The New Abnormal
I can trace the moment when I noticed that what seemed like normal was changing — that the ways we'd always done things since time immemorial (at least in the three decades since I came to Hollywood) were beginning to become obsolete. It was the death of what I now call the "Old Abnormal" and the birth of the "New."
I call them the Old Abnormal and the New Abnormal because Hollywood, let's face it, is never actually normal. Think of how bizarre the people are, for starters. Famous hairdressers, notable Israeli gunrunners, Russian gangsters, mothers who score on their daughters' successfully leaked sex-tape escapades, and Harvard grads who chase hip-hop stars and Laker Girls make a unique kind of melting pot. It boasts smart people galore with and without prestigious diplomas, and loves a craven con man with a new angle, a new pot of gold or a new look. It's an equal-opportunity exploiter of talent.
No wonder it draws such dysfunction: Lying is a critical job skill; poker is as good a starter course as film school. How else would you know that the line "Sandra Bullock wants to do this" really means "It's on her agent's desk," and "Three studios are bidding on this script" means "Everyone's passed but one buyer who hasn't answered yet." The language has a sublanguage, and there is no libretto. It's just plain Abnormal, and always has been.
I saw that some key aspects of the abnormal Hollywood I'dcome to love, or at least enjoy heartily, were changing into something new, but of course I didn't know what. It was when the longstable Sherry Lansing/Jon Dolgen administration of Paramount, where I was working in 2001, began to teeter a bit as I was making How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey about two players playing each other and losing the game but unwittingly winning love.
Forty-eight at the time, Sherry Lansing was tall and effortlessly glamorous, one of the few women in Hollywood whose face and body had never seen a needle or a knife. The first chairwoman of a major studio, she shattered a glass ceiling in 1992 that hasn't been mended since. Mentored by men and a mentor to women, she is that rare combination of a man's woman and a woman's woman at the same time.
Dolgen and Lansing were a great duo: She was class, he was crass. While Dolgen's screaming could be heard throughout the administration building, no one would ever get bad news in Sherry's office. (She had employees for that.) Dolgen's belligerence was as famous as Sherry's graciousness. The whole thing worked for them for a long time.
Sherry had been a big supporter of my little romantic comedy — she loved the script I'd developed with her team, and that helped me get it into production. But much to my surprise, it turned out that Paramount wasn't even paying for the movie. My real financier was a lovely guy named Winnie, who ran a German tax shelter. I found this out on the set when Winnie introduced himself to me and told me that Paramount had sold off their domestic and international box office rights to him to fund the relatively low cost of the movie ($40 million). Paramount kept only the DVD rights. But that, I understood, was how they often put together their movies, selling off the ancillary rights to keep their production costs down. This is called risk aversion. It either meant they thought the movie had no upside other than its DVD value, or that it was the only way Sherry could get the movie made at the time.
As the rest of the country veered from red alerts to orange alerts in the aftermath of 9/11 — Variety headline: "Showbiz Rocked by Reel Life!" — I was absorbed in simpler problems, like casting a guy for Kate Hudson to lose in ten days. As rocked as we may have been — and we were rocked — the show must go on. I was going into production. But in the boardrooms and executive suites of Viacom, which owns Paramount, everything was getting very unsettled in a consequential way.
The year 2001, as we began the movie, turned out to be a profoundly transitional one, not just for America (and the world, in the wake of 9/11), but for the movie business as well. Looking back, it would seem that Paramount had been looking through the wrong end of the telescope, in keeping only the DVD rights in its sights and ignoring the world. It was the year of the first Harry Potter and the first Shrek, and the audiences were getting their first exposure to the brave new world of breakthrough special effects in CGI and animation. But the historical fiscal conservatism of Paramount meant they were ignoring most of the new special-effects oriented scripts, created for this startling technology, starting to hit the town.
Paramount had a philosophy under Sherry Lansing and Jon Dolgen, and for a long time it had worked: Sherry chose pictures by following her gut, and then would make them for the lowest possible budget (and lower). She'd made Forrest Gump (giving Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis a big piece of the profits in success, but little in up‑front fees). She green-lighted Mel Gibson's Scottish epic and Oscar winner Braveheart. When Fox went way over budget on Titanic and needed a partner to finish the film, Sherry was able to say yes by buying domestic rights (U.S. and Canada) based on an overnight read. But it wasn't working anymore.