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Two and a half years ago, Marc Platt got a phone call from Harvey Weinstein, inviting him to lunch.
Weinstein had spent the previous year working with his “Chicago” helmer Rob Marshall on a film adaptation of the Broadway musical “Nine.” It would be a big-budget extravaganza with a host of famous stars. But, over lunch, he admitted he needed help — and Platt was just the guy to help him.
“Both Harvey and I have roots in Broadway theater, so it was an exciting possibility,” Platt reflects. “He says, ‘I’m moving forward with this musical and I want a strong partner.’ ”
A strong partner is one he found, one strong enough to insist Marion Cotillard be in the cast, even before she won the Oscar for “La vie en rose,” to support Weinstein’s controversial casting of pop star Fergie and to keep the production running smoothly even when its initial star, Javier Bardem, dropped out.
Sitting in his modest office on the Universal lot, the walls covered with photos of his wife Julie and their five kids — with a notable absence of the grip-and-grin celebrity shots that line most producers’ inner sanctums — he might be forgiven for basking in glory now that “Nine” is a leading awards contender. But that’s not Platt’s style. Restrained like the lawyer he once was, his manner is at the other end of the spectrum from the flamboyant Weinstein.
“I always sit around the day before we shoot with the whole crew and designers and director and say, ‘We’re really lucky to get to do something like this,’ ” Platt says. “I’m very competitive and I want to be very successful but at the end of the day films to me are still films. I want them to be good and I’ll work the hardest but at night I go home to my life and my family and that’s where my heart lies.”
Like Weinstein, he has known hard times.
In 1999, after a long run as an executive at TriStar Pictures and then Universal, Platt was unceremoniously shown the door by his boss, Casey Silver, who soon exited the company himself. It was the end of a nearly decade-long run as an exec, and most insiders expected Platt to go the way of other failed suits, first with a golden parachute, then toward a career on the sidelines as a minor producer.
For a while, that was the way things seemed to be headed and Platt’s initial projects, including “Josie and the Pussycats” and “Honey,” were hardly inspiring. Then he stumbled on an unpublished book manuscript for a small comedy about an apparently vacant young woman who finds her way to law school. He set it up at MGM after Universal passed; gambled on an unknown director, Robert Luketic; cast the perfect actress, Reese Witherspoon — and “Legally Blonde” was born.
If Platt had to rest his laurels on “Blonde,” one might think luck was the basis of his producing career. But he followed it up with such films as “Wanted” and “Rachel Getting Married,” produced the 2006 docudrama “The Path to 9/11,” and added to those with one of the biggest Broadway sensations in years, “Wicked,” which now plays all over the world and brings him personally several million dollars a year.
Together, these have made Platt a force to be reckoned with. And his gentle, considerate manner shouldn’t mask that force.
“He’s a guy with a high ambition that makes it look like he doesn’t really care,” says one former colleague. “He’s an ambitious guy, though he doesn’t show it in the classic way.”
If many executives pride themselves on their toughness, Platt has opted for a kinder, gentler style. That has worked for and against him.
“He cares and listens and he’s got a very earnest and direct and personal approach,” says DreamWorks partner Stacey Snider, who worked under him at TriStar and Universal. “That’s why he has had long relationships — Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer, Reese Witherspoon. The key is the empathetic quality.”
On the other hand, says one former colleague, “He likes to be the nice guy. As an exec, you’ve got to be tough sometimes. Maybe that’s not a role he’s comfortable with.”
Platt, however, did not enter the business with a desire to become an executive; indeed, looking back, he insists that his desire was always to produce live theater on Broadway.
Growing up in Baltimore, Md., with a father in the retail shoe business, part of a close-knit Jewish family, Platt discovered his passion for show business early. “I was always interested in storytelling, particularly in theater and film,” he recalls. “I liked creative things. My mom and dad are wonderful people, but both are tone deaf, so I don’t know where the gene came from.”
The gene was made manifest when Platt was an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, where he joined the glee club and tried his hand at directing and producing. He even acted in a production of “Godspell,” a musical by Stephen Schwartz, who years later would be his partner on “Wicked.”
