David V. Picker is sitting down when I meet him in the lobby of the W Hotel in Westwood. I’m a bit shocked when he stands up. He’s a literal giant of the movie industry, not just a metaphorical one. Six-foot-three, although the doctors tell him he may have lost a quarter of an inch with age. That age: 82. But he looks much younger. And when he talks about the movies, he seems younger still. If loving movies this much keeps you young, I’ll be a happy man.
Picker’s passion for motion pictures started early, possibly decades before his birth, as he recounts in Musts, Maybes and Nevers, his new book about making movies. He was born into a movie dynasty. His grandfather Victor opened a nickelodeon in the Bronx in 1912 — talk about getting in at the ground floor of an emerging market — building up a chain of theaters that eventually joined forces with Loews. Picker’s father and three uncles all followed into the movie business, and in 1956 David landed at United Artists, working his way up to become head of production and marketing. He was 31.
Many adventures ensued… The Beatles, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Bob Fosse, François Truffaut, Peter Brook, Bernardo Bertolucci and on and on. Musts, Maybes and Nevers, in my humble opinion, should be required reading for every wannabe studio mogul. Not just for the great stories — more of them below, in Picker’s own words — but for the attitude Picker takes towards working with creative people. He believed his job was to give the filmmakers space to create. On producing Lenny with director Bob Fosse: “My only job was to make it possible for him to do whatever he wanted to do and be sensitive enough to do it the best it could be done. I was there to make sure he could fulfill his needs and also protect him.”
Picker’s other great lesson for studio bosses: humility. He was once quoted as saying, “If I had turned down every picture I greenlit, and greenlit every picture I turned down, I’d have the same number of hits and flops.” I’ve looked at his list of projects, and I disagree. But I understand the sentiment. Nobody has a crystal ball in the movie business. Not for creative success and certainly not for financial success.
Picker’s accent sounds a lot like his friend, Carl Reiner’s, but not so brassy. He talks low, so you have to lean in. And you also lean in because you want to hear what he has to say. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview, starting with Picker’s advice for young filmmakers who want to break into the business:
On Breaking In To The Movie Business
Picker: Given the fact that you may have some talent, you just gotta fight your way in any way. My advice to them is, if you want to be in the movie end of the business, find somebody who works on a movie and tell them you don’t care what the job is. You’ll deliver meals. You’ll run errands.
It’s the one thing that happens, absolutely 1000 percent correct, is that people in production are always looking for people who want and can take responsibility. I don’t care if it’s getting me a cup of coffee. And it’s fascinating when you look at the PAs on any given movie. I can spot in two hours the ones that are gonna get another job as a PA and another job then suddenly, someone’s gonna take them under their wing. Just as easily as you can spot the ones that are never gonna go nowhere. There’s an attitude that people exude. And the ones who care that much, they make it known.
Making the Movie: It was a pleasure to read the mentorship parts of the book.
Picker: It’s the most important thing in the book. I mean, I was fortunate to work with great filmmakers and be involved in a lot of projects. But it’s the people that you [mentor] that I think is the best message. I really do.
MTM: Do you think that aspect has changed?
Picker: No. I’d be very surprised. The people I like in our business, they do the same thing. It’s not something you talk about. You’re the kinda personality who just naturally responds to people who wanna succeed. There are ways to show it.
I haven’t produced a film for a while, but there’s always what, half a dozen PAs wandering around, doing this, that and the other thing. Three or four were at the party last night they gave for me. They just show it. And movie people look for people who want responsibility and who will take it and run with it. It’s fascinating the difference between those who just think it’s a job. “Oh, I wanna be in the movie business” and they get the job and it’s a job. And those who say, “I wanna be in the movie business” and they let you know right away there’s no job too small. Anything to show that if you give me something to do, it will get done.
MTM: I was listening to an interview with Jason Blum, of Blumhouse Productions. He said he had radical new model for the film business and it was making movies for a couple million dollars, giving the filmmakers a lot of freedom as long as they stayed within their budget… I had to laugh. It was basically the model you described from your time at United Artists.
Picker: He must be very young. I don’t know who he is. Who is he?
MTM: He makes a lot of these horror movies. Insidious and Paranormal Activity…
Picker: Oh, he’s had some success.
MTM: He’s having great success with it.
Picker: I hope he has success with it. I mean, the more of these people, the better, the better it is. That’s the best way to get people involved, I think. To find ways to give them the opportunity to show what they have.
MTM: Do you think that was the best model you ever came across?
