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The Wit, Wisdom and “Unvarnished Truth” of Terry Press: A No-Holds-Barred Interview

A Steven Spielberg and Sam Mendes adviser, this marketing pioneer and former CBS Films chief, who has worked with nearly everyone, talks about not suffering fools, her opinion of Scott Rudin and her go-to advice: "I say, ‘What is this movie’s reason to exist?’”

When consulting on the marketing and awards campaign for David Fincher’s The Social Network in late 2010, Terry Press needed to scope out the competition. She deftly arranged to see a screening of The King’s Speech at the Landmark Theatre on L.A.’s Westside. Swept up in the story, Press found herself weeping. “We’re going to lose,” she told a friend as the credits rolled.

She didn’t sugarcoat her opinion when reporting back to Fincher, producer Scott Rudin and then-Sony chief Amy Pascal. The Social Network might have been a critics’ darling and already an Oscar frontrunner, but it didn’t matter. “This is going to be a fight,” she told them. “You might see The King’s Speech as rank sentimentalism, but do not underestimate its power to move people. Academy voters will nominate something they admire, but they will vote for something they love.” Even though she thought The Social Network was a masterpiece, she was right. King’s Speech walked away with the crown.

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“Witty,” “intuitive,” “sharp-tongued,” “generous” and “blunt” are some of the words to describe Press, who has worked on 211 theatrical releases spanning more than four decades, movies that have garnered roughly 36 Oscar nominations and several best picture wins, including American Beauty in 2000 and, a year later, Gladiator.

For years, production held all the power at a studio. As a top marketing and publicity executive at Disney before heading up marketing at DreamWorks SKG, Press was among those who changed the balance, making sure top studio execs knew marketing needed to be involved from ground zero.

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Terry Press with daughter Gracie and son Ethan. Andy Marx

She’s developed the clout to convince filmmakers and studios chiefs that releasing a movie is a wasted chance unless it can be sold; sometimes that may require pivoting midstream. “When Terry puts up a fight for a campaign she believes in, unconditional surrender is the only option because when she’s right, she’s right,” says Steven Spielberg, who rarely makes a film without bringing Press on as a consultant.

Stresses Press: “Here’s the thing. At some point in my career, I had to choose between popularity or respect. And I chose respect. Because I’m not a political person. I never figured out how to manipulate a situation so that I could get a better job or better title. I never did that.”

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At her 1996 wedding to Andy Marx, grandson of Groucho Marx. Courtesy of Subject

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Press got her first studio job in 1987 as a staff writer at Disney’s film studio. She quickly rose through the ranks of marketing and publicity, catching the eye of Jeffrey Katzenberg. In December 1995, a year after Katzenberg was ousted from the company, he, Spielberg and David Geffen hired Press in January 1996 to run all of marketing for their new studio, DreamWorks SKG. She kept the gig until DreamWorks was sold to Paramount in late 2005, then shifted to DreamWorks Animation for two years. “I had not worked with her before Dreamworks, but she was an integral part of the company’s success and never hesitated to speak truth to power, which is why we are still friends today,” Geffen tells THR.

In 2012, the now-disgraced, then-CBS chief Leslie Moonves hired her to run CBS Films, where she released such films as Inside Llewyn Davis, The Woman in Black and Hell or High Water until 2019, when the unit was folded upon the Viacom-CBS merger.

Today, she’s back consulting, running 7570 Marketing (named for her old phone extension at Disney) and most recently worked for two months on the awards campaign for The Trial of the Chicago 7, which garnered six Oscar nominations.

Press recalls various moments in her career during a lengthy interview in the backyard of her Spanish-style home in the flats of Beverly Hills that she shares with her husband of 25 years, Andy Marx (grandson of Groucho Marx), their three dogs, three cats and, often during the pandemic, their 21-year-old twins, Gracie and Ethan. Press — who has never seemed interested in the trappings of show business — trekked to a nearby Bristol Farms for a cheese and fruit plate for the late-afternoon rendezvous.

