With two major movies — Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut, 'Molly's Game,' and a remake of 'Murder on the Orient Express' — THR's producer of the year has strong opinions on the film and TV industry and the rocky new Hollywood landscape: "The king is the distribution platforms."
Tucked away in a corner of his Santa Monica offices is what Mark Gordon calls his "war room." Whiteboards are everywhere, with row upon row of projects listed at various stages. Every week, the 61-year-old and his staff of 40 meet here to go over their seemingly endless development and production roster. On the boards at the moment are such upcoming movies as the World War II drama Midway and the fantasy sequel The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair, as well as TV series including The Climb, a Detroit-set comedy for Amazon about an office assistant looking for internet fame.
"Every project that's in any way worth discussing is on this board," says Gordon, an Oscar nominee for 1998's Saving Private Ryan and a two-time Emmy Award winner (2005's Warm Springs and 1984's CBS Schoolbreak Special). "Each Monday, I spend about two and a half hours in here with everyone in the company. Not only does it allow me to see what everybody is doing, but everybody else will then say, 'This is what I need from you.' "
After that Monday meeting, Gordon — who in early 2015 made waves when he abandoned his long-term production deal with ABC Studios (where he has made such shows as Grey's Anatomy and Criminal Minds) and sold 51 percent of the Mark Gordon Co. to Canada's Entertainment One for a reported $133 million — usually settles into his large office and fields calls from a who's who of Hollywood. "I have phone systems that are color-coded," says Gordon, explaining that reds and blues indicate which executive or star needs to be called immediately and which ones can wait. "As someone who likely has ADD — I've never been diagnosed — I can't sit still for too long. If I didn't have all of these cockamamie systems, I'd wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning and go, 'Oh shit.' "
The Newport News, Virginia, native grew up with no aspirations to enter film; his father was in the clothing business. But after falling in love with photography (a collection of vintage cameras decorates one of his offices), he entered New York University's film school, then took a series of producing jobs in theater and television before getting his first break producing the 1994 Keanu Reeves actioner Speed.
Now Gordon has two of the most anticipated movies of the year: the Aaron Sorkin-directed Molly's Game (starring Jessica Chastain and adapted from Molly Bloom's memoir about running a high-stakes Hollywood poker game; opens Dec. 25) and Fox's Murder on the Orient Express (a new iteration of the Agatha Christie murder mystery, directed by Kenneth Branagh; opens Nov. 10).
"Mark is extremely smart, has fantastic taste and knows how to lead an army," says Sorkin. "But what truly makes him exceptional is his insistence that movie-making be a joyful process."
Gordon, THR's producer of the year, sat down in early October to talk about these movies, the uncertain future of Hollywood and what it was like to have his heart broken at the Oscars.
Once you'd obtained the rights to Orient Express, how did you approach the material?
My initial thought was, "We need to turn it into [Robert Downey Jr.'s] Sherlock Holmes. We need to be as far away from the Masterpiece Theatre version of this as we can." And Fox took a different position, which was: "You know what? We think if we do it well, there is a huge audience for a more traditional version." I give them all the credit, because they had a very strong point of view. It wasn't my initial point of view when I sold them the project.
You've finished Molly's Game. How did the Sorkin relationship begin?
I met Aaron on Steve Jobs. There were a lot of cooks in that kitchen, but we spent a little time together, and he was smart and funny and delivered a first draft that was amazing. [On Molly] he was a dream as a director, but I wanted the movie to cost less, and it was hard to get the budget down. It was very hard for him to dismantle it and put it back together.
You spent many years based at ABC and then left. What did they do well and what did they do badly?
What they did well was create an environment where they allowed for real collaboration. They were wonderful partners, and we [still] partner with them a lot. What they didn't do so well was: They just have such a massive volume, it's really hard to shine things up. ABC is a very large company, [parent] Disney is a very large company, and they can't be nimble. There were certain deals they couldn't make, there were certain cable networks that they couldn't work with because they couldn't come to an agreement on SVOD [subscription video-on-demand]. The system didn't allow for the opportunity that's out there now.
You got a lot of money when you made the eOne deal but lost the safety net of having a network to cover your losses. Why?
When I was at ABC, I would make a number of pilots, and if they didn't work, they didn't go against my balance sheet. And then I would make Grey's Anatomy, and I would make Criminal Minds and Army Wives, and I made significant money on these shows. But the losses didn't go against my wins. Now, when we win, we win; and when we lose, we lose. But of course, when you win, the wins are significantly greater.
You came very close to closing a similar deal with Sky instead of eOne. What went wrong?
Literally 10 days before we were supposed to sign a deal, they withdrew. It was really crushing. The woman who championed the deal, Sophie Turner Laing, was going to leave Sky, and Sky was combining Sky Italy and Sky Germany. [Then] I had meetings with everybody: I had meetings with ITV; I had meetings with Fremantle. And one of the people I met was Darren Throop, who's the CEO of eOne, and he was really interesting and smart, and he really understood our business. Twelve weeks from the time I met Darren, we closed the deal.
Are you still involved with Grey's Anatomy and Criminal Minds?
