January 10, 2002
The Art of Hollywood Survival
Mike Medavoy's quote on the back of his new book, "You're Only as Good as Your Next One" (Pocket Books), sums up what makes a successful producer or studio chief: "If I had a talent for anything, it was a talent for knowing who was talented."
"It sums up what makes a good anything," Medavoy told The Journal. "If I weren't in this business, I probably would have been a teacher, which would have been fine."
In his new book, which he will discuss at an Anti-Defamation League lecture Jan. 16, the 61-year-old producer/mogul outlines his philosophy on success in life and business, using anecdotes and wisdom gleaned from his three-decade, Hollywood career.
With partner Eric Pleskow, Medavoy produced some of the classics of American cinema in the 1970s: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Rocky" and "Annie Hall."
In 1978, Medavoy co-founded Orion Pictures and continued his streak of Oscar-sweeping successes through the 1980s and early 1990s: "Platoon," "Amadeus," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Dances With Wolves," "Silence of the Lambs" and "Mississippi Burning."
Following Orion's dissolution, Medavoy headed Tri-Star, where, under his aegis, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Legends of the Fall" were made.
If there is one trait that emerges from his work, it is that of a risk-taker. In 1979, Medavoy rolled the dice on an unknown, German-accented bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger and a green director named James Cameron. The payoff: "The Terminator."
"Robocop" and "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" also became sci-fi-themed sleepers that evolved into very lucrative franchises.
The story of how a young, unproven Sylvester Stallone wrote "Rocky" for himself and played hardball with Medavoy and Pleskow is legendary.
"He demanded to play in it, and we never considered doing it without him," Medavoy said. "I thought he could play it well, and I was impressed by his conviction. He's a good friend of mine today, and he is tenacious, an immigrant's son."
Medavoy also bet on "Philadelphia," the Jonathan Demme film that could have failed at the box office on two fronts: its themes of homosexuality and AIDS; and star Tom Hanks, who, at that juncture, was not the bankable dramatic actor he is today. "Philadelphia" won several Oscars and cemented Hanks as one of Hollywood's A-list performers.
Even Medavoy's less-successful efforts -- the quirky "Fisher King," the low-budget Oliver Stone noir exercise "U-Turn," the Nixon satire "Dick" -- spit in the face of typical, predictable Hollywood product.
"Those kinds of films are difficult," Medavoy said. "I indulge in them because I find life is more interesting when something is new and adventuresome. A lot of people feel it's smarter to play it safe, but none are going to have a better long-term career by doing that.
"Thankfully, I'm judged by the body of my work and not by the hundreds of films I should have been killed for."
Then there's Woody Allen. Medavoy, through Orion and Tri-Star, had a long history of supporting the fiercely independent filmmaker, who was not known for being hugely profitable. "His work deserves to be supported," Medavoy said, "and therefore, I was happy to be a part of that."
Medavoy's is not your typical Jewish American experience. His father, an international telephone company employee, was born in Russia. Medavoy's mother, who comes from Orthodox rabbinical lineage in Odessa, grew up in China.
His parents married in China, where Medavoy was born, and then moved Medavoy and his two sisters to Chile in 1947, after the communists claimed China. In 1957, at the age of 17, the family relocated to Long Beach, where Medavoy worked at a Jewish Community Center as a camp counselor.
After pursuing his higher education at UCLA and a stint in the U.S. Army, Medavoy landed an entry-level position at -- where else? -- Universal's mail room, the first rung on the ladder of his Hollywood climb to success.
Today, Medavoy admitted, he is happier than ever.
"I'm much more hands-on," Medavoy said of his new production house, Phoenix Pictures, which continues to lengthen his resume of Oscar-magnet fare ("The People vs. Larry Flynt," "The Thin Red Line"). Medavoy has a son, Nicholas, 4, with wife, Irena, and a son Ryan, 36, from a previous marriage.
"I've been really lucky," Medavoy said. "My parents survived the Japanese during World War II and all the other things put in their way. As Jews, it's all about survival. And that's basically what kept me moving here in Hollywood."
The Anti-Defamation League's third annual "Ralph Tornberg Lecture Series: An Evening with Mike Medavoy," Jan. 16, 7:30 p.m., Wyndham Bel Age, West Hollywood. For more information, call (310) 446-8000, ext. 230.