THR's producer of the year, who is also behind NBC's 'The Blacklist,' spills on George Lucas' advice on Hollywood "bullshit," saying no to Arnold Schwarzenegger and the secret to producing 100 films.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Shortly after John Davis graduated from Harvard Business School, he faced a dilemma: whether to join one of his mentors, cable TV pioneer Bill Daniels, in a regional sports cable network; get a Ph.D. and teach at business school; or follow his dad, Marvin, to Hollywood.
It was 1981, and Marvin — a larger-than-life, Denver-based oilman — had just leveraged $50 million of his own money to buy 20th Century Fox for $722 million. Marvin was shaking up the old establishment that had run Hollywood, and nobody was quite sure what to make of him or his long-term strategy.
After hesitating, Davis opted for Los Angeles. "I just decided, 'Look, I'm going to take a flier. I don't know the first thing about developing a script, but I know when I see a movie what works and doesn't work,' " he says.
Thirty years later, after making almost 100 movies, Davis, 61, is one of the most prolific producers in town, with a first-look movie deal at Fox and a TV deal at Sony, along with a string of film credits including The Firm, Grumpy Old Men, Courage Under Fire, Predator and Chronicle. "John's a very smart, experienced guy — he has an opinion and he'll give it, and it's an intelligent opinion that will be useful, even when you don't agree with it," says David O. Russell, director of the Davis-produced awards contender Joy. "He's an emotional, human, passionate guy, and he's very smart about how to bring a film into the world."
"He's a complete gentleman," says Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler. "David O. Russell moved into his offices, and John was this gracious host who welcomed him with open arms."
More recently, the married father of three has extended his portfolio from film to television, with credits including ABC's Dr. Ken and NBC's The Player. He's also developing a much-anticipated spinoff from his megasuccessful Blacklist. And these are just a few of his enterprises — he even owns a successful restaurant franchise, Blaze Pizza.
But film remains his first love, and this year he has two features out — Joy and Victor Frankenstein. With Blacklist renewed for a fourth season this month, he's THR's producer of the year.
What did your dad teach you?
Get your ass out of bed. Work your ass off. And when you drill 80 straight dry holes, which he did, make sure you drill the 81st, which he would also do and hit the mother lode. He had a tremendous work ethic. He worked six days a week. When I was growing up, he was always in the office on Saturday. And I work seven days a week, and I love it.
What part of your work do you like the most?
I love negotiation. I love business affairs. There's rights on properties that I have where it took three years to get the deals done, and you're dealing with rival estates. We're doing Ferdinand the Bull as an animated movie now. That book was held by rival family members. You've got to just move in with the family, so to speak, and get to know them. You take them out for dinner. You talk to them. You don't give up. I love that hunt, the art of getting the deal closed.
It's not just about paying more?
Oh my God, they've got to feel comfortable with you. They've got to feel you're going to treat [the project] right, especially when there are multiple family members that don't talk. I once got the rights to The Mamas & the Papas. I had to negotiate a truce between all of them in order to get them to sign off on the rights. That took two and a half years. I didn't end up making the movie, but it was fascinating. I lived with John Phillips and I lived with Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty, and it was about being the go-between.
What don't you like about the work?
I don't like that it's so hard to hold a movie together sometimes, that there are all these moving pieces. And you put your heart and your soul into it, and then a director drops out or an actor takes another movie. There's a lot of anxiety. I don't like the anxiety that you go through, two months before a movie starts, because it feels like something bad's going to happen and you're trying always just to hold it together. I hate it until the director rolls film. So many times I'll sit there with the director and go, "Just roll, right?" Until that happens, there's always the chance it's going to fall apart.
Who, besides your father, taught you the most?
When I first decided to get in the film business, I decided that I was going to track down two people who were icons and pick their brains: One was George Lucas, and the other was Frank Capra. I bugged and bugged Capra. He was in Northern California on a lake. He was fishing, had a little cabin. He's my favorite filmmaker; there's no cynicism in him. He let me spend the day with him in his cabin. He fished, and I asked 1,000 questions. And he basically said, "Look, nowhere do you command the complete attention of people the way you do in that theater. So it's an opportunity and a responsibility to say something important to further the cause of humanity."
It took me two months to get him to agree to sit down with me. I went and saw him in Marin County. He gave me 20 minutes. He said: "Don't buy the bullshit of what goes down there in Hollywood. Stay away from the bullshit part of it."
How has the film business changed since then?
First of all, we've had the rise of digital media, which means that you can steal movies, which in turn means that the economics that allow us to get certain things done are being pulled away from us. That's endangering the business and on some level has got to be taking freedom away from us. I met with somebody from the MPAA about two years ago, and she said that my movies had been stolen 195 million times. I said, "You're kidding." Nobody ever saw that coming. Also, quite frankly, we're going through a period that I never thought we'd go through, where there's not a lot of movie stars.
