and so now I'll put somebody in it." Or here's a bad idea, and somebody's looking to make money, [and] you pay them to be in your movie. That usually makes bad movies and rarely makes profit. People do it to justify their jobs, to look good, to let them sleep at night, feel like they're safe. ...

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