This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In a career that began 30 years ago with Flashdance, Lynda Obst has been known as a producer with a keen eye for such smart, character-driven movies as Sleepless in Seattle, Hope Floats and Contact (her films have grossed $1.1 billion). But in what she calls Hollywood’s “New Abnormal,” the industry is dominated by VFX-laden tentpoles, franchises, sequels, prequels and reboots. Hollywood, she says, has drifted away from the type of movies she specialized in. Her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales From the New Abnormal in the Movie Business (Simon & Schuster), considers the profound changes in the industry — the collapse of DVD sales, the 2007 writers strike and the rise of the foreign box office — that pushed studios to focus on big-budget films. Obst had a front-row seat to those changes through her production deal at Paramount, which ran from 1998 through 2007. In this excerpt, she weaves her story into the collapse of the Paramount partnership among chairman Sherry Lansing, president John Goldwyn and their boss, Jon Dolgen, chairman of Paramount parent Viacom Entertainment — and illustrates a key moment in the birth of the “New Abnormal.” — Andy Lewis
The year 2001, as a I began to develop How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, turned out to be a profoundly transitional one, not just for America (and the world, in the wake of 9/11) but for the movie business as well. It was the year of the first Harry Potter and the first Shrek, and it was a brave new world filled with breakthroughs in CGI and animation.
The ways we’d always done things since time immemorial (at least in the three decades since I came to Hollywood) were beginning to become obsolete. I call them the Old Abnormal and the New Abnormal because Hollywood, let’s face it, is never actually normal. Think of how bizarre the people are, for starters: Famous hairdressers, notable Israeli gunrunners, Russian gangsters, mothers who score on their daughters’ successfully leaked sex-tape escapades and Harvard grads who chase hip-hop stars and Laker Girls. It boasts smart people galore with or without prestigious diplomas and loves a craven con man with a new angle, a new pot of gold or a new look. Lying is a critical job skill; poker is as good a starter course as film school. How else would you know that the line “Sandra Bullock wants to do this” really means “It’s on her agent’s desk,” and “Three studios are bidding on this script” means “Everyone’s passed but one buyer who hasn’t answered yet.” It’s just plain Abnormal, and always has been.
I began at Paramount, the paragon of the Old Abnormal, under the Jon Dolgen/Sherry Lansing/John Goldwyn regime in 1998. Before becoming chairwoman in 1992, Lansing and producing partner Stanley Jaffe — and the producing team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer — had perfected the Old Abnormal high-concept model. Simpson was brilliant at story and considered by many to have given birth to the whole high-concept-movie idea (i.e., a “log line” no longer than a TV Guide description). Simpson teamed with Bruckheimer and made Eddie Murphy‘s breakout hit Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and the Tom Cruise hits Top Gun (1986) and Days of Thunder (1990).
Paramount’s women-centered thrillers are, even today, still called “Sherry movies” in the industry after those she made during her producing career — The Accused, Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal. Those were groundbreaking female “refrigerator movies” — movies you would still be debating when you got home and were reaching for leftovers in your refrigerator.
My Paramount saga began at lunch with the president of Paramount, Goldwyn — handsome, lean and fiercely intelligent — on Nov. 6, 1998. We sat there chatting away as Muslim anti-discrimination groups were boycotting my movie The Siege, which opened that day, and the Fox studio was surrounded by barricades because of a bomb threat. The director, Ed Zwick, and I were being accused of a Zionist plot. John asked me what the movie was about. I thought better to not mention the current situation — he might be less eager to invite me over. I just smiled and said, “It’s a cautionary tale about an imagined terrorist takedown of New York.”
He started to explain why Paramount was a producer’s studio. He quoted Stanley Jaffe, its influential ex-chairman. He was looking for Paramount to be the place for people who are really good at what they do — directors, writers, producers — to feel supported, as long as they worked within the rules. They would be given the opportunity to pursue their vision, but that opportunity would be provided within a very specific set of financial boundaries. I thought, I can work with this guy. And I could make a profit at Paramount as opposed to just fees.
