The Secret of His Success : Lee Rich Gives the Public What It Wants

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He brought TV audiences such long-running hits as "Dallas," "Knots Landing" and "The Waltons," but mention television today to producer Lee Rich and you're likely to get an earful. Listen in:

"Television stinks. There is no way you can make money in television today."

Or:

"I'd get rid of everybody who runs (the networks) . . . You can't have General Electric running a network. They make refrigerators. . . . Larry Tisch running a network? Come on. You got to be kidding."

Or:

"(The networks) are still doing what they used to do. They still schedule the same way. They still think the same way. And they don't understand that the public is saying, 'Screw you, Charlie. I can go across the street or down the block.' "

With candor that is refreshing in Hollywood, Rich does not mince words. But it isn't only television that elicits his tough opinions. He thinks Hollywood pays too much attention to box-office grosses rather than a film's profitability.

"It's fine to do movies and say, 'We made big grosses,' but you've got to go back and ask, 'How much did it cost?' and 'Where do you make your profit?' "

Why don't the studios learn? "It's very easy to find out. The same people go from chair to chair to chair."

But lest you think that Lee Rich has soured on the town that made him a force to be reckoned with, think again. With scant fanfare, Rich--who co-founded Lorimar and once ran MGM/UA--has become a prolific supplier of films to the major studios.

This past weekend, Rich's latest movie, "Passenger 57" earned $10.6 million in its opening weekend, making it the country's No. 1 box-office attraction. The $15-million film stars Wesley Snipes as an airline security operative who battles terrorists at 30,000 feet.

While the film garnered its share of negative reviews (The Times' Kenneth Turan said the filmmakers all come from TV and it shows), Rich believes that "Passenger 57" not only showcases the talents of a rising star in Snipes, but it gives audiences what they want in a thriller: fast-paced action spiced with humor.

"You sit there for an hour-and-a-half (84 minutes) to be entertained," Rich said. "You walk out and you've had a good time. That's all you can ever ask of a movie."

Rich said the recent box-office success of "Under Siege" starring Steven Seagal is a reminder that the public yearns for this kind of action hero, one who battles the bad guys yet doesn't take himself too seriously.

"I think the violence and everything else (in action films) turns them off," he said. "If you can have a little humor with it, they accept it for what it is."

The problem with Hollywood, Rich believes, is that too often the people who put movies into production think all they need is a high-priced star and high-priced director and they are guaranteed a hit. Rich cites a movie he made as proof that this isn't necessary. The 1990 Seagal film "Hard to Kill" cost $12 million and brought in $50 million. "We sold 350,000 videocassettes," he said.

"I want to do pictures in the area of $12 million to $20 million. After that, I get a little nervous. If I go to $22-23 million, that's fine. But I want to do them in that area. I'm in this business to make money. I'm not in the business to do $100 million on a picture that cost $70 million."

To interview Rich is a chance to view in one individual the dramatic changes that have swept over the entertainment industry over the past three decades. Rich says today he is 59, but his age is in dispute: A 1980 Newsweek story and a 1981 People magazine profile gave his age as 55, and in 1985, a Lorimar spokesman told The Times Rich was 62.

Seated in his office on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, dressed comfortably in a blue sweater, he is not what the public usually envisions when it thinks of a Hollywood producer. There are no open collars and dangling chains, no false flattery, no "Let's do lunch sometime." What you get is straight talk from a man whose career spanned the years when advertisers exerted enormous influence on TV programming, through the rise and decline of the networks, to the transfer of power from studios to movie superstars and their agents, to the emergence of Hollywood as the dominant voice in worldwide entertainment.

He came from the world of advertising. "In those days, the advertiser really controlled the shows," Rich recalled. Many people who would assume influence on television worked for him, including former NBC Chairman Grant Tinker. He came in close contact with Danny Thomas, Sheldon Leonard, Carl Reiner and others who would shape an entire TV generation. As a representative of the advertisers, Rich would often be on the set reading scripts before giving the approval of his clients.

"I got to know everybody," he said. When the networks usurped the authority of the advertisers, he decided to get out. "I just wanted to be in business for myself, rather than for somebody else."

He set up shop with a secretary and began doing movies of the week for TV.

One day, a man named Earl Hamner Jr. walked in with a copy of his book called "The Homecoming." Rich decided to make a two-hour movie for TV and the ratings went through the roof. It was the break he needed.

"I thought it was going to do very well, but it surprised me how well. It got like a 40 share. Whoosh!"

Fred Silverman, then head of programming at CBS, wanted to turn it into a series and suggested that Rich get Henry Fonda, who had played the lead in the movie "Spencer's Mountain," also based on Hamner's book, to star. So Rich and Hamner rushed to Chicago, where Fonda was performing, and, on a cold Sunday afternoon, screened the show for the famous actor.

"He looked at it and said, 'What do you want me for? The kids are the stars of the picture. John Boy's the star of the picture. The father's not the star of the picture.' "

Thus, "The Waltons" was born.

Other Rich ratings winners like "Dallas," "Knots Landing," "Falcon Crest" and "Eight Is Enough" followed. In all, he produced 48 television programs, including the made-for-TV movie "Sybil," and Lorimar won 36 Emmy Awards before he departed.

"I knew the public was ready for 'Dallas,' " Rich said. "All we did was take a daytime soap and jazz it up. Daytime soaps had worked for 35 years. All we did was make it sexier and dirtier and what we could get away with. More outlandish characters."

But the dynamic that made television such a boon for producers like Rich has begun to fade. Network officials don't give a TV series a chance to succeed as they used to, he said. Where once the networks ordered an initial 13 episodes, they now order six. And they yank those before the characters can be fully developed.

The networks pay series producers a licensing fee that doesn't cover all of the actual costs of a series, and the producers must try to recoup the shortfall through syndication. "If you get (an hour) series, you may be $200,000 to $300,000 per episode over," he said.

In addition, network executives show little creativity when it comes to scheduling, Rich said--they use the same tired scheduling techniques when they should be directly challenging cable competitors. Rich said if he ran things he'd give each night of the week a different theme. One night, for example, could be youth-oriented, the next night devoted to older viewers, the next night given over to movies, the next to music and so on.

Rich said he doesn't watch many TV shows anymore, although he likes "Murphy Brown," "Designing Women" and "Northern Exposure." But he wonders why audiences bother watching shows like "Love & War." On that show, he said, all the characters seem interested in is sex.

"Every week, it's all they talk about . . . 'I'm gonna take her away on a weekend and we're gonna get laid!' And she is talking, 'Oh, this weekend, we're gonna get laid!' Oh, come on!"

His independent production company currently has a first-look non-exclusive deal with Warner Bros., although he has projects in development at other major studios as well. Among the films in pre-production are "Just Cause," a story about a Florida journalist who resurrects the case of a convicted murderer only to find himself the pawn in a scheme masterminded by a serial killer on Death Row, which Norman Jewison is set to direct; "Mutation," a science-fiction thriller by author Robin Cook; and "Boss of Bosses," the true account of two FBI agents who investigated Mafia boss Paul Castellano.

Rich believes movies have incredible financial potential in the 1990s, what with domestic and foreign box office, television, video and the like.

But recently, Rich had a box-office bomb in "Innocent Blood," the John Landis-directed film about a sexy female vampire who only feeds on killers. It starred Anne Parillaud of "La Femme Nikita."

"I believe we never recognized how to sell this movie," Rich said. "The picture went totally on its ass. I was totally depressed. In 1,300 theaters and do less than $2 million on a weekend? Come on! I must tell you, I don't know what happened."

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