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A survivor who’s seen it all

Times Staff Writer

For all the talk about how radically the entertainment business has been transformed in the past few decades, the sense of change never felt more vivid than when I walked around the 20th Century Fox lot the other day with Dick Zanuck. A stone’s throw from the studio’s executive office building, where Zanuck’s father, the legendary Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck, reigned supreme, stands a little bungalow that, for a few years in the 1960s, was the only place on the lot where the lights were burning.

When he was made head of production at the studio in 1962 at age 28, Dick Zanuck was given a lordly title to a dominion in ruins. In the course of losing millions on the catastrophic “Cleopatra,” Fox was going flat broke.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 27, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Dick Zanuck: A profile of Dick Zanuck in Sunday’s Hollywood section included “The Sting” among the movies he has produced. His formal credit in the 1973 film was “presented by.”

“The studio was bankrupt,” the 71-year-old veteran producer recalls, brushing a wisp of white hair out of his eyes. “We didn’t have a movie shooting on the lot and we were down to the last episodes of ‘Dobie Gillis,’ our one hit TV show. So we shut down the studio. We closed the commissary, the executive office building, everything.” He gestures toward the bungalow, which now houses the staff of Fox 2000, one of the studio’s many production subsidiaries. “That’s where I operated the studio for two years. It was me, a legal guy, a couple of janitors and a guard at the gate. You could literally see the tumbleweeds.”

Today the tumbleweeds have been replaced by satellite dishes and sleek office towers. Hollywood has undergone a seismic transformation in the past few decades, evolving from a hunch-driven, boom-or-bust business to an enterprise dominated by media monoliths raking billions out of cable and satellite companies, TV networks, theme parks, book and magazine publishing, film libraries, record companies and home entertainment divisions. At most studios, the theatrical film business is a tiny slice of the pie.

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At lunch in the Fox commissary, Zanuck says hello to a stream of visitors, including director Brett Ratner, who is finishing work on the latest installment of the studio’s “X-Men” franchise. It’s the kind of summer behemoth popular at studios today. And its budget -- rumored to be nearly $200 million -- is probably close to what Zanuck spent on all the movies he made running Fox in the ‘60s. Though he’s produced dozens of quality films over the years, including “The Sting,” “Jaws,” “The Verdict” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” Zanuck’s recent efforts have been films such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” a well-made family movie, but one that could be marketed as a brand, with promotions and merchandising spinoffs. Zanuck also recently remade “Planet of the Apes,” which he did the first time around at Fox 35 years ago.

He is currently in pre-production on “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” a Paramount picture that stars Jim Carrey and will be Zanuck’s fourth collaboration with Tim Burton, one of the industry’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers. Zanuck is shrewd enough to know that if the film is a success, its financiers will demand a follow-up. “I know, without asking, that they’re thinking about sequels,” he says of the film, a period adventure saga that is largely set in China. “If it works, we can go to Africa or India for the next one.”

When Zanuck was running Fox, the process of green-lighting a movie was considerably less formal. Many decisions were made in a steam room that his father had built in the basement of the executive offices. Zanuck’s staff would drop by for a steam and a drink after work. “We didn’t have any development executives,” he recalls. “If we bought a script, we’d make it.” One day an agent named Ingo Preminger gave Zanuck the book “MASH” to read, on the condition that if he liked it, Preminger could produce it. Zanuck called the next day. “I told Ingo, ‘Sell the agency. You’ve got an office on the third floor. We’re making the picture.’ ”

Not long after the film became a hit, Zanuck lost his job, fired by his own father. “I did a stupid thing,” he recalls. “We were having to lay people off and I made the mistake of saying, ‘I won’t make any exceptions,’ and I laid off my dad’s girlfriend. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

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Zanuck went off to produce films with David Brown. When asked to describe the difference between dealing with studios then and today he recalls his first meeting as a producer with Lew Wasserman, czar of Universal Pictures. Zanuck had just been given a script for a road picture by a rookie director named Steven Spielberg. There was just one hitch -- the script, called “The Sugarland Express,” had just been put into turnaround at, of all places, Universal.

