The year was 1992 and Warner Bros., basking in the box-office success of its hit Mel Gibson movie, "Lethal Weapon 3," rolled out a large cake decorated with a Hollywood trade ad recognizing that the film had just crossed the $100-million mark.
Studio Chairman Bob Daly pulled an envelope from his pocket and poured seven keys to shiny new Range Rovers onto the table.
"Just pick the color you want," Daly said. And, just like that, the cars were turned over to the movie's cast--Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci and Rene Russo, as well as producer Joel Silver, producer-director Richard Donner and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam.
It was a class act from a class studio. And it illustrated why many in Hollywood had long thought of Warner Bros. under Daly and co-Chairman Terry Semel as the "Tiffany" studio, one that defined loyalty and friendship in a business that often turns nasty and vindictive.
These were the men who were the handpicked proteges of the late Time Warner Chairman Steven Ross, one of the last great movie moguls.
"They have the perfect partnership," said actor Warren Beatty. "I don't know anyone who doesn't wish them well."
Now the era is ending. With the sudden announcement Thursday that Daly and Semel will be stepping down at year's end, there is a widespread feeling that Hollywood is witnessing a sea change in the sweeping arc of movie history.
For 16 of the 19 years they reigned, Warner ranked among the top three studios in North America in terms of market share. It placed first eight times and second five times. It was the stability of this long-established team that separated Warner from the pack. It was Daly and Semel, after all, who seemed to possess the magic key that opened doors to success while all around them studio chieftains lost their heads in corporate upheavals.
For years the formula worked. Warner Bros. not only turned out such lucrative movie franchises as "Batman" and "Lethal Weapon," it created dazzling special-effects films such as "Twister" and "Contact" and mounted thrilling dramas like "The Fugitive." At the same time, it managed to deliver gritty, thought-provoking films such as Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning western "Unforgiven" and films with social and political themes such as Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," Oliver Stone's "JFK" and Roland Joffe's "The Killing Fields."
It was Daly and Semel who stood behind their talent when controversy flared, from films like Stone's "Natural Born Killers" to rap music like Ice T's "Cop Killer"--an attitude that permeated the company's top management.
"Bob and Terry are the only two guys in our era who achieved a kind of old-Hollywood continuity with movie stars and world-class filmmakers, whether it was Stanley Kubrick, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson, Kevin Costner or Dick Donner," said producer Bill Gerber, a former Warner Bros. co-president of production. "They were long-term players. They never pointed fingers. They took responsibility for everything, and on Monday morning they were the same guys, whether a new picture did $40 million or $4 million. Their attitude was always, 'Let's get back to work.' "
Their formula was simple on the surface: Cast big stars in big movies and, more often than not, the public would flock to see them. But to entice the talent to work at the studio required attention to detail and pressing the flesh, and that's where Daly and Semel shined.
Across Warner's vast Burbank lot, virtually every filmmaker and executive was stunned at the announcement by the co-chairs that they were leaving.
"How do you react to something like this? I don't know," said veteran filmmaker Donner, who has had a close relationship with Daly and Semel since 1977, when he directed "Superman."
"Everything we've had with Bob and Terry dates back so long," Donner added. "This place was just home. It's strange to think they would be gone. Sure, I'll miss them in the business world. But it's so much more than that. This is the place you chose to be because of them. . . . I would say their legacy is this: They continued the history of the great American studios. They never let that down. Whoever comes in will have to follow that."
Once the dust settles, the real impact of Daly and Semel's departure will surface in the longevity of the talent relationships with the studio, be it producers, directors or stars. Across the board, filmmakers and producers say it is too soon to know whether they will stay or go, depending on who the successor is.
Some believe the studio's fortunes began to turn when Daly and Semel chose Gerber and Lorenzo di Bonaventura to take charge of running the studio's day-to-day operations. That decision was later dropped when Gerber was made a producer on the lot. But changes were occurring in the vast movie marketplace as well. As the public's tastes changed, Warner Bros. found that the old formula of placing big stars in big movies didn't always work.
