'Magnificent Seven' Producer on Why Westerns Aren't Dead and How Cancer Changed Him

Roger Birnbaum - THR - Koury Angelo - H 2016
Photographed by Koury Angelo

Roger Birnbaum of Pin High Productions opens up about when to walk away from a plum job, his biggest regret and what he learned from former boss Clive Davis.

Four years ago, Roger Birnbaum made the unusual move of stepping down from a coveted job as co-chairman and co-CEO of MGM, the studio that he had served for nearly two years with his longtime business partner, Gary Barber. He says he wanted to return to his first love, producing. "When do you just live your life the way you really want to live it, before it's over?" asks Birnbaum, 65. "A lot of people in any walk of life, they put their heads down, they work, and all of a sudden they have missed their life. And as a cancer survivor [gastrointestinal stromal tumor], I am very sensitive to that." Now several years into remission, he is embracing life with his second wife, Leslie, and anticipating the birth of a first grandchild.

No longer exclusively tied to MGM, Birnbaum is developing such remakes as 12 Angry Men, Roadhouse and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and is about to start shooting Death Wish, with Bruce Willis starring and Eli Roth directing — all pictures he found in the MGM library. He also is expanding to original material, including Till Death with Israeli directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado.

Even as Birnbaum starts preproduction on that movie, his continuing success will ride on the Denzel Washington-Chris Pratt starrer The Magnificent Seven, a $95 million remake of the 1960 movie (itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai) that premieres at the Toronto Film Festival and opens Sept. 23. Making any large-scale feature is challenging, but this one had the added difficulty of regime change at Sony, as studio chairman Amy Pascal was replaced by Tom Rothman.

A New Jersey native who attended the University of Denver, Birnbaum got his break in the music business, working for Clive Davis at Arista before transitioning to film. He subsequently held executive positions at United Artists and 20th Century Fox before joining Joe Roth in 1992 to launch Caravan Pictures, where he was involved with such films as Angels in the Outfield and While You Were Sleeping.

In 1998, he partnered with Barber at the producing and financing entity Spyglass Entertainment, where he backed movies including The Sixth Sense and Bruce Almighty. He and Barber joined MGM in 2010 with the goal of taking it through bankruptcy and launching it anew.

On Aug. 18, shortly before leaving Los Angeles to start Death Wish, Birnbaum invited THR to his Beverly Hills office to discuss threats to producers, what he learned from Davis and how cancer changed him.

You were a major executive and gave it all up. Why?

I came to this town when I was 22 years old, brought out by A&M Records. I had, whatever it was, $60 in my pocket, I roomed with five guys. [Decades later] the opportunity presented itself: Maybe we can take over MGM and fix it up and start to make some really good movies. What a great ending to my life in Hollywood! I'm now the co-chairman of MGM. Wow, I was proud of myself. And I didn't lie to anybody. I didn't cheat anybody. I just did it. But I found myself spending more and more time in a boardroom. I found myself becoming a bank, a guy who was investing in films that other people were making. I started to lose interest. This was swirling in my head, and then friends of mine — Nora Ephron, Tony Scott, [marketing executive] Geoff Ammer — they passed away. And around that time I met a woman who ultimately became my wife, and I'm looking at my life, saying, "Wait, wait, wait! When do you stop chasing prestige? When do you stop chasing money?" And one day I said, "I don't want to do this anymore."

How did having cancer change you?

I got involved in a trial protocol for five years. So every day I took a series of pills. Every day for five years I was reminded of mortality. And the promises that I made to myself then, they were imprinted. I said, "I'm not going to suffer fools. And I will not spend time with people who are bad people." I've tried to take as much stress out of my life as I can.

Was The Magnificent Seven stressful?

It was a hard movie to make, honestly. Let's just talk creatively: You have seven characters whose story has to pay off emotionally. Then physically, you have horses, townspeople. We're in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where it's hot, there's rain, there's snakes, there's alligators. It's crazy. We got shut down for lightning. There were storms. It was physically hard. But this cast, they were wonderful. It's 110 degrees, and they're wearing those woolen cowboy outfits and they were troupers.

What's Sony participation in The Magnificent Seven?

MGM is not a domestic distributing company anymore. When Gary and I started our run at MGM, we made a deal with Sony. They had first right of refusal on anything that we developed. And when the script came in, they responded to it. This is an MGM property, but Sony has an investment in the film as well.

Westerns haven't done well recently.

That's not necessarily true. You know what the key is? Make a good movie. The Coen brothers' True Grit was a huge success, and there's not a superhero in there. What you have is real characters and real heart.

Would you make a superhero movie?

I helped Tim Burton develop the first Batman [in 1989] when I was president of the Guber-Peters Co. — and then look what happened. It was new territory then — and I loved Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool — but it's not what I dream about.

A couple of years ago, Steven Spielberg cautioned against investing massively in tentpoles. Do you agree?

That short-circuits creativity. It just becomes about gigantic pyrotechnics. The movies I love — for example, The Descendants, which I have probably seen six times — I will race to see. My fear is that these tentpole movies are driven by studios controlled by Wall Street, and in their rush to deliver them, the substance is nothing.

A lot of interesting work is being done in TV, but you've kept away from it.

I will get there. But I'm not looking to conquer the world. If somebody comes in here tomorrow with a terrific idea that is right for another kind of platform, I will do it in a second.

Is there any professional mistake you've made that you regret?

Years ago, when Jeffrey Katzenberg was putting together the new Disney, he asked if I wanted to head up animation and I said no, because I just didn't get it. I know my skill set, and I didn't know what I'd do with that.

Are producers undervalued today?

Yes, 100 percent. There'd be better movies if more were left in the hands of the filmmakers.

Your Dirty Rotten Scoundrels remake will star two women. Are you worried in the wake of the new Ghostbusters?

No, I'm excited about it. I believe films with women in the lead can succeed. One of my favorite films is Thelma & Louise, and last time I looked, that starred two women.

Name one person you particularly admire in the business today.

Ron Meyer and Leslie Moonves. They have integrity; they've had longevity. Over several decades, Les has proved that his business acumen is on a par with his creative skills. Ron has this ability to handle difficult business situations with incredible humanity.

Who taught you the most when you were starting out?

I was taught by good example and by bad. Clive Davis was very instrumental in shaping me as a young kid who had very little discipline but a lot of desire. I worked for him at Arista Records. I ran his West Coast A&R. He taught me that, to be disciplined, I didn't necessarily have to forgo my passionate enthusiasm. I'll tell you a Clive Davis story. One day he sends a memo to the top six or seven executives: "Arista Records Expense Accounts." Here's what the memo said. "There'll be no more dining on the Arista expense account in any restaurant that begins with 'Le' or 'La.' " He made you laugh, but he slapped your hand at the same time. And that goes over so well because you don't feel like you're being beaten down.

Who was the bad executive?

I don't remember. I've blocked it out!

This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.