As a commercial fisherman in his 20s, Joe Singer sometimes fished for sharks. Now, he's swimming with them.
It's one of those improbable, catapulting career stories that seem to only happen in Hollywood, where one moment no one takes your call and the next moment, Denzel Washington is on line two.
So, who is Joe Singer?
That's the question many of Hollywood's top movie executives and agents have been asking ever since he emerged from virtual obscurity last week to claim one of the most coveted production posts at MCA/Universal Pictures. Singer reached this position even though he has never been on a movie set for more than a couple of hours and has yet to see his name as a producer on the big screen. His surprise hiring brought him notes of congratulation as well as blatant resentment from some long-toiling executives at Universal and elsewhere around town.
In his new role as executive vice president of production, Singer--a former New York investment banker--holds a job which normally pays anywhere from $300,000 to more than $500,000 a year. Sources say Singer is getting the high end of the industry standard. His high-ranking job--which involves setting up major movie deals for the studio--guarantees that agents and their star clients will return his calls and that he'll a great table at Cicada.
This year, sources add, he'll collect an additional seven-figure total for producing Universal's now shooting "Daylight," starring Sylvester Stallone, and Fox 2000's upcoming production "Courage Under Fire," starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan--both of which he helped set up in his former role as an independent producer.
Why Singer got the MCA job says a lot about how hungry studios are these days for star-driven projects. Colleagues describe Singer as a first-rate schmoozer, someone who has become good at stroking talent, an important quality at a studio led by one of Hollywood's most prolific schmoozers, MCA President Ron Meyer.
Singer, a 35-year-old New Yorker with a George Hamilton tan and the unabashed relentlessness of a young Jeffrey Katzenberg, is fast gaining a reputation for being a first rate hustler at chasing material.
"I'm the most aggressive person I know," says Singer, acknowledging that he has to "tone it down all day long . . . I have an incredible drive." He says he has no problem calling someone 10 times a day until he gets what he wants. He works nightly until 11 p.m., begins reading scripts at 6 a.m. and has "21 meals a week around business." He has two phones on his desk and frequently talks on both at once.
It's his aggressiveness and ability to move quickly and put together big "event-type" star-driven commercial movies that caught Universal production President Hal Lieberman's eye.
"The market is very competitive and you need someone gung-ho to do it," says Lieberman, noting, "I need pictures and this guy knows how to put pictures together."
Singer did not come up the traditional Hollywood ladder, answering phones and making sure the muffin gift baskets arrive on time while toiling at the feet of a high-powered producer or studio executive. As a result, his appointment has chaffed some colleagues and triggered a whisper campaign about his previous professional and educational background.
Lieberman, who's held every executive position at Universal over the past 7 1/2 years before landing his current position, says, "I'm particularly sensitive to this issue and mindful of my other executives and have reassured them this appointment in no way precludes their success."
The son of a suburban New York psychiatrist, Singer showed up at producer John Davis' office about 3 1/2 years ago, where he had a connection through an old friend. Davis gave him a phone and a desk in the hallway to try and set up deals.
Singer found Hollywood "a closed club" until his first break, which came last year when he called former William Morris agent Peter Turner, who set him up with his screenwriting client Les Bohem. The following week, Singer and the writer met at Ca' Brea restaurant and discussed doing a disaster movie, which turned into "Daylight," an $80-million production now shooting in Rome under the direction of Rob Cohen.
"Up until a year ago, I didn't know anyone in the business and no one returned my calls," Singer said Thursday morning in an interview in his week-old digs at Universal.
" 'Daylight' became so big so quickly that everybody in town wanted to meet me . . . all the big agents called lobbying to get their big star clients and big directors in," recalls Singer.
Shortly after the project was sold to Universal, Singer set up another big movie, "Courage Under Fire," which Ed Zwick will direct for Fox 2000 later this month. Singer flew to the Sundance Film Festival to close a deal with the studio executives which yielded the screenwriter, Patrick Duncan, $1 million upfront against $3 million on the back end.
"All of a sudden I put together these two movies and I started getting producer and job offers--I was Hollywood's flavor of the month," said Singer.
Six months ago, Lieberman gave Singer his own production deal at Universal, where since his appointment last week executives have been scratching their heads. "It's an odd hire," says one. "Particularly because this has always been a place that has groomed executives from inside. . . . It's only something you could get away with in Hollywood."
Singer said he is stung by rumors that he exaggerated his past achievements. He said he's heard everything from his having worked at Salomon Bros. (where he never worked) to attending Yale University, where he said he only took "some continuing education classes."
Singer had his own small investment banking firm, Singer & Sullivan, and also had short stints selling securities in a White Plains office of David Lerner Associates.
That followed a career as a commercial fisherman in Massachusetts. Deep-sea fishing remains his favorite hobby, and a photograph in his office shows him standing by a 900-pound blue tuna.
Virtually every Saturday he pilots a boat himself out of Marina del Rey, and now invites along agents and talent to schmooze them. Singer is still trying to land the big ones, and now knows where the sharks are biting.