The Players Club

Patrick Goldstein's last article for the magazine was about minor league baseball

In college, director Barry Sonnenfeld majored in political science. After mastering charts, polls and graphs, he decided the subject had very little science to it. He eventually became a filmmaker, which is not quite the stretch one might think.

"Hollywood knows it's not a business," says Sonnenfeld, director of "The Addams Family" and "Men in Black." That's why people in Hollywood desperately want research and tracking charts, "so they can feel that there's some structure and predictability. It allows the people who run Hollywood to pretend it's a business. But what it's really about is guessing and instincts. It's all in the ether."

Behind nearly any successful Hollywood career, you can smell the heady aroma of Basic Instinct, that ineffable combination of intuition, relentless drive, carefully maintained relationships and dumb luck. Recently, four Industry players--a studio chief, a producer, a director and an agent--sat down to talk about how they work the system.

* Joe Roth, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, has been a producer, director and successful studio executive. He named his first production company, Morgan Creek Pictures, after his favorite Preston Sturges film.

* Brian Grazer, who runs Imagine Entertainment with partner Ron Howard, began his career as a studio law clerk and agent. He was fired from both jobs before hitting his stride as a producer of "Splash," "Liar Liar" and "The Nutty Professor."

* Sonnenfeld, who started as a cinematographer for the Coen brothers, was so nervous directing his first film that he fainted on the set.

* Jeremy Zimmer, ousted from ICM after telling an industry seminar that talent agencies are "all like animals, raping and pillaging one another," is now a top agent at the United Talent Agency, where he is a member of its board.

The four men share a zest for the visceral nature of the business, where intuition trumps intellect. "I'm an emotionalist," says Grazer. "Either I'm convinced by someone's acting or I'm not. Either I laugh or I don't. It's like your best sex. It isn't when you think, 'That was good.' It's when you're lost in the experience."

Perhaps that's why the most quoted maxim in Hollywood is screenwriter William Goldman's "Nobody knows anything." Asked why they made a movie or liked a script, filmmakers respond with fuzzy phrases such as "it moved me" or "it felt right." Sonnenfeld says he cast Will Smith in "Men in Black" largely on the advice of his wife, a fan of Smith's TV show, "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." "There's no way to quantify what makes Will great," he says. "The script needed a little utz--a twist--and he was it."

Disregard the high-tech advances and corporate takeovers of the past decades. There is no science to show business--no rules, no formulas, no simple equation for success. As Zimmer likes to joke, "Hollywood is Jews in the Wild West."

Hollywood films are the signature product of America. Year in and year out, they are one of the few things we do better than anyone.

Since its inception, the movie industry has reflected the nation's democratic ideal of prosperity and upward mobility. Early Hollywood was dominated by Eastern European immigrants eager to assimilate into mainstream American status and respectability. Today's industry is nearly as wide open. Among the industry's top moguls, the MBAs and Ivy League graduates are easily outnumbered by college dropouts (such as DreamWorks mogul David Geffen), ex-Marines (Universal Studios president Ron Meyer) and former concert promoters (Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein). Given the multifarious backgrounds of its principals, it's small wonder that Hollywood operates by its own law of the jungle.

Asked why he is reluctant to name his best-known clients, Zimmer matter-of-factly explains that if he gave their names, "by Monday morning my competitors will have faxed copies of your story to all my other clients, saying, 'Do you really want to be with an agent who didn't think you were important enough to mention your name?' "

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The grease that often gets the ball rolling in Hollywood is relationships. Early in his career, Grazer befriended Eddie Murphy, then starring in his first film, "48 HRS." Years later, when looking to revive his career, Murphy turned to Grazer, who has now produced two Murphy films, "Boomerang" and "The Nutty Professor."

"Everything in this business is done on relationships," says Roth. "The cost of making movies has gone up so much that it makes you go back to the old ways of doing things--relationships with actors and agents and directors and producers. It's hard to be comfortable making a $100-million movie, so at least you want to be comfortable with the people making it."

Sonnenfeld is so comfortable with Will Smith that he went right back to the actor for his next movie, "The Wild Wild West." "There's no reason for me to ever work without him," Sonnenfeld says. "Someday I might have to, if I do a women's prison movie. But I'd be happy to just make Will Smith movies for the rest of my career."

