Profile: Producer Jerry Weintraub

This year's ShoWest's Producer of the Year revels in making movies for the masses.

There is nothing small about Jerry Weintraub. He's a showman in the grand old style, a larger-than-life producer who has made (and occasionally lost) millions and whose enormous successes have left him at the top of the business three decades after his first film.

And in an era when the nit-pickers and the penny-pinchers sometimes seem to have taken over the business, he's a welcome respite from their accountant mentality.

"He has a P.T. Barnum quality about him," says Andy Garcia, who has appeared in a trio of Weintraub productions (2001's "Ocean's Eleven," 2004's "Ocean's Twelve" and Warner Bros. Pictures' upcoming "Ocean's Thirteen," opening June 8). "He's a throwback to the great producers and promoters. He's able to think on a very large scale and fulfill that idea, like all the great producers."

It is this skill that has led Weintraub to be named ShoWest Producer of the Year, six years after he received a similar honor at ShowEast. And it's a skill that awes many of those who know him.

"He is a consummate can-do guy," says Alan Horn, president of Warner Bros., the studio that Weintraub has called home for many years. "He's a great alchemist. Through the sheer force of his relentless optimism, he gets in a room and makes things happen."

Weintraub has been making things happen since he left the Air Force almost five decades ago, with stints as an actor, an agent and a manager preceding his career as a producer.

"I never thought about going into acting, but when I got out of the Air Force, the GI Bill of Rights allowed you to go school (all expenses paid)," he says of his thespian roots. "One (establishment) was an acting school, the Neighborhood Playhouse, and I said, 'That sounds like a place to meet girls.' I auditioned for Sanford Meisner. 'You're not much of an actor,' he said, 'but you're good looking, and you can play cowboys. I'll take you.'"

Weintraub remained at the playhouse for a year and, after realizing his talents were better applied behind the scenes, segued into an agent position at MCA after brief forays as an NBC page for "The Steve Allen Show" and as a WMA mailroom clerk.

He left MCA after several years and, in 1964, formed a management company with Bernie Brillstein, guiding the careers of such acts as Joey Bishop and the Four Tops. It was during this time period that Weintraub had a prescient dream that woke him in the middle of the night: He would organize an Elvis Presley concert tour.

The notion seemed ludicrous. Weintraub didn't know either Presley or his famous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, nor did he have the kind of money to make a tour happen. But the next day -- and every day thereafter for an entire year -- Weintraub called Parker, nudging him to give the fledgling promoter a chance. Finally, one day, 12 months after that first contact, Parker agreed and told him to be in Las Vegas within 24 hours, $1 million in hand.

Those 24 hours were harried ones as Weintraub manned the telephone, trying to find an investor who would lend him $1 million. Fortuitously, he tracked one down -- and the necessary funds were wired to him mere minutes before his meeting with Parker.

It was the chance Weintraub needed, and over the next few years, he not only became one of the major entrepreneurs in concerts but also managed some of the top acts in the music business, including the Carpenters, John Denver, Frank Sinatra and Led Zeppelin.

Despite his unquestioned triumph in that arena, however, by the early 1970s, he was once again itching to move on. After buying Broadway theaters, staging Broadway shows like 1969's "The Canterbury Tales" and producing music-oriented TV specials like 1974's "Frank Sinatra: The Main Event," Hollywood insiders began telling him he was perfect film-producer material. But the transition didn't take place until Weintraub ran into Robert Altman at a party, and the director invited him to produce his latest project.

The film was 1975's "Nashville," and even though Weintraub says he didn't understand the script, he plunked down $2 million of his own money to make it.

"What I found out was, I knew how to do it. It wasn't a big mystery, and it didn't have to be rocket science," he says.

"Nashville," Altman's densely textured ensemble study of the country music world, remains one of the quintessential films of the 1970s, the one that more than any other defined Altman's style and maybe even the era. Yet, in some ways, it stands out as unusual within Weintraub's body of work -- a relatively highbrow movie, an art house pleaser, not at all a mass-market film.

Weintraub admits his own taste is more populist, and that he learned from Parker. "He was one of my mentors and taught me that there was a great big country in between L.A. and New York, and I should learn about it because that's where my audience was. It wasn't necessarily in the New York Times. I got that message, and I learned to grow my success from the middle of the country out.

"I make pictures for everybody," he continues. "I don't make films for just a small audience. I like to make films for a large audience. That's where I get my fun."

Weintraub applied that thinking to the hit 1977 George Burns comedy "Oh, God!" But he exemplified a producer's ability to be pragmatic when he made his next film, the 1982 Barry Levinson-directed "Diner," which he managed to get off the ground when it had been turned down all over town.

