Pass Me An Oscar

Oscar nominations will be revealed unto the world on Feb. 13, at some ungodly hour, Pacific time. Already we can't stand the wait. Every year, at the height of the melee known as awards season, NEWSWEEK invites Hollywood's most acclaimed filmmakers to a hotel room in Beverly Hills for a full-contact discussion of movies, money and trophies. Directors have compared notes. Screenwriters have swapped outrages. This time we reached out to producers. It's a tenuous time in Hollywood. The Oscar race is strange and uncertain--Can Steven Soderbergh beat Steven Soderbergh?Will Miramax get shut out of the best-picture category?Will Liz Taylor be allowed near a podium?--and there's the threat of strikes by the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild. What follow are excerpts from the producers' two-hour talk.

NEWSWEEK: So who can tell me what it is that you people do for a living? Are you mostly on the phone all day long?

STACEY SHER: Oh, that was so cheap! Mostly on the phone all day long. That's the problem. That's the perception. Producing is probably the most undervalued job. It's the credit that's given away the quickest because it's really hard to define. But it's all-encompassing. For every movie it's a different thing. JAMES SCHAMUS: I spend most of my time on the phone.

SHER: You do? [Laughter]

Producers have to be willful, clearly. They have to keep pushing to get movies made when the studios keep saying no. Brian, you once said you were "completely impervious to rejection."

BRIAN GRAZER: Yeah, I still operate under that tenet. After my first success--after "Splash" --I was intoxicated to the state of just about euphoria for six months. And then I realized that people were still going to say no to the things that I wanted, no matter how smart I thought I was. This is what put it in perspective for me. At the time, Steven Spielberg was getting put into turnaround [i.e., put on hold] for "E.T."--after "Jaws" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." And I thought, "Wow, even this guy is getting put into turnaround."

Stacey, what were the early meetings like for "Erin Brockovich"? Was it difficult getting it made?

SHER: I remember when we were trying to get somebody to finance buying the rights to Erin Brockovich's life story. Before we moved over to Universal, we sat in a room with other executives where the actual Erin Brockovich told her life story. The executive yawned in the middle of it, and [executive producer] Carla Shamberg said, "I'm sorry. Are we keeping you awake?" Erin looked gorgeous. She's unbelievably compelling, and a great speaker. I'm reduced to tears--and I've got a brick wall in front of me...

SCHAMUS: I would simply add that there are a few movies I wish people hadn't let me make. I guess that's not for this panel. [Laughter] SHER: Yes, we'll have that conversation when the tape recorder is off.

How'd the "Crouching Tiger" pitches go?

SCHAMUS: We were pitching the movie while riding on the unbelievable wave of success that was "Ride With the Devil." [Laughter. "Devil" was a dud at the box office.] So there was that six-month period of euphoria, at which moment we decided to go around, hat in hand, and say, "By the way, we'd like to make the biggest Chinese-language movie ever made. And it's a martial-arts flick." It didn't make any sense whatsoever, but there is a hucksterism side to being a producer. There is a Barnum & Bailey aspect to the job. If you don't embrace [the sell] and love it, you'll never get a movie made anyhow.

Once you've gotten the studio to say yes, and they're onboard...

EDWARD ZWICK: But of those of us here at the table, how many of us have ever had a real green light?

GRAZER: Me. A lot.

ZWICK: Really? In the 10 movies that I've directed or produced, I cannot remember the very moment in which anybody has ever said, "Yes, you're doing this movie."

What is a fake green light?

SHER: It's very conditional. If you get this star. If you hit this [budget]. It's basically, "Bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West!"

When a movie opens, how soon do you know if it's a hit? After the Friday matinees in New York?

GRAZER: I don't trust that. I don't want to even hear it anymore. I just have anxiety the entire day. At night I go from theater to theater. I get drunk usually every time, because I am so neurotic about the whole thing. And then I wake up at 5 or 5:30 the next morning, and they either say it worked or it didn't work.

You all call each other at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday?

SHER: The head of distribution calls everybody, and you get a fax... The nice thing about going from theater to theater on opening night is, you get the movie back--you get to hear people actually talk about it for the first time. I love that.

DOUGLAS WICK: What's scary is, you see all the theaters where they forget to flip the Dolby switch.

ZWICK: Or they're cutting the top and bottom off of the frame!

WICK: Exactly... Brian is right about opening night: it's an itch you can never scratch. I mean, you're basically just anxious. On "Gladiator," my wife and I went to the theaters with [executive producers] Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald. We thought we had made a really good movie, but the sure thing that was going to bring people into the theaters was obviously seeing guys kill each other in the arena. So the first theaters we went to... When the audience came out, it was all male--and they all looked like they were in biker gangs. It was like, "Oh, my God, we think this is a very powerful movie and a romantic, spiritual story--and we ended up only having a biker gang there."

Well, bikers have feelings, too.

