Jon Brown Profile
I walked into Ensemble Entertainment, a three-year old management firm at 10474 Santa Monica Blvd in Los Angeles, at 4PM October 22nd and sat down with manager-producer Jon Brown in his office.
Brown keeps his two duties separate. He produces movies and guides talent with Ensemble's three other managers (Jeff Thal, Barbara Lawrence, Chris Black), all former employees at APA (Agency for the Performing Arts).
Jon has the affable manner, ready smile and rapid fire delivery of your typical high-powered Hollywood agent. Born May 21, 1956, he grew up in the entertainment industry. His father Ned Brown ran MCA's Literary division until it was divested by government order in 1963. Then Ned started up his own literary agency and was one of the leading literary agents along with Swifty Lazar, Harold Swanson (Swanny) and Evarts Zigler.
"My dad had a stellar novelist's list with the best writers in the world. He represented Frank Herbert, Carlos Castaneda, William Bradford Huie, John Barth, Jackie Collins, Paul Gallico, John Michael Hayes, Leigh Brackett. I was pretty friendly with Carlos, let's just put it that way. I was a senior in college and he was a bestselling author of a series of books that dealt with hallucinogenics. The guy was eating peyote and getting loaded. I hung with him a bit. We talked about our similar experiences. I believe everything that he wrote."
Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda wrote about Ned Brown and Carlos Castaneda in his memoir Another Life:
"Brown was a diminutive man with a choleric red complexion and a white mustache who had modeled himself somewhat on Irving Lazar. No spring chicken himself, Brown had been an agent for decades and was one of the few in Los Angeles who handled book writers... He was Jackie Collins's agent at the time, and the fact that Castaneda had somehow found his way to Ned Brown seemed an indication that he was not as unworldy as his book made him out to be."
"I disagree with that assessment," says Jon. "My father molded himself on nobody."
Jon's mom Myra Berry Brown wrote childrens books.
A phone rings in the background.
"Melissa will you get that?" Jon yells to his assistant.
Melissa: "I sure will."
Jon: "Is that my ex-wife? Oh fuck. I'll call her back."
Jon turns to me: "I just got through an ugly divorce."
Luke: "I talk to men all the time now who say when I call, 'Oh, I'm so glad to talk to you. Gives me an excuse to get off the phone with my ex-wife.'"
It turns out that I was born on the same day (May 28) as Jon's ex-wife. "I should introduce you two," laughs Jon.
Jon: "I learned from my father. I knew what I wanted to do when I was at Beverly Hills high school. When I graduated from college (U.C. Santa Barbara), I spent the next two years sitting on a couch in front of my dad's desk, listening to him talk on the phone and make deals. Then he gave me contracts to read and learn. Then turned me loose to run the office while he returned to his beach house and relaxed and read.
"There isn't a lot of work to do when it comes down to authors. When you're talking about the stature of the authors he represented, he didn't have to make many phone calls. People would just call and if the book was available, he'd send it out. It's not like they were writing scripts and going from job to job.
"I used my dad's license and worked out of my garage for years. I had a thriving TV business from 1981-88 when I went to work for APA through 1992. Then I produced the 1995 movie "The Ties That Bind" for Interscope. I missed agenting and decided I wanted to do both.
"I believe there's a big conflict of interest that managers find themselves in when they want to produce their client's material. None of my movies are with clients.
"Now I represent (for their film rights only) screenwriters, directors, estates of famous authors (Paul Gallico, Cornell Woolridge, Daman Runyon and Shirley Jackson, Leigh Brackett, Ed Hamilton), and a couple of living authors (South African novelist Wilbur Smith, Irish author Julie Parsons). I represent hundreds of short stories and novels."
Luke: "The IMDB.com credits you with the 1999 film Solo?"
Jon: "I developed that with Working Title Films. Harold Becker was attached to direct it. We were getting ready to start a rewrite on it and the writer of it, Gary DeVore, disappeared and was tragically killed. He was found dead a year later."
Gary disappeared June 28, 1997. His body was discovered July 9, 1998 in the Mojave Deset Canal. His car apparently slid off Highway 14 into the California Aquaduct.
Jon: "They claim he had an accident. It's still very suspicious. I think he was killed. After he disappeared, the project died."
Luke: "You were executive producer on The Ties That Bind, meaning what?"