Producing became his passion and, in his senior year, he produced an original musical called “Frances,” which transferred to off-Broadway. “I was 21 and it got good reviews,” Platt says. “I had an opportunity to move that teeny production to a larger venue, but I didn’t know the business and lost the opportunity.”
That loss stung, but it taught Platt an important lesson: That he had to learn how the business worked. And so he abandoned entertainment for NYU Law School, and then joined a New York firm for a year to gain experience.
It was not until a year later that the showbiz break he had always dreamed of came when he got a call from ICM’s Sam Cohn, one of the most powerful agents in the world, with a dazzling client list that included Robin Williams, Mike Nichols, Meryl Streep and Woody Allen. Cohn wanted an attorney at his side to do the deals as he spun them off. In other words, he wanted Platt to come and work for the agency.
“I had never contemplated going into an agency,” Platt admits, “but at the time there wasn’t a single Broadway show Sam didn’t have his hand in. So I felt this was a good opportunity.”
Cohn became his mentor. “He demonstrated to me the value of passion for art and the need to protect artists,” Platt explains. “He showed me how to take something, make it come to fruition and then protect it, and the value in doing that. It was an experience that remains a big part of my life.”
It’s an experience Platt continues to be inspired by and one he recently put into practice when his wife “dragged” him to an all-male version of “Swan Lake.” Stunned by its brilliance, he sought out the British choreographer Matthew Bourne and told him: ” ‘I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about ballet, but I need to produce you.’ “
When Bourne said he longed to make a ballet based on Tim Burton’s 1990 movie “Edward Scissorhands,” Platt went to work, using his Hollywood connections to get Burton and composer Danny Elfman to see “Swan Lake,” then convincing them to sign on. “It’s the only time Tim has given up the right to something he created to an ancillary market,” says Platt, noting that the ballet premiered in London and then toured the world for five years.
His ability to get it off the ground, he says, “I attribute to my time with Sam.”
Two years into his tenure with Cohn, however, Platt was offered a job as a studio executive, beginning an eight-year run — first briefly at RKO, then at Orion, TriStar and Universal. His tenure was a mixed success: On one hand, he was a highly effective executive who didn’t just grab credit for others’ success; on the other hand, he never stamped the studio with his personality as some top execs have done — and indeed, he may never have wanted to do that.
Platt never rose to the No. 1 position, but he had his hand in some memorable movies — including “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Jerry Maguire” and “Dances With Wolves.” It says something about him that the one he is most passionate about is the 1993 drama “Philadelphia,” on which he doesn’t even have a credit.
Platt was president of TriStar when he and his friend, director Jonathan Demme, decided to do a movie that would explore AIDS and homosexuality, both subjects that had been off-limits at major studios. Platt and Demme had worked together at Orion on such pictures as “Married to the Mob” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” but this was very different, Platt says. “It achieved that power that makes film so potent, so life-changing. It changed the world.”
That’s not a claim most producers would make. It’s also not one that Platt defines as his goal.
Sitting back in his chair, a compact man with a considerate manner, he prefers to speak of his family rather than his career. “Hollywood is what I do,” he shrugs. “It’s not who I am.”
Platt and his wife, who met at Penn, keep a kosher home and are very involved in their synagogue. They support several charities and have donated to their alma mater, whose performing arts center is named after them. The family not only comes together every Friday for dinner, but also performs as a singing group at family functions — a throwback to Platt’s days in the glee club.
“I call them the Von Platt Singers,” Snider quips.
But the Von Platt Singers may not be singing together as much as they’d like because dad is so busy.
With a host of other projects in the works, Platt is truly coming into his own at a time when many independent producers are in free fall. He has a television series entering its second season on MTV, “Taking the Stage”; four movies in postproduction, including the tentatively titled “A Couple of Dicks,” a buddy cop comedy at Warners directed by Kevin Smith; “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” an action comedy starring Michael Cera; and the drama “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” starring Zac Efron, also at Universal, where his company has had a first-look deal for a decade, ever since he was forced out as head of production.
For those who still think of Platt as an executive, it’s hard to believe a decade has passed since he switched careers. Today, he says, he doesn’t miss the corporate life.
“I’m very happy with what I’m doing,” he says. “I love getting up in the morning, I love coming to my office, I love going to movie sets. It’s really what every parent wishes for their kid — to do what makes them happy.”
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