Zimmer sees daily reminders that he's in the relationship business. As a young agent, he worked with David Hoberman, who was hired by Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney, where Hoberman eventually became head of Walt Disney Pictures/Touchstone Pictures. The relationship resulted in several successful Disney films with Zimmer clients, including "Dead Poet's Society" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." When Katzenberg left Disney to help launch DreamWorks SKG, Zimmer put Katzenberg together with TV producer Gary David Goldberg, an alliance that spawned DreamWorks' TV show "Spin City."

"In the unpredictable waters of Hollywood, relationships can be one of your steadiest moorings," says Zimmer. "It means you have people who are watching your back while you're watching theirs."

For Roth, relationships are about trust. He once made a movie with a producer who was so hard to control that Roth has refused to work with him since. So why make films with producers such as Jerry Bruckheimer and Scott Rudin, whom Roth acknowledges are "high-maintenance" producers? The answer: They haven't burned him.

"They're complicated people," he says. "But they're passionate and they're straight with you. You can only be in business with people whose process of doing business you can trust."

Relationships also provide an invaluable steadying influence to a business fraught with peril. Audience tastes change; stars fall out of favor, and formulas have a way of blowing up in your face. Earlier this decade, studios made a slew of films based on hit comic books. Most failed. The hit came from "Men in Black," an obscure, unsuccessful comic book.

A year ago, teen movies were dead. Now everyone is scrambling to make one. Warner Bros. once seemed invincible; now it's cold as ice. Team up John Travolta with Nicolas Cage in "Face/Off" and you have a hit. Pair him with Dustin Hoffman in "Mad City" and you're stuck with one of this year's biggest flops.

Grazer views relationships with talent as part of the "leverage of the business." To him, leverage comes from access to a hot book or script, a bankable actor or a new twist on an old idea. "Let's say I want to do a movie about Clarence Darrow," he explains. "If I have a fresh take on his story, and I'm standing next to Tom Hanks, and he's interested in Clarence Darrow . . . " Grazer waves his arm in the air, snapping his fingers: "All of a sudden, you've got a movie! It's all about having something that somebody else wants and is willing to pay for. And you wedge yourself in."

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Still, some things in Hollywood are simple, basic to any industry. "The most successful people in our business," declares Roth, "are the best salesmen. You're always selling. If I get a great script, I have to help convince John Travolta that 'A Civil Action' is a great part for him, or find a way to get Bruce Willis excited about doing 'Armageddon.' "

Of course, the best salesmen are the ones who never appear to have a sales pitch. "Hopefully, no one ever sees you selling," says Zimmer. "It's like subliminal advertising--you're creating an appetite. The person should get off the phone thinking they really need what I'm trying to excite them about."

The problem, he points out, is that you're not selling shoes, where the buyer knows the color the size and the price. "We're creating faith in something that's completely intangible. We're talking about a product that stirs your emotions but it's something you can't see or taste. You have to go, 'Wow! This movie is great! This part is right for you!' You need a historical context. You say, 'Remember how you cried in "Love Story?" Remember how excited you were seeing "Star Wars" for the first time? This movie could be the same way.' "

It also helps to be impervious to rejection. Grazer badly wanted Woody Harrelson to star in the upcoming film "Ed TV." But the actor repeatedly turned him down. So Grazer kept calling, offering inducements--what kind of furniture did he want in his trailer? Did he need a nutritionist or personal trainer? Could the shooting schedule be arranged to fit his needs? Finally, he convinced Harrelson that the movie would be in his interests, too.

"I did everything," Grazer recalls. "I begged. But I made him understand through these constant assaults that this was a winning part for him. I don't take no personally. It doesn't register emotionally. In fact, I don't even look at it as someone saying no, just that they're saying no at that moment. "

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For sonnenfeld, persuading a studio to invest untold millions in a movie is like persuading someone to buy an empty bottle, with assurances you'll fill it later. "You're ultimately selling faith in yourself," he says.

"It's all about self-confidence. Most people in this business are insecure. So if you come to L.A. with any sense of confidence and self-worth, you're in great shape, because you can get what you want because you believe in yourself. It puts you in charge."

Unfortunately, the capricious nature of Hollywood can be unnerving--few filmmakers have the certitude to handle the extreme fluctuations of fortune. As Tom Hanks put it: "When you have a hit movie, every day is Christmas. When you have a flop, every day is Vietnam."

Grazer admits that he got so depressed when one movie opened to bad reviews that he couldn't go to work. "My whole face broke out," he recalls, pointing to an imaginary blotch on his face. "Boing! Boing! These cold sores just appeared on my lips. It totally threw me."

