You're Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for Which I Should Be Shot

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9780743400558: You're Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for Which I Should Be Shot
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“An under-read and engaging show-biz memoir.” –The New Yorker

"If I had a talent for anything, it was a talent for knowing who was talented."
Mike Medavoy is a Hollywood rarity: a studio executive who, though never far from controversy, has remained well loved and respected through four decades of moviemaking. What further sets him apart is his role in bringing to the screen some of the most acclaimed Oscar-winning films of our time: Apocalypse Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Sleepless in Seattle are just some of the projects he green-lighted at United Artists, Orion, TriStar, his own Phoenix Pictures.
"The ultimate lose-lose situation for a studio executive: to wind up with a commercial bomb and a bad movie."
Of course, there are the box office disasters, and the films, as Medavoy says, "for which I should be shot." They, too, have a place in his fascinating memoir -- a pull-no-punches account of financial and political maneuvering, and of working with the industry's brightest star power, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, Meg Ryan, and countless others.
"Putting together the elements of a film is a succession of best guesses."
Medavoy speaks out on how movie studio buyouts have stymied the creative process and brought an end to the "hands-off" golden age of filmmaking. An eyewitness to Hollywood history in the making, he gives a powerful and poignant view of the past and future of a world he knows intimately.

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About the Author:

Mike Medavoy started his career in the mailroom of Universal Studios. He became a talent agent at age twenty-four, Joined United Artists, went on to co-found Orion Pictures, and then became chairman of Sony's TriStar Pictures. In 1994, he formed Phoenix Pictures.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Making Sausage

Until I got my first Hollywood job in the mail room of Universal Studios, I had no idea what an "agent" was, let alone that the formative years of my career would be spent agenting. Yet it was my agency days that established a network from which my entire career expanded. Working as an agent taught me how to talk to filmmakers, how to put together movies, and how to deal with strong personalities. Getting films made was like watching sausage be produced: the finished product was great but the process of putting it together was often messy.

But it's not what goes into a movie that's important; it's what comes out on the screen.

You're gonna have a hard time in this business as a Morris," Bill Robinson told me when he hired me to be an agent at his agency. "You got a middle name?"

"Mike," I told him. I was never crazy about my first name anyway. Besides, I had nothing to do with my naming.

"Mike...Medavoy," he repeated. "That works."

When Bill Robinson offered me a job as an agent, I was working in the Universal casting department, a job I had been given either because the studio figured I had paid my dues in the mail room, or because too much mail was getting lost. During my days at Universal, I was plagued with insecurities about whether I could actually get a real job in the movie business. Besides, Robinson's offer was also $25 a week more than I was making at Universal. The Robinson client list was composed of luminaries from old Hollywood that had fueled my imagination as a kid: Lloyd Nolan, Keenan Wynn, Van Heflin, and Barry Sullivan. Over the years, I ended up representing many of my childhood idols, including George Sanders, Wendell Corey, Jeanne Moreau, and George Cukor. These were old-timers who knew how to be treated, and they taught me how to get what they needed. But I found out that being an agent was an education into all areas of the business.

I knew from reading everyone's memos in the Universal mail room that the golden rule of Hollywood was relationships are the cornerstone of the business. One of the first things I did when I became an agent was to make a list of everybody I wanted to meet in the business. Most acquaintances are made at social functions and not by cold-calling like a telemarketer offering a free chimney sweep. However, since I didn't know anyone in power at the time, I didn't expect any of the industry's players to invite me to their parties. My sales pitch was simple: I would get them on the phone, introduce myself, and say that I just wanted to drop by and meet them. Then, after each meeting, I would send them a thank-you note and cross them off my list.

Once I called Otto Preminger, introduced myself, and asked if I could come by. When I arrived, his secretary asked me if she could take my raincoat. I assured her that wouldn't be necessary because I wouldn't be staying long. She showed me into Preminger's office, which was all white. The carpet was white. The curtains were white. Even his desk was white. The only splash of color was a glass of red wine sitting on his desk.

Preminger stood up from his desk, and I walked across the room to meet him. When I reached his desk, I extended my arm to shake his hand, and the sleeve of my raincoat caught the glass of red wine, spilling it all over his white desk. As I stood there watching the wine drip onto the white carpet, he slowly turned beet red. I half expected him to belt me. After he calmed down and blotted the wine stain with his white handkerchief, we had a pleasant meeting. As I was leaving, I remember thinking that he'd always remember me as the klutz who stained his carpet with red wine.

Years later, Preminger got even with me when he made a turkey called Rosebud for UA.

