After a lengthy absence marked by personal tragedy and professional setbacks, the industry veteran — who helped launch the careers of Christopher Nolan and the Wachowskis — returns with a renewed focus on Studio 8: "If you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done."
On a bright September day, Jeff Robinov is sitting in his Santa Monica kitchen, the remnants of a hectic morning barely visible. His 11-year-old daughter, Devan, drifts into the Zoom-call frame as she chases after a barking Yorkie named Chloe. The former Warner Bros. Pictures Group president just prepared breakfast for Devan and her 14-year-old sister, India, and their remote school day already is in session. Robinov is overseeing their academics while juggling a videoconference with potential financiers for his Studio 8 and some calls with writers and directors. Somewhere in between, he'll run Devan to the orthodontist.
"I've been a single parent for a while," he explains. "Make breakfast, make their lunches for school, make dinner at night. We all figure out what they want for dinner the night before. So during the day I'll get to the grocery store, and as a family we'll cook dinner. It's like a collective. Everybody helps to set the table, chop, clean up. Got to make sure homework gets done, doctor's appointments are set. It's a normal single-parent life."
The onetime ICM agent who launched the careers of the Wachowskis and the Hughes brothers and helped steer one of the best creative eras at Warner Bros. has been keeping well below the radar, even by coronavirus standards. Robinov's ex-wife died in August 2019 of cancer, but he had been the sole hands-on parent to their two children for two years before that as she dealt with personal issues. (He also has a 20-year-old son Reece, a student at U.C. Santa Cruz, from a previous marriage.) There were rumors Robinov had become the mayor of a small city in New England. Not quite — the family had moved to his native Maine to provide more emotional support for the kids in the face of tragedy; they returned to Los Angeles in June.
"The impact of losing their mom hit really hard," he says. "But there is just much more infrastructure and much more support for them here. And in a way, it took a lot of pressure off of me because it allows me to focus on them and try to reconstruct this company in a way where we can hopefully be successful."
Studio 8 launched in 2014 with a reported $1 billion in backing from China's Fosun Group and Sony and the ability to finance the types of films and franchises Robinov helped birth at Warners — blockbusters like Gravity, Inception and Harry Potter. But after a difficult period marked by personal adversity and professional setbacks — including an unexpected trade war with China that blew up his business model — he is quietly mounting a comeback. About six months ago, the 61-year-old Robinov started setting up scores of his Studio 8 projects around town, including Black, an adaptation of the Black Mask comic series, at Warners, the family comedy Adulting at Sony and a pair of Ben Affleck star vehicles — Houdini at Disney (with Black Mirror's Dan Trachtenberg directing) and the Robert Rodriguez-helmed thriller Hypnotic at Solstice Studios.
For the first time in six years, Robinov is sitting down for an interview, not exactly comfortable talking about himself or his career. But as the morning wears on, he begins to warm up when the subject shifts to his 14 years at Warner Bros., a studio where he ushered in The Matrix franchise and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy but famously lost out to Kevin Tsujihara for the CEO job in 2013 in a cutthroat bake-off conceived by Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes. Tsujihara then promptly fired Robinov.
"It was very painful, and I don't think I could talk about it this way six years ago," he recalls. "It is really only the passage of time and the events that have happened in my life that have given me the perspective that I have on it."
Many in the industry have remained loyal to Robinov and are rooting for his triumphant return as a producer.
"His genius was in the way he built a slate. No one could put together that perfect mix of movies like Jeff," says CAA's Bryan Lourd, one of Robinov's closest friends in the industry. "The movies he advocated for were exceptional."
Lourd describes Robinov as "the most decent, committed and direct man in Hollywood," likening him to the late Sony executive John Calley, who was known for his brilliant intellect.
As origin stories go, Robinov's might be the most unconventional and circuitous in terms of Hollywood executives. He was born in New York City, his father a Mad Men-esque advertising executive who worked on the iconic Noxzema shaving-the-peach campaign. But the elder Robinov (who's now deceased) was passed over for a promotion. Disillusioned, he headed to Maine to sell aluminum siding when Robinov was just 3 months old.
"My family was very much Tin Men," says Robinov, referencing the 1987 Barry Levinson film about rival aluminum-siding salesmen. "[My dad] smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, was super likable, a really chatty guy. Good-looking, great dresser. He was always on the road. He and his brother-in-law built a pretty successful siding business covering Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont."
Robinov worked after school in a movie theater, where he was exposed to the classics and became "obsessed" with movies. "I knew it was something I wanted to do, but it took me a very long road to get there," he adds.
Indeed. After graduating from high school, he headed to England to study at the London School of Economics. He then traveled for five years, living in Israel on a kibbutz, working in Crete on an olive farm, doing a lot of construction work outside Paris and even living in a Buddhist monastery for six months in northern England. "A lot of life stuff with an 8-pound backpack," he explains. He returned to New York and landed a job at Grey Advertising, albeit not on the creative side. He stayed at Grey for a year and then left to start a custom wood furniture company in Philadelphia with a friend. But the movie sirens beckoned, so he applied to UCLA's producing program. He was wait-listed but ultimately didn't land a spot. He moved to Los Angeles anyway in 1989.
He was 30 years old, had no family or friends in the area, just a packed car and some accounting and woodworking skills. He registered as a temp and landed accounting jobs but knew little about the accounting rules in California and wasn't a licensed CPA. So he started his own talent agency, the official-sounding Robinov Co. He then rented a 200-square-foot office on the northeast corner of Charleville and Beverly Drive, where he also lived. There was no bathroom, so he used the building's public facility. Despite his meager trappings, he did what came to define Robinov: found young, promising writers and directors. He signed a lot of UCLA grads and made inroads with pretty much every creative writing program in the country. Ironically, he finally was accepted to
UCLA but turned the university down because his representation career was beginning to take off after signing the Hughes brothers before their breakout 1993 gang drama, Menace II Society.