In 1999, early in my tenure, I bought a book about a murder at Harvard called Abandon. I attached Zwick, who’d gone to Harvard, and he got Traffic writer Steve Gaghan to adapt. Ed wanted to make the film in Cambridge, but it was too expensive to shoot there. Impasse. So Ed passed the baton to Gaghan to direct, even though Steve had never directed before. First-time directors were difficult to get approved at Paramount, but the studio was willing to consider Gaghan, depending on how the script turned out — which was full of delicious, smart dialogue and was attracting actors and lots of buzz — all because of Gaghan’s Oscar nomination for Traffic. But it had some key conceptual problems on which Sherry zeroed in, Sherry not being much affected by buzz.
Sherry had well-founded fears about the movie and its must-see director. What was it about at its core? Was Gaghan ready to direct? I was recklessly insistent on both fronts. “If you can’t trust me to control the set of a $22 million teen horror movie, what can I do?” I argued. Coming through for Sherry would depend on my developing trust with the newbie director. I knew how to do that, I assured myself. It was easy.
I was convinced that Steve could and would solve them during prep, which went well. Gaghan learned how to rehearse. He scouted. Any dicey signs were ignored.
On the first day of shooting, I was having lunch in my trailer as usual, when the line producer, Dick Vane, walked in. Dick, an unflappable guy, was in charge of keeping to the budget and handling the day-to-day crises with crew and equipment. I’d never seen him stunned before, but he was that day. “He’s still shooting,” he said.
“But we called lunch,” I said.
“He’s doing shots that aren’t on the call sheet.”
Buckle your seat belt, I thought. Sorry, Sherry. Bumpy ride time. As the late, great producer Laura Ziskin said, “The producer is the traffic cop between art and commerce.” I had lost my badge on this shoot. When we wrapped, I skipped the party for the first time in my career and left that night for New York City with a cute crew guy. Ultimately, Abandon went a week over schedule and grossed $12 million worldwide, half of its production budget.
I found out about How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days from CAA because its client, Gwyneth Paltrow, had shown interest in a very early draft. Gwyneth dropped out during development, and Sherry and I fell in love with Kate Hudson (just off of Almost Famous). We attached her to an intermediate draft, which wouldn’t have happened at any other studio, as she hadn’t yet been in a hit. Sherry had the freedom to pursue her gut casting instincts on a midrange movie like this. But we still had no guy “to lose.” ICM threw out Matthew McConaughey.
Sherry said, “I love Matthew.” Kate said, “I love Matthew.”
John Goldwyn breathed a deep sigh of relief and said, “Is Matthew available? If he is, I love him, too.”
We hired Donald Petrie — who had helmed Mystic Pizza, Julia Roberts‘ breakout coming-of-age movie — to direct, though he hadn’t made a hit in a while. But Sherry felt safe with him.
Once, during prep, my occasional partner, the equally fun, missing and mythic Robert Evans, who’d made The Godfather and Love Story, called me with an emergency casting issue.
“What’s up, Bob?”
“No thin lips.”
“Bob?” I asked.
“The actors, Lyn. No thin lips.”
“I got it, Bob,” and proceeded to cast Matthew and Kate with the thin lips they were born with.
I saw Bob three more times during the making of the movie: on the first day of shooting, when he took pictures with the cast; on the last, when he again took pictures with the cast; and one time when he came to visit the set on Staten Island and regaled me with wonderful tales that may or may not have been true about the making of The Godfather. Who cared? The stories were delicious.
From the first dailies, we knew the chemistry between Kate and Matthew — thin lips or not — was crackling on set; Sherry visited the first week and declared the movie a hit, and she was right. She had no notes at the preview. It opened No. 1 at $24.5 million. And kept playing. But Paramount had sold off all of their domestic and international rights in order to pay for the cost of production, only keeping the DVD rights. This was one of their few hits that year, and they had sold away most of their revenues. This was the Dolgen way.
Paramount was becoming an issue of contention in Viacom’s boardroom, as a fight was brewing for the No. 2 slot under Sumner [Redstone]. There were three hopefuls: Dolgen; his immediate boss, Viacom CEO Mel Karmazin; and CBS chief Les Moonves. That placed Dolgen in a competitive mind-set that locked him even more solidly into his penurious financial strategy — selling off domestic and international distribution — that often worked financially, but not creatively. It was the most conservative model possible, and it successfully minimized losses. As long as he could report profits to his board, Dolgen didn’t care what the outside world thought. Critically, however, this conservative philosophy did not allow them to be competitive for the best new material or remain in tune with the changing market.