A year after I started working for Bill, he came into my small office and told me that he couldn't afford to pay me. We then made a handshake deal that, in lieu of a salary, I would get 50 percent of the 10 percent commission on any business I brought in. (Up to this point, I hadn't been allowed to sign clients because Bill insisted on keeping the agency small.) I immediately signed actress Diane Baker, which turned out to be a career-saver for me. She was coming off Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, with Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. I landed her the lead in a film called Krakatoa, East of Java, for which she was supposed to be paid $35,000. (Krakatoa is actually west of Java.)

The film went so far overbudget and beyond schedule that Diane ended up making close to $100,000 -- thereby raising my take to half of nearly $10,000, a hefty sum for a struggling agent. Had I not signed her, I probably would have had to get another job, which I wasn't terribly confident I could do. I had had only twelve months of experience as an agent, and very few people even knew who I was. Years later, when Diane lost her producing deal at Columbia, I gave her an office and an assistant at Orion. I was more than happy to pay back someone who had saved my career.

From an agent's point of view, however, the main problem with representing actors is that they need a new job every three months or so, while writers and directors typically spend a year on each film, sometimes longer. Actors also need more hand holding. Theirs is a profession where rejection feels (and often is) quite personal. By and large, they can also be a strange breed of artists. As Marlon Brando once said to me, "Can you imagine going to work every day and pretending to be someone else?"

I'll never forget visiting Dean Stockwell, another Robinson client, at his house and hoping that I never got that jaded about movies. (This was years before he became a reliable character actor with his work in Paris, Texas and Blue Velvet.) Movies had provided me with some of my fondest childhood memories, but they had scarred his childhood since his parents forced him to go under contract to MGM when he was nine. When I first met him, he lived in Topanga Canyon, which was still very rustic and undeveloped, and he hated working. He took five-year hiatuses from acting and made movies only for the money. I had such a pure love of movies, and I wondered what had soured him. I remembered actually wanting to be him after seeing The Boy With Green Hair in my youth. Now, I couldn't help but wonder how I really would have felt in his place.

During the late sixties a new generation of filmmaking talent began to form. By and large, it wasn't welcomed by the studios, which were controlled by the old establishment. Jack Warner was still running Warner Bros., Darryl Zanuck was still in charge at Fox, and Adolph Zukor still tooled around Paramount in his wheelchair. Today, youth is regarded as essential and it is coveted. These days you sometimes have a better chance of getting a film made if you've never made one than if you have a track record.

But during the late sixties, a small group of young filmmakers banded together like a battering ram and banged on the gates of old Hollywood. It was very much us (the new guard) against them (the old guard). It seemed as though the same counterculture that marched on Washington, protested the Vietnam War, and hung out in the Haight-Ashbury was now making inroads in Hollywood. Under the old moguls, the town had become creatively dormant, but the young revolutionaries, influenced by European and American masters like Federico Fellini and John Ford, were waking it up and putting an edginess in filmmaking.

It was a movement I not only wanted to become a part of, but one that I wanted to help lead.


As a young agent, I seized on the notion that the only way I would ever have any leverage was to sign up the young filmmakers I believed would revolutionize the business. The first person to set me on this road was a young actor represented by Bill Robinson named Tony Bill. Tony's acting credits included Bud Yorkin's Come Blow Your Horn alongside Frank Sinatra and a feature part in Francis Coppola's funky comedy You're a Big Boy Now, but his goal was to become a producer. Today, almost every actor is a producer, but back then, it was practically unheard of. Producers were guys like Ray Stark or major stars like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster.

Although Tony was my age, he became something of a mentor to me because he had experience that I didn't. We often socialized together. Unlike most actors, he was more interested in discussing art and society, rather than the latest part that he didn't get. Tony constantly encouraged me to cultivate the careers of young filmmakers and to stop merely holding actors' hands. The common bond in my relationship with Tony was that we could help each other cultivate new talent. The only way he could become a working producer was to get movies made, which I could help him do, and the only way I could make a name for myself as an agent was to find new talent, which he could help me do. So Tony began introducing me to young writers and directors, and I did the same for him.

By the early seventies, I was working at Creative Management Associates (CMA) after it merged with General Artists Corporation (GAC), where I had landed after two years at Robinson, and I turned Tony on to Terrence Malick, whom I signed fresh out of the American Film Institute. I signed Terry by reading upside down -- a must-learn for any young agent. I was sitting on the opposite side of Monte Hellman's desk, and there was a treatment for Two-Lane Blacktop on his desk, written by an AFI student named Terrence Malick. I thought it was pretty good -- even upside down and even though Monte wasn't going to use it -- so I called Terry and offered to be his agent. I got Tony to hire Terry to write Terry's first full-length feature film, Deadhead Miles. Tony convinced Alan Arkin to play the lead and the film got made -- poorly. It was directed by Tony's partner, first-timer Vernon Zimmerman, and upon completion, it was deemed unreleasable by Paramount.

