Mike Medavoy's Book - Your Only As Good As Your Next One

Wall Street Journal assistant managing editor Laura Landro writes a provocative review of producer Mike Medavoy's memoir 'Your Only As Good As Your Next One' in the February 15, 2002 issue of the WSJ.

During the 1970s, Hollywood transformed a small business controlled by a few men to a large business controlled by multinational corporations.

Mike began in the mailroom around the same time as his more famous peers Barry Diller, David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner.

The book's thesis is that the "corporatization of Hollywood has killed its creativity. But he is especially keen to let us know that he is just as important as those more famous guys. Everywhere he goes in the world, he tells us, "I can turn on the television and see a film being broadcast that I had some hand in getting made."

"Mr. Medavoy manages to insert himself, Zelig-like, into nearly every important creative and corporate event during the past three decades in the movie business.Mr. Medavoy's self-aggrandizing saga is as much as anything a plea for recognition and a settling of old scores."

Medavoy appeared on the cover of the New York Times Sunday magazine in 1977 under the headline "The New Tycoons of Hollywood." But from there it was largely downhill, writes Landro.

Mike doesn't say much about his personal life. He's been married four times. He never mentions his third wife "who shared his passion for Mr. Clinton, the notorious Democratic hostess Patricia Duff."

"While screenwriter William Goldman famously said that no one knows anything in Hollywood, Mr. Medavoy's book proves that some know even less than others do. As a talent agent, Mr. Medavoy tells us, he fired a young Steven Spielberg as his client because the fledgling director wouldn't abandon his loyalties to Universal Studios. Years later, he was thrilled to get Mr. Spielberg to direct a movie for TriStar -- but that movie, "Hook," ran disastrously over budget and helped seal Mr. Medavoy's fate at TriStar. Though Mr. Medavoy takes some credit for Arnold Schwarzenegger's success, he first suggested O.J. Simpson to star in "The Terminator," a tidbit he offers us without a trace of irony."

Medavoy relates how Madonna secured her part in "Desperately Seeking Susan" (she shows up at the office, sinks to her knees and purrs: "I'll do anything to get this role").

"Mr. Medavoy understands how the business works -- he just has never seemed able to make it work consistently for him. Among the movies he passed on: "The China Syndrome," "Good Morning Vietnam" and "All the President's Men.""

Medavoy blames others for most of his failures. He derides Hollywood practices such as the "high concept" film perfected by Disney and Paramount. Mike says he's never interfered with the director's vision.

Barry Diller's regime at Paramount began "movies-by-committee syndrome that pervades Hollywood to this day." In this approach, studio executives get in early with the script, hold story meetings and make their own suggestions to filmmakers. The men behind this system - Diller, Katzenberg and Eisner - "spread it like cancer across Hollywood over the course of the eighties and nineties until it became the accepted way to develop, make and market a film."

Laura writes: "Though the business of making movies remains as unpredictable as it ever was, someone has to at least try to treat it like a business. Mr. Medavoy, on the other hand, sticks to his "life-long philosophy of not tinkering," even as millions of dollars of other people's money go up in smoke."

Johnathan Last writes in the 3/10/02 Washington Times: Mostly though, Mr. Medavoy stays wrapped up in himself. He opens by announcing, "I have a library full of books about history, politics, and culture, and I've read them." As he considers leaving UA, he visits the New York City corporate apartment owned by Transamerica, the studio's parent company, and wonders aloud, "Why hadn't I ever been invited to stay here?" A few pages later he bemoans the fact that in his first year at Orion, he made only $500,000 (in 1978 dollars, not counting bonuses), which "wasn't bad," but wasn't what other studio chiefs were making. He picks fights with Mark Canton, James Cameron, and others, and somehow it's always the other party who has misremembered events or acted in bad faith.

Yes Mr. Medavoy's book is self-serving, but in a sense, that's like complaining that water is wet. The real problems are his errors and disputes with history. He complains about the 1996 Sony expose "Hit and Run," saying that the authors got many small facts (such as Mr. Medavoy's birthday) wrong. Yet his own book contains numerous factual mistakes. For example, he claims that "Hannibal" made $200 million domestically. It made $165. He writes that "Total Recall" made $200 million domestically and was the number one movie in 1990. It made $119 million and was the sixth highest-grossing movie that year. He dramatically overstates the importance of a film's opening weekend, saying, "If your film didn't have a big opening, it was basically dead." Wrong again. Six of the top 15 grossing movies of all time opened to $42 million or less, including "Forrest Gump" ($24 million in the first weekend), "The Sixth Sense" ($26 million), and "Home Alone" ($17 million).

In one aside, Mr. Medavoy attacks Peter Biskind's 1998 book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," saying that Mr. Biskind exaggerated the influence of drugs in Hollywood during the '70s. While refuting Mr. Biskind, Mr. Medavoy says triumphantly, "I was there . . . and drugs didn' t dominate the movie scene." He adds, "The American directors might have been movie brats, but they weren't movie druggies."

In "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," Martin Scorsese, one of Mr. Medavoy' s American directors, tells Mr. Biskind, "I did a lot of drugs because I wanted to do a lot, I wanted to push all the way to the very very end, and see if I could die. That was the key thing, to see what it would be like getting close to death." Readers can draw their own conclusions.

