Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)
CO-CHAIRMAN, 20TH CENTURY FOX
Although my mother died when I was only nineteen, she was the greatest influence on my life. I am who I am because of her. My mom had my sister and me in her early twenties and was divorced by the time she was twenty-nine. Instead of going to a traditional college, she went to art school and, as a result, relied primarily on my father for financial support.
Wanting her daughters to end up in a better position than she was in, my mother emphasized the importance of education and nurtured our feminist identities. She took us to march for women’s rights, gave us the book Our Bodies, Ourselves (a progressive book about women’s health and sexuality), and continually admonished us to make our own way in the world. I became a diligent student and, having grown up in Philadelphia, decided to attend the University of Pennsylvania for my undergraduate education. My dad and grandfather were lawyers, so law school seemed like the next logical step. I wanted to stay close to home and go to Penn Law but got rejected so, in 1982, I enrolled at UCLA instead. Little did I know how much that rejection would alter the course of my life.
I enjoyed law school, but the actual practice of law turned out to be a completely different story. I have always been happy to work and feel most connected to who I am when I’m busy and productive. I waitressed throughout college, and while in law school, I wrote coverage (synopses of screenplays for film production companies) for fifty dollars a shot. During summers between law school, I went for the stereotypical jobs: I clerked for a federal district court judge and interned for both a big Manhattan litigation firm and a boutique firm in LA. It was at these summer jobs that I felt something completely new—a kind of malaise, ennui, and impatience with my workday. The emotions were so uncharacteristic that they scared me into serious self-exploration.
I went to one of my former college professors for advice. He instructed me to write down what I love and said we would figure out a way to make a career out of that. Growing up, I always had my nose in a book, to the point of compulsion (even now, if I have five or ten minutes and I’m not reading something, I feel anxious), so I wrote down “reading.” I said to him, “How am I going to make a living doing that?” My professor explained that I was already doing just that by evaluating screenplays and that I should think about what the next step along that path might be. I realized that if I became an agent I could work with writers. I figured that my legal background would not only help me protect and make great deals for my future clients, but it would also help me to get my foot in the door at an agency.
I reasoned that if there was ever a time for me to be bold and try something exciting it was right then. Having never made real money, I was still used to being at the bottom of the ladder financially. First-year salaries at law firms were higher than anything I could have imagined. I knew that if I went that route I would get used to the money, adjust my lifestyle accordingly, and perhaps get trapped.
Despite my Ivy League education and a law degree, the best job I could get was in the mailroom of Triad Artists, an LA-based talent agency. Checking my ego at the door, I spent my days photocopying scripts, pushing a mail cart around the office delivering mail to the agents’ desks, and doing various package runs, one of which involved picking up fifty thousand dollars’ worth of chains for Mr. T. I was once sent to deliver a script to Steven Spielberg. All I did was push the button and hand the script to the person who met me at the gate, but I remember thinking, Wow! I’m in show biz!
After about five months, I got promoted to the position of assistant in Triad’s talent department, which is basically just another way of saying “secretary.” My duties now included placing phone calls, making dinner reservations, picking up dry cleaning, and driving the agents’ spouses to premieres. I was also given a variety of seemingly impossible tasks. For example, my boss once said, “Find Marlon Brando in Tahiti. I need to talk to him.” Another time I had to go out in the middle of the night and deal with an agent who was about to be arrested for a DUI. I somehow had the presence of mind to ask the cop to give her a field sobriety test instead of a Breathalyzer test. I figured the agent’s adrenaline might kick in and give her a shot at passing the field sobriety test, which is exactly what happened and she avoided jail.
Working in an entry-level agency position definitely separates the wheat from the chaff. Those with a positive attitude gulped and thought, I have no idea how I am going to do this, but I will. Others either felt indignant that the things we were asked to do were ridiculous or they panicked at the challenges and quit. Now and then I’d feel sorry for myself and think, How can I have all this education yet be spending my days doing this? But the next day I would realize what an idiotic attitude that was, and I would resolve to take advantage of the situation and learn as much as I could.
