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You're Only as Good as Your Next One - Mike Medavoy

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Genre: Music / Stage / Screen / Author: Mike Medavoy, Josh Young / Hardcover / 416 Pages / Book is published 2002-10-21 by Simon & Schuster International

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      16.08.2010 10:54
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      The movie business...

      Mike Medevoy was and is a very famous movie producer form the early 1970s, 80s and 90s, still dabbling a bit now, but not quite the power he was, hence the tell all book on his life. He rose to power through Universal Studios, going from mail room boy to agent, then head of the agent group to chief of motion pictures in 1974, all in ten years. At UIP he would be involved with 8 Oscar winning movies, 'One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest', 'Rocky', and 'Annie Hall' a fine hatrick of Best Picture for Universal under his producing skills. He was so good he even got Jane Fonda an Oscar for 'Coming Home' after she was famously photographed supporting the Vietcong during the Vietnam War in North Vietnam, a war that claimed 10,000 American G.Is a month at its gruesome peak. But Medevoy was also the agent who didn't sign a young Steven Spielberg because he didn't think he was ready to direct? He then went on to co-form Orion Pictures in 1978, before becoming head of Tri-Star Pictures at it and his peak in the 1980s, but fell away when he was fired and so settled into running Phoenix Pictures in the twilight years of his career, what he does today in a ceremonial role. The business had changed to fast for Mike Medevoy and another young buck from the mail room was taking his place.


      Character is what you are. Reputation is how you are perceived.
      (Marlon Brando)


      Mike's movie making ethos has always been to make interesting movies but still make money from those movies, why he went with United International Artists and then set up Orion to do the same thing. United Artists would get the talented actors, writers and directors together -hence the title- and let them make the movies, rather than the reverse, what most studios did. Other big studios like Warner Brothers and MGM would just make tent pole movies, crash bang wallop stuff to get the most money back. The mantra is that these big earners allow movie producers at all studios the flexibility to make smarter movies to chase the Oscar prestige, but films that often lose money. Mike wanted to make interesting movies that could be commercial, a big ask in America, not the brightest cinema demographic on the planet outside of the erudite East Coast.

      The early years

      It all began for the red head Russian-America Jewish lad with a job in the United International Artists Studio mail room, a job taken only by actors and writers still to this day. It was the best way to learn who lived where in show business and dig your first crampon into the Hollywood granite. At Universal he claims to have pioneered the studio tour where fat American tourists are trucked around the studio lot to see movies being made.

      Promoted up to movie agent and given his own office he soon learnt that Hollywood is a place where you never disagree with the talent but they are not always right and it's your job to make them believe that.
      Soon managing important clients, his ethos was to sign the talent of tomorrow and build from there, instead of spending a lot of time on a few big names. It was Medevoy who perfected this style of representation and the driving force for Francis Ford Copolla to set up the Zoetrope studios to escape the pressure to make commercial dross. The 1970s would start to see escalating fees for the top actors and directors in film and so he was ahead of the curve in that sense. Medevoys pursuit of making good films would see him get 'tangled up in the barbed wire of creative filmmaking' though, as he put it, so many ego's to placate to pull things together. Great films sometimes make little money and when you consider Raging Bull took twenty years to make any profit you can see the risk right there.


      "Pride is a better motivator than Fear"
      (John Wooden, basketball coach)


      The 1970s saw success very quickly for Medavoy as studio head at UIP, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Apocalypse Now and Rocky straight off the bat. Rocky was a big risk from an unknown actor/writer by the name of Sly Stallone, a confident Italian America who had been schooled in a Swiss finishing institute, something I didn't know until this book. But United Artist saw a risk worth taking in him and his movie, which would cost just $1.2 million to make, but would go on to gross $121 million world wide by the end of the decade as VHS began to increase sales big time for studio films. Apocalypse Now, on the other hand, was a nightmare to get made, Medavoy having to keep flying out to production in Central America as all manner of problems hit Coppola's classic but flawed war film. By the time he got out there Francis was slowly going nuts, Martin Sheen had had a heart attack and the budget was completely out of control, let alone the problem of an obese and absent Marlon Brando, the latest setback being the Honduras army had asked for the helicopters back they had leant for during filming that famous beach scene because they needed them for a civil war. It was also the first real Vietnam film to be made; such was the taboo of that war tearing America apart at home and in South East Asia just before. In and around World War Two, Hollywood made over 400 short and long films about the conflict, the big studios having no qualms about propaganda films, but for Vietnam it took ages for a studio to even put their head above the sandbags and make a film about it, the Deerhunter and Apocalypse about the only ones until the 80s.