Also, Mr. Medavoy misuses the words "restraint" and "apocryphal."

But there is a deeper truth to this memoir. While we get an unreliable picture of Mr. Medavoy, we get a piercingly clear image of how he sees himself. And it explains a lot about Hollywood.

Kenneth Turan writes 3/10/02 in the LA Times: "You're Only as Good as Your Next One" is particularly vivid, however, when Medavoy takes off the gloves for a bit, when he abandons the avuncular for the acerbic. As the book makes clear, being treated with decency and respect is critical for Medavoy, and when he is not, he does not forget all about it.

Bob Rafelson, for instance, is referred to as someone who "gained a reputation as an abrasive know-it-all," and Michael Cimino, whose "Heaven's Gate" crippled UA after Medavoy left, is labeled "a director who could charitably be called a megalomaniac." Medavoy is especially dismissive of people he feels have tried to rewrite history. He is irked with Sylvester Stallone for claiming the studio tried to buy him off "Rocky" and with James Cameron for asserting that Medavoy had insisted that O.J. Simpson play the Terminator.

The people Medavoy is most angry with are the former Sony Pictures triumvirate of Peter Guber, Jon Peters and Mark Canton, who he claims made his life a living hell while he was running Tristar Pictures after leaving Orion. He describes Guber, among other things, as "a secretive meddler by nature," is acidic about a tennis bet he says Canton lost and never paid and pointedly calls the chapter on his Sony days "The Fish Stinks at the Head." What especially gripes Medavoy is having aided all three men earlier in their careers: "I helped load the gun," he says, "that later executed me in public."


Mike Medavoy writes: "Luke, You must be some great guy; you request an interview, my wife is ill, my time is limited and you re-print the only article that I know is a silly, personal attack. You disgust me as a human being. I hope you are happy. Print that."

A rival producer says Mike has the most manufactured career in Hollywood, helped by such folks as his father in law of his first wife, Henry Rogers of Rogers & Cowan publicity firm. They secured him the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 1977. In his book, Mike professed surprise at his selection.

As an agent, Mike was known for screaming threats with the best of them.

Mike is notorious for being the executive least likely to read a script. Marcia Nassiter was the brains behind Mike at Phoenix Pictures.

Medavoy's most respected for his rapport with talent. He woke up United Artists during the 1970s, when the company won best picture Academy Awards for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Rocky and Annie Hall. In 1977, Medavoy joined a breakaway group of UA executives and became the head of Orion.

Hit & Run says: "Barbara Boyle, who was head of production at Orion, says Medavoy's strength was his ability to mix together the key ingredients in a project like "a master chef." He did his job "in a non-bullying way, took a gentle approach to getting talent involved," she says."

Medavoy became the co-chair of Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign. He met beautiful blond Patricia Duff who moved to Los Angeles from Washington D.C. with the Hart crowd. Mike's attention on films, never strong, waned. Orion lurched towards bankruptcy. Then Guber and Peters came along and offered Medavoy the chairmanship of Tristar.

Mike did not impress, according to Hit & Run: "And his [Mike's] low energy level annoyed Guber. Several insiders say Medavoy was indolent, leaving the legwork - especially script development - to Platt and Snider. "He's a pretty lazy guy when it comes to doing the homework of a studio executive," says a producer who made films for TriStar. "He loves to go to the White House for dinner and he's got a wall full of pictures and autographs. But when it comes to reading scripts and doing notes, he doesn't confuse his staff with an aggressive style."

"Medavoy's conference room wall, covered with photographs of famous friends and acquaintances, symbolized his self-aggrandizement and became known as his "wall of shame."

""There's something wrong with people who have to build a monument to themselves while they still exist," says one former Tristar executive.

"Then the faltering Medavoy had a video made and given out to members of the press. Mike Medavoy: A Life in Film consisted of nothing but old trailers for movies made at United Artists and Orion - including The Pink Panther and Annie Hall, pictures for which Medavoy could hardly claim credit. The self promotion annoyed his former partner, Eric Pleskow, who said that many of the films included were made without Medavoy's involvement." (pg. 354)

Mike and Patricia built a massive vanilla-colored house in Coldwater Canyon. It received a full-color spread in the November 1992 issue of W magazine. The article described the mansion as an intellectual salon in pagan Hollywood. "Years from now, when they talk about the Medavoy house - and they will - it's quite likely to be listed alonside those other celebrated Hollywood salons where art, commerce and style mixed."

Beside Patricia's desk was a photo of her snuggling with Bill Clinton. Mike was among the first Hollywood players to introduce Clinton to the industry.

Hit & Run: "Medavoy was living a nightmare. He exuded a depleting depression. His marriage was foundering. One executive ran into Patricia in Hawaii over the Christmas holidays and she said she was there with multi-millionaire financier Ron Perelman [they married two years later]. (pg. 357)

"Stories circulated about Mike telling disbelieving callers that he had just gotten off the phone with the president. And Medavoy infuriated Dawn Steel by sending her a condolence note on White House stationary after her mother died.

"Patricia Medavoy was accused of trying to convey the impression that she and Clinton were exceptionally close. At a dinner party at a producer's home, which took place after she and Mike had slept in the Lincoln Bedroom, she told the gathering that Clinton was "a full-service president."" (pg. 358)