Jon: "I sold the script when I was an agent. Then I left the agenting business. The script had gone into turnaround. So I was able to get it and I knew just where to take it and how to get it made and within seven months we were in production. I found the material, helped package it, and helped find the financing, which wasn't much work as Interscope's deal was through Disney. I was not on set every day. I had a couple of partners, one of whom didn't have a job, so she was on the set every day.
"I had an office for about five years (1992-97) with Al Ruddy, an old family friend. He's like my surrogate father. He's known me since I was a baby. We're making a remake of The Poseidon Adventure. We're doing a film for Showtime called The Cola Wars, about the war between Pepsi and Coke. We also have a project that could be construed as the sequel to the Wizard of Oz.
"There are few movies with sole producers anymore. Everyone brings a little something. What do I bring? I have a good eye for material and I help get it to the next step in the studios. I've got a dozen projects around town in development. I'm not a nuts and bolts guy, I'm a creative guy. Al's the same. He's a salesman.
"It's so hard to get a movie made. It's a crap shoot. I have big talent attached to all of my movies and none of them have been made. Thankfully it's not my only job. The life of an independent producer is a lonely life. There are just a handful of guys that have lots of movies being made. Today 65% of my job is managing and 35% is producing and developing projects.
"The reason this manager-producer thing has gotten so ugly is that certain managers attach themselves to the material or actors and demand that the studio take on the manager as a producer. In return, the manager says to the client, you don't have to pay me my commission because we're getting a fee from the studio. I think that's unethical and sleazy and it is something that I don't do.
"I did it once early in my career. A screenwriter client of mine, probably my hottest client, wrote a movie. He asked me to produce the movie. I sold it immediately to Showtime. I kept him on for three drafts. Showtime wanted to fire him after the second draft because they didn't think it was funny enough. I thought it was hilarious but they didn't have a sense of humor. And then I had to fire him and the client said, 'But you promised to keep me on this movie until we got it made together. That's why I brought it to you.' I said, 'I know, but I'm not paying the bills and ultimately all I can do is recommend. I can not say yes.'
"And it was at that point that I realized that I shouldn't do this because I can't put on a producer hat if I'm trying to produce a movie that my client wrote. Because I might say something that he doesn't want to hear. And I'd rather have the client as a client, making money from their services, than me taking a shot of becoming a producer and attaching myself to a project of their's and hoping it gets made and getting my fee that way."
Luke: "Did you keep him as a client?"
Jon: "Yes. It almost got ugly."
Luke: "It's such a collaborative enterprise making a film. Where do you stake your ego and where do you submerge it?"
Jon: "I check my ego in at the door. A lot of the major talent around town, the big writers and the big directors, they're 850-pound gorillas and they just walk all over you. Sometimes I don't even get involved. I just let them fight with the studios directly. Because I want to see the movie get made. Sometimes talent doesn't give a shit what you think. They're more concerned what the director has to think because he's the captain of the ship. And I'm ok with that. If I have something worth bringing up, I will say what it is on my mind. And they either say, 'Good idea' or 'It sucks.'"
Luke: "Do you make stands?"
Jon: "Rarely. I made stands on that other movie I was telling you about that I did for Showtime. I pushed the relationship as far as I could push it. I will take a stand if I feel adamantly opposed to something thrust upon me."
Luke: "How much say do you want in casting?"
Jon: "I want a say in casting. I want to be involved in everything up and through pre-production. The actual making of the movie, I leave to someone else. I don't pretend to know a lot about it. I don't know labor laws or union laws. I've never prepared a budget. There are people who do that and as a producer, you bring them all together to reach that common goal of getting the movie made."
Luke: "There are few laws that pertain to managers and producers."
Jon: "Very few. The law about managers is that you're not allowed to negotiate deals or procure employment for the services of a client. In my case, that would mean writers and directors. I can sell short stories, books or screenplays by clients who've passed away. Anybody can do it. Your maid can do it. Some of my clients don't have agents [who are legally authorized to make deals for employment]. I am allowed to negotiate a deal if the agent or attorney is aware that I'm doing it or is on the phone call with me."
Luke: "So you can make deals."
Jon: "Sure, I can still make deals. And the only recourse that a client can have (with a five-year statute of limitations) is to sue you for commissions paid if they can prove you procured employment for them. It happens all the time. It's a lousy thing for a client to do to someone who has given their heart and soul to their career. All of a sudden, you're not working and you need money and you've already fired this person. So you go to court, and you end up settling out of court. Thankfully, I've never had a client do that to me. It happens more often with actors than with writers and directors."