“Lew said, ‘It’s a good story, but it’ll play to empty theaters,’ ” Zanuck recalls. “We went on and talked about other things, but as I got up to leave, he said, ‘When do you think you could start?’ I said, ‘Start what?’ And he said, ‘Dick, I’m not making this deal with you because I think I know more about producing than you do. Go make the picture. Why would I hire you if I didn’t trust your judgment?’ ”

Wasserman was right. The picture was good, but it didn’t make any money. But his trust in Zanuck and Spielberg was rewarded; the picture they made at Universal the following year, “Jaws,” was one of the studio’s biggest hits ever. It wasn’t all roses -- the mechanical shark didn’t always work and the film went wildly over budget -- but in those days, gambling was still in fashion.

“Today everyone has an aversion to risk,” Zanuck says. “There’s a big difference between the reckless guys who started the business and the guys today who have to report to their parent companies. The idea of making a great picture is not on top of everybody’s agenda. It’s all about -- what are its demographics? Will the kids come? Will it play in the Far East?”

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No one trusts the producer’s opinion today, much less their own. Studio chiefs have had films vetted by focus groups for years, but today’s executives are more blindly reliant on the results than ever. “It’s amateur night in Dixie,” Zanuck says dismissively. “We’re paid a lot of money to know what we’re doing but we have to listen to what some person we found in a shopping mall thinks. I mean, you put a [research] card in some guy’s hand and he turns into Irving Thalberg.”

Zanuck argues that the passion of his father’s generation has been replaced by fear and uncertainty. “There just isn’t the same enthusiasm at the higher levels of the studio, in part because the parent companies today don’t have show business in their blood. If you take away the passion men like my father and Jack Warner brought to pictures, all you have left is fear, because you start thinking about all the reasons not to make a picture.”

Long after many of his contemporaries are in retirement, Zanuck remains in demand. Although he is a warm, gregarious man, his genial nature masks a steely resolve. When you’ve been fired by your father, you develop good survival skills. On their first film together, Spielberg asked, “Are you really going to be my producer?” Zanuck replied: “Think of me as your bodyguard.” He performs the same function with Burton. “I’m kind of a shield,” he says. “The pressure on a director is so unbelievably intense that the last thing they want is a studio guy calling up with a lot of stupid questions. So Tim knows all he has to do is think about the movie. When the studio calls, they have to go through me.”

When Spielberg was in trouble on “Jaws,” it was Zanuck who stood his ground, making it clear that any visits from the studio brass would be unwelcome. “I said to Universal, ‘If I see one Learjet land at Martha’s Vineyard, I’ll stop production,’ ” Zanuck shrugs. “I’m not a bully, but I will act quickly and ruthlessly, so they know when I say, ‘No Learjets,’ I mean it.”

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Zanuck’s role model is Clint Eastwood, who’s even more ferociously independent and, despite being four years older, still at the top of his game. Zanuck has come a long way from the tightly wrapped young prince who crashed his first car at 16, had two early bad marriages and got into frequent barroom brawls. “I used to pick fights, maybe because I was always the runt, maybe because I was drinking pretty good,” he says. “I had a high-strung, competitive nature, with an ego to boot, and I guess I wanted to prove myself.” He credits much of his mellowing to his producing partner, Lili Fini Zanuck, to whom he’s been married for 27 years.

For all of its corporatization in recent years, the movie business remains a chilly, unforgiving universe. You’re only as good as your last hit and your friends, not to mention your enemies, are often the first to celebrate when your film tanks. Perhaps that’s why, even at 71, Zanuck is a fitness fanatic, running or swimming every day. He knows in Hollywood only the strong survive.

“This is a business that takes few prisoners -- the meek don’t have much of a chance,” he says as we walk along Fox’s New York street set. “There’s an unspoken glee when a picture goes down. Seeing the death of your rivals becomes part of life. When we had a hit with ‘Jaws,’ all these people would say, ‘It couldn’t happen to a better guy.’ But I knew better. I knew they were dying inside.”

So what keeps him going? Zanuck is an optimist. He believes that one great moment of inspiration can generate a movie that could enthrall millions. He vividly remembers the saga of “Jaws” author Peter Benchley, who, like Zanuck, was born into a larger-than-life family. One day, alone at the beach, Benchley suddenly imagined -- what would happen if a great white shark turned up to terrorize the town? “That one idea changed his life completely,” Zanuck says, clearly full of wonder.

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It should not come as a surprise that a similar thing happened to Zanuck. In the early 1960s, when his father decided to hire a head of production, he asked his son to compile a list of worthy candidates. The son handed over a list with one word at the top: Me. “Putting that note, with ‘me’ on it, into my father’s hand was my one great idea,” he says. “It certainly changed my life.”

Patrick Goldstein writes The Times’ column The Big Picture.


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