This was the moment when everything was coming up tentpole. The audience was saying yes, please, we want more and bigger. Paramount couldn’t afford it, comprehend its importance or accommodate it. The vaunted philosophy of fiscal restraint at Paramount was becoming obsolete. The one-off business struggle for each picture was keeping Paramount unable to compete with the rising costs of production, of actors and their entourages, of big special effects or of the blockbuster/sequel/marketing-driven sensibility that was now ruling Hollywood. The New Abnormal. The studio was unwilling or unable to play the game. It did not have the mind-set, and Dolgen’s eyes were elsewhere.
For Paramount, the flops of 2002 [Timeline, The Core, Paycheck, none of which grossed $100 million worldwide] were numbing. The tension was growing severe in the halls of the administration building; it was as though the pressure that Dolgen was feeling from Viacom’s top executives in New York was landing on Goldwyn. Call it trickle-down hostility. Teamwork vanished. Craziness multiplied. Paranoia prevailed. Sherry’s reign was being questioned for the first time, as the numbers weren’t good. She was eventually going to have to make a change, with studio president Goldwyn a potential casualty.
The kitchen got very hot for Goldwyn as the town turned against Paramount and the pictures weren’t working. The pressure got to him. This is how he related that moment to me a few years later: “The culture I came into was very different than the culture that I left. It was not a fear-based culture at the beginning. It was, ‘This is what we stand for, this is what we are going to do, now let’s make it work.’ And then it became very much ‘How the f– do we do that? How the f– did that happen?’ As much as you want to be accountable, the last thing you want is to be accountable for decisions you feel unsure about.”
On top of it all, or underneath it all, Goldwyn was having a personal crisis. He had been married to the wildly popular hostess–actress/producer and town doyenne Colleen Camp for years. They had been a team, like one professional unit, throughout his corporate rise — but he took a lover. To complicate matters, his paramour was a man. John knew he had to tell Sherry first, before she found out somewhere else. This terrified him, as the studio was teetering on the brink of radical instability.
John, in something akin to panic, called Sherry to meet privately. Sherry remembers it with great compassion, as John was and is one of her best friends. She had no idea why he was in such a state when he came to see her.
“That’s it?” she said. “You’re gay?! You were being so dramatic, I thought you had embezzled!” She was incredulous. “We don’t care.”
Within three months, Goldwyn was gone. Dolgen had left as well, resigning in 2004 after the appointment of Sumner Redstone protege and MTV founder Tom Freston as co-president of Paramount parent company Viacom diminished his decision-making authority.
When I think back on the glory days of Tom Freston’s reign — all 18 months of it — it seemed then like he would be at Paramount forever. And why not? He was so cool! He founded MTV! He was a homegrown Viacom star! He led with his chin, superconfident and New Age, an entrepreneur who could run a conglomerate! He dressed like a rock star and jetted around with Bono or Mick or whomever. Freston’s loyal staff at Viacom’s starlet division, MTV, saw him as their Steve Jobs. He had Sumner’s personal mandate to re-create the brand, and he came in branding away, naming MTV and Nickelodeon the lead faces of the New, Cool Paramount. He seemed to have a bemused contempt for everything Old Paramount, both in style and substance. There were a lot of unhip holdovers around, and they were looking nervous.
He promoted Sherry into Dolgen’s job. Suddenly, she was going to Wal-Mart to discuss DVDs, running P&Ls, basically doing the financials. She hated Dolgen’s job, it was taking her away from the movies, taking her away from getting her hands inside the celluloid, the scripts, the packaging — everything she loved and was good at. She would have preferred to retire sooner and spend more time with her husband, director Billy Friedkin.
Freston reached out to some industry players to fill the top job, notably Stacey Snider, Steven Spielberg‘s partner at DreamWorks. Behind the scenes, it was a bit weird. Freston said to Sherry one day, “Let’s start a new team. You and me. You fire everybody.”
Firing people is not Sherry’s style. She said to Freston: “But don’t you understand? Next summer  is going to be the biggest one in the history of our company.” And in fact, that was the single biggest summer we’d had in years [led by the Spielberg/Cruise War of the Worlds and Adam Sandler’s The Longest Yard]. But he wanted to fire everybody. So Sherry left.
Freston took everyone by surprise and chose mega-talent manager Brad Grey (notably Brad Pitt’s manager and an exec producer on The Sopranos), whose name had never been in active contention and would need months to get out of his contract at his company, Brillstein-Grey Entertainment.