Luke: "What are you good at?"
Jon: "I'm good at spotting commercial material. Perhaps I'm better at resurrecting careers. I would much rather find a writer or a director who had a bad run, but has made some terrific stuff in the past, whose stock has gone down, but who has a high fee, and turn their career around. As opposed to finding a hot snotnosed kid out of USC with an interesting screenplay. There's not enough money in that for me. I'd rather work for $50,000 commissions than $5,000 commissions."
Luke: "Who are some of your best resurrections?"
Jon: "Gary DeVore until he died. Alan McElroy, Stuart Gallard, Bob Resnikoff."
Luke: "How do you resurrect careers?"
Jon: "It's not rocket science. It's hard grunt work. You find out who their enemies are. You find out who their big fans are. And then you meet with producers and try to find interesting projects for them. I've found that every producer has a pet project that he or she loves and could never get off the ground. And I've been lucky on a few occasions and say to a producer, 'What's your pet project you can't figure figure out?' And they'll tell me and I'll say, 'That might be right for Bob Resnikoff.' Then they say, 'Well, let him read it...' That happens all the time.
"I oversee people's lives. I make sure they're getting their money when they're supposed to. Making sure they're taking the meetings that they're supposed to take and the lawyers and agents are following through on paperwork."
Luke: "And do you also get them in and out of rehab?"
Jon: "No. None of my clients are junkie alcoholics."
Luke: "Does that stuff go in phases?"
Jon: "It's still prevalent just that people don't talk about it too much. People just aren't as open. People still use mind-altering substances. I don't condone it and I don't condemn it either. If you can do your job effectively, what you do with your free time is up to you. As long as it doesn't affect your family and your business. I think that the same people who partied in the '70s, party now. So long as they're still alive."
Luke: "What's your typical day look like?"
Jon: "I get up, read the paper, work out and roll into work around 9AM. I do my European calls. Then I'm in the office, emailing. A lot of the time it's easy for me to email executives. They can give me yes or no answers and I don't have to go through a phone conversation to do it. I read in the office. I get a lot of submissions. I have my assistant do coverage for me as well. I'm not so interested in his opinion of the material as his synopsis of what it is about. If it looks interesting, I'll read it.
"I usually have one to three lunch meetings a day. I purposefully double and triple book my lunches because this is a business of cancellations constantly. At one time, I'd only have one lunch a day and I was getting cancelled constantly. So now I double book all my lunch so I always have a lunch. I'm invariably cancelled by one person a day. If I'm not cancelled, then I do the cancelling. My lunches are usually booked up two months in advance. I rarely have breakfast and dinner meetings. I do a lot of business in my out of office meetings."
Luke: "And this is your life."
Jon: "Yeah. I wouldn't know what else to do. It's the most exciting business in the world. It certainly is the last business to feel the hit of a recession. When everything else has turned to crap, people will always find a way to come up with $7:50 to escape to see a movie.
"I'm affected by the terrorist thing. Development has slowed way down. Movies are being put in turnaround that had anything to do with terrorism, buildings bombed, biochemical warfare. I had two movies that clients wrote that were in pre-production at a network and both went into turnaround. One was the JFK Jr story and he died in a plane crash. So they said, 'Well, we can't do that.'"
Luke: "Why can't you do a movie that has some of those elements?"
Jon: "Because people think it is in poor taste. People think you might offend someone directly involved. Perhaps the advertisers are skittish because they don't want to advertise in a movie that promotes terrorism or even glorifies it. I think you will see PG family films make a big comeback. I've got a couple in development. I'm going to be right there to take advantage of that."
Luke: "What do you read every day?"
Jon: "The trades (Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter). The newspaper (LA Times) is the only thing I read religiously. I don't have time to read books, except when I'm on vacation. I read 5-10 scripts a week."
Luke: "Do you read any internet web sites every day?"
Jon: "No. But people contact me every day through the internet. I've optioned scripts through the internet."
Luke: "What do you do in your spare time?"
Jon: "I play golf every Thursday morning and whenever I have a lunch cancellation I play tennis. I have a kid at home. I go out with my girlfriend. I'm not an all-nighter guy anymore. I used to be. I like to go home and relax and tinker with my cars. I think I'm the only Jew in Hollywood who gets dirt under his fingernails."