"They basically launched my career," he says. "They became incredibly hot clients. They were both great guys, really supportive of me. I went to ICM with them."
During his four years at ICM, he signed the Wachowskis and Christopher McQuarrie before the writer-director won a best original screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects. He also sold the screenplay for The Meg to New Line, some 25 years before it was resurrected by Warners and became a $530 million worldwide smash in 2018.
Warners production president Courtenay Valenti, who worked with Robinov for more than a decade at the studio, remembers his dealmaking skills when he was on the other side of the table.
"He was a tough negotiator because he was going to get whatever his clients needed and he was going to protect them," she says. "[Once he was at Warners,] I would go to him for advice all the time. Like, how do you handle the negotiation? Because he could see five moves down the chessboard about how a negotiation was going to go."
It was Robinov's role as keeper of the Wachowskis' vision that brought him into the Warners fold in 1999. He would shepherd the trailblazing Matrix franchise, which is now being rebooted at the studio. Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who was Warners' head of production at the time, was skeptical of Robinov.
"He told me I'd be a shitty executive but he'd make a deal with me as a producer," Robinov recalls. "But I wanted to be an executive. I didn't want to be a salesman anymore. I guess I must have convinced Lorenzo or [fellow production president] Billy Gerber because the two of them came to the decision, 'OK, we'll give him a shot.' I went over as an executive. That was the beginning of my Warner Bros. tenure."
It was there that Robinov and the studio flourished. As he rose through the ranks, he developed a shorthand with then-president and COO Alan Horn.
"Some people just don't understand numbers," says Horn, now chief creative officer and co-chairman at Walt Disney Studios. "Jeff knew the economics of the motion picture business. We could discuss creative issues, and we could talk about the business issues as well. When we talked about the business issues, it's not as if I were talking to a poet. He thoroughly understood the numbers."
Among his signature achievements, he brought in directors Alfonso Cuarón for Harry Potter, Todd Phillips for The Hangover films and a young Nolan, hot off the indie hit Memento. Those directors remained well ensconced at the studio for years to come. As for Nolan, he initially was interested in directing the 2004 Brad Pitt vehicle Troy, but it didn't work out. Nolan's agent, Dan Aloni, floated the idea of Batman. Robinov had to figure out how to reposition the character after the Joel Schumacher misfires Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. "Chris came up with a pitch for what Batman Begins was going to be," he says. "He told the movie from front to end. So even without a screenplay, Alan greenlit the film. At the time people weren't making $125 million movies off of a pitch and committing to them."
The gamble paid off, with the three films earning a combined $2.46 billion and spawning the era of auteur-driven comic book tentpoles.
By 2011, the rhythm Robinov and Horn fostered was interrupted. Bewkes decided to eliminate Horn's position, with Robinov, home video exec Tsujihara and TV honcho Bruce Rosenblum forming an "office of the president." What ensued was a protracted bake-off to replace outgoing chairman and CEO Barry Meyer. Bewkes, who was said to have privately mocked Robinov for heading off to an ashram when he was experiencing marital difficulty, opted for the home video guy. Meyer called Robinov just 45 minutes before it was announced in the press that Tsujihara got the job.
"The decision was made by someone who was not a creative executive, who didn't come from the creative side, who didn't value the importance of or understand it necessarily," says Robinov. "It sounds pejorative. It’s not meant to be. But Kevin was like a used car salesman. Not in his personality but in his job description. He resold what we made."
Tsujihara turned around and fired Robinov in 2013. Six years later, Tsujihara himself had a very public downfall after a THR exposé about his relationship with actress Charlotte Kirk. When asked about Tsujihara, Robinov grows quiet before continuing.
"I genuinely took no satisfaction in what happened to Kevin because it didn't just happen to him, it happened to his wife, it happened to his kids," he says. "And it didn't change my life. It didn't take away what I had been through for six years."
After regrouping, Robinov plotted a next act, launching Studio 8 in 2014. Fosun and Sony, then headed up by like-minded creative executive Amy Pascal, invested in the venture. Studio 8 would finance and produce 24 films over five years, but within months of the deal, Sony was hacked, Pascal was out, and Tom Rothman was the new chief. Robinov had no relationship with Rothman. Making matters more awkward, Robinov's name also had been bandied about as a potential Pascal replacement. It appeared that the two Studio 8 films already greenlit — the Matthew McConaughey starrer White Boy Rick and the Paleolithic era-set thriller Alpha — would be the only two Sony would release.
Not long after, Donald Trump was elected president and launched a trade war with China. There would be no new money coming from Fosun, which reneged on the deal. So Robinov slowed down developing new projects as he shifted his focus to full-time parenting. But for a guy who once lived out of his bathroom-less micro-office, Robinov wasn't deterred for too long. Upon returning from Maine, he poured his energy back into Studio 8's slate, less ambitious than his original vision but still adhering to a filmmaker-driven mandate. Studio 8, with a staff of six, has enough money from the initial Sony-Fosun investment to cover development and overhead for another three to five years. And in some ways, COVID-19 is the great equalizer in Hollywood, with the traditional film studio model teetering on the brink.
"It seems like a series of unfortunate things happened in Jeff's life. And there was a moment where I didn't even know if he wanted to continue in the business," says Horn. "I hope that this is the start of something special."
In the meantime, there are lunches to make and homework to check.
"If you don't do it, it doesn't get done," says Robinov with a laugh. "And the appreciation train isn't pulling up any time soon, so you just do it. That's my story."
This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.