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I arrive early at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, where I am due to meet Brad Grey, chairman of Paramount Pictures. Waiting at his usual table near the front of the restaurant, I nibble a breadstick, study the menu and listen to the pianist mangling pop favourites.
Looking towards the lobby, I expect to see Grey. Instead, Dolly Parton totters into the room in impossibly high-heeled shoes, her gravity-defying décolletage looming towards me. As Parton tries to locate her table, Grey arrives. “Hi Dolly,” he says, after greeting me and sitting down. “Hi Brad,” she replies in her southern lilt, flashing a smile and heading to the other side of the room.
Such is life at the Polo Lounge, which Edward Mady, hotel general manager, calls “Hollywood’s commissary”, since this is where the entertainment industry comes to do business, gossip, drink – and sometimes even to eat. The hotel, opened 100 years ago, is steeped in the glory and traditions of old Hollywood: Gloria Swanson, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin made films here, Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned here (more than once), Howard Hughes lived in one of its bungalows for many years, and Raquel Welch is said to have been “discovered” here, while swimming in its pool.
Today Terry Semel, former chief executive of both Warner Brothers and Yahoo, is dining at another table, and I spot Jeff Berg, one of the town’s top talent agents, deep in conversation with film producer Mike Medavoy, a former chairman of TriStar Pictures.
Grey, 54, is dressed in a dark suit and open-necked white shirt, sunglasses folded neatly in his breast pocket. The hotel, to which he has been coming for more than 30 years, was a first stop when, as a young man managing comedians in New York, he tried to get a foothold on the west coast. “As early as I could, I came out here. I couldn’t afford it but I stayed at the hotel,” he says. “The tradition of the Beverly Hills Hotel always mattered to me.”
Like the hotel, Paramount is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, a century of working with the best silver screen talent, from Cecil B. DeMille to Steven Spielberg, and of classics such as Sunset Boulevard, The Godfather and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Grey has been chairman for the past seven years, installed by Sumner Redstone, the 89-year-old billionaire who controls Viacom, the media group that owns Paramount as well as MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central.
Paramount’s latest movie, Flight, stars Denzel Washington and is directed by Robert Zemeckis, best known for Back to the Future and Forrest Gump. Washington plays an alcoholic pilot who manages to avoid a catastrophe when he lands a passenger jet in terrifying circumstances. His performance, as a man who keeps finding new ways to hit rock bottom, is remarkable. “I’ve had the great fortune over the years to work with so many great artists but never had the chance before to work with Denzel,” says Grey. “This was the first time and he hit it.”
He orders an iced tea; I go for an Arnold Palmer – iced tea and lemonade. Grey tells me he has been hooked on the entertainment industry since, as a child growing up in Spring Valley, a town in upstate New York, he would sneak downstairs to watch The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson when he should have been in bed. “I just knew those people on the show seemed to be having so much …fun.” He laughs. “Certainly more fun than folks in Spring Valley.”
The road from Spring Valley to Paramount was a circuitous one. It initially took him to university in Buffalo, where he studied business but also landed a job working as a runner for Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, then a young concert promoter. “I was at college and wanted to work in show business. And the only show business in Buffalo was Harvey.”
Grey began representing comedians but he knew Hollywood was where the action was and, in 1981, he moved west, where he would eventually have a pivotal meeting with Bernie Brillstein, a talent manager who represented everyone from Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, to John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live.
“Bernie would hold court at that second booth every day,” he says, indicating a table in another part of the restaurant. “He was the number one manager in town so I called him and he said, ‘Yeah, kid, meet me at the Polo Lounge.’
“I met him and said, ‘I really want to work for you.’ He said, ‘That sounds like a great idea, kid.’ And he shook my hand and that was it.” In 1984 Grey started to work for Brillstein and in 1992 they became partners, creating Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, which represented talent and produced television programmes. Grey’s biggest critical hit was The Sopranos, the HBO series about a depressed New Jersey mafia boss, which he produced.
David Chase, the show’s creator, was a Brillstein-Grey client. “He’d been toiling in the TV business for years,” says Grey. “We had put him under contract to our TV company and the deal was running out. If you were to ask him, he would tell you he did the deal [with us] because he wanted money so he could write a movie script. But he ended up coming up with this show and he found his voice. It was life-changing for all of us.”
The waiter arrives to take our order. I choose a lobster salad while Grey asks for the McCarthy salad – a mix of beets, chicken, eggs, tomatoes, cheese, bacon and avocado named for the Polo Lounge patron who created it. To start, Grey suggests chicken noodle soup from the small diner in the basement of the hotel and asks the waiter to bring some up.
Paramount was going through a rough patch when Redstone turned to Grey. It was an unorthodox choice: Grey had formed a film production company with Brad Pitt and put together The Departed, which would go on to win an Oscar for best picture in 2007. But despite his TV track record he was viewed as an outsider in Hollywood.
For his part, Grey knew it was time for a change. Brillstein-Grey had been sold and he was “bored”. “I had an interest in producing movies [and] I decided I really only wanted to be a principal in the business. There are really only a few – the superstar actor, the superstar director or the chairman of the studio. Everyone else does a great job and works very hard but the choices and power are held by those people.”
The soup arrives and is piping hot. While we wait for it to cool, I ask about his first couple of years at Paramount. The studio had few films in development and its standing had fallen among A-list actors and directors, which is partly why Grey, with his relationships in talent, was hired.