Only years later did I realize how much I got out of that period of my life. An entry-level job at an agency is almost like taking an extra year of graduate school. It’s like a survey course of the entertainment business. You get an overview of all the different areas and players: film, television, digital, actors, writers, producers, agents, and executives. The variety of assignments thrown at you forces you to be resilient, to think on your feet, to fine-tune your powers of persuasion, and to manage different personalities. One of the biggest lessons I learned during that time was that when you deal with someone it’s advantageous to know as much as you can about them. We all had to memorize the client list and know exactly what everyone did. I still research new people I am going to meet. I also made some great long-standing friendships. There was a certain gallows humor among those of us who stuck it out. We would lean on one another and lend a helping hand whenever we could. Without a doubt, all these things aided me in my career down the road. An entry-level position at an agency is now the job that I recommend to people who are interested in the entertainment industry. As a matter of fact, it’s precisely the job my eldest daughter had the summer before her senior year of high school.
While working at Triad, I learned that representing artists was one step removed from what I really wanted to do: help writers bring their ideas to the screen. I set my sights on becoming a studio executive (studios finance and supervise a broad slate of films then market and distribute the finished product) and I went to work as a secretary at a film production company called Simpson-Bruckheimer.
In 1986, following one of my periodic self-pitying moments at Simpson-Bruckheimer, I got a burst of energy and called a friend who was working as an assistant to a literary agent in New York. I said, “You have to help me. I am withering on this vine and need to make something happen. Is there anything you’ve come across that could be interesting to make into a film?” She told me about a book by a first-time author that she thought had the makings of a great courtroom thriller. It turned out to be Presumed Innocent by Scott Turrow (which went on to become a huge best seller). I begged her to send me the manuscript and she did. I actually remember waiting in the parking lot for the Federal Express truck to arrive, that’s how excited I was. I made the rookie mistake of getting my boss, Don Simpson, all hyped about the book before I’d even read it, but I got lucky because it was a real page-turner. Don wanted to adapt Presumed Innocent into a film, but he got outbid for the rights in the end. However, because I was responsible for first bringing Presumed Innocent to LA, my name got mentioned amid all the buzz, and a day or two later I was recruited to be director of development at the production company Guber-Peters. In my new position I would be responsible for soliciting new material for the company, recommending which scripts should be developed into movies, and working with the writers to make this happen. It was what I had been striving for. I jumped at the opportunity.
While working at Guber-Peters, I realized how helpful my law school education was. The critical thinking that I had developed there enabled me to distill almost any issue down to its essence and understand exactly what has to happen for a problem to be solved. This, combined with everything I learned as an assistant, proved to be a good blend, and I was able to slowly but steadily move up the ranks. After a few years, I was running Guber-Peters and assisted on Batman, Rain Man, and Single White Female, among many other films. Shortly thereafter, in 1991, Sony needed a head of production at TriStar, one of its other movie labels, and I was offered the job. Much to everyone’s dismay, I turned it down.
In Hollywood there are two kinds of executives: The flames that burn brightly and quickly go out and the executives who have long, interesting, and powerful careers. I aspired to be one of the latter. Being successful in one’s position is the only way to have a long and secure career. If you bite off more than you can chew, it feels great in the moment, but then what? I turned down the job as head of production at TriStar because I didn’t feel that I had the experience necessary to do it well.
The position went to an executive named Marc Platt. Once he was in place, I joined TriStar and worked for him. He was a great mentor and friend. In 1995 Marc left TriStar and I got promoted to his position. At that point, I was ready. During my tenure there we made Jerry Maguire, Sleepless in Seattle, As Good as It Gets, Legends of the Fall, and Philadelphia, and they were nominated for many awards. It was a wonderful time and I even had my first child in the midst of it all.
In 1997 I was recruited to be head of production at Universal and accepted the job. Although the move was a lateral one, the company was bigger and had more resources. I continued as head of production until 1999 when my boss, Ron Meyer, offered me the position of chairman of Universal. At this point, my second daughter had just been born. I hesitated to accept the promotion because of the huge responsibility it would entail, but Ron cautioned me, “Sometimes the timing isn’t perfect—and you might not be asked to this party again.” That made me pause. I discussed it with my husband, a wonderful fifty-fifty partner, and after making sure Ron and I saw eye to eye about what I required as a working parent, I said yes.
