Chernin makes the transition

What does it take to move from exec suite to producing elite?

How top executives have transitioned into producers
Chernin, Pope tune in TV

On June 30, Peter Chernin will leave the studio preserve for the wilderness of independent producing. When he steps down as president and COO of News Corp. after 13 years, he will join the swelling herd of former top executives prowling the Hollywood Serengeti.

That adjustment -- from buyer to seller, from traffic cop to frustrated driver -- is never easy. But Chernin is making the transition at an especially difficult time as the industry constricts in ways that are squeezing even the most seasoned producers.

"It's a moment of truth in terms of really deciding what you want to do with your life," says Michael De Luca, who ran production at New Line and DreamWorks before becoming a producer at Sony.

The indie ranks are rife with execs who have made a run at producing with various degrees of success.

Mary Parent and Scott Stuber were vice chairs of worldwide production at Universal until 2006, when they left to form a production entity there. They made a bundle of films before Parent was wooed in March 2008 back into the studio fold at MGM. (Stuber remains a top producer.)

Lorenzo Di Bonaventura was president of worldwide production at Warner Bros. from 1998-2002, when he hung his own shingle at Warners. He eventually moved to Paramount and has become one of that studio's most prolific producers.

But the transition is full of potential pitfalls.

Bill Mechanic was CEO and chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment from 1994-2000 before signing a distribution deal with Disney for his Pandemonium shingle. His first film for Buena Vista Pictures was "Dark Water," which wasn't released until 2005 -- five years after his departure from Fox -- and grossed $25.5 million.

Mechanic is said to have spent a long time organizing financing, and that quest hobbled his ability to package material.

"It's simpler, but it's not easier," he says of the switch. "There's a big difference of having fewer responsibilities and doing it well. A ballplayer only has to get up and hit the ball, but few of them do."

"Coraline," which Mechanic produced and Focus Features released in February, was a modest hit and a creative breakthrough. But he recently put together a package for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" director David Fincher to helm a graphic novel adaptation about Eliot Ness called "Torso," and he couldn't get Paramount to commit to making it or even maintain an option on the rights.

De Luca's first picture out of the gate in 2005 was the midbudget family film "Zathura," directed by Jon Favreau. It grossed $29 million domestically. But his next projects, "Ghost Rider" and "21," scared up $116 million and $81 million, respectively.

Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, who ran New Line Cinema for 40 years until they were forced out in February 2008, launched Unique Features a few months later with a first-look deal at Warners. Their first project, an adaptation of Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series, fizzled in January when Warners let the option lapse; Sony has since picked up the project.

The pair have several projects in development at Screen Gems and Warners, but nothing has moved before cameras.

Before announcing his resignation from News Corp. in February, Chernin cut a production agreement with Fox that one observer describes as "state of the art, the best of the best": a six-year, first-look TV- and film-production deal that includes two put pictures a year and a rare backend element. (Chernin declined to be interviewed for this story.)

In the current climate in which several studios, including Fox, have trimmed their slates, that kind of security is a major advantage. Chernin has forged his career as a highly respected manager rather than an inspiring creative personality, but whatever lack of talent relationships he has will be more than offset by the appeal to others of a rare producer who actually can get movies made.

Still, the producer game has its downside, especially if one has grown comfortable with the aura and influence of the exec suite.

"Power," De Luca says, laughing, when asked what he misses. "It's great when you're a buyer and a gatekeeper to the checkbook. It's definitely got its own level of excitement. But one of the huge positives (of producing) is that your phone sheet shrinks. When you can't write the big checks anymore, you're just naturally off a certain type of food chain."

"Basically, it's an exchange of power for freedom," says Nina Jacobson, who was president of the Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group at Disney before moving into a production deal at DreamWorks. "Both have their merits, and both have their disadvantages."

While the studio mill can feel like an assembly line, producing encourages a more hands-on focus on creating content.

"You're not worrying about: 'What does my slate need? What kind of a movie do I need for April?' Or, 'Gee, I like this, but it doesn't fit into our brand parameters,' " Jacobson says. "You only have to worry about: 'Do I like it? Can I try to make it well?' "

Departing execs tend to have the advantage of being able to cherrypick from the studio's development backlog on their way out. Plus, as former production presidents or studio heads, they have a reputation for their taste and shrewdness when it comes to boxoffice performance and marketing savvy.

"You enter producing with a track record; people know you," De Luca says. "To the studios that employ you, you hopefully bring a skill set that says at once to the studio side, 'I get what you need, I understand what a P&L needs to look like, and I understand what marketing needs to be able to do.' So they have trust in us that we've walked in their shoes."

Chernin's reputation for treating industry colleagues with respect and fairness also should lay the groundwork for success.

"The biggest mistake is when people think they'll have those studio jobs forever," Jacobson says. "They treat people shabbily as though they'll always be a buyer and they'll never be a seller. And then when they're a seller, everybody's waiting for them to fail instead of rooting for them to succeed."

Mechanic says he would not go back to a studio and Parent has taken the risk of leaving the producer ranks to help resuscitate MGM, but others are ambivalent about jumping back inside.

"It depends on the people; it depends on the place," says Jacobson, who is about to start filming on her first post-Disney film, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." "It's still too soon to say because I haven't lived the itinerant lifestyle yet of a producer."

Jokes De Luca, who's moving into production on "Moneyball" and has "Brothers" releasing in December: "Never say never. I really have no desire to go back, but I have a baby now. The idea of a steady paycheck and a looong contract has its appeal."

Trading a substantial salary for the intermittent paydays of individual film productions is another punch-to-the-gut reality of producing. According to Forbes, Chernin earned a salary of

$8.1 million in 2008, plus ancillary compensation. Even with his two guaranteed pictures a year, he will need to choose wisely to match the green he saw before.

De Luca, Jacobson and Paramount production president Brad Weston were rumored to have met with Chernin about running the film side of his new company; De Luca and Jacobson deny it.

De Luca describes Chernin as a mentor and, in turn, provides a little unsolicited advice.

"I say the same thing to all my friends that go into producing," he says. "Your first creative moves, for better or worse, set the tone and the style for the town of what you're about as a producer. This is a lesson I keep learning in my career."
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