Here's the thing: My children don't have TV sets. My children consume a lot of entertainment on their phone and on their computer. There's been a digital revolution in this country and it has changed these millennials, and you can't get to them through television advertising any more. It used to be you could just advertise a movie on spot TV and national TV, and you could reach anybody you wanted. Well, you want to get to people under 20? You can get to them through live sports, but short of that you've got to be really clever.
What's changed most over the years in your approach to producing?
The older I get, the more I like to be on the set. You get to take a small time out from your life, and you're with a family. A movie becomes a family for "10 plus two" — that's the term used in contracts with actors: 10 paid weeks plus two free weeks. But you basically say at the end of the movie that you guys are friends forever — and then you never see them again.
What's your favorite memory of a movie?
I was an executive on Commando, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. And I was trying to do the best I could, and Arnold came to me one day and said: "I have this great idea. You know that scene tomorrow where I kill the guy? I would like to cut his arm off and beat him to death with his arm." And I'm going, "That's not a good idea." And he goes: "No, no, no, it will be great. They'll be screaming and I'll be beating him with his arm and he'll be screaming." We said no.
What was your toughest moment?
I made River Phoenix's last movie, The Thing Called Love. He was going through a difficult drug problem, and he was going through it on the set. He was a lovely guy, but there was no way to help him. I tried to put myself at his side at all times, physically, to keep him away from medication. And somehow [the drugs] kept getting through. We were too far into the movie [to replace him] as the problem escalated. We would have had to restart the entire movie. I talked to [one of his reps] about it — you know, how important it was to get him help. And the [rep] said, "Oh no, you don't understand. He just has a cold. And he's taking cold medication." So that was tough because he was a great guy and a very interesting actor. And I was watching him go down the rabbit hole really fast.
You've had some massive hits, but you've also had a few misses. Why didn't Victor Frankenstein catch on?
I look back and do a postmortem on everything I do. We went in there with great intentions. We had a terrific production designer, great actors and a really good script. But I guess period movies are tough. And Frankenstein carries baggage that I didn't realize when I was getting into it. There's a certain kind of hokey sensibility we attach to it, which I thought we could get around by exploring the whole franchise from a different point of view, like The Wiz did — turning it around and seeing it from a different set of lenses. But obviously that didn't work.
The Wiz was huge on TV, but movies are more expensive and therefore more risky, right?
It's risk and reward — and that's the other thing my father taught me: If you don't take outsize risk, you're never going to experience outsize reward. And in a way I'm still learning that, and I'm on a progression
to get there. Hopefully I'm becoming more of a risk-taker. We all have a tendency to be cautious, and I've come to realize you can't be. I was really aware of that when we did Chronicle. Its director [Josh Trank] had seven minutes of film, and we made the movie for $12 million. It was written by this young fellow I knew when he was in diapers — John Landis' son, Max. I used to go over to the house and he'd be playing with his dinosaur. And when he brought us this script, I really loved it. But that was a risk — a young director who has only done seven minutes of film? We made it and it ended up being, I think, the most profitable film Fox made that year, and certainly the most money I've made on a film.
Do you have a favorite among your films?
I will always love the Grumpy Old Men movies because I did four movies with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and I grew up watching The Fortune Cookie and The Odd Couple. I was really close to Walter. I loved Jack, too, but you could get closer to Walter. One of my favorite stories with him was when it came time to do Grumpier Old Men. I had wanted Sophia Loren to do the first one, and the studio didn't agree, and when the second one came along, I pushed and they said OK. And I went and met with her at this beautiful ranch in Ventura County. And she wasn't sure. So I did what any flailing producer would do: I said, "Would you just take a meeting with Walter?" And I called Walter and said, "Don't embarrass me," and he just laughed. We showed up in New York, and he's scruffy and rough and looked like he had been sleeping in his clothes for a month. And she's dressed to the nines, and we walk over to the table in the restaurant where we're meeting, and Walter gets up and says, "Sophia, nice to meet you. I'd like to eat you." She thought for a moment — and laughed. And they kind of fell in love.
Without stars, what's the long-term prognosis for the film business?
Franchises. Presold ideas.
Joy is neither.
Yes, I know. And it just goes to show, if you work hard enough, a great idea can break through. But it's a David O. Russell movie.
How did it come to you?
John Fox, the president of Davis Entertainment, brought the rights to [me]. And it was really exciting, because it felt fresh and different. He knew a reality television producer, Ken Mok, who somehow knew Joy Mangano [the Miracle Mop mogul the movie is based on], and we optioned the rights. I didn't really meet her until about a year and a half ago, but she's instantly lovable. There's not an ego there. A lot of people who are really famous have a facade; a lot of people who are really wealthy are distant and non-engaging — they disappear behind gates. But not her.
You're successful and wealthy. Have you ever been tempted to disappear behind the gates?
