On the eve of the 51st annual New York Film Festivals' closing weekend, the festival hosted a public conversation with veteran producer David V. Picker on the occasion of his new book, "Musts, Maybes and Nevers: A Book About the Movies."
Having worked in the film industry for over four decades and counting, Picker has served as President and Chief Executive Officer for United Artists, Paramount, Columbia Pictures, and Lorimar Television. All the while, Picker has been active in both the Writers Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America. His work includes a diverse set of films ranging from "A Hard Day's Night," "The Jerk" and "The Man with Two Brains," to eventually producing the Oscar-nominated "The Crucible," and a plethora of others. He was also involved in the initial efforts to bring James Bond to the screen.
During the NYFF talk, Picker discussed a range of topics from his past, including his experiences with filmmaker icons like Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen as well as some of the producer's favorite new films (he really likes Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity").
Some highlights from the talk:
How United Artists managed its expectations:
idea was we would make a deal with the filmmaker on a script or project and if
we approved the script and the cast and approved the budget, that filmmaker
could go off and make the movie. Assuming there's no budget problems, he or she
delivers that movie to us and we have no say. It would be the work of the film
artists who made it -- and we would distribute the picture worldwide. The whole idea of the studio
system is you control everything. You want to keep it busy so you hire people
to make movies and you distribute them and you control everything. Well, this
was exactly the opposite, and the idea started small because you had limited
money. They were not always smart but sometimes it’s better to be lucky
than to be smart."
On Picker's uncle, Arnold Picker:
"He worked at Columbia and he was the number two executive at Columbia International. He was unquestionably, in the era of his life, the smartest international executive in an American company. He found ways to make successes that have never been tried before. Philosophically, this is what he knew, if he wanted to distribute American pictures to all the other countries in the world, he had to compete with all the other American companies and all the local companies. So what he'd do with certain countries like France and Italy and the UK is he would make some local product because if we made local product, it would give us an extra boost for our U.S. product. That green light that I inherited allowed me to make deals with Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Francois Truffaut. It allowed me to introduce those films to an American audiences."
The first script Picker pitched:
"There was this script I'd read -- a kind of oddball script made by a filmmaker who made some very good, small English pictures. I gave this script to Arthur Krim and Bob Benjamin, who'd acquired United Artists, and I told them that I wanted to make this movie. It was the first single script I brought to their attention. We got a two picture deal. We would make a two picture deal and cross-collateralize, which is something we did a lot. We'd make a package of pictures and all the profits and losses were put in a pool -- in case one was a hit and one was a flop, you'd get your money back before you started seeing profits and if they were all losses you started going bankrupt. Anyway, we made a two picture deal and that movie was 'Tom Jones.'"
Meeting Ingmar Bergman for the first time:
"He'd never dealt with an American company and it was, without question, one of the most interesting meetings of my career. We flew to Paris when word came that Mr. Bergman was ready to meet. It was December and no one was supposed to know that we were flying to meet him. We were to go to the back entrance of this art house and go up this staircase. It was gigantically tall, high ceilings, and all along the walls were portraits of the greats in Swedish theater. Sitting under a desk with one green desk lamp was Ingmar Bergman and the three of us stood in front of Mr. Bergman -- who, by the way, was the single most attractive male who's ever lived -- and we're waiting to hear about the movies. There's no discussion of the movies. He asked us what the nature of the business was and how the European business compared with American business and it became very clear that this wasn't about us meeting Mr. Bergman, but rather about Mr. Bergman meeting us."
On working with Bergman:
"So the first film we worked on, he said it was about a man and woman and their marriage and we said, 'OK, we'll do it.' [laughs] But the fourth film he sent over, 'Skammen' ['Shame') -- this wasn't the Ingmar Bergman we knew. This was like a million dollars. It was a war movie. This was three times the cost and trouble and this was going to be a problem. So I told him through fax, 'Mr. Bergman, I saw the movie and to be honest it didn't work for me quite like the others, but I'll do the best I can and if it works, it works, and if not, thank you.' I get the following response the next day: 'Dear David, the important thing is you told me the truth. Ff it works, I will be thrilled. If it doesn't work, it will bother me for about five minutes. Yours, Ingmar Bergman.' He made it, we released it, it didn't do well, and it bothered him for about five minutes."
Working with Woody Allen:
"We made a five picture deal. All Woody had to do was tell us in three sentences or more what the movie was about. The budget was approved in advance. I get a call that Woody was ready and so he says, 'This is a movie about a clarinetist with a cocaine problem.' I said to him, 'You're kidding,' but something came over me and I approved it -- for the fifth picture. We had a five picture deal. Woody gets back to me and he says he's got another title -- 'Bananas' and I said, 'It's approved.'"
On differences between the industry now and during his earlier days:
"You can't run things like we did because it's much harder and the risks are much greater. The negative cost of 'A Hard Day's Night,' 'Dr. No,' 'Release of the Field,' and 'Never on Sunday' -- all four films combined is less than two 30 second commercial spots on the super bowl."
On the film business in general:
"Quoting my grandfather, as I do in my book, he said, 'Everybody has two businesses: their own and the movies.' Whatever you may do with the rest of your time. You all go to the movies, the whole world goes to the movies, and the idea that you could actually be in a business that affects everybody is a very special thing. You actually have the ability to communicate your feelings, through the films that you’re involved in, to the rest of the world and make a difference."
On "A Hard Day's Night" director Richard Lester:
"Go online and type in 'The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film.' When I saw that I said I want to be in business with that guy. Dick was from Philadelphia and he did a lot of advertising for commercials. He moved to London and made a bunch of low-budget movies. We made a couple low budget movies with him. I've said it before: Nobody else would have made 'A Hard Day's Night,' only Dick Lester would have made 'A Hard Day's Night.' That's what's so magical about that movie -- you all see movies with musical groups but none as original as 'A Hard Day's Night.'"
On director Tony Richardson:
"I worked with him on 'Girl with Green Eyes' and 'Madamoiselle.' Well, 'Madamoiselle' screened at Cannes and back then the auteur would stand before the film and he stood up and waved. Later, he and I stood kind of near the exit and watched as the movie played for about 15 - 20 minutes. It took about eight minutes before the French audience started to turn on the film and throw things at it. So I turn to Tony and he’s got this shit-eating grin on his face. When I ask him why, he tells me, 'Well I kind of thought this might happen, so I took half a dozen Valium at the start of the show.'"
What inspires Picker about the industry today:
"It's the people who are making the movies and the satisfaction I get in seeing and connecting to them. I saw 'Gravity' some nights ago and it happens to be produced by David Heyman, who is the son of a good friend of mine, John Heyman. John and I go back a long way. He was one of the inventors of some of the more exotic ways of financing films, he loves movies and he’s a character. So I sent John an email and I said I'd remembered how proud my dad was of my success. The business is very personal in many ways. When you've seen it and worked in it for as many years as I have, it gives you incredible pleasure when you see films like that."
Picker's criteria for a good script:
"The level of a film to reach you, as the viewer, just the physical excitement and the sheer nature of experience. Why does anybody in the world go to movies? they're affected by them."
On the title of his book:
"Billy Wilder once told me there are three different kinds of movies; musts, maybes, and nevers. That always stuck with me, so that's the title of the book. It comes from the great Billy Wilder and it's written with love."