The success of those films helped Weintraub exit the music business and become a prolific film producer, with credits including 1980's "Cruising," 1981's "All Night Long," 1994's "The Specialist," 1997's "Vegas Vacation," 1998's "Soldier" and "The Avengers" and 2000's "The Independent."

None of his early films, however, had quite the boxoffice impact of 1984's "The Karate Kid," about a young boy and his martial-arts teacher. The success of the film spawned three sequels, the last of which, 1994's "The Next Karate Kid," gave Hilary Swank her first starring film role.

Weintraub's record of success registered a blip in the late 1980s when he raised hundreds of millions of dollars to form the Weintraub Entertainment Group -- which turned out to be a huge financial disappointment.

"Looking back on it now, I took my eye off the ball, and I was doing things I shouldn't have done -- I was talking to 52 lawyers and 65 accountants and all that crap," he reflects. "That's not me. If I wanted to do that, I should have run a studio."

Weintraub rebounded handsomely, however, with the success of "Ocean's Eleven."

Because of his association with Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Weintraub was keenly aware of the original 1960 version of "Ocean's," starring Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., and obtained the rights to develop a new one through his connection with Warners, which owned the movie. After several years of supervising the screenplay, he brought it to director Steven Soderbergh and his then-partner George Clooney, subsequently adding a package of talent that included Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon. The film went on to gross $183 million at the domestic boxoffice, $451 million worldwide.

Somehow, Weintraub keeps managing to bring back the talent for further sequels, even though Clooney and Soderbergh have said "Thirteen" will be the last in the franchise. Weintraub hasn't ruled out another "Ocean's" and remains passionate about the talent. "I care about them," he says. "I understand their job and how difficult it is, and I want to make it easier for them to do what they do. At the same time, I try to be as responsible as I can to the studio and the people who are financing the things that I do. I've never gone over budget, and I work with the biggest stars and the biggest directors. I have wonderful relationships and value every minute with them. These are my friends."


Film comment: Jerry Weintraub recalls five seminal moments in his producing career

Nashville (1975)
"When I made 'Nashville,' I knew nothing about making movies, and it was a transitional period in my life. I had met with every studio head, but I wanted to make pictures like (1938's) 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' and (1939's) 'Jesse James.' They wanted me to work with (Federico) Fellini, and I didn't get all that. But one night, at a party, I met (director Robert) Altman, and we bonded. He said he had a script about music. I read it and didn't understand a word of it. He said, 'Let me tell you the movie.' Then I decided to do it. It cost $2 million. Altman asked me, 'Are you going to put up your own money? You don't do that!' I said, 'I'll put it up for a minute until I sell it' -- and I did."

Diner (1982)
"'Diner' was a script somebody sent me. I read it and called (writer-director) Barry Levinson two hours later and said, 'I'm going to make this movie.' He said, 'You know it's been turned down by every studio?' I said, 'I'm still going to make it.' I picked up the phone and called all the studios and waited for somebody who got a little interested. Then (title TK) David Chasman at MGM said, 'Let's do it.' The characters were brilliant. They came off the page. And I knew every character -- I grew up with every one -- so they were real in (Levinson's) life and real in mine."

The Karate Kid (1984)
"'Karate Kid' was a true story I found in the news about a boy in the (San Fernando) Valley who was getting beat up every day on his way home. His mother said, 'I saw a sign on Ventura Boulevard that said "karate lessons." Why don't you try that?' He became a black belt. I brought (the boy and his mother) into the office and hired Robert Mark Kamen (to write). We came up with this story about a sensei -- and it worked. I knew Pat Morita for years as a comedian, but I didn't think he was going to be the right guy for the picture. (Director John G. Avildsen) convinced me. One of the great attributes of a producer is to surround himself with the right talent -- the right director and actors and studio. All my success belongs to the people that surround me."

Ocean's Eleven (2001)
"(The original 1960 film) was something I knew as a boy; I was promoting (Frank) Sinatra when he made it. I found the title in the (Warner Bros. Pictures) library and asked Warners to put it aside for me. I started to develop it over a number of years, then I gave it to Steven Soderbergh, who responded it to it. The rest, as they say, is history."

Ocean's Thirteen (2007)
"There's some great new things in this one; it's funnier than the other two. All the stuff that surrounds the 'Ocean's' films -- it's all about camaraderie and about us being together and eating together and no one coming with an entourage for their ego. (Brad) Pitt, (Matt) Damon, (George) Clooney -- they drive themselves to work or come on a motorcycle. We have breakfast together, and they get made up in the same trailer; nobody has a dresser. We're all buddies, and there is no ego thing -- it's just work."