June 1, 2006
Tommywood - Great Scott
Scott Steindorff is a happy man. A successful movie and TV producer, his NBC series, "Las Vegas," just got picked up for another season; he won an Golden Globe for the HBO miniseries, "Empire Falls," starring Paul Newman, and produced the feature film of Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" with Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman. Upcoming on Steindorff's slate are adaptations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera," TC Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain," Michael Connolly's "The Lincoln Lawyer," "Penelope" starring Reese Witherspoon and remakes of the classic films "Ikiru" and "Rififi." All this and he's only been in the film business six years.
Very few people arrive in Hollywood already in their 40s and succeed in becoming producers. Even among those who do manage to get a film made (a miracle in itself), one-hit wonders abound and legions have given up after a just few seasons in the sun. To succeed in both TV and film is rare -- rarer still for a relative newcomer.
So let's pay attention to the story of Scott Steindorff.
Steindorff was born in a small town in Minnesota. When he was young, his family moved to Arizona, where his father was involved in real estate. As a young man, he was passionate about theater, skiing (he made the U.S. Olympic team) and books.
"I grew up reading books," Steindorff told me recently. "We didn't watch TV."
Steindorff attended Arizona State, pursuing a dual major in theater and business. He wanted to go to Hollywood to act in movies, but his father wanted him to go into business.
Given what I know of Jewish fathers and sons, I sometimes wonder if what preceded Abraham taking his son to be sacrificed was Isaac telling him he wanted to be an artist rather than go into business. Many a child's artistic career has been sacrificed on the mount by a parent's plea.
So no surprise: Steindorff went into the family real estate business and spent the next two decades developing land and shopping centers.
Then came the 1990s real estate slump. Steindorff moved to California hoping to write or act in movies (he did manage to appear in some skiing movies). To keep himself financially afloat he did real estate consulting, which brought him to Las Vegas. Working as a consultant to the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace -- which became an attraction unto themselves -- led to his being hired by Caesar's as an entertainment consultant.
When Tommy Tune took over the MGM Grand's show "EFX," Steindorff wrote the new version himself -- which was a big hit. This taste of show business success led to Steindorff's "now or never" moment.
Six years ago, at 40, he made the decision "to pursue the entertainment business full blast." But unlike his earlier forays into Hollywood as a potential actor or writer, this time he took a different approach -- as a producer.
Which is not as easy as it sounds.
Although every year brings, like the swallows to Capistrano, a flock of self-anointed movie producers to Los Angeles, Hollywood is actually a small club that doesn't really like outsiders. The gatekeepers and decision makers are generally people who've been working in the industry their entire professional lives, for or with those corporate entities we call "the studios."
Generally, to break in you have to have something the studios want -- access to a star, or exclusive control of a best-selling or newsworthy book or story. Or money.
Hollywood has always been happy to greet new money. However, many wealthy people have had their wallets lightened by virtue of developing projects that didn't get made; or, worse yet, ones that got made and were just as quickly forgotten. But as happy as Hollywood is to take new money, they are slower to award any respect to those they dismiss as merely "money people." (And that, in my opinion, is what the whole Bob Yari/"Crash" suit is really all about.)
So how has Steindorff achieved his success? To get Hollywood's attention he realized that, yes, he would need a bag of money. But more important would be how he chose to spend it.
Although many people deride Las Vegas as a cultural backwater, Steindorff had found himself surrounded by good friends who cared deeply about books and movies. He garnered a group of Las Vegas investors (including Danny Greenspun, son of the legendary Las Vegas publisher Hank Greenspun), and then with their backing he started to buy film rights to pedigreed popular literary books.
Steindorff's gamble was that he would be judged not by his money (or not only by his money) but by his taste. And rather than just handing off the money to third parties, Steindorff and his company, Stone Village Entertainment, used their own money to acquire properties -- much like a real estate deal -- enabling Steindorff to maintain involvement in the projects and keep his position as a producer.
So, on the one hand, he is a businessman: "I'm an entrepreneur. But I take less of a risk when I go after the best." (Think of blue-chip properties.) Hence his portfolio contains Nobel, Pulitzer and National Book Award winners. This business approach is the key to his art.
Today, although Steindorff admits that he spent many years resenting that he followed his father's wishes, he feels his business background served him well.
Perhaps on that day long ago when Abraham stood poised above his son, Isaac, the Good Lord whispered in his ear, "Not to worry: I will create a business out of art for your son and his children and their children to pursue." Perhaps Isaac wondered what such an enterprise could be -- and God said "I'll show you -- I'll call it Show Business."
And it came to be that both father and son were pleased. Just ask Scott Steindorff.
Among the properties that Steindorff recently acquired is A.M. Homes' "This Book Will Save Your Life." Although it received a particularly unkind review from The New York Times, the novel had a particular resonance for Steindorff, a divorced father of three, a man who finally got to live his dream. Homes' book is about a man who decides to change his life. Steindorff did that, and he can't believe his good fortune.
"I love my life," Steindorff says. Hanging out with Paul Newman; having dinner with Philip Roth; on the set with Reese Witherspoon. Sounds good.
Which reminds me of a quote from George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), who said, "It is never too late to become what you might have been."
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.