I interviewed Jay Stern at his Rat Entertainment office on Sunset Boulevard September 19, 2002.
Jay is president of Rat Entertainment, where he started in year 2001 as director Brett Ratnerís producing partner.
Jay: "I was a studio exec for 12 years, at Disney and then New Line. I donít think Iíve really proved myself as a producer yet."
Luke: "That's ok. There are no definitions of the term producer."
Jay: "That's part of the problem. Anyone who passes the book store and says, 'Oh, that looks like an interesting title. I should producer that.' That person becomes a producer.
"Another problem is that there is no training ground for producers. They come out of being agents and studio executives. There's no system for creating good producers."
Luke: "It's the most undefined role in Hollywood."
Jay: "That's why producers get as little respect as they do. Many producers don't deserve respect."
Luke: "Tell me about your upbringing."
Jay: "I grew up in New York City. My father's a dentist. My twin brother is a psychiatrist. My sister has a Ph.D. in Scandinavian folklore and works in computers now. I went to private school in New York- Riverdale in the Bronx. Then I graduated from Yale with a degree in psychology. I was on the nine year plan. I was one of the only guys to graduate Yale in two termsÖNixon's and Carter's. I dropped out a couple of times. Then I was in a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology for about a year and a half. After leaving the program, I moved to Los Angeles for the film business."
Luke: "How did your family feel about your getting into the film industry?"
Jay: "Initially they were dubious. My mother would've preferred me to become a lawyer. It's scarey. I have a six year old boy. It's scarey to think, 'Is he going to make his way in the world? How rough is it going to be for him?' You want your children to avoid pain and have satisfying lives. My parents are happy now about my choice."
Luke: "What essential values did you inherit that allowed you to make your way in Hollywood?"
Jay: "I've been fortunate enough to last in the movie business. One thing thatís helped, I basically like people. I'm asked all the time, how could you go out to lunch with all those agents and managers? Because I enjoy most of those lunches. I actually like a lot of those people. Or letís say that I find something to like and enjoy about most of them. Aside from that, I try my best to be fair and respectful in every situation, to deal with real integrity. Over time, thatís helped me build relationships, where people know they can trust me. Being completely selfish or singlemindedly opportunistic may help other people do what they do, but it's not how I'm constructed. I don't walk into meetings with complicated strategies. I don't walk into meetings expecting a fight. If you do expect a fight, you'll be more likely to get one. I try to keep an open mind about whatís best for the movie, which always takes precedence over whatís necessarily best for me Jay. Hopefully they coincide more often than notóin my experience they usually do.
"What's fun about working with Brett [Ratner] is that he is so collaborative. He'll ask anybody, 'What do you think?' If someone has a good idea, Brett will use it. He creates his vision partly out of all the smart things said around him. He hunts and sniffs out smart stuff around him like a rabid truffle hog."
Luke: "Is this a polite industry?"
Jay: "No. People are animals. Most people say that if you turn your back and give someone else the advantage, you're dead. Iím usually looking for agreement and resolution right off the bat. Maybe I'm not as successful as I could be because I'd rather resolve things than have a sustained confrontation, but everybody has to work as best as they can with their natures and constitutions.
"I started my career working for producer Michael Peyser. I read hundreds of scripts a year and did more notes than anybody should have to do. Over that time, I honed my tastes and my instincts. I learned how to give notes to a writer. It's different in every situation. You can have the most brilliant notes in the world, but if you are not able to get the writer or director to embrace those notes, you might as well not give them. You can't force a creative person to come up with inspired work if you can't get them to agree with you. Half of the battle is getting them to embrace your direction. Part of what you're fighting all the time is that you don't want to alienate the creative person. It's like being a good coach.
"We [New Line] bought the Rush Hour script for Brett. His film Money Talks had been a sort of dress rehearsal for Rush Hour, although we obviously didnít know it at the time we were making Money Talks. We had a director walk off Money Talks three weeks before we were to start shooting. Brett came in for 20 minutes and talked about why he had to do the movie, and what it meant for him. We [DeLuca and I] hired Brett.
"After Money Talks came out, Brett said, 'You should come run my company.' I thought he had to be kidding. He was a child. Charming, at least somewhat talented, but a child. By that time, I was a relatively established studio executive. He'd only directed one movie. After Rush Hour came out, I had to take him seriously."
Luke: "How has being a father affected you as a producer?"
Jay: "It's much tougher to get through the pile of scripts on a weekend because you want to spend time with your wife and son [Eli]. It makes you a more compassionate person. I've got to figure out what's the best thing to do. It's not just about you. But what's the best thing for this young developing wonder? Figuring out ways to empower and nurture him isn't all that different from what I try to do with writers and directors. He's also a brutal negotiator, so my negotiating skills have definitely been honed by being a Dad.
"We were on vacation in Bermuda. My wife Vicki had seen the promos for a new show called Samurai Jack. She said we should watch it. We thought it was great. I got back to Los Angeles. Brett's assistant David Steiman had seen it on his vacation to the Caribbean. We thought the show was unbelievable and that we should do it as a live action movie. I tried to get the rights to it. I got Toby Emmerich involved. He got it immediately. We showed the premiere episode to Brett. He called me at 8AM to say he loved it, and he never does that.
