Memories of Paramount Drama: 'Hostility' and 'Fear-Based Culture'
This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In a career that began 30 years ago with Flashdance, Lynda Obst has been known as a producer with a keen eye for such smart, character-driven movies as Sleepless in Seattle, Hope Floats and Contact (her films have grossed $1.1 billion). But in what she calls Hollywood’s “New Abnormal,” the industry is dominated by VFX-laden tentpoles, franchises, sequels, prequels and reboots. Hollywood, she says, has drifted away from the type of movies she specialized in. Her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales From the New Abnormal in the Movie Business (Simon & Schuster), considers the profound changes in the industry — the collapse of DVD sales, the 2007 writers strike and the rise of the foreign box office — that pushed studios to focus on big-budget films. Obst had a front-row seat to those changes through her production deal at Paramount, which ran from 1998 through 2007. In this excerpt, she weaves her story into the collapse of the Paramount partnership among chairman Sherry Lansing, president John Goldwyn and their boss, Jon Dolgen, chairman of Paramount parent Viacom Entertainment — and illustrates a key moment in the birth of the “New Abnormal.” — Andy Lewis
The year 2001, as a I began to develop How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, turned out to be a profoundly transitional one, not just for America (and the world, in the wake of 9/11) but for the movie business as well. It was the year of the first Harry Potter and the first Shrek, and it was a brave new world filled with breakthroughs in CGI and animation.
The ways we'd always done things since time immemorial (at least in the three decades since I came to Hollywood) were beginning to become obsolete. I call them the Old Abnormal and the New Abnormal because Hollywood, let's face it, is never actually normal. Think of how bizarre the people are, for starters: Famous hairdressers, notable Israeli gunrunners, Russian gangsters, mothers who score on their daughters' successfully leaked sex-tape escapades and Harvard grads who chase hip-hop stars and Laker Girls. It boasts smart people galore with or without prestigious diplomas and loves a craven con man with a new angle, a new pot of gold or a new look. Lying is a critical job skill; poker is as good a starter course as film school. How else would you know that the line "Sandra Bullock wants to do this" really means "It's on her agent's desk," and "Three studios are bidding on this script" means "Everyone's passed but one buyer who hasn't answered yet." It's just plain Abnormal, and always has been.
I began at Paramount, the paragon of the Old Abnormal, under the Jon Dolgen/Sherry Lansing/John Goldwyn regime in 1998. Before becoming chairwoman in 1992, Lansing and producing partner Stanley Jaffe -- and the producing team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer -- had perfected the Old Abnormal high-concept model. Simpson was brilliant at story and considered by many to have given birth to the whole high-concept-movie idea (i.e., a "log line" no longer than a TV Guide description). Simpson teamed with Bruckheimer and made Eddie Murphy's breakout hit Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and the Tom Cruise hits Top Gun (1986) and Days of Thunder (1990).
Paramount's women-centered thrillers are, even today, still called "Sherry movies" in the industry after those she made during her producing career -- The Accused, Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal. Those were groundbreaking female "refrigerator movies" -- movies you would still be debating when you got home and were reaching for leftovers in your refrigerator.
My Paramount saga began at lunch with the president of Paramount, Goldwyn -- handsome, lean and fiercely intelligent -- on Nov. 6, 1998. We sat there chatting away as Muslim anti-discrimination groups were boycotting my movie The Siege, which opened that day, and the Fox studio was surrounded by barricades because of a bomb threat. The director, Ed Zwick, and I were being accused of a Zionist plot. John asked me what the movie was about. I thought better to not mention the current situation -- he might be less eager to invite me over. I just smiled and said, "It's a cautionary tale about an imagined terrorist takedown of New York."
He started to explain why Paramount was a producer's studio. He quoted Stanley Jaffe, its influential ex-chairman. He was looking for Paramount to be the place for people who are really good at what they do -- directors, writers, producers -- to feel supported, as long as they worked within the rules. They would be given the opportunity to pursue their vision, but that opportunity would be provided within a very specific set of financial boundaries. I thought, I can work with this guy. And I could make a profit at Paramount as opposed to just fees.
In 1999, early in my tenure, I bought a book about a murder at Harvard called Abandon. I attached Zwick, who'd gone to Harvard, and he got Traffic writer Steve Gaghan to adapt. Ed wanted to make the film in Cambridge, but it was too expensive to shoot there. Impasse. So Ed passed the baton to Gaghan to direct, even though Steve had never directed before. First-time directors were difficult to get approved at Paramount, but the studio was willing to consider Gaghan, depending on how the script turned out -- which was full of delicious, smart dialogue and was attracting actors and lots of buzz -- all because of Gaghan's Oscar nomination for Traffic. But it had some key conceptual problems on which Sherry zeroed in, Sherry not being much affected by buzz.
Sherry had well-founded fears about the movie and its must-see director. What was it about at its core? Was Gaghan ready to direct? I was recklessly insistent on both fronts. "If you can't trust me to control the set of a $22 million teen horror movie, what can I do?" I argued. Coming through for Sherry would depend on my developing trust with the newbie director. I knew how to do that, I assured myself. It was easy.
I was convinced that Steve could and would solve them during prep, which went well. Gaghan learned how to rehearse. He scouted. Any dicey signs were ignored.
On the first day of shooting, I was having lunch in my trailer as usual, when the line producer, Dick Vane, walked in. Dick, an unflappable guy, was in charge of keeping to the budget and handling the day-to-day crises with crew and equipment. I'd never seen him stunned before, but he was that day. "He's still shooting," he said.
"But we called lunch," I said.
"He's doing shots that aren't on the call sheet."
Buckle your seat belt, I thought. Sorry, Sherry. Bumpy ride time. As the late, great producer Laura Ziskin said, "The producer is the traffic cop between art and commerce." I had lost my badge on this shoot. When we wrapped, I skipped the party for the first time in my career and left that night for New York City with a cute crew guy. Ultimately, Abandon went a week over schedule and grossed $12 million worldwide, half of its production budget.
I found out about How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days from CAA because its client, Gwyneth Paltrow, had shown interest in a very early draft. Gwyneth dropped out during development, and Sherry and I fell in love with Kate Hudson (just off of Almost Famous). We attached her to an intermediate draft, which wouldn't have happened at any other studio, as she hadn't yet been in a hit. Sherry had the freedom to pursue her gut casting instincts on a midrange movie like this. But we still had no guy "to lose." ICM threw out Matthew McConaughey.
Sherry said, "I love Matthew." Kate said, "I love Matthew."
John Goldwyn breathed a deep sigh of relief and said, "Is Matthew available? If he is, I love him, too."