All I remember about Sherry leaving is two things: 1. She resigned. She didn’t get fired. Period. End of sentence. 2. Who didn’t come to her goodbye party? I made a list. Sherry’s key players would be gone once Brad Grey came in and got to remaking things in his image. The Old Abnormal was dead, along with its unforgettable queen and her unmatchable leadership skills.
The first picture chosen by Freston and Grey was 2005’s Hustle & Flow, an urban picture they picked up for distribution at Sundance and embraced with a splashy “Here comes the All-New Coke” for the New Paramount branding debut. Starring Terrence Howard and directed by Craig Brewer, the movie was an elegy to a pimp. Though it had won at Sundance, it was too cool for the rest of America. With the power of the MTV brand, a huge marketing campaign and a hit, Oscar-winning song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” the first test of the team’s instincts brought in $23 million worldwide.
The guys upstairs would have to be smarter. That’s where Gail Berman, the brilliant Fox TV programmer, came in as Paramount president in early 2005. Her job there was to find America’s taste. A few months later, Freston brought in Revolution Pictures’ Rob Moore to head up worldwide marketing.
On a critical meta-level, the Freston-Grey-Moore team saw into the future. They determined that the Dolgen-Lansing regime was very domestically oriented, selling off their foreign rights to pay for making a picture. The new team quickly decided to retain their foreign rights and set their sights overseas. That was a key move in the turning of the battleship Paramount. They began to concentrate on their in-house franchises, generating another Mission: Impossible in 2006 and pushing the Star Trek franchise into gear, a task the old regime had struggled with. But there were many growing pains and strains to come before the turn was complete.
One day early in the Gail Berman regime (who replaced Donald De Line, who had a lovely, far-too pleasant reign following Goldwyn), we were told that we producers would have all-new executives. I guess it was just too cozy the way it was. Gail got this idea that she would reassign our projects to these new teams of executives. Each team would handle all our ongoing projects, plus any new pitches or ideas. And each would have a color, like red, yellow, blue or green. Really! No more pitching to the executive who would most take to your idea, who loved comedy or drama or sports, as it was done at every other studio for the last 50 years. I couldn’t believe I had to pitch my movies all over again to executives on the yellow team, who I had never met. We rebeled by calling ourselves the Khaki team.
Tom Freston’s firing couldn’t have been more unexpected. This part we all heard: One bad weekend [while promoting War of the Worlds], Tom Cruise — who’d had a long-standing and very lucrative deal with Paramount, which included the Mission: Impossible franchise — jumped the shark on Oprah’s couch, on national TV. This not only appalled the nation, it appalled the Redstones, and Sumner went public and fired Tom Cruise by press release.
Freston, thinking he was family, is said to have visited the Redstones over the weekend to protect his executives and object to his boss. Freston tried to explain to his boss the importance of the Mission franchise and that he should work with his team. Redstone reportedly said that Cruise was “over,” “that was that” and “the conversation is over.” This conversation may not have happened; it is industry scuttlebutt. Redstone stated publicly that he fired Freston because he had not made a timely bid on MySpace. But no one believed that story. The Tom Cruise story is what we all heard, and it is thought by most to be true.
But even bigger things were brewing. As the Moore-Grey team refined its formula, the huge deal it had made in 2006 with Spielberg’s DreamWorks fell apart after only two years. It had been acrimonious almost from the start. It didn’t take long for Spielberg and Grey to get into battles over autonomy, and DreamWorks left bitterly in 2008.
Paramount took custody of many scripts and a shared hit in its divorce from DreamWorks, Transformers. Each studio got custody of 40 of their shared scripts, with the right to co-finance. Adam Goodman, the former president of DreamWorks, became Paramount’s president, and he found a new kind of inexpensive franchise for the studio, Paranormal Activity, which, some point out, brings the reality TV sensibility to movies. Paramount’s transformation into the New Abnormal paradigm was complete.
I got a call from Bryan Lourd, my feature agent at CAA, in the spring of 2008, who only calls with either very, very good news or very, very bad news. At this time in the biz, there was no very good news for producers without franchises, and I hadn’t made a franchise picture since Jodie Foster went to the center of the galaxy in 1997’s Contact. Post-recession, post-writers strike, post-making two movies in eight years, Bryan’s voice said everything.
Paramount was not renewing.