"Eli has fantastic taste. David, Brett and I happened to share it."
Luke: "What did you learn about producing from working for Michael De Luca at New Line?"
Jay: "I first had an education from Jeffrey Katzenberg and Ricardo Mestres while I worked for Hollywood Pictures, owned by Disney. Then I saw how Mike did it. They were two completely different approaches. Mike protected creative people and let them do their thing. He almost never tried to influence creative people into doing something they weren't interested in doing.
"Jeffrey and Ricardo had clear ideas of what they wanted and had specific ways of getting it. Jeffrey went from someone who gave a lot of specific notes to somebody who at least sometimes preferred to let creative people do their thing. He went through a whole evolution. Mike was a young, hip, culturally savvy guy. Mike De Luca and Bob Shaye at New Line loved movies and were excited about working in movies. Disney was much more corporate and efficient. Nothing fell through the cracks, whereas at New Line, a sort of creative chaos seemed to be encouraged. By the way, both approaches done right can work, though ultimately, I think itís best to do whatever you can to really encourage creative inspiration Every movie is something that has to be created out of nothing. So our highest calling as producers isnít necessarily to keep the budget, schedule etc. in control, though of course thatís important. Itís as museóto help inspire the best possible work from the talent."
Luke: "How did Mike hitting the headlines and then going down that long road to getting fired affect the working environment at New Line?"
Jay: "I think of it more as a year when the movies didn't work. People get nervous and they start blaming each other. People do show their true colors. Mike and Bob weren't seeing eye to eye. It was harder to get stuff done. I do think, though, that Mike basically comported himself with a lot of dignity to the end. He was also surprisingly forthright about where he had not made the best decisions. And the truth is, he made a lot of the right decisions for years."
Luke: "It's funny to hear the word 'dignified' repeatedly applied to a man who was kicked out of Arnold Rifkin's party for getting oral sex in front of a crowd.
Jay: "Well even he said he didnít see himself as that guy. And I think Mike as a person does have real dignity and substance."
Luke: "How did you come to make so many black pictures?"
Jay: "I'm only white on the outside...skin deep, baby. The truth is, I went into New Line right after Helena Echegoyen had left. She'd developed a number of black movies. New Line has a tradition of doing urban movies. Love Jones was the first one I did. I do, by the way, have a natural affinity for urban culture. There were a couple of movies lying around that I could jump on and develop. Then Mike started giving me those projects and the community started sending me those scripts. And really what I want to do is A Room With A View, only with black people."
Luke: "Did white people go to see movies like Love & Basketball [about middle class blacks]?"
Jay: "I think it did some crossover. There are [urban] movies that do $35 million box office and almost no crossover [into a white or Asian audience]. I'm guessing that Barbershop had an 80-90% urban audience.
"I think we could've gotten more blacks into Love & Basketball too. I think black males shied away from it because of the love side of it and black females shied away from it because of the basketball side. In the trailer and the commercials, there was a scene where he said, 'What are we playing for?' And she said, 'Your heart.' And I think that young black males stayed away from the movie because of it. I tried to get involved in the marketing. I wasn't able to convince the filmmakers that that was going to have a cooling effect. It was still a good movie, New Line still made money on the movie, but I was a little frustrated it didnít find a bigger audience. Money Talks did about $40 million box office to an audience that was probably 75% urban. Chris Tucker was not that known a quantity yet in the white world. People weren't rushing to see Charlie Sheen at the time.
"When there's a big urban turnout to a movie, it scares whites away. Ten years ago, when there were some fatalities in theaters, there were black people who hesitated to go to a theater house packed with an urban audience. They think there's going to be trouble. For the same reason they're not going to a street fair with an overwhelmingly urban crowd. They fear there's going to be trouble. And plenty of white people are terrified to go to a movie theater where the audience will be largely black.
"Theater owners love Eddie Murphy and Will Smith but if they don't know the black person in the movie, they're hesitant to pick up the movie. Booking the theater can be the biggest problem for black movies, particularly in white suburbs."
We resume our conversation 9/24/02.
Jay: "What makes producing exciting, aside from working on different projects all the time, is that you have to bring your whole being to the table to do it well. All you have is your character. You have to bring all of it to the picnic - your intelligence, sense of humor, taste, ethics. The people who don't have some charm won't be as good as the people who do. Jeffrey Katzenberg is tough but he would never have gone as far as he did without his sense of humor. Some people are good bullies and that can help in Hollywood."
Luke: "Producer Rob Long just told me that he didn't know what any studio executive had to contribute by going on set."
Jay: "Television tends to be driven by the show-runners (executive producers)."
Jay's mom calls. Jay tells his assistant: "Tell her I will have to call her back. I'm in a meeting."
Jay: "If he was like most producers in Hollywood trying to get features made, I don't think he'd be saying that. There are some smart people out there trying to make the movie better. I think that's another [example of the] 'Creatives vs the suits' attitude. I guess there are brilliant directors who are auteurs. I've heard that [director] Michael Mann is tough and doesn't like to listen to the studio. Most people in this business have to be collaborative to survive.