More so Criminal Minds than Grey's. But very early it was clear that Shonda Rhimes had incredible vision and knew what she wanted. And I got out of the way.
Did she make the right decision to leave ABC and go to Netflix?
I think she did. She had conquered the world of network television. She is by far and away the most important single person to affect ABC in 20 years.
Does the broadcast model work?
Look, there's an enormous amount of money to still be made in network television. It's going nowhere fast. It's eroding, and it's eroding faster than all of us would like, but there's still enormous wealth in network TV.
What about film?
It's on the downhill path. Everyone's trying to figure out what to do about it. And I don't think anybody's figured it out. I remember, three or four years ago, having a conversation with [then-Sony Pictures CEO] Michael Lynton, and he said: "I don't know if anything can save the movie business. There's no technology, no new thing." The Chinese were going to save us. Whoop, that's over. It's a scary time.
Are the studios right to invest so much in tentpole movies?
Yes. Because what makes something worthy of the big screen?
Scale is one thing, which may be why franchises are so popular, and yet you haven't gone into that business. Why?
Just haven't been lucky enough. I would love it. Listen, I made Speed, and then I was basically booted off Speed 2: Cruise Control because [director] Jan de Bont wanted control and Fox gave it to him.
What makes a great producer?
Being able to step back and be as good a storyteller as any director but moving to the side and seeing things with a more critical eye. And being able to manage the whole process, from a financial perspective and a creative perspective.
Which movie most shaped you?
The first movie I was blown away by was It's a Wonderful Life. And I really remember a jaw-dropping experience was when I saw The Godfather. I was 15 or 16.
Was NYU a good experience?
I learned a lot, but I wasn't interested in being in school. I was interested in working.
Name a producer you really admire.
Scott Rudin. Because he has impeccable taste, because he fights for the movie, because he works incredibly hard and he's just a great producer. He's not the easiest person to work with, but as a producer, I have enormous admiration for him.
You were president of the PGA for several years. What are the main issues facing producers?
It's very difficult to become a producer today. The other day, someone said, "Where are the young producers?" And there aren't as many as there used to be because it's impossible. When I was starting out, you could get a development fee from a studio. You could make a living by getting three or four $25,000 development fees, and you could live on that until you got a movie made. Most studios don't give a development fee. Those days are over.
But there's money coming into the industry, right? At least in TV?
Yes, there's a lot more opportunity right now. But [former DreamWorks Animation CEO] Jeffrey Katzenberg just said, "It used to be that content was king, and now content is the kingmaker." Because the king is the distribution platforms.
Look ahead 10 years: What are the most significant shifts we'll see?
I don't know, and I don't think anybody knows. What we can say is, it's very likely — because it's happening all the time — that there will be fewer people owning more things. There will be a consolidation, because News Corp and Warners and all these companies will merge and gobble things up, and they will then decide what to give you. Oddly, you may have more choices, but those choices will be provided by fewer companies. The worry is, if all the power is in the hands of too few people, it destroys the market.
One other issue is the shrinking U.S. domestic theatrical market. Do you have to think more globally?
Yes. All the time. Years ago, with my company Mutual Film Co. [Gordon's then-partnership with producer Gary Levinsohn], I got to know the international marketplace because we had a German partner, we had the BBC as a partner, we had UGC, Toho-Towa, Tele Munchen in Germany. That was the beginning of that era. But today, eOne is the largest international film distributor outside of the majors: They cover 30 percent of the world. So we don't just think about it; it's a driver for us. We don't really look at pictures that are not aggressively worldwide opportunities.
Is Molly's Game a worldwide opportunity?
Absolutely. We sold that movie in Cannes and did extremely well. But remember: Aaron Sorkin is an international star.
What do you see as your greatest success?
My greatest success, which I share enormously with others, is Saving Private Ryan. I couldn't sell that idea to anyone. Every studio passed. The last place we went was Paramount, and [executive] Don Granger bought the project, and we developed it there, and [writer] Bob Rodat and I spent a year, a year and a half working on the script. There were so many different versions that he wrote: You find Ryan on page 30, you find Ryan on page 60, the movie is about the journey back, Ryan is dead when they find him. In the end, [Steven] Spielberg [agreed to do it].
You expected to win an Oscar then lost to Shakespeare in Love.
It was horrible. It was just so unexpected. We'd won every award, all the film critics' awards and everything. It was inconceivable that we weren't going to win best picture. And we're sitting there with incredible anticipation. Then Harrison Ford [presented the Oscar to] Shakespeare in Love. He was shocked. You could see it on his face. He was dumbfounded. I was standing up as soon as that "S" sound came, buttoning up my tuxedo. And then I sat down. It was a stunning blow. I was in a daze for the rest of the night. I just was like, "How could this be?"
Did that moment teach you anything?
What I took away from it was: This is what you're good at. You're a good storyteller, you have the ability to tell stories that are commercial and meaningful and can affect the way people see the world — and that's what I'm supposed to do. In my moment of misery, I had to wake up and go, "This is a great opportunity to see the world in a different way." In Yiddish there's an expression, bashert. What it means is: It's meant to be. And I have always appreciated that expression.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.