Inside TV Producer Phil Rosenthal's Ultra-Exclusive "Sunday Movie Night"
The pizza oven is from Mozza, his films are first-run, and the guests are A-listers like Amy Adams and Carl Reiner: "In the old days I could bring anybody; now I'm very judicious."
When I moved to L.A. in 2006 as an aspiring comedy writer, there were three invites I coveted. But even if I could meet Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon, I couldn't afford his poker game. And I was too unathletic to play in Garry Shandling's basketball game. But I could eat pizza, and I could watch a movie. Which left Sunday Movie Nights at Phil Rosenthal's.
Seven years later, I was writing a sitcom pilot for Brian Grazer, and we were looking for a supervising producer. We met Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. He didn't sign on, but he did invite me to lunch the next week. I was on my best behavior. A few weeks later, I was parked outside his giant house in Hancock Park, nervously waiting inside my car with a bottle of Italian wine wrapped in a bow until the 6 p.m. start time.
I opened the huge wooden doors and headed toward the noise in a giant kitchen, where I saw Adam Carolla pouring a bottle of his "Mangria" as he talked to Ray Romano by the marble island. At a small table, Ed Begley ate slices with Illeana Douglas. I took a long sip of Mangria and thought, "I've made it."
Rosenthal started movie nights in 1975, when he was 15. His parents had agreed to buy a color TV and a subscription to HBO if he could get A's and B's in summer school. He made sure he did because he knew that on each Saturday night, HBO showed an R-rated movie. He and his buddies would order a pizza every week, sit in his den and hope for boobs. He kept pizza-and-movie night going throughout college and when he lived in New York City as an actor. "The L.A. version of this started because I was alone and I wanted to create a family," he says. He throws movie night every Sunday when he's in town, including the week his first child was born.
"That is his greatest joy: discovering a movie and opening other people's eyes to it," says comedian and Raymond writer Tom Caltabiano. At Rosenthal's previous home, Caltabiano used to gather on Sundays with about eight other people in front of the television, waiting for the pizza delivery guy to come. "In the past 10 years, it went from 'I don't know that person' to 'I don't know those people' to 'I don't know anyone here,' " says Caltabiano. "In the old days I could bring anybody; now I'm very judicious."
When Rosenthal bought his house in 2007, he made Sunday Movie Nights the center of his renovation plans. He had recently begged Nancy Silverton to let him invest in her upcoming restaurant Mozza. He then asked her if she'd let a cook travel to his house with Mozza’s ingredients and whip up the pizzas she serves if he installed the same Mugnaini wood-fired pizza oven that they use at the restaurant.
His goal was to get on the Bel Air Circuit. It was once called the Bicycle Circuit because reels were delivered by messengers on bikes, the studios providing free first-run movies as a courtesy to such figures as Louis B. Mayer, Daryl Zanuck, Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise and Prince Saud al-Faisal. There are maybe 300 on the list, and you have to get permission from each studio. Rosenthal got a yes from every studio but Warner Bros., who wouldn't give permission until the screening room was built. He took a risk, dug under his living room to build stadium seating, put in a 13-and-a-half-by-10-foot screen and won over Warners.
Each Sunday, he slips in a hard drive of the film delivered by messenger and inputs the required code. A few months ago, Rosenthal upgraded; his is the only private home using a 4K laser digital projector. "I was showing movies in 2K like an animal," says Rosenthal. "Now it's 4K, which is twice as much K."
The pizza night regulars are influential enough that studios have asked to preview movies here, often with the director or cast doing a Q&A; these screenings have included The Social Network, Chef, Coco and I, Tonya. For The Fighter, he knew his former neighbor David O. Russell was coming, but halfway through the film, Rosenthal's then-13-year-old daughter Lily opened the door to find Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams. As the credits rolled for Us, Tim Heidecker opened the screening room doors and reprised his villain role. "I literally jumped," says Lily. "It was the greatest thing ever."
A few weeks ago, Rosenthal invited me to a viewing of Rocketman. I walked into the kitchen to see Paul Reubens, Ed Begley, Kevin Nealon and Lindsey Vonn, whom our host met at his own movie night; his family went to Cortona, Italy, last year to see her compete. "The worlds that have opened up for me because of movie nights are amazing," he says. There are about 250 people on his invite list, most of whom he rotates, sending about 50 emails to get 25 people. "It's like running a theater. People forget to cancel and I have empty seats," he says.
I walk over to regular Begley. When Rosenthal first invited him, he says, "I didn't know what to expect. You see Ray Romano and people you'd expect, and people from my past, like Carl Reiner and Rita Moreno."
After about an hour of eating slices, Rosenthal ushers us into the screening room. Two hours and one minute later, after Rocketman ends, Kevin Nealon is the first to give his opinion. "The gay thing turned me off," he deadpanned. "I had no idea." Reubens, who had played Elton John's manager John Reid in the video for his song "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore," says that before seeing the movie, he had no idea that Reid and John had even dated. Begley thought the Troubadour wasn't laid out correctly based on all the times he had been there in the 1970s.
It's an efficient evening, with post-film discussion lasting about 15 minutes in the hall, where people are encouraged to sign the guest book. Rosenthal keeps it as a record of these events, which he can't believe he's lucky enough to throw. I wrote my name really big.
This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.