The most unsettling aspect is the increasingly frantic pace of business. It is routine for studios to pay $1 million for an idea based on a book, an outline or 40 pages of a novel. When "The Apostle" played at the Toronto Film Festival last year, rival executives sprinted from a screening in mid-film, bidding for the movie's rights as they kept tabs on its story line by cell phone.

Think of Hollywood as a giant poker table, filled with gamblers playing with million-dollar chips. The result is a business of dizzying highs and lows. Sonnenfeld, who directed John Travolta in "Get Shorty," marvels at the actor's topsy-turvy career. "Five years ago he couldn't get arrested, and now he's a huge star. For 'Pulp Fiction,' he got paid almost nothing. Three movies later, he's getting $20 million."

Zimmer recalls being at a client's house the weekend his new film opened to huge box office. As news rippled across Hollywood, the phone began ringing off the hook. "Finally he looked at me," recalls Zimmer, "and he said, 'Isn't it great when everyone's chasing the heat and you've got it?' "

"Get Shorty" was an instant hit when it opened in fall of 1995. But Sonnenfeld says he really knew his movie was hot when "everyone copied our ad campaign. In our ads, our characters all wore sunglasses. The next week, everyone ran ads with their characters in sunglasses."

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Young moviegoers usually have the best instincts about who's becoming hot, so Grazer often walks down Melrose Avenue, going into shops and stores, quizzing kids. One day, he cornered three "goofy but cool" guys, attracted by their baggy shorts, nose rings and skullcaps. He bombarded them with questions about young actors: Did they like Matthew McConaughey? Matt Damon? Skeet Ulrich? Chris Tucker? Ethan Hawke? Chris Rock?

"I want to know what they're thinking because they're the trendsetters," he says. "They're the ones that the kids who do go to movies listen to. It's about coolness. We cast Lili Taylor n 'Ransom' because she was cool."

Indeed, young stars such as Damon, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio and Neve Campbell are credited with fueling recent hits such as "Good Will Hunting," "The Wedding Singer," "I Know What You Did Last Summer," "Scream" and "Titanic."

For Roth, the new heat also comes from youth-oriented TV shows such as "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek." One advantage of having children, he says, is that he can see trends through their eyes. "They recognize the channels that speak to them," he says. "When they point the clicker, it's not to the networks, but to the Cartoon Network, MTV, Nickelodeon and ESPN. That's where the new talent is going to come from."

Today's young moviegoers are both more sophisticated--and more fickle. Now they come out of movies, tugging on their nipple rings, muttering, "I don't know why that cost $70 million." They have lightning-quick visual instincts, sharpened by years of video games and channel surfing. "They're much more visually astute," Sonnenfeld says. "It's changed the way we cut a movie because they get information so much faster because they've grown up on MTV and commercials. They're used to getting stories and absorbing them in 30 seconds."

But in Hollywood, perversely, chasing the heat often means ignoring your Basic Instincts.

"The competitiveness forces a lot of premature decisions," Zimmer says. "Studios rush movies into release and scripts into development, and agents rush clients into careers. You don't hear people say, 'Let me consider that.' You're supposed to know the answer. Why are you driving that fast, expensive car if you don't?"

Roth compares himself to a baseball manager with a mandate to win, and keep winning. If he doesn't, he knows Disney will find someone else. Zimmer says many fellow players are disenchanted by the nagging pressure: "Our dreams have come true. But we're too much in the moment--in the next moment--to enjoy it."

The very fact that trends happen so fast makes them more difficult to follow. Expect to see a raft of "Scream" imitators in the theaters later this year, but don't bet on many of them hitting the jackpot the way the original did. "Anybody who has a brain knows it takes too long to follow a trend," Roth says. "It takes 18 to 24 months to make a film from conception to finish and, in American culture, that's too long. Everything changes too fast."

The best bet--follow your instincts. "There are no formulas," he says. "The real breakout pictures are the ones that completely defied the formula, that broke the mold."

For Roth, nothing is more exciting than a preview screening, watching an audience experience a movie for the first time. He recalls sitting in an Agoura theater, seeing the first showing of "While You Were Sleeping," a film that consolidated Sandra Bullock's fame from "Speed."

A half-hour into the movie, it was obvious that the audience was responding. Roth turned to his wife: "This movie really works," he said. "Who would've guessed that?"

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