      In the 1980s the struggling TV networks started to make films and squeeze the struggling studios to make new revenue streams, who retaliated by buying the struggling TV studios, meaning TV actors were beginning to make the cross over, a movement that would peak in the 1990s. The movie studios wanted to concentrate more on additional revenue sources like merchandising and soundtracks as the movie became more than just a film. George Lucas actually made more money from Star Wars toys over the years than ticket sales it was that lucrative to a filmmaker who signed the right deal..

      ou're not as good as your last film but only as good as your next one"
      (Humphrey Bogart)


      The Hi concept move took films through the 90s, the idea being that the plot line was relatively unbelievable, like Back to the Future, usually a big brash action movie that could be summed up in a minute or a long sentence. This was too much for Medavoy and when Universal Artists was sunk by Heavens Gate, the biggest flop in cinema history, and the Cotton Club saga, the studio bought him out and he and his four associates set up Orion Pictures instead, again the ethos to make interesting and engaging films for the biggest possible audience. Bizarrely, 'Caddyshack' was their first film together, a screwball golf comedy (which I love!), the obnoxious one-liner comedian Rodney Dangerfield stealing the film. When Medavoy turned down Stallone for 'Rambo: First Blood' and Arnie and Terminator, the studio went through a 'rocky 'period (excuse the pun), Medevoy unable to secure possible sequel rights so passing on them. But they would soon have hits with the excellent Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Kevin Costner's No Way out, a very under rated movie.


      "Never use something once that you can use twice in this business"
      (Bob Evans, Paramount studio head)



      Orion, too, would bite the dust, not too long after Medavoy left to be the studio head at Tri Star Pictures, a much bigger budget studio. The 1990s were all about event movies and you needed a big budget, what Tri Star had lots of, Total Recall a big hit with Arnold Schwarzenegger for Medevoy. But mike would later turn down 'Pulp Fiction' as he felt it was 'too violent', but did good business all through the decade never-the-less, 'Sleepless in Seattle', especially pleasing triumph for him.

      Young new talent was now more important than experienced older actors in modern cinema, the audience wanting to discover the stars for themselves. A growing teen demographic was dominating the multiplexes and they wanted the films to be simple and noisy. Before the 1980s a handful of critics, not the audience, were deciding how good the film was but with increasing media that was no longer the case. Today, with the internet and sites like ciao and dooyoo, opinion no longer has any value as there's too much of it out here to sift through. A film is either made or broken on opening weekend and hype is all important. The BBC's Mark Kermode for the discerning film fan and Jonathan Ross for the don't care film fan are about the only ones relevant here, the broadsheet film hacks now too old and tired and reviewing films negatively that are not aimed at 50-year-old balding middle-class males, Chris Tookey of the Mail to name but one.

      From Citizen Cane to Candy Kane"

      In the 90s the TV companies started to buy the studios, a complete reversal, powered on by making the movie of the TV series they had the rights too. It was all about the merchandising and pop corn and DVD box set sales and quality was falling fast on all fronts, Goodfellas and The SHawshank Redemption some of the last great movies to be made, the distant 1970s the golden age of cinema long gone. Some films were even being made purely because they had the package of big star, script and funding in place, all concerned knowing the film wouldn't make money but no one wanted to pullout because all the big bits were in place and so save face. When Robert Redford says he wants to make 'Legal Eagles' the film gets made. Knight and Day with Tom Cruise and Cameron Dias would be a very contemporary example.

      When Medevoy clashed with his studio boss at Tri Star he became an anathema and facing unemployment for the first time in his life. He had climbed the movie mogul summit and there was just ice and snow on the peak after the 30-year ascent. It was time to go it alone again and although Phoenix Pictures bought us The People Versus Larry Flint, The Thin Red Line and the 6th Day with Schwarzenegger, that would be about it for Mike Medevoy as far as leading the charge. It was time to step back and let the younger guys run the show, Mike now today's non active executive chairman of Phoenix Pictures, Shutter Island their latest big hit.

      -The Conclusion-

      Mike is going to help me get my screenplay sold, the only reason I read this informative insight into the movie business and how it all works. A while ago I wrote a movie called 'The Luggage Man' (yes it was professionally edited) and like a dog with a bone I wouldn't let it go. I tried to get people that mattered interested in it but no luck. I even dumped ten old suitcases outside a small production office in Soho as a stunt to get it read. They emailed to say they had no time to read scripts and could I come and move the cases from the alley as the bin man would take them.

      The book is about Medevoys life, of course, but, as I say, it gives you a surprisingly valuable insight to how things work. I don't want to make thousands as a screenwriter but, like with everything in my life, just prove I can do it, often bragging I will for self-motivation.

      Mike Medevoys golden rules of the screen play are:

      1 Do I want to turn the page?

      2 Do I care about the character?

      3 Does it strike an emotional chord?

      4 Is it unique?

      Medevoys book also explains why the dreadfully over-rated Avatar made so much money and where we are right now in the movies. The record breaking attendance figures seem to correspond in a neat mathematical ratio of around 1:10 with the amount of dollars thrown at it to hype it to the masses to get the preferred return, some $120 million dollars in pre publicity earning it a $1.2 billion gross so far! Hype works and in hindsight, now that we have calmed down, we would probably say that Avatar wasn't really that memorable. Goodfellas or Avatar guys? See! The big studios know the more they pre hype a movie the more likely you are to go to see it and so that's the current model. The studios know what you want to watch and they know that most of you don't really care if cinema is vacuous as long as you get our moneys worth.

      Another aspect of this book that is interesting is it's a surprisingly nice and cosy read, even though it's very technical and likes to number crunch more than it does bitch about other people in the industry, what we really buy biographies for. It does get boring in places, which calls for skim reading, Medevoy all too keen to make his point and put things right in his own mind in the book over things he did in his illustrious career. But I got enough from it to get an insight into the film industry through four decades and with one or two good anecdotes and quotes it does the job. It did take long time to read though as its no page turner and I would like to thank Northampton library for their patience.

      .

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