Picker: Well, I mean certainly, you know, of the people whose lives I was helpful in… I mean, there are other models. You know, Tom Rothman [the longtime head of Fox Filmed Entertainment] was my lawyer. And he didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. So I brought him with me. And I said to him, “Some day you’re gonna be the president of some company.” Sure enough, he did. Jeffrey Katzenberg [the CEO of Dreamworks Animation]. It was obvious twenty minutes after I met him, this kid was gonna succeed somehow. Somewhere. The ones that are determined to make it, that have the talent to do it, they find the ways. Nobody gives it to you.
On Test Screenings and Studio Decisions
MTM: I wanted to talk about test screenings. You have some great test screening stories in the book.
Picker: It’s really… um… The business has changed, you know. The greatest movies ever made were made without test screenings.
MTM: Gunga Din [a movie Picker mentions as a personal favorite in the book]?
Picker: I’m sure there weren’t any test screenings, certainly not the 1938 version. But when I was growing up, there was a system of previewing movies. My dad ran Loews theaters in New York. And they owned MGM, but they also played Paramount, Columbia, y’know, some Universal. And they would preview their movies occasionally.
So, you know, there’d be a notice in the morning paper on Thursday, usually on Thursday nights. “Loews Lexington on 6th Avenue and 52nd Street: preview tonight.”
MTM: Would it say the name of the movie?
Picker: No, it wouldn’t. Just said, “Preview tonight.” The audience — they were regular moviegoing audiences — knew that it was a new picture for a studio and they didn’t know what it was going to be. They didn’t do focus groups. They didn’t say, “We want white Anglo-Saxons between twelve and fourteen.” Whatever. There were no demographics. Just, we’re gonna screen a movie for an audience and watch the reaction.
So, those nights, the theaters usually were full ’cause people didn’t know what they were gonna see. And then the titles would come on the screen and there would be a positive reaction if it was Clark Gable and, you know, and Hedy Lamarr in something. And maybe not so strong if it was Robert Ryan and whatever. And then the executives would be there. They’d listen to the reaction and that was it. That’s how they would do it.
MTM: They didn’t recut the movie after that?
Picker: No, no. Actually, they did. Quite often in those days, if the movie was not finished yet and they wanted to test it, they had to show it on a separate picture, separate track. So the–
MTM: They lined up the sound and the film.
Picker: Exactly. And, and those theaters were equipped to do that. You could do it. And then toward the end of that process, occasionally they started to pick twenty people out of the audience and ask them a few questions, or they’d hand out cards. Or they’d just listen. And they’d use that, I guess, to pinpoint what changes might be necessary. It, it was rough. I mean, it was, what’s the word? It was okay. I mean, it gave them a sense of it. But it wasn’t the kind of stuff they do today.
However, it doesn’t seem to me the pictures are any better today than they were then. Or that we ever learned anything. [laughs] You might learn that a particular picture was going to have a problem. But you probably knew that before you screened it. So, you know, the whole idea now of, of asking a preview audience, and then picking out, say for the sake of this conversation, twenty people from the audience and having a focus group, you know… whatever their reaction was during the movie, I would trust. When suddenly they are asked after the fact, as one of a group of people, suddenly they become the critic. To me it was kinda laughable.
But still, the excitement of going to one of Dad’s theaters. And the audience anticipating what movie it might be and the credits come on that get all excited because it was Clark Gable or whatever. But it was an imperfect art form. On the other hand, the movies were pretty good. That we are making better movies today because there are focus groups? I sincerely doubt it.
I certainly wouldn’t trust a preview audience after the fact. I would trust it while they are watching the movie, because they haven’t seen it. But when they are asked to render judgement on it, now they are a critic. And that’s different than a viewer.
I mean, I haven’t run a studio for a while. You know, you see some of these movies these days and you’re hard-pressed to figure out how the hell they got made.
MTM: Well, you must be sort of an arm-chair critic.
Picker: I love movies, but I’m staggered by the costs. And I’m also staggered by the size of the challenge. I mean, would I have made The Lone Ranger? I have no idea. Who knows? It was a radio show, right? Would I have made The Lone Ranger for that kind of money? In this marketplace? I doubt it.
MTM: They tried to pull the budget back on that.
Picker: Oh, I don’t know what they did. But whatever it was, it didn’t work. And it’s a big problem and it’s sad. I don’t like to see anything that bad happen but that’s a tough movie to recover from.
That’s the problem, the costs are so high today. Two or three of these kind of pictures and you’ve got a bigger problem than just having a… You’re gonna lose your job or something’s gonna happen. The nature of the ownership of these companies today, these are not standalone companies anymore.