No, never. What I love about our business is, this is a community. This is a community where somebody will actually do something to help you if you need them. It's more than a business; it's a lifestyle. And I like that. So we got the rights and took them to Elizabeth Gabler, and she got it right away. And then we hired Annie Mumolo, the first writer.
Mumolo was pretty vocal in objecting to changes made to her script. Is there some tension?
I don't think there's tension. She's seen the movie and she loves the movie. David wrote a script that was completely out of his head, that was completely unique. And the only movie he was going to commit to direct was a movie that had 100 percent his voice.
As a producer, how do you work with an auteur like him?
I love telling him jokes. And I think he reluctantly laughs at them. I love telling David stories; David loves telling me stories. But making Joy — it was the coldest winter in the history of Boston. And the movie was set for a Christmas release, so it had to stay on schedule. We shot 47 days. That's not a lot in Hollywood.
Did you do any reshooting?
None. Zero. I think David knew exactly what he wanted and got it. Look, for me, working with David was like getting my Ph.D. in filmmaking because he approaches things differently from any other director I've ever worked with. David's extraordinarily interactive, working on a script. He wants your opinion all the time — and I would say that's why some directors can stay good and some directors, as they become more and more successful, their movies become less and less relatable. It takes 40 people to make a movie, and if you're really interested and curious about what all 40 people think, I would submit that's what makes a director relevant through his entire career.
In 10 years' time, will people still be seeing his movies, or any movies?
People will always go to the theater because it's a great communal experience. I went with my son over the holidays, and we saw Creed together. That said, home theaters are so exquisite. [Lakers general manager] Mitch Kupchak came to my house once and we were watching the playoffs together, and he said, "Why would you
leave?" So when you make a movie, you've got to always push the limit.
What's the best decision you've made as a producer?
To go after the rights to The Firm, when John Grisham didn't have a publishing deal, didn't have an agent. He had a manager. It was Christmas Eve, and I had this young book person working with me in New York named Ruth Pomerance. And earlier that day she was in somebody's office and got her hands on this book and said, "This book is really good." I was sitting in a hotel room and I said, "Fax me the book," because this was before email. And she faxed me page after page, and I sat there on Christmas Eve and read the whole book off a fax machine. And I made a deal.
Fox has all sorts of algorithms and computer models. Do you use things like that?
I believe in my gut. There's two ways I've made movies. First, I've made movies I want to see. And the second is, I followed my kids growing up. By participating in their viewing habits, I made all those family movies, and I had a relevant perspective because I understood the way a 7-year-old looked at the world — and then, as they got older, I followed them into Chronicle. And with Joy, I wanted to make a movie for my daughters that would basically say: Women can accomplish whatever they want.
Is film still a good business?
I believe it is. What you have to understand is, it's software that can go over any kind of pipe. A digital pipe, a cable pipe, an over-the-air pipe. And it's not about the current return on a movie, but its library value. Look at the value of studio libraries over time, because there's always another technology that's going to come along, that's going to drag your library up and revitalize it economically. If you look back over the last 30 years, I believe studio libraries have probably increased 20 percent a year in value. If you're one of the surviving five or six studios, you've created tremendous value.
You've moved into television with some success. What led you there?
John Fox and my wife, Jordan, convinced me to. My wife's a former TV executive. She's always loved television. I just needed the time to get around to it because features have always been my first love. The thing that's so bewildering about television is: 80 percent of the time you fail. It is so hard to get a pilot. It is so hard to get that pilot picked up to series. And then you get picked up to series, and 80 percent of the time you fail. It's so daunting.
Blacklist is the model for NBC dramas now. What are the biggest challenges for you with that show?
Any television show, to really be successful, has got to last six or seven years. And so it's about keeping the storylines vital and keeping the storytelling going that long. Every year you've got to invent 22 new episodes, while in the film business, you can take three, four, five or six years to create a movie. And you have three days to edit a pilot before you turn it over to the network. We were on a rushed schedule on Joy, and even on a rushed schedule, we still had four or five months just to edit.
What do you watch on television, other than your own shows?
I love Silicon Valley. And I've always loved Modern Family. I watched Narcos. I still love watching comedy. I've got to admit I'm a binge viewer. It's exciting to me.
Is there a movie in the last year or two that you wish you had made?
Gravity — because it was a big visual effects movie that was still very, very artistic. It would be fun to do a movie that was both hugely commercial and artistically brilliant.
What makes a great producer?
A great producer never gets frustrated. I can't tell you how many people I've run into who are former movie producers who got frustrated when things didn't go right and became agents or software entrepreneurs or who knows what. You've just got to be in it for the long term. I always loved [producer] Dick Zanuck, and the reason I always loved Dick Zanuck was, he was a statesman and a gentleman.
Is it possible to be both?
Yes, it's possible, but you have to aspire to it. He loved film. He was honest as the day was long. He had amazing taste. That's what I aspire to. There's no reason why being a producer can't be really a noble profession.