"To work your way up in the studio system, you have to be willing to eat some shit and smile while you're doing it. Nobody likes someone who is eating shit and actually grimacing.
"It helped my career that I was on the slow track. I got to observe and learn. People often overplay their hand. They get themselves in positions of power where it feels like they can do anything and they can't. You overplay your hand a bit and the people above you tend not to appreciate it."
Luke: "Does the low status of producers in the business bother you?"
Jay: "Yes. We're right there with the writer going after the Polish actress. She might sleep with us. The smart ones go after the director and the studio exec. I had a tough time moving over from studio exec to producer. Respect is built into the job of studio exec because you're a buyer. The tendency on most studio executives' part is to be dismissive of the producer. It's habitual. I don't know if Jerry Bruckheimer or Scott Rudin run into it but I certainly run into it. I run into it at every level - notes, creative and deal.
"When they give me notes, I have to come up with good arguments. I enjoy the autonomy of being an independent producer as opposed to an exec."
Luke: "What's your favorite and least favorite part of your job?"
Jay: "Working creatively on a project. Least favorite - trying to sell something that I know is a tough sell to people who aren't receptive. There are producers who love that challenge."
Luke: "Are there things you have to do for appearances?"
Jay: "I like to go to premiere and to restaurants."
Luke: "Is it necessary to go to parties?"
Jay: "It's not necessary but it is helpful. You run into a lot of people in one place. Rather than sitting here and making 30 phone calls, I go to a party and see 30 people and get a little business done."
Luke: "Do you have to be seen?"
Jay: "If Brett Ratner weren't my partner, you bet I'd have to be seen. It does help to go to The Grill occasionally. You have to schmooze stars."
Luke: "Take them to ballgames or concerts?"
Jay: "I don't think I've ever taken one to a ballgame or movie. I've had meetings with them and begged them to do my movie. You've done well if the agent or manager lets you sit down with the star or director. You're looking for the elements that can get your movie made. It's not going to be the costume designer."
Luke: "Have you had any conversations about switching the race of a protagonist?"
Jay: "Many. Brett was interested in doing a movie called Paycheck. Denzel Washington and Nick Cage were interested in playing the same character. Denzel and Will [Smith] are the names that come up as [blacks] who could come in and replace a white lead. You then ask the question if his love interest can be white or do you have to go black all the way. To be safe, you may want to go black all the way, or at least a person of color. It's easier to go black and latino than black and white because there is a bias in the black community against black men and white women. I don't think you're going to have a black man and a white wife that works [in a sitcom or movie] any time in the next few years.
"We may be making strides in overcoming racism but we're not color blind."
Luke: "How do black leads play overseas?"
Jay: "That's a huge consideration. That's the biggest reason why there aren't more black leads. The traditional conventional wisdom is that they don't sell overseas. The economics dictate this. These days, 60% of a studio movie is paid for by overseas. The exceptions are Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy and Chris Tucker.
"You can make a movie for up to $20 million and turn a profit from just your domestic market but you're not going to make a $40 million movie starring black people unless one of them is Will or Denzel..."
Luke: "Is there a type of movie you make best?"
Jay: "Certainly multi-racial action comedy is what I've done best till now but I swear there's A Room With A View in me with South American pygmies. People do tend to send me action comedies."
Luke: "Have you been recognized by the black community for your contributions to black cinema?"
Jay: "I don't know that I have been but I should be. A friend of mine used to joke that I'm the hottest black executive in town. Occasionally I'll run into a black writer or black producer..."
Luke: "But not civilians?"
Jay: "Again, it's all about Brett [Ratner] and Chris [Tucker] and Jackie [Chan]. They don't know I exist.
"As a producer, you have to put your ego aside. The actors and director will always command more attention."
Luke: "How much would it mean to you to win an Oscar?"
Jay: "It would be really nice."
Luke: "Do you ever dream of receiving a Best Picture Oscar?"
Jay: "I'd be lying if I hadn't told you that I'd fantasized at least a few times about it. It's not like I thought I would ever get up there for Rush Hour 2 and say, 'Ladies and gentlemen of the Academy.' I didn't think it was in the realm of possibility. If all I ever do is movies like Rush Hour, that would be ok. One Room With A View, one statuete, that would be ok too. I'm better suited to making Rush Hours than A Room With A View."
Luke: "Can you imagine Joel Silver winning a Best Picture Oscar?"
Jay: "I think it would be great to see. In the category of what's strange about this picture. For anyone who appreciates irony, Joel Silver addressing the Academy... 'You really like me, you really do.'"
Jay and I collapse with laughter.
Jay: "If he just broke down and started blubbering..."
Luke: "Do you resent that comedies aren't respected by the Academy?"
Jay: "No. Somebody said about iambic pentameter, you do the best job you can within the form you are working in. The action comedy form should be fun and entertaining. It's not meant to be particularly thought provoking. Though, the first time we screened Rush Hour, a number of people in the audience began spontaneously singing kumbieya. We're not just entertaining people. We're helping bring people together. That these guys, the characters of Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, are from two different cultures and find a way to get along, it's better than the alternative."