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A pal asked last week, "Who you writing about?" Told him, "Art Linson," which screwed his face into a big ol' question mark. "He's a movie producer. He made Heat, Fight Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Untouchables, Car Wash..." Said said friend upon hearing that last one, "Dude must be old, if he did Car Wash." Linson isn't really old--he's about 60, give or take a month--but he's veteran enough in a business now run by children wearing their fathers' suits. He's been around long enough to have worked with the Mamas and the Papas, when they were still alive and cool, and director David Fincher; long enough to have given Fast Times' writer Cameron Crowe his first gig and to have hired Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst as a feature-film director for a skateboarding movie, Lords of Dogtown, that starts shooting this fall. Art Linson--yeah, you don't know his name, you don't know his face. Surely, you know his work--meaning, you've seen at least one movie for which he's loaned his soul to the Bank of Diminishing Returns to pay for catering.
By no means is Linson the most powerful player in Hollywood; he'll be the first to tell you that, over and over. Every few minutes, he'll complain that he's not, oh, Jerry Bruckheimer, the greedy schlock-peddler whose movies (among them Con Air, Gone in 60 Seconds and Armageddon) make money hand over fist--or, really, hand over eyes, since you can't watch them without turning into a pillar of salt.
"God knows, let me tell you, Bruckheimer gets his calls returned a lot faster than I do," Linson says from his home in Los Angeles. "His housekeeper gets his calls returned faster than mine, and that's the damn truth. If you're going to aspire to be either Art Linson or Jerry Bruckheimer, Ipick Jerry Bruckheimer."
Not that Linson's ashamed of the movies he's made or envious of Bruckheimer's filmography. It's just that in Hollywood you're always jealous of the other guy, always peeking over your shoulder to make sure no one's pursuing the same hot property, always feeling the hot gasp of failure (your own, someone else's--it's all the same) breathing down your neck. "You're always chasing heat," Linson likes to say. Yeah, except when you're running from the flaming wreckage.
Producing movies ranks high among the world's most masochistic gigs; it breeds panic and paranoia, fear and self-loathing, jealousy and spite. The job of the producer is, on paper, a simple one: You find a good idea (say, a newspaper clipping or a book or something altogether original--ha!--floating in the ether), get a screenwriter to put it on paper, find a studio or other moneymen to finance the endeavor, then get a director to put it on screen.
At least, that's how the process is supposed to work. It never does. It usually isn't done in that order, or with any order. It's a gangbang of egos and will and vanity and greed--what happens when a producer begs the incompetent for money so he or she can work with the arrogant on a movie that the studio will then insist it can't sell for whatever cockamamie reason. Art is the accident that happens after the forces of commerce conspire to tank it.
Just look at Fight Club. 20th Century Fox greenlit the movie because it meant the reteaming of Brad Pitt and David Fincher, whose previous picture together, Se7en, grossed some $400 mil worldwide. It didn't take a genius to OK Fight Club, but when Fincher and Linson turned in the film, Fox execs so detested the brutal, scabrous movie they exited the screening room a corpsely shade of white. To this day, Linson blames its poor box-office take on the "ill-conceived, one-dimensional" ad campaign concocted by Bob Harper, Fox's head of marketing. Only after it reached DVD did Fight Clubdo any real business; in fact, the movie Fox's higher-ups hated actually made the studio some cash. Today, Linson likes to call Fox "an incompetent brothel."
Then again, as he points out, it's the producer's job to blame everybody else for a movie's failure.
Linson likes talking about the movie business; most producers do. See, that's really the only time they get noticed--outside, that is, of Entertainment Weeklyor Variety, which seem to think it takes a genius to OK a Spider-Man. "After all, it's Sam Raimi that directed Spider-Man, not Laura Ziskin," says Linson, referring to that movie's producer and an old nemesis of his back at Fox. "There's a confusion in the way the press handles these things and the way they build up executives. They give them way too much credit and way too much blame."
That's why producers, among them Lynda Obst and Julia Phillips and Peter Guber, write books about producing movies: to make themselves as large as the screens upon which their movies play. In some cases, they even make movies about themselves: Robert Evans, former head of Paramount, will soon be seen and heard in The Kid Stays in the Picture, a feature-length version of his autobiography that plays like the world's most glamorous infomercial...or eulogy.