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How Mayor Garcetti Convinced Tom Sherak to Become Film Czar (Q&A)

Tom Sherak 84th Academy Awards Final Oscar Ballot - H 2012
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Tom Sherak

In a candid interview shortly after his appointment was announced, the veteran studio executive and former Academy president says he knows it won’t be an easy job.

Tom Sherak, the newly appointed film czar of the city of Los Angeles, says he was hesitant to take the job but Mayor Eric Garcetti talked him into it.

In a candid interview, Sherak tells The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges of the job, what he hopes can be accomplished in Sacramento, how he is dealing with prostate cancer and the challenge of convincing studio bosses to keep movie and TV work in California at a time other states and countries offer significantly higher incentives.

You could be retiring and instead you have taken on a difficult job. The city of L.A. doesn't actually fund incentives. You have to get the state government to help and that's pretty tough, isn't it?

What's the line from Star Trek? Politics -- the last frontier.

Look, to me it's all about giving back. This is about the same thing when I was with the Academy. I never wanted to be president but when I was elected I realized it was about giving back. I truly believe in that virtue of wanting to help give back for all the fruits my family and I have been able to have all these years. It makes you a whole person.

Look, this is not easy. I know that. I didn't just fall off a turnip truck. I believe in the mayor. I have known him for a while now. I realize what he's trying to do and I'm going to try and help him do it. I'm going to go into it just like I would go into anything. I will try to figure it out and meet some of the goals he has set in what he wants to accomplish. That's my job. I'm going to try and do it and give back to the city of Los Angeles and hopefully the state of California. That's my job.

How long have you known Garcetti?

I met him when I was at the Academy, when the museum was going to go on Vine before we moved it to the old May Company site. He and I got to know each other then.

He was city councilman for that district.

That's correct, for the Vine Street district. Not for the museum district.

One of my explanations when I talked to him about moving the museum was, "It's going to be better for the city in the long run because we're going to get to see it in our lifetime. … He understood that. He got it right away. He's a really Hamish guy [Yiddish word meaning relaxed, unpretentious]. He gets it. He knows he can't do everything but he really cares about the city and that's what I got from him. If I can help him in the smallest ways of making some of his points come to being, some of his dreams about our industry, that is worth it.

The worst thing in the world is when a good friend says "I'm going to New Orleans for six months." He doesn't want to leave home. He wants to stay here. He doesn't want to leave his family. I hear those things all the time. I heard it from my son when he was producing. There's got to be a way to keep production here. There's just got to be. This is the home of Hollywood. This is where it all is. That's my job. I get it. I understand that part. I realize I'm going into the last frontier, as I said. Look, I'm not trying to fool myself. I'm going to do the best I can to help the mayor accomplish his goals. That's my goal.

Did you support Garcetti in his run for mayor?

I am one of his supporters.

What impresses you about Garcetti that would make you throw your lot in with him? You will now be known as close to him in the public mind.

He cares about the city. He cares about the people living in the city. He cares about the middle and the underclass. He's a guy's guy. He tells you what he thinks. He wears it on his sleeve. I love that. He's dedicated to trying to make this city the best city in this country. I believe that.

I wasn't sure I wanted to do this. I wasn't sure I was prepared to do it. I sat with him and you know that saying, "They drew that line in the sand"? … I crossed that line to go with him. He made me believe that this is all about making this the best city in the entire country. He's got a lot on this plate. I get that. But he wants this to happen. He realizes what it means in jobs, in revenue, and he truly believes in it. It's on his sleeve. He cares.

We all meet a lot of people along the way and sometimes we like them or not. He impressed me from the very first time I met him dealing with the museum. That's why I supported him, by the way. And then when this happened, when he asked me to do this, I met with him and he sold me. He cares, and that means something to me. It's not like I'm doing this for the money. I've actually raised my salary 100 percent from the Academy.

From zero to a dollar?

That's correct. That's why I did it. I'm me. I'm going to try and help him accomplish his goals, because that's all I can do is help him. And that's what's important to me. If we can accomplish even some of the things he wants to accomplish it's going to be better for the city. And I truly believe, even though I don't live in the city, were all better off no matter where we live if the city is prospering and people are working. That's what's important to me and that's what I'm going to try and help do. I'm going to try and give back again. That's what's important to me.

You don't live in the city?

I live in Calabasas and I still supported him.

Are you going to have an office at City Hall and go there regularly?

I think so. I've actually sent some ties out to be washed and pressed.

Do you have funding for staff?

I'm going to have a deputy and an assistant. That's going to be pretty much it.

I want to be delicate here, but you have been through a lot in terms of your prostate cancer. This has got to be a grueling job, flying to Sacramento, going downtown. This is not easy but you're willing to take it on?

Yes. Here's the story. Right now I feel like a Mack truck ran over me. I have one more chemo. The mayor knows this. I've explained this to the mayor. It was one of my biggest concerns going in. I have one more treatment in October and they tell me after that treatment I will get back to the way I was. Everything I've been doing has been very positive. My hope is that what they are telling me is right and by some time in November I'll be Tom Sherak again. I look in the mirror and I say, "Who is that guy?" But I'll be me again.

The good news is my body works from the head up really well, better than it's ever worked. It's the body from the head down that's the problem, but they tell me that will come back and I'll be able to travel. The mayor knows all this and still said, "Tom, if that's the case let's do this." That's a nice thing.

If it's not the case then I won't be able to do it. But everybody is telling me I will be able to do it and my family is very much supportive of this. They want me to do this. My intent is like anything else I do. It's something I will invest myself in.

I have other clients I'm going to take care of also and the mayor knows that. I have a business. I have to live. So I'm going to deal with that too, and he was OK with that. And so here we go, another adventure. Politics -- the last frontier. Tom Sherak.

There's a conflict over runaway production. Even though the workingman desperately needs runaway production stopped, the big studios don't care. They just want to go where they can get the most bang for their buck, the biggest incentives, so there's a dichotomy between the big money guys, who you know well, and the working guys, who you know well. How do you approach that?

They are running a business. I get the business. I know the business. They are trying to do as much as they can to save as much as they can in anything they do. That's what any business would do in a smart way. But we have to work on keeping them here and helping them get incentives to stay here. That's easily said but not easily done. But that's what I'm going to attempt to do -- and by the way, they live here. And the studios are here. They're not in Louisiana. They're not in Boston. The studios are here. They benefit by this city working hard.

Television is another thing. it should be here. We shouldn't be losing television production. We need to give them incentives to stay here. They want to be here. Families want to be together. They don't want to have to go out of town. We're going to have to figure that out. Is it easy? No, it's not easy, trust me.

The State of California spends $100 million a year in tax incentives to stop runaway production, but that is far less than New York, Louisiana and others. Is your goal to get the state to spend more?

One of the goals is to try to convince the state what production means to this state when it stays in the state. These other states get it. We have to try and convince our state leaders. That's very difficult. I understand that. But we have to try and convince them how much it means to the state to have production, for the movie and TV business, to film in a state that can give you everything. You don't have to leave the state to get what you want as far as locations, support.

That's part of the job. It's not easy. I get it. but that's what we have to figure out. That's what I've been put on for and that's what I'm going to try and do. And a lot of these people, the heads of studios and networks, I've known these people for years and I have to give them a business reason to stay. That's the only thing that's going to work. Just because they like me, they aren't staying here. I have to give them a business reason. I've got to figure that out with the mayor and that's all I'm going to try and do.

Then I'll try and convince Sacramento why that's good for all of us in the state. Because if it's good for all of us, it's good for the state of California. That's my job.