The newly appointed vice president of production at a major studio was feeling his oats.
The promotion had elevated his confidence, and one of his first calls was to a veteran agent at the William Morris Agency to ask for a private meeting with a top movie star. Informed that the star would not meet with him, the exasperated VP railed, "Don't VP stripes count for anything any more?"
The agent responded quickly and definitively: "No."
He may be right. As recently as 10 years ago, vice president in charge of production was about the highest ranking title available in the production end of the movie business. Today, Hollywood is caught in the grips of a title inflation that borders on the ludicrous.
Earning your "stripes" (an informal term for VP) puts you in the middle of the production pack (see accompanying chart), but except for a reserved parking space and raised lettering on your business card, it guarantees little else. VPs now must answer to senior VPs who answer to executive VPs who must answer to--are you ready for this?--senior executive VPs.
"There's no way to stop it. It's a rolling stone that keeps gathering moss," said Larry Mark, who carries the rare distinction of being both a producer and an untitled "senior production executive."
The explosion in titles is the result of some sea changes in the movie business. Almost all of the studios today are publicly owned corporations that often are subsidiaries of much larger companies. That has introduced more layers of bureaucracy, which has cleared the path for more titles.
In addition, management has found that a good title can be a real cost-cutter. Impressive-sounding titles are often offered instead of money. "It can be a way of not giving someone a raise," said the president of production at one major studio. "You can make someone happy and still save money. "
Movie stars in front of the camera are not the only ones in the business with sensitive skins. "It's all done to feed the ego machine," said Peter Bart, a former VP of production at Paramount and now an independent producer.
Bart, who worked at Paramount from 1967 to 1975, said he promoted an underling to the then unused title of director of creative affairs for two reasons. First, as a former New York Times reporter writing about the advertising business, Bart had seen the term used at a number of agencies. Second, the man he promoted "was having some very creative romances--it was an inside joke between us."
But to the rest of the business, this was serious stuff. Within a year, five more directors of creative affairs were in place at the other studios, Bart said. Inevitably, once a position is created, other executives at that level feel they are entitled to the same title. It is not unusual, for example, for a VP of creative affairs being wooed by a rival studio to demand that he be made a VP of production in his new job. He may not get the extra money he wants but he has a good chance of landing the title, because it costs the studio nothing.
There is more than mere ego at stake though. Production executives are the buyers in the high-risk movie game. They are looking for fresh and commercial material. The primary sellers are agents who represent writers, producers, directors and actors. When selling material, agents shoot for the highest possible title assuming that rank carries the most weight in the buying decision. Why call a VP of creative affairs when you can just as easily dial the executive VP of production?
The blizzard of new titles has done more to blur than clarify responsibilities. The title boom is also used to share credit and blame. Does Paramount President of the Motion Picture Group Ned Tanen garner the executive credit for the success of "Top Gun" or does President of Distribution and Marketing Barry London share in the glory?
If all of this sounds confusing, imagine if you had to assign these titles. A few years ago Paramount issued a press release announcing that Buffy Shutt had been named president of marketing. In the same announcement Barry London was named president of marketing and distribution.
Like virtually everything else in Hollywood, these titles are subject to trends. "Worldwide" was hot for a while, as in Mark Canton, president of worldwide theatrical production for Warner Bros. You will notice that Warner Bros. has no president of U.S. production or executive VP in charge of motion pictures filmed in Rhode Island.
Canton notwithstanding, worldwide now seems out of vogue.
At times, the distinction among titles is virtually impossible to decipher. At MGM, the title of associate production executive was created only to be superseded by executive production associate. Thankfully, both are now out of use.
Inevitably, the currency of the titles has been devalued. President of production no longer carries the weight it did only several years ago. Now, there is usually a higher-ranking head of the motion picture division who reports to the parent company. Few, if any, production presidents today can actually green-light a movie. If not the president, who?
To be fair, the title of president does mean a good deal more than, say, senior executive VP of production. "When you're president, at least you get your phone calls returned," said one production president who insisted on anonymity.
Like the national deficit, title inflation in Hollywood seems to be spiraling out of control, with little hope for a solution. "Sure it would be lovely if one studio decided to call all of their people creative affairs executives," said one VP of production. "The problem is we are already hooked on this elaborate system. I understand an announcement is coming on the new president of the reception area here."
"I think there's room for expansion," said one executive. "I want to be known as publicity czar of the studio."
Why not? In the late 1970s when Dan Melnick was running Columbia, he jokingly told his staff he wanted to known as el jefe (Spanish for the chief). Thank God, they didn't take him seriously. Otherwise, we might now be reading about Paramount's prime minister of production or MGM's der Fuehrer of worldwide marketing.
Can king be far away?
The typical hierarchy at a film studio might resemble this chart.
CHAIRMAN & CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER PRESIDENT & CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER PRESIDENT, MOTION PICTURE DIVISION PRESIDENT, PRODUCTION EXECUTIVE V.P., PRODUCTION V.P. PRODUCTION / V.P. PRODUCTION / V.P. PRODUCTION V.P. CREATIVE AFFAIRS / V.P. CREATIVE AFFAIRS V.P. CREATIVE AFFAIRS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PRODUCTION PRODUCTION EXEC. / PRODUCTION EXEC. PRODUCTION EXEC. / PRODUUCTION EXEC. EXECUTIVE STORY EDITOR STORY EDITOR STORY ANALYST / STORY ANALYST / STORY ANALYST STORY ANALYST / STORY ANALYST / STORY ANALYST