Where do great movies come from? When Netflix first started making its own shows a decade ago, Ted Sarandos and his colleagues asked this question to pick the creatives in town. It was a clever exercise – but most respondents insisted there was no answer.
Coincidentally, I had asked this question many times over the years with equally ambiguous results. Saul Zaentz, the fiery film and music producer, once offered this answer: “Great movies come from terrible people who fight you every step of the way and make your life miserable.”
Misery or not, Zaentz’s independent company has managed to produce three Best Picture winners over the years and his music company has earned millions from Creedence Clearwater Revival. Never a part of Hollywood’s corporate structure, Zaentz and his accomplishments harken back to the banner days of the indie era – from Samuel Goldwyn to John Heyman, Dino De Laurentiis and Francis Coppola. At that time, even Don Rugoff, an exponent and independent producer, was a key player in the careers of filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese to European masters like Ingmar Bergman.
While Hollywood companies have often found a way to co-exist with these mavericks and feed off of these mavericks, their ranks have dwindled significantly over the years. The current version of the Independent Innovator is more akin to Peter Chernin’s model; Last week, Chernin unveiled an amalgamation of financial deals that is expected to raise some $800 million in equity and debt financing.
The product, he said, would be “premium content,” yet to be identified, much of which is aimed at the international market. Chrenin’s deal follows recent announcements of the $725 million SpringHill deal (LeBron James is involved) and a $760 million Legendary deal and a $900 million Hello Sunshine deal ( Reese Witherspoon).
Now 71, Chernin is the opposite mirror of a Zaentz-like profile: Cautious and calculating, Chernin ran Fox in the days of Rupert Murdoch and, like Murdoch, was rarely heard from express their passion for a particular film or filmmaker. Chernin’s official biography suggests the merit of Titanic and Avatar, but when the fierce fights broke out over production delays or funding shortfalls, media inquiries were directed to lower executives. I once sat next to Murdoch at a major Fox screening, and when I asked him his opinion on the film, he said, “Ask Chernin – he gives his line ‘no opinion ‘ faster than me.”
Ultimately, the question surrounding all of these deals, including Chernin’s, goes back to that stressful “big movie” question. Will this tremendous funding somehow end up in the hands of creatives who have either the drive or the ambition to create exciting content? Granted, this question mixes apples and oranges, but, as Zaentz would say, is there anything in the rhetoric that resembles a mission statement or point of view?
Zaentz was a burly man with a bushy white beard who had a view on everything and was always ready to argue. He started out in the music business managing tours for Duke Ellington and Stan Getz, then signed to bands like CCR, fronted by John Fogerty.
The Zaentz-Fogerty association sparked a stream of music and litigation. Fogerty even created a hit record around the lyrics, “Zaentz can’t dance but he can fly.”
The films Zaentz zealously produced reflected his wide range of intellect and adventure: Flight over the cuckoo’s nest, Amadeus, the English patient and The Mosquito Coast. Even the titles of his films suggested their magnitude: The Unbearable Lightness of Being and At stake in the fields of the Lord.
My encounters with Zaentz have been exuberant and combative. Like Michael Douglas, his cuckoo’s nest co-producer, said of him, “Saul was all about courage – the courage to take on the big idea and also to see it through.”
Zaentz would have loved to learn how to navigate the mega-deals announced today, but would also have been appalled by the focus on streaming. Indeed, if Sarandos had asked him where the big movies came from, he probably would have smiled and replied, “They come from me. Count on it.”