Executive action: Famed producer Mike Medavoy rocks RiverRun
When Mike Medavoy comes to the RiverRun International Film Festival, he will be the first studio executive and producer to be awarded the Master of Cinema award – “and the first former agent,” he added.
Born in Shanghai, Medavoy lived in Chile for 10 years before emigrating to the United States. He worked in the mailroom at Universal Pictures, became an agent, then worked his way up through the executive hierarchy. He listened, he learned, then implemented what he’d learned to forge a remarkable career that is still going strong some 50 years later. He detailed his adventures in the screen trade in You’re Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for Which I Should Be Shot, co-authored by Josh Young and published in 2002 by Atria Books.
Medavoy will be on hand for a special screening of Martin Scorsese’s 1980 classic Raging Bull April 14 at UNCSA Main Theatre, joined by Susan Ruskin, dean of UNCSA’s School of Filmmaking. Ruskin knew Medavoy at Orion Pictures when she worked with Gene Wilder on The Woman in Red (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986).
“Mike has had many roles in the film industry and always supported filmmakers and great stories whether as an agent, a studio executive, or a producer himself,” she said. “I look forward to the Q&A with Mike after the screening of Raging Bull for the United Artists Spotlight. His career has clearly been influenced by the UA mission of supporting artists to make great movies.”
“I worked at UA for four years, and I’m really happy that was the first studio I got to run because of the people in it and the tradition behind it,” Medavoy said. “When I got there, it had gone through a very good period – it had had its ups and downs – and it was at a little bit of a down point. We had some great years and some great films. I was lucky to have been a part of that.”
During Medavoy’s tenure, UA won a then-unprecedented three consecutive Best Picture Oscars: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Rocky (1976), and Annie Hall (1977). By the time Raging Bull was released, however, he’d since decamped to Orion, along with several other UA executives including Arthur Krim, Bob Benjamin, William Bernstein, and Eric Pleskow.
“That’s kind of a funny story,” he said. “Our last act at United Artists – the very last thing we did – was to greenlight Raging Bull.”
He also worked with Scorsese on New York, New York (1977), a project brought to UA by producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. “We thought it was going to be a huge hit, and we cross-collateralized that with another project they’d brought us, this little boxing film …”
That would be Rocky.
“We thought New York, New York would pay off what we lost on Rocky,” he said with bemused understatement. “That didn’t happen. That’s how the movie gods work.”
Orion released four Best Picture Oscar winners – Amadeus (1984), Platoon (1986), Dances With Wolves (1990), and Silence of the Lambs (1991) – and boasted a reputation similar to United Artists in granting the filmmakers a measure of creative autonomy, yet was continually dogged by financial struggles.
“We all thought that we were carrying the UA that we knew to Orion,” Medavoy recalled. “There was a certain amount of creative autonomy, but we didn’t have a library, which UA did, so we didn’t have that to fall back on, and that made it difficult. But we did some great work at Orion, and I’m proud of that.”
From 1990-1994 he was the chairman of Tri-Star Pictures, which released such hits as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Cliffhanger (1993), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and Philadelphia (1994) under his watch.
“I was there four years and the last year was a really difficult one,” he said. “I’d gotten an offer from Warner Bros. at the same time. Maybe I should have taken that, but I don’t like to look backward. We made some good movies at Tri-Star.”
As the chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures, Medavoy has produced such films as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), which earned five Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director), with Natalie Portman winning Best Actress; Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), one of the filmmaker’s highest-grossing films; and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), a superior dramatization of the murder spree that rocked California in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite nearly unanimous critical acclaim, Zodiac struggled to find an audience and was unaccountably ignored by the Academy Awards.
“It’s a terrific movie,” he said. “David made a movie that was really great. He’d grown up during that period and been fascinated by the case for years.”
Medavoy admitted that Zodiac wasn’t an easy film to promote, and related that some studio executives suggested it should have been shortened – “not that David would have done it,” he quipped. “In fact, I know he wouldn’t have done it!”
Medavoy, who never had an inclination to direct (“I haven’t got the patience, although I like the idea of learning as many things as I can”) has numerous projects on the horizon, including some he can’t discuss yet and said he still thrives on the challenge of making movies.
“I enjoy it when they’re good,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m lucky. I’ve been part of a real run from 1974 on. That’s how long I’ve been at it. This was a fantasy I’d had when I was 14 years old, and I’m lucky enough to have lived my fantasy. How lucky can you get?”
In addition, Medavoy has also donated his name and time to numerous charitable and political causes and is a big believer in giving back to the industry and the community at large.
“I think that’s the only reason we’re here. That’s what you do. What are you doing here if not that?” he observed.
“I’ve spent my life doing things that I thought were important, and it’s important to never get bored,” he said. “Find something that makes you constantly grow and learn. Creation is something inside of you, or it isn’t. This is a tough business. Some people can be difficult.”
Having never visited the UNCSA School of Filmmaking or attended RiverRun, he’s eager for the experience.
“I’ve been involved with a lot of films,” he estimated the number at about 320, “and about a third of them are really great. In the final analysis, whatever is said about me it won’t matter when I’m gone. People won’t remember me, but they will remember the films I’ve done.”
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.
Raging Bull will be screened 12:30 pm April 14 at UNCSA Main Theatre, 1533 S. Main St., Winston-Salem. Tickets are $12. For advance tickets or more information, call (336) 724-1524 or visit the official RiverRun International Film Festival website.