It was the studio's reliance on stars, after all, that allowed Costner to run off to the woods and spend $100 million making "The Postman," a story about a letter carrier in post-apocalyptic America that proved impossible for the studio to market and fizzled at the box office. It was the formula that dictated that if you put John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman in a movie, any movie, it was bound to be a hit. So Warner cast them in "Mad City," in which Travolta played a fired museum guard who tries to get his job back at gunpoint and Hoffman played a TV newsman. It flopped.
It was the formula that dictated that if you put Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in a film, the electricity generated by the two brilliant comedians would overcome any shortcomings in the script. So, Warner cast them in "Father's Day," a story about a desperate woman who tells each of her two ex-lovers that he is the father of her 16-year-old son. It flopped.
Studios were discovering that to stay vital in the marketplace and be a real player in the late 1990s, they had to go after product that would attract young audiences, primarily males ages 15 to 25.
New Line and Miramax suddenly had the formula to beat, with hits such as "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," and "Rush Hour," or the more arty, Oscar-winning "Shakespeare in Love" and "The English Patient."
While the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic comedy "You've Got Mail" became a badly needed hit for Warner late last year, it relied heavily on the chemistry the two stars and their director, Nora Ephron, had created years before in another movie, "Sleepless in Seattle."
Warner also found that going to the library vaults and dusting off the scripts of old hit TV shows does not always guarantee box-office success in today's competitive market.
When Warner did succeed this year, it was with an effects-driven, youth-oriented film, "The Matrix," ironically produced by Bruce Berman, who was bumped from his post as Warner's president of production.
The announcement that Daly and Semel were departing came during the very week the studio was releasing Kubrick's final film, "Eyes Wide Shut."
For decades, the studio and Kubrick enjoyed a special relationship, and Kubrick could count on Semel and Daly to provide him absolute support and creative freedom to pursue his vision. With the departure of Semel and Daly, that kind of relationship--as well as that kind of personal filmmaking--may come to be seen as one of the last products of a bygone era.
Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer; Judith I. Brennan is a freelance writer. Staff writer Patrick Goldstein contributed to this report.
* CO-CHAIRMEN RESIGN: Warner's longtime chiefs shocked Hollywood by stepping down. A1
* KUBRICK'S FINALE: The late Stanley Kubrick's long-awaited "Eyes Wide Shut," a Warner Bros. release, opens. F1
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The Cutting Room
The legendary 19-year partnership between Warner Bros. co-Chairmen Robert Daly and Terry Semel was built on a winning formula of marquee stars and producers for big-budget event movies. But the talent roster was losing some appeal among younger audiences, and costly flops and Hollywood's belt-tightening have forced a restructuring of the model.
Warner Bros. has cut costs by striking deals to co-finance movies such as "Analyze This" and "The Matrix" with companies that include Village Roadshow Pictures and French pay TV giant Canal Plus . . .
. . . and it has shed some expensive deals with actors and producers:
* Mel Gibson, star of the lucrative "Lethal Weapon" series, took his Icon Productions, which made "Braveheart," to Paramount Pictures.
* Arnon Milchan's New Regency Productions is now at 20th Century Fox.
* Arnold Kopelson, who produced "The Fugitive," also took his production company to 20th Century Fox.
. . . but the studio still has a stable of expensive producer deals with mixed performances, and not all are expected to survive after Daly and Semel depart:
* Joel Silver had hits in "The Matrix" and the "Lethal Weapon" series but produced a string of duds including "Fathers' Day" and "Assassins."
* Jon Peters, producer of the blockbuster "Batman" series, also made the costly disappointment "Wild Wild West."
* Richard Donner and producer Lauren Shuler Donner were behind the hits "You've Got Mail," "Free Willy" and the "Lethal Weapon" movies but had losers like "Free Willy 2."
* Jerry Weintraub produced the studio's 1998 disappointment "The Avengers."