washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Movies > Features

With Hit Films, Everybody's a Producer

By Bridget Byrne
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page N01

In 1950 at a Hollywood awards show, Groucho Marx teased some industry bigwigs: "Let's see now: You fellows don't write, you don't act, you don't direct, you don't sell the pictures. I can't figure out your job. Oh, yes, now I get it: You fellows are producers!' "

The role of the producer has always been a bit of a head-scratcher. And it's become even more so as the lists of producers in movie credits get longer -- sometimes including, say, the lead actor's manager or someone whose only contribution was a wad of financing. The industry calls it "credit creep."

Director Martin Scorsese, center, is joined by Leonardo DiCaprio and some of the 17 producers of "The Aviator" after the film won a Golden Globe last month. Right, Albert S. Ruddy stands alone as he accepts the Best Picture Oscar for "The Godfather" in 1973. (Reed Saxon -- AP)

"The producer is the boss, and who wouldn't want to be the boss. . . . People want to be in charge of this wonderful, creative dream," says Vance Van Petten, the Producers Guild of America's executive director. "The problem is that there is no union or governmental regulation which says you can only give out the boss title to certain qualified people."

And when projects are in development for years and film budgets bloat and production schedules grow longer, the number of producers also increases. ("The Aviator," which among its Oscar nominations is up for Best Picture, lists 17.)

The PGA's latest attempt to prevent credit creep came in October, when it created more specific job criteria -- including 42 distinct functions -- with crew members acting as watchdogs, filling out lengthy forms to confirm a producer's involvement.

But along with the issue of producer credit, there's Oscar night credit.

Only three producers per movie can be honored with a nomination for Best Picture, only three get to trot onstage, only three get statuettes -- and only one gets to speak into the mic on Oscar night. That's what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ruled in 1999, after five producers -- including a showboating Harvey Weinstein -- crammed around the podium when "Shakespeare in Love" took the statuette that year.

It's not a matter of wanting to speed the telecast along, says Oscar show producer Gil Cates, but rather "the value of the award not being dissipated by having people who don't deserve it winning."

The Oscar rule means that, for three of the five films nominated for Best Picture, there were some hard decisions to be made.

The people with assorted titles containing the word producer attached to "The Aviator" include star Leonardo DiCaprio, who with Miramax's Bob and Harvey Weinstein was among 10 listed as executive producers. Four producers were credited on-screen and in advertising materials, but after careful study an AMPAS executive committee decided that Charles Evans Jr. (whose name