MTM: There have been a lot of Cassandras lately saying the same thing. Spielberg and Lucas, Lynda Obst. There are going to be a couple tentpoles in a row that bomb and then…
Picker: What else is new? [laughs] It doesn’t change. That’s what so amazing about the business. You’re spending millions of dollars. Yes, the payoff is kinda proportional to the negative cost. As I think I mentioned in the book, I would never ever would have the gall to try to guess how much a picture would make. Because you’re just jerkin’ off. You don’t know. I’ll tell you what you do know. You know how much you could lose, because you know how much the movie cost.
When I was judging how much of a risk am I prepared to take, it wasn’t on the basis of, oh, how much am I gonna make if it works. It was, how much am I gonna lose if it doesn’t work. Because that’s the number I know.
If I would say, okay, I believe in this. If I’m wrong I’m gonna blow… Let’s say my budget for the year — I’m making this up — was hundred and twenty million bucks, which is perfectly reasonable. And I’m gonna spend 8% on this movie. Am I prepared to lose 8% on this movie — because that’s what it’s gonna be in negative costs, prints and advertising — or am I not? Cause if I’m not, then don’t make the movie.
On Building Trust On A Film Set
MTM: You’ve walked into a lot of rooms where deals are about to be made. How do you size people up?
Picker: How do you size people up? You sense you can trust them or not. You hope you can until you’ve proved you can’t. I mean it’s part of the human condition. It’s not only movies, I’m sure it’s everything else.
The relationship with a movie crew is… I like to compare it to a love affair. Because it heats up, and it’s white hot for a period of time, but it’s gonna end.
So how do you deal with them, you know? And how do you, how do you handle the relationships? And it’s a challenge. And I think it all comes from the top. If there is management — if you wanna call it — the producer, who sets a standard of conduct and ability within parameters, everybody responds to it. And if you get an asshole or somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing — and there are plenty who are arrogant or who knows what — they respond to that too. I mean it’s… It’s the wrong word, but how much can they get away with? How much do they have to do the way, you know… Or are there rules about, you know, what we’re trying to do here?
And, uh, you know when you work with, um, with certain people like when I did The Crucible with Nick Hytner. And you’ve got Paul Scofield and Daniel Day-Lewis. If you’ve got anybody in that crew, they didn’t shapen up, they’re gone.
I fired the 2nd Unit Director on the spot one night when he was treating the extras badly. I said, “Get off my picture. How dare you talk to– They’re workin’ their asses off. They’re putting on costumes at two in the morning and it’s cold and you’re yelling at them?” And I fired him on the spot. People have to respect what people are contributing.
So I demand — and I don’t say it out loud — in my head, I demand a certain level of, of professionalism and, and acknowledgement of the human condition. Well, you know what I mean.
MTM: A lot of people I’ve interviewed, they talk about the atmosphere on set is so important. For the actors, for creating…
Picker: And the atmosphere on the set is not only set by the director. ‘Cause the director’s got a lot of things to worry about and think about. I think it’s set by the producer, which is why I’m on the set. For a while anyway. Because I am expecting that crew to be professional on every level. And if they’re not, I’m perfectly capable of getting rid of them. And it almost never happens. I mean, doesn’t mean the movie’s gonna be successful, but the shoot‘s gonna be successful. For the most part. And when it’s not, and there are times it’s so painful that it’s not even describable. It’s very sad because it shouldn’t be.
Sometimes things happen that you can’t control or you can’t fix. Not so good, not so good. You can’t have people who cannot make up their minds.
It’s fascinating because what it is, is for a distinct specific period of time, you’re creating a world — with the good guys, the bad guys, the objectives, the goals, the standards of conduct, all this. The whole thing. In a demanding situation, that’s gonna end. It’s absolutely fascinating, really.
MTM: I love how open you are with both the successes and the challenges of dealing with some of these big personalities. When you sit down to write a memoir, do you think, oh, this or that story’s off limits?
Picker: I didn’t look at this as a memoir. I wanted people to get to understand what it was like dealing with these people. Bergman, Fellini. Fantastic people. And what a kinda privilege, but you know what I’m saying. What it was to be in a world where I could do that. So I wanted it to be about them.
Movies have an impact on people way beyond, I think, any other art form. There’s days when it’s been tough or unpleasant or it seemed more like work, but not a lot. So… What a nice way to spend a life.
* * *
I could’ve kept talking all afternoon. We never even touched on how Picker landed on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, or his interactions with Woody Allen or many of the other great stories in the book. He kindly asked about some of my projects, then we shook hands and he retreated into the hotel elevator. Suddenly the world of handshake deals and larger-than-life characters melted away. I was back in 2013, in the blinding L.A. sunshine, hustling to my street parking, thinking of all the movies I was going to have to add to my Netflix queue.