When Tony came across a talented younger writer out of UCLA film school named David Ward, he, in turn, asked me to help him "put together" two of Ward's scripts. Tony's company, American Biplane, had an overall deal with Warners to distribute its films, but first, Tony needed to raise money to buy the rights to the scripts. The first script was Steelyard Blues, which David Ward had written for his master's thesis at USC film school; the second was The Sting, which existed only as a pitch on tape.

When David first told Tony the story he had in mind for The Sting, Tony told him not to write anything. He simply pulled out his tape recorder and had Ward retell the story. Tony then went around playing the five-minute tape for anyone interested in investing seed money to get the script written. At one point, Tony asked me if I wanted to put up the money for The Sting and produce it with him. Unfortunately, I was too scared to leave a paying job, so I told Tony I was more comfortable representing the project as an agent -- a decision that cost me several million dollars and an Academy Award.

My campaign to be the go-to agent for the next generation of Hollywood filmmakers got a boost when I read an article in Time magazine about a talented group of aspiring young filmmakers emerging from college film schools. At the time, film schools were virtually ignored by the mainstream of the film business. Majoring in film studies was for people who couldn't find anything better to do after high school, or who went to college to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War and didn't want anything too challenging. Universities didn't take these programs too seriously. USC's film school was located in an old stable, and UCLA taught its film students in dilapidated World War II Quonset huts. But where others saw slackers, I saw filmmakers in the rough, and I knew that if I could control some of their careers, I would become an important factor in the business.

I immediately pulled out the phone book and began calling the students listed in the article to ask them if they wanted an agent. Right away, I signed a USC student named John Milius, who had collaborated on a short film made of pencil drawings with a bookish kid named George Lucas, who also became my client. Milius was something of a badboy mad genius in a teenager's body, but he was a good and fast writer with original ideas.

Soon I added Steven Spielberg, also straight out of film school, based on a 16-millimeter experimental film. Another of my promising clients was a director named Monte Hellman, who made Two-Lane Blacktop, one of my favorite road movies of the seventies. Carole Eastman, maybe the best of my writers, started out as an actress, became friends with Jack Nicholson, and then teamed up with Bob Rafelson to write Five Easy Pieces. I ended up selling her script for The Fortune for the staggering sum of $350,000 (1970s dollars) to Warren Beatty for him to co-star with Nicholson and with Mike Nichols to direct. Regrettably, she never found a workable ending for the film, and neither could the sure-handed Mike Nichols.

I tried to make myself something of a magnet for independent-minded filmmakers with edgy sensibilities, and my client list continued to grow throughout my years in agenting. At CMA, I signed the offbeat Henry Jaglom. I shared George Lucas as a client with another agent, and I represented Francis Coppola (along with CMA head Freddie Fields) when the deal was made for him to work on The Godfather. Later, at International Famous Agency (IFA), I added Hal Ashby, Phil Kaufman, Bob Aldrich, and veteran director George Cukor. At one point, I shared Michael Crichton with Lynn Nesbit, who was based in the New York office.

I had two requirements for my clients: that they be talented and that they be passionate about their work. Most shared a rebellious attitude toward films with conventional stories and a proclivity for European filmmakers like Antonioni and Truffaut, whom I had become close to professionally as well. Above all, these writers and directors regarded the medium of film as a religion. Nonconformity was the order of the day, which made everyone very interesting to be around. You never knew where the next crazy idea was coming from. As an agent who sold these ideas that shocked the establishment, I prided myself on being an innovator in my own part of the profession. The older clients, particularly Bob Aldrich, taught me how to keep studios honest with regard to directors' contracts. Aldrich, whose career I revived by getting him The Longest Yard, had a detailed list of controls he needed, and this became my template for the younger directors I represented.

The deck was stacked against change, causing the young filmmakers to act more like brothers than competitors. There was an overwhelming feeling that they were all in it together. Francis Coppola, who was the first film school graduate to make it big, was the big brother to the group. He established himself as demigod to the young set by coming out of UCLA film school in 1963, actually directing a feature film, You're a Big Boy Now, and then signing a deal with Warner Bros. for his company, American Zoetrope, to develop projects with young filmmakers. It was under that deal that I sold him Milius's script for Apocalypse Now for $15,000, plus another $10,000 if the movie got made.

Zoetrope was a haven for young filmmakers, and Francis functioned as their leader. Among the filmmaking banditos who ran with Francis were John Milius, Carroll Ballard, film editor Walter Murch, and George Lucas. Zoetrope was like a commune, where they all freely exc...

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