Being chairman of Universal was a seven-day-a-week job, but I felt I could handle it. Parenting young kids is physically demanding, but I was able to take my daughters along on business trips because they were not in school yet. As they got older, however, they needed me in different ways. My responsibilities became more difficult to juggle and balance, and I began to feel that I was missing time with them that I would later regret. During my tenure at Universal, we put out the Bourne series, the American Pie series, the Meet the Parents series, Erin Brockovich, A Beautiful Mind, and Brokeback Mountain, among other films—but as well as things were going, the demands of my job became impossible to justify.
When my contract came up for renewal in 2006, I did not extend it. Instead, I joined DreamWorks as CEO and cochair. It was a smaller company, and without the corporate and travel duties I had at Universal, I could be with the kids every night and on weekends.
I have always viewed my career as a rolling wave. While I do think that both men and women can “have it all,” I don’t think anyone can have it all at once. You need to figure out what your priorities are and then fulfill your potential at each stage of your life. I love my work, but family is forever, and that’s what really sustains me. I’ve seen close friends, and many other women, wait to get pregnant then not be able to. It’s devastating. On one hand, women have been urged to focus on their careers and not feel rushed, but on the other hand, there’s science and biology, which are nonnegotiable.
It’s important to approach the personal aspects of life with as much urgency as we do our careers. When you decide it’s time to have children, do it. Men don’t ask their boss’s permission; they assume they are entitled. My advice also extends to finding a life partner. You can passively hope that cupid shoots his arrow at you or you can be proactive. In my early thirties, after having been divorced, I let those around me know that I wanted to meet someone great. My husband and I were fixed up by a colleague of mine. If I hadn’t specifically told her that I was looking, she would probably not have thought to introduce us. If you are purposeful and can articulate your goals, whatever they may be, you have a much better chance of achieving them.
People say that if you can do what you love you’re very lucky. My advice is to put yourself in a position to discover what you love. Many students are so focused on getting the right grades so they can get into the right school that it barely gives them the chance to try something zany. I wasn’t wired that much differently, but I always tried to zig a little bit when everyone else zagged so that I could have the possibility of surprise in my life. When most of my peers took the usual “check the box” classes at Penn, I took Russian history and discovered that I had a passion for history. It’s no coincidence that a lot of the movies I’ve worked on (Lincoln, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind) have involved historical figures. If I hadn’t allowed myself to venture off the beaten track, I wouldn’t have discovered an enthusiasm for something unexpected.
It’s important to be able to present your ideas well, especially in writing. Unlike a face-to-face conversation, something in writing can be endlessly reviewed to make sure that your ideas are presented exactly the way you want them to be. I often rely on this skill when the subject matter I’m discussing is sensitive and I really need to modulate my tone.
I read an article in the New Yorker by the neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky that rocked my world. Sapolsky, who listened to only the music he grew up with, had a young research assistant who came into the office and listened to a completely different genre of music every day. Sapolsky was irritated by his assistant’s open-mindedness, mainly because it made him focus on his own narrowness. Being a scientist, he was prompted to study the subject and came to the conclusion that as we age we become less and less open to new things.
While many people love the comfort of having familiar ground underfoot—“This is what I listen to.” “These are the five restaurants that I go to.”—businesses rarely evolve that way. In order to keep up in my field, for example, I need to be open to new experiences: new music, new television shows, new actors, and new trends. Luckily, I’ve always been pretty receptive to novelty, but reading Sapolsky’s article has made me be more purposeful about it.
Movies are at their best when they either faithfully represent a culture or when they are aspirational. Either way, storytellers need to make sure that when women appear onscreen they are presented with as many complexities as they actually possess. As far as we’ve come, there are still, unfortunately, not enough movies about substantive women. In my position I try to make a difference. For example, DreamWorks decided to make the movie The Help, which had been turned down by every other studio because all the main characters were women. I understood that a lot of guys probably wouldn’t be interested in seeing it, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be made. It means it shouldn’t be made for any budget. We also made Lincoln. It would have been easy to make it all about Abe, but we made sure to remember his wife, Mary Todd, and the important role she played in his life.
I hate getting the rug pulled out from under me. As a result, I always try to anticipate what might go wrong in any situation. I think this stems from the shock and sadness I felt from my parents’ divorce, which seemed to come out of nowhere, but serves me well professionally. I like to work in a transparent environment and always encourage people to give me the bad news and not sugarcoat anything. You can always find data points that suggest success, but it’s important to pay attention to those that suggest a problem. This way you can make improvements.