WICK: Yeah, but there are not that many of them. Believe me, if there were zillions, I would be happy to have all biker gangs. But by Satur-day night, there started to be women in the audience, which was a huge relief.

Jim, what was your experience on "Crouching Tiger"? Women love it.

SCHAMUS: We were scared of the action because we were scared it would drive away what we believed was the core audience for the film, which was female. But after the Cannes Film Festival screening all these women came out and said, "Oh, it was so great, and they kicked such butt!" We'd thought that the action and the romance were working at cross-purposes, but in fact the action has ended up selling it to women. And that's a wonderful change.

You also co-wrote the script. How much detail did you go into for the fight scenes?

SCHAMUS: Oh, I had a brilliant strategy for the fight scenes. I found two words that worked for each one. It was: "They fight." I knew we had ["Matrix" choreographer] Yuen Wo Ping. It was like, what do they need me for?

The world's obsessed with box office. It's depressing, isn't it?

ZWICK: We've all been co-opted by the numbers.

GRAZER: More than ever.

ZWICK: This notion of what the opening is, what the gross is... All of us at this table came to our passion for movies based on a love of movies, none of which we could sit here and name the grosses of. The whole culture has ascribed meaning to numbers. It began in the '80s when we didn't know what baseball players made, we didn't know what CEOs were paid... And now we're all prey to it. There is a constant reaffirmation of its importance in all our lives. So much of our days, our talk, becomes consumed by it that we begin to believe it.

Ordinary people don't just talk about opening weekends. They talk about "per-screen averages."

SHER: I once went to a wedding in Boca Raton, Fla., and they asked me if a movie that I had done was going to "have legs"!

Let's talk about Cameron Crowe's movie "Almost Famous."

SHER: I loooved "Almost Famous."

ZWICK: A great movie.

But if it had been made on a smaller budget, it could have been perceived as a great hit.

ZWICK: Possibly.

Why'd that movie cost $60 million?

[Dead silence]

SHER: There's not a single one of us that is going to take a shot at Cameron Crowe. [Laughter]

SCHAMUS: Duck and cover! Duck and cover!

Well, I tried.

WICK: You almost had us... Let me say one thing about these budgets. It is a lot easier to get $100 million than it is to get $25 million. Studios all want to be in the "event" film business.

That changes the content of movies.

ZWICK: Oh, I'll tell you what's changed the content of movies... Think about the need for an opening. If, for instance, you have the need to make $15, $20, $30 million on an opening weekend--and at the same time you need to service 2,000, 3,000 theaters--then already just by definition you have to appeal to some common denominator.

Is it fair to say this was a mediocre year for movies?

SCHAMUS: I think this was a bad year for crappy movies. The crappy movies really were so crappy that they kind of made a bigger splash in the sewage system of the world. A lot of the formula stuff just really crashed--which is great, by the way.

ZWICK: It's the best thing that could have happened.

SCHAMUS: But I do think that there are as many great films coming out of Hollywood and the rest of the world this year as there were last year. A lot of the films that are being considered as [Oscar] front runners this year... What I really enjoy about them is how seriously they take old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking. I look at things like "Gladiator," or "Crouching Tiger"--we were thinking about Errol Flynn when we were making the thing. Or "Traffic," which makes you think of things like Louis de Rochemont and Henry Hathaway and those kind of issue films. And there's "Brockovich." You know, it's really interesting to see this reinvigoration of grand old traditions in Hollywood.

Speaking of the Oscars... Stacey and Ed, you've got competing Steven Soderbergh movies.

SHER: I don't worry about it. I'm such a fan of Steven's that I just root for them both, and I kind of assume it's the same thing for Edward. And Steven will not take a position of one film versus the other. People keep saying, "Steven, you are going to have to jettison a film if you want to win!" And he says, "Would you jet-tison a child?"

ZWICK: The funny thing about the awards dance is... Look, between the people at this table, we probably know 4,000 of the 5,000 members of the Academy. And I don't know one of them who could be influenced by anything [now].

So what are Oscar campaigns for?

ZWICK: That's a very good question.

You think the studios are wasting their money? The campaigns clearly work. ZWICK: Why do you think they work?

Look at "Cider House Rules." That movie would not have been nominated had it not been for Miramax's campaign.

GRAZER: I agree with you. My God.

ZWICK: I was more referring to what might actually win.

WICK [to Zwick]: I don't think everybody's opinions are as ironclad as you do. I saw a great ad for "Cast Away" last night on TV. The ad was so riveting that it reminded me of the wondrous parts of that movie. I don't think people's opinions are quite that solid now. They think about the last thing they heard.

Ed, I have this poignant memory of you from when "Shakespeare in Love" won best picture. [Zwick was a producer on the movie, but Miramax's Harvey Weinstein gave the acceptance speech.] I remember your trying--and failing--to get your turn at the microphone before the orchestra started up again. Am I misremembering this? ZWICK: No, no. It's been variously referred to as a "mugging." But I think I had a choice at that moment between a random act of violence before a viewing public of 2 billion people or false modesty.

