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DAVID PICKER: OUT OF THE COLD, INTO COLUMBIA

Times Staff Writer

The topic of the evening was the announcement of David Picker’s appointment as the new president of Paramount. Many Hollywood insiders expressed surprise that a successful independent packager and producer such as Picker would return to a studio position, yet one studio executive claimed: “It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Picker has been an independent long enough to know that it is mighty cold out there.”

--L.A. Times item, 1976

Ten years later, David Picker has once again come in from the cold.

As the recently named president and chief operating officer of Columbia Pictures, Picker is the No. 2 man alongside Columbia Chief Executive David Puttnam.

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To the writers, producers and agents of the movie business, that’s good news. Picker is fresh blood, a new buyer, someone who might say yes to a script that has already been turned down at every major studio.

Since his first job in the movie game, as a $110 a week clerk in the ad department at United Artists, Picker has headed production for three studios. As an independent producer and an executive, he has made or shepherded into production more than a dozen films, including, “Lenny,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “Won Ton Ton, the Dog That Saved Hollywood.”

By going with Puttnam and Picker, the Coca-Cola Co. seems to have taken a lesson from its ill-fated experiment in the cola wars. In this case it opted for the old formula, sacrificing the current youth-oriented “flavor-of-the-week” mentality that has gripped much of Hollywood and putting its money behind veteran, established players.

Picker, 55, bears few of the typical trappings of today’s Hollywood executives. Yes, that’s his Mercury Marquis station wagon in his assigned parking space on the Columbia lot. He wears button-down dress shirts and jeans to work almost every day (albeit with Gucci loafers) and for the last 4 1/2 years his home was not some Mediterranean-style mansion in Beverly Hills but an apartment on New York’s Upper West Side.

But don’t let the preppy accouterments fool you, Picker is blue-blood show business. Third generation to be exact. His grandfather, who emigrated from Russia in the late 19th Century, bought a nickelodeon in the Bronx on borrowed money and later built the company into a 13-chain theater. (Loew’s Corp. later purchased the operation.) His father worked for Loew’s for years, rising to president of its theater division. His uncle was one of the founding partners of the re-formed United Artists.

After college (Dartmouth) and the Army, Picker went to work at UA in 1956 where he eventually rose to head up production. While there, he was instrumental in greenlighting the James Bond movies, the Oscar-winning “Tom Jones” and the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!”

In 1972 he became an independent producer for UA when Transamerica Corp. purchased the studio. So began a career of traversing between the power world of the studio bureaucracy and the entrepreneurial ranks of independent production.

Most studio executives who succeed at producing don’t return to the executive ranks. The money is usually not as good and the headaches far more intense. Picker says what made him return was the personal rapport he had developed over the years with Puttnam.

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(They met while Picker was production head of Paramount and worked together on a number of projects including “Bugsy Malone” and “The Duellists.”)

He also wanted to be at the center of the action. “Sometimes you miss it” (the day-to-day business of Hollywood), says Picker. “When you’re actually making a movie, you don’t even think about it, but it’s those in-between periods.”

“It has to do with liking the discipline,” says veteran producer Martin Elfand, a close friend. “He’s been successful at both (producer and executive) and he has the experience. He has a lot of advantages because he has run studios, he has done everything you are supposed to have done in that position.”

So now Picker’s back and buying. Puttnam and Picker immediately discarded 57 scripts from Columbia’s development coffers, slashing almost half of the studio’s material. So what will he replace them with? What does he want?

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“That’s almost impossible to answer,” he says. “The yardstick is, I will respond to something I like. I respond to what works for me, whether it’s the film maker and his passion for the project or if it’s a story I believe in.”

Those who know him say Picker has a reputation as an accessible executive who makes quick decisions and stands by them. “He’s very much a writer’s friend,” says one agent who insisted on anonymity. “He’s taken a lot of risks, and some of them have wound up as big hits and others did not pay off.”

These days, while hundreds of scripts are pouring into the studio, Picker says he reads about a dozen a week. “I will read whatever comes from somebody whose taste, talent and friendship or ability I’m interested in,” he says. “Obviously I can’t read everything.” Picker is one of the few executives in town who will readily admit that neither he nor anyone else has that much-sought-after “golden gut” that can instinctively tell what words will translate from the printed page into a hit on the screen. “I’ve always said that if I made all the movies I turned down and passed on all of the movies I made, my career would have probably turned out the same,” he says. “As long as I have the responsibility, I am going to make these decisions based on my instincts and David’s. We are men who are not afraid to like something and we are not afraid to say no.”

Picker and Puttnam have said no to the bulging salaries and soaring costs of “packaging,” where director, star(s) and writer are sold as a unit to a studio. But how do you get Dustin Hoffman to star in your movie for $4 million up front if the competition paid him $6 million on his last effort?

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“It may mean you don’t make a movie with Dustin Hoffman,” says Picker. “If I want to buy my way into the business then I pay the highest salaries and I can be in business with anyone I want. But that’s not the way we want to do it. We want to make Columbia the place where film makers want to come to make their movies. Our philosophy is simple: We want to make pictures we believe in at economic risks that are sound.”

That doesn’t mean they will all be low- or middle-budget fare only. Puttnam and Picker have already announced that Columbia will make Ridley Scott’s $12.8-million “Someone to Watch Over Me” as well as the $12.5-million “Little Nikita” starring Sidney Poitier and River Phoenix. Part of their deal with parent company Coca-Cola stipulates that Puttnam and Picker will have total autonomy on all movie-making decisions involving productions budgeted under $30 million.

Puttnam and Picker will be able to shoulder the blame--or garner the credit--for the movies that come out of Columbia over the next few years. “We’re here because it’s what we want to do at this time in our lives,” he says. “If it turns out that they (Coca-Cola) are unsatisfied with us or we are unsatisfied with them, we’ll just change.”

And then Picker may have to fire up his station wagon and head out into the cold once again. In the meantime, like Eddie Felson in “The Color of Money,” he’s back.

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