Press, who grew up in a middle-class household in the suburban Bay Area, has a down-to-earth air about her. As a young girl, she watched classic movies from the 1930s and ’40s, which turned her into a tween cinephile (coincidentally, her go-to heroes included the Marx Brothers). Her dream when attending UCLA was to be a film critic. But she gave up on that idea and found work postgraduation writing calendar entries for Landmark Theatres and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before arriving at Disney.

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Press (in red) behind Warren Beatty and Madonna Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Press never has been good at hiding her impatience or disdain. At Disney, she worked on Dick Tracy. There are photos of her looking clearly irritated as she walked behind stars Warren Beatty and Madonna at the premiere after months of spending time with both. “Everything you need to know, you can see in my expression. The look on my face is something like, ‘If they gave me an ax, I’d stick it in both of your heads.’ I’d been on the road with them, and Madonna was then the biggest star in the world.”

Rudin, with whom she also worked on Disney’s Sister Act, was another matter. He or his assistants would intentionally leave messages in the middle of the night, obligating others to call him back. She was annoyed. Never mind protocol — Press recorded the following outgoing message: “Hi, you’ve reached the office of Terry Press. If you’re anybody but Scott Rudin’s office, you’re welcome to leave a message here.”

In recent weeks, Rudin has come under intense scrutiny after a THR cover story detailed accusations of alleged physical abuse of assistants. She’s worked with Rudin on other films through the years and says he’s enormously talented. “Someone can be a very good producer and be a terrible boss, but that is no excuse for abusing people and physical violence,” says Press, who says she never witnessed abusive behavior on his part. She does say that she is worried about the rise of cancel culture. “Just to simply cancel people who are talented and complicated is not smart. It is not constructive, and it does not help with lasting change,” she says. To her, the solution is to not reward bad behavior. “It’s like Trump. If there’s no consequences, there’s no reason to stop. Scott should have an opportunity to change. If he doesn’t, he pays the price.

“Part of me finds it a little sad to think that somebody with that much intelligence and that much taste is so rageful,” she continues. “What is the root of this? I don’t know the answer. At some point, he must have thought that was an effective way to go. And I mean, I’ve been on the receiving end of a fair amount of that.” She recalls an email he once sent her in all caps that read in part, “Your Eve Arden routine will not work on me. So just stop it.” Press laughs about the reference to the actress: “He doesn’t understand that to be compared to Eve Arden was the greatest thing ever.”

Press is more reluctant to talk about Moonves (they’re not in touch), whose career at CBS imploded after he was accused of multiple acts of alleged sexual harassment and sexual assault. Before he resigned in 2018, Press raised eyebrows after a post of hers on Facebook suggested that Moonves was owed due process. “Do I approve of Les Moonves’ behavior with the stories that were told with the actress or the doctor? Of course not,” she says now. “It’s disturbing, and he should look at what it is that caused that kind of behavior, but you’re not going to get me to say that he’s a terrible boss.”

Press says she never felt personally harassed in her career. And she wasn’t offended in the early 1990s when Sean Connery, during a marketing meeting for his Disney film Medicine Man, put his hand on her thigh under a conference table. “I actually thought it was fabulous. It was so Sean Connery. There were only a few movie stars who literally left me unable to speak — another was Paul Newman.” She had no desire to complain to her Disney bosses. “I sat there as long as I possibly could,” she says.

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Telling Spielberg what to do with one of his movies isn’t for the faint of heart, but Press has his ear. When she came aboard as a consultant on Lincoln in 2012, she told Amblin and Fox execs that they were making a grave mistake by releasing it in December and that they should release the historical epic around the November presidential election and run advertising during the debates. Spielberg was so keen for her help that he placed a call to Moonves to see if it was OK for her to work on Lincoln, since Press was still running CBS Films. Ditto for The Post a few years later.

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From left: Press’ former bosses Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen announcing the formation of DreamWorks SKG in 1994. Steve Starr/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Stacey Snider, a member of Press’ inner circle of friends, was chairman of 20th Century Fox at the time. “It is very important when making a movie for someone to say, ‘This is really the best way to go,’ and not just be a sycophant,” says Snider. “Terry is a unique and an essential person in the lives of many directors and executives. She represents a point of view that if we lose, it’s at our peril — which is the point of view of unvarnished truth.”