WICK: It was one of the riveting television moments.

Let's talk about the potential writer and actor strikes. They've become the new Y2K bug--everybody's waiting for the moment when there will suddenly be no more movies. Or, even worse, there will be all this junk that studios rushed into production to beat the strikes.

SCHAMUS: It's like the draft just got called and a lot of people are getting married in Vegas. They're making movies and babies, and nine months from now we will see what happens.

SHER: And we're gonna have to live with those movies. None of those movies are going to have an asterisk next to them that say, "We went into production six months sooner than we should have because there was a strike, and it would have been better."

Brian, you and Ron Howard are about to start shooting "Beautiful Mind" with Russell Crowe. Are you concerned about a writers' strike?

GRAZER: No. We've got enough prep time. We're fine.

But what if you need rewrites?

GRAZER: Well, we always have the writer there all the time, anyway. So the writ-er will be there throughout the shoot. SHER: But not if he's on strike.

WICK: He'll be wearing a mustache.

GRAZER: I don't have anxiety in relation to "Beautiful Mind." I have really smart actors. My experience is that actors know their role better than everybody. We're in good shape.

"The Grinch" was a massive hit. Do people call you more when you have a hit, because they want to congratulate you, or when you have a bomb, because they want to see how depressed you are?

GRAZER: Wow, I love that question, because it's so relevant to me. Too relevant in my world. Because "The Grinch" was sort of unusually successful, I got a lot of people that called and wrote letters. I don't know if I really buy it, but it feels better than the other... When I've had a movie that didn't do well at all, I've had people call and say, "How are you feeling? How are you doing?" I had one person try to develop an intimacy with me because, you know, "I don't want to be there just when things are great." And it's like, "Well, you weren't." [Laughter] People just want to know: what does the pain feel like? They're dying for you to show your pain.

What do you do? Do you show it?

GRAZER: Never.

BRIAN GRAZER

Plot: You know how this one goes: surly green dude, got picked on as a kid, hates Christmas, steals everyone's presents, yada yada yada

Oscar prospects: 'Grinch's' real winnings came (and came and came) at the box office--not always a recipe for Oscar glory. But its lavish look could win some technical nods. Best bet: Rick Baker's virtuoso makeup work on Jim Carrey.

Resume: One of the most powerful producers in Hollywood. After his first big hit, 1984's mermaid comedy 'Splash,' he formed Imagine Films with Ron Howard. The company has had a string of smashes, including 'The Nutty Professor,' 'Liar, Liar' and 'Apollo 13.'

DOUGLAS WICK

Plot: A beloved Roman general, marked for death by the slithery new Caesar, uses the Coliseum's blood sports to escape slavery, win the public's love and avenge his family's slaughter

Oscar prospects: Nominations all around: picture, director, actor (Russell Crowe), supporting actor (Joaquin Phoenix), screenplay, plus technical nods. But will it win anything? Curiously, its best shot is at the top prize. (It won best picture at the Golden Globes but only one other award.)

Resume: Wick's career took off with 'Working Girl' in 1988; recent credits include 'Girl, Interrupted' and 'Stuart Little'

STACEY SHER

Plot: A persistent, potty-mouthed single mom lands a filing job at a small-time law office, terrifies her co-workers and winds up leading a $330 million class-action lawsuit

Oscar prospects: Barring an upset, Julia Roberts will win Oscar No. 1 on her third try. Another smart bet: a supporting-actor nomination for Albert Finney. Director Steven Soderbergh might get nominated as well--but if he gets picked for 'Traffic,' too, it could hurt his chances of winning for either film.

Resume: Jersey Films, her venture with Michael Shamberg and actor Danny DeVito, made 'Pulp Fiction,' 'Get Shorty' and 'Out of Sight'

EDWARD ZWICK

Plot: Steven Soderbergh's broad, blistering tapestry about the war on drugs weaves together a Tijuana cop, a drug czar, his crack-addicted daughter, a kingpin's pregnant wife and a pair of DEA agents determined to bring him down

Oscar prospects: As with 'Gladiator,' expect a raft of nominations: best picture, director, actor (Michael Douglas), adapted screenplay, supporting actor (Benicio Del Toro)

Resume: Best known for creating TV's 'thirtysomething' with Marshall Herskovitz, but also directed big-screen hits 'Legends of the Fall' and 'Glory' and produced 'Shakespeare in Love'

JAMES SCHAMUS

Plot: An epic martial-arts romance about a feisty, troublesome girl, a pair of weary warriors and a stolen sword called the Green Destiny

Oscar prospects: Should get a best- picture nomination; if not, blame the language barrier (it's in Chinese). Golden Globe winner Ang Lee is a lock for a direction nom, as is Peter Pau for cinematography. And, of course, best foreign film.

Resume: Lee's longtime partner, Schamus wrote 'The Ice Storm' and co-wrote 'Crouching Tiger.' His production company, Good Machine, is an indie-hit factory.