His first move, shortly after he was hired in 2005, was to strike a distribution deal with the comics group Marvel Entertainment, giving Paramount the right to release superhero movies, such as Iron Man. A few months later he secured Redstone’s support for Paramount to acquire DreamWorks, the independent studio created by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, for $1.6bn. It was a move that stunned Hollywood. “We had no [films in] development so we needed movies quickly. It was a great idea to have Steven Spielberg helping, and getting all their development [projects].”
He calls the purchase a “fantastic deal” but says, diplomatically, that it “wasn’t without its rough spots. There’s no road worth going down if it doesn’t have a few pebbles in it. This one had some boulders on it.” There were disagreements about which studio received credit for certain movies and a dispute about how Paramount handled Dreamgirls, a DreamWorks film nurtured by Geffen – revealed in meticulous detail in a Vanity Fair article.
The trade press speculated about how long Grey would be able to hold on to his job. But Redstone stuck by him, and Spielberg and Geffen eventually left Paramount in 2008, taking the DreamWorks brand with them. The acquisition had helped to re-establish Paramount’s development pipeline but, I suggest, the saga was also a pretty eye-opening illustration of personal relationships gone awry in Hollywood. Grey sips some soup and starts to say something just as the pianist’s meandering jazz version of Lionel Richie’s “Hello” comes to an abrupt halt. He lowers his voice. “Look, I think this is a town where there’s an enormous amount of money at stake and there’s a great deal of ego that comes with that. If you keep your head down and do your best …it works out.”
Life at the top of a Hollywood studio also brings more personal scrutiny, though. There was sniping recently when Grey knocked down a house he owns – once briefly owned by Frank Sinatra; a short Italian Vogue video about his wife Cassandra’s fashion career went viral.
He tells me how, as Hollywood buzzed with rumours about his being fired, he went to see Jerry Perenchio, a long-time friend and the former chairman of Univision, a Spanish language TV group. “He said, ‘You know, Brad, dogs bark and the caravan goes by.’ ” Grey laughs. “I always took great comfort by that.”
As our salads arrive, Grey points out a man in an immaculately tailored suit, the singer-songwriter Paul Anka. “He was the last of that breed of great singers, like Sinatra. And he was a great songwriter too – he wrote ‘My Way’. But the most extraordinary thing about Paul was he wrote the theme for The Tonight Show. So every night you’d watch Johnny Carson come in to da-da-da-daaaa-da. And Paul got a cheque!”
We tuck in and I mention another of the “boulders” that Grey may have been referring to earlier: the 2006 firing of Tom Cruise by Sumner Redstone. Cruise, one of Hollywood’s best paid stars, had a lucrative deal at Paramount that paid him millions for each movie and guaranteed him a hefty cut of the film’s gross. But he had been behaving erratically, jumping on a sofa on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show and making public statements about Scientology. Redstone accused him of committing “creative suicide”, and severed the studio’s deal with him.
It must be difficult, I say, to run the studio when the owner is making such decisions without warning. Once again, Grey sounds a diplomatic note. “He’s earned that privilege,” he says, adding that Redstone’s instincts “have proven to be bulletproof”. Cruise’s deal with the studio had, says Grey, to be “recalibrated …it was too high at the time.”
Over the past few years, pay for the top creative talent has fallen: gone are the days of “first dollar gross”, when a star such as Cruise would get a cut of the box-office receipts before the studio had even made its money back. Grey says: “We made Flight with one of the greatest film-makers of all time with one of the greatest actors that we have, and we made it for $30m. The only way you can do that is if everyone believes and is willing to waive what are well-earned [salary] quotes that they’ve had over the years, knowing that, together, as partners, we’ll all share in the rewards. We did it on True Grit with the Coen brothers, and the picture did a quarter of a billion dollars [box office in 2010]. It was the biggest payday the Coens ever had.”
After the roller coaster ride of those first couple of years, Grey says Paramount is now in “great shape”. This year the studio won its first Oscar for an animated movie, with Rango, about a wisecracking chameleon sheriff, voiced by Johnny Depp. Cruise has since made peace with Redstone and returned to the studio last year for the fourth Mission: Impossible movie. Cruise’s next film Jack Reacher, based on a Lee Child bestseller, is due for release at the end of the year.
Grey gets most animated when talking about the films being developed at Paramount. The studio will soon release David Chase’s first film Not Fade Away, the story of a 1960s New Jersey rock band starring James Gandolfini. Next year comes a sequel to JJ Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek, and World War Z, a zombie movie starring Brad Pitt. There will be another instalment in the Transformers franchise too.
“It’s about balance,” he says. “You have to have a portfolio of films. Some of those are very big films [like Transformers] and in success these pictures make all the trains run on time. But they also afford you the ability to make True Grit.”
What happens, I wonder, when the trains don’t run on time? Does the endless uncertainty of Hollywood make for an anxiety-filled existence? Grey shakes his head. “People always say, ‘It must be so difficult’. But it’s really not.” He laughs. “You trust your instincts.”
Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s LA correspondent
Beverly Hills Hotel
9641 Sunset Boulevard
Chicken noodle soup x2 $28.00
McCarthy salad $32.00
Lobster salad $36.00
Iced tea $6.00
Arnold Palmer $6.00
Total (inc. tax and service) $137.45
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