Sam Mendes, who worked with Press on American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road at DreamWorks, doesn’t like to make a movie without her. He enlisted 7570 Marketing as a consultant on his 2019 epic for Amblin and Universal, 1917, which was made in one long, continuous shot. Mendes wasn’t exactly thrilled when Press insisted that they test the movie in New Jersey. She wanted to reach beyond L.A. and New York cinephiles, who might focus only on the technical achievement. “I kept saying to Sam, ‘If this gets reduced to a stunt, it will fail. That’s not the reason you made it.’ He made the movie because the story was something told to him by his grandfather. Nobody’s first answer in the focus group was, ‘I liked that it was all one shot,’ ” says Press. 1917 was a commercial hit — it grossed nearly $160 million in North America — and scored 10 Oscar noms.

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Former Fox studio chief Stacey Snider (left) is one of Press’ confidants. E. Charbonneau/WireImage for Paramount Pictures

“Terry Press is one of the only people I have met in 30 years working in the entertainment industry who will always tell you the truth,” says Mendes. “It’s not always easy to hear, but it is made more than palatable by the fact that she is incredibly smart, very funny and absolutely unconditionally loves the movies.”

Yet not even Press can escape the wrath of upset producers and filmmakers after a film has failed. Case in point: the DreamWorks box office bomb The Island. The movie was directed by Michael Bay, who criticized the marketing of the film in a DVD commentary.

“I always say this to people: ‘What is the movie’s reason to exist?’ If you can’t answer that question, you can’t expect a consumer to figure it out,” responds Press. “I felt like nobody understood the challenge of The Island — I mean, there isn’t even an island. After it didn’t open, everyone wanted to have a postmortem. The first person who wrote an email after it didn’t open was David [Geffen], saying, ‘She tried to tell us that she couldn’t sell it. That it was a problem.’ So at least I had somebody in my corner.”

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A still of Robert Pine and Press in ‘Red Eye.’ Director Wes Craven  pleaded with her to appear in his film. Courtesy of Subject

She’s also the Russell Crowe whisperer. In 2002, during the campaign for A Beautiful Mind, the actor flew into a fit of rage after his BAFTA awards speech was cut short and pushed a show producer up against a wall. Universal, which was releasing the DreamWorks film, reached out to Press to see if she could calm Crowe down. “Somehow I got a reputation for being able to deal with difficult people, which is kind of hilarious to me, but in the world of who needs who, if you need somebody to tell Russell Crowe to go home and go to bed, not everybody feels like they can do that,” says Press, who did indeed call the actor, telling him, “You are going lose the Academy Award with this sort of behavior.” He did.

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Nick Meyer, Guillermo del Toro and Terry Press Photo by Patrick Lewis/Starpix/Shutterstock

Press’ no-nonsense style has even landed her in front of the camera. Filmmaker Wes Craven was so impressed by her efficiency in a preproduction meeting for DreamWorks’ 2005 hit thriller Red Eye that he called her from the lobby afterward and asked if he could come back up. His request: Would she play a flight attendant in the film? But there was no way she could leave her kids, then in preschool, or her job for a six-week shoot. He was insistent, suggesting she instead play an irritated hotel customer in an opening scene. It would only take a day. She agreed, but her work was not done. When they tested the pic, the focus group had one question: What happened to that woman? Craven decided to do additional photography and closed the film with a scene in which Press’ character appears. “I kept asking him why he wanted me. Was it because he thought I was a bossy bitch? He wouldn’t answer,” Press says.

These days, Press worries about the future of the big screen. “I can clock the most significant moments of my life — other than my marriage to my husband and my children — by the movies I’ve seen and where I saw them. I distinctly remember all the times that I have seen The Sound of Music. That’s imprinted on me,” says Press. “When we stopped using the word ‘movies’ and started using the word ‘content’ is the dividing line for me. They are very different things.”

This story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.