February 18, 2011
Sid Ganis: The original Hollywood Jew
Famously a jack-of-all-trades to the movie business, Sid Ganis, 71, has held top posts at two major studios — Paramount and Columbia —worked side-by-side with George Lucas and independently produced hits such as “Big Daddy,” “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” and “Akeelah and the Bee.” Add to that a four-year stint as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where he currently serves as vice president, and it all equals — as they say in the biz — a Hollywood “heavyweight.” Hollywood Jew caught up with Ganis at his production offices, dubbed Out of the Blue Entertainment, on the Sony lot, where he talked about Romaniote Jews, why filmmaking nourishes his soul and why he thinks Oscar campaigns are bunk.
Hollywood Jew: First things first. What’s your Jewish story?
Sid Ganis: I’m a Jew from Brooklyn, N.Y. The thing that makes it a little bit unusual is that I am a Greek Jew. My interest these days is the ‘Greek’ of me — the Greek Jew of me.
HJ: Does that mean you have grape leaves on your seder table?
SG: When we did have seder with Grandma and Grandpa — this endless seder that went on for hours and hours and hours, you know, the old stereotype where all the kids couldn’t wait to eat or get out of there — it was not with grape leaves. It was very traditional. My grandparents were Orthodox Jews, I think.
HJ: Were you a shul Jew growing up?
SG: I went with Grandpa sometimes. We’re actually called Romaniote Jews, not Sephardic Jews but Romaniote Jews, having emigrated from Rome to Greece to here. We went to a Sephardic temple with Spanish, Italians, Greeks. Grandpa wouldn’t take the elevator, and the Greeks were way up on the fourth floor, in a very beautiful but small sanctuary. When they davened, they sounded so very weird; it wasn’t like normal davening; it had a kind of Middle Eastern wail to it. I remember as a kid thinking, “What is this?”
HJ: Do you still go to shul?
SG: Sometimes on Shabbat, not often, I have to tell you. Every once in a while, I say, “Aw, damn, I wanna make it.” I don’t need the religious life. I believe deeply in my own sense of myself as a Jew.
HJ: Do you feel you’re part of a Jewish community?
SG: People know I’m Jewish. I don’t know why or how. Therefore, the community is kind of automatically there.
HJ: Do you mean to say that Jews in Hollywood tend to gravitate toward one another?
SG: No. I’ve been told that there’s a mini-Jewish community in Hollywood. People who get angry with Hollywood write, “The Jews are in charge!” I don’t quite feel it. I don’t think that there’s a clan.
HJ: How do you explain the disproportionate number of Jews who are drawn to working in Hollywood?
SG: We just love the creative world. We love being able to touch people, influence people. It’s the feel of the soul, what happens deep down in people.
HJ: You feel that the creative process is a conduit for doing the kind of work in the world that is soul nourishing.
SG: It’s soul nourishing, and it’s useful. People who watch the work that I do sometimes take something from it that they can translate into their own lives.
HJ: But Hollywood isn’t always responsible with its power. More often than not, it doesn’t use its influence in any meaningful, directed way. Should Hollywood do more to promote certain values or the spread of information? As opposed to selling “Green Hornet” after “Green Hornet”…
SG: I think Hollywood does, all the time, make movies of significance; explorations of goodness and the human condition and all that. But you know, you make a movie that costs a lot of money, you don’t want to show it to yourself in the bathroom mirror.
Interview continues on next page.
HJ: You’re considered a marketing expert. What makes a great Oscar campaign?
SG: You’re asking the wrong guy. I don’t pay attention to the campaigns. Nobody’s gonna tell me by an ad in a paper the one I should vote for. When I vote, it’ll be because I absolutely believe the one I check off is the best picture.
HJ: So what’s your vote for Best Picture?
SG: Yeah, sure I’ll tell you.
HJ: Sounds like you take your voting pretty seriously.
SG: Academy members take their voting seriously. Not just me, not because I’m the “ex-prez” — no, no, no. Every once in a while you hear about somebody who says, “Well, I gave [my ballot] to my housekeeper to fill out.”
HJ: A lot of people would argue that campaign hullabaloo is the determining factor in winning the race. A producer said to me, “Oscar season is like an election,” implying that if you have the clout, the money, and you can throw enough parties, you’ll get a golden boy.
SG: That’s bull——[laughs]. It’s not true.
HJ: It feels like the Oscars are losing some cachet though, because they’re so heavily politicized. Plus, the ceremony’s odd timing — coming at the end of a long awards season — renders the winners a forgone conclusion. Are the Oscars becoming irrelevant?
SG: Hell no! This baby worldwide [the Oscar icon] is the most singular symbol of greatness. I go to an airport now and I either buy The New York Times or a candy bar, and there it is: “World’s Greatest Dad,” and what is it? It’s an Oscar guy.
HJ: But why do the Oscars still matter to the industry, when, let’s face it, box office is the true Hollywood idol?
SG: It’s being honored by your own, your very own. And you can’t get into the academy unless you’re accomplished — it’s not that it’s a secret society, it doesn’t have a secret handshake — it takes accomplishment.
HJ: You’re an excellent Oscar salesman.
SG: But I’m telling you the truth!
HJ: But Hollywood is changing, and like all industries, the increased emphasis on global markets and foreign sales makes its future uncertain. Is Hollywood more interested in pursuing its own success abroad, or is it possible we could see an integration of all indigenous film culture into a more global film industry, perhaps, with its headquarters in Hollywood?
SG: The 800-pound gorilla in your question is Hollywood. The fact is, the people of the world wish to see Hollywood movies. They’re not forced to see Hollywood movies; they want to see Hollywood movies. In China, what do they want to see more than anything, ever? “Avatar.”
HJ: What did Hollywood get so right?
SG: Who knows? [laughs] Movie stars, promotion, publicity. Fine actors — Clark Gable, beautiful Bette Davis, Scarlett O’Hara, Scarlett Johansson (“The Jewess” — who knew?). Beauty. Glamour. Sexuality. All that stuff. Rita Hayworth.
HJ: Do you think the stars of today are as glamorous and compelling as they were in days of yore?
SG: No. And then, every once in awhile, one pops up.
HJ: Who’s your favorite movie star today?
SG: You know who I’m loving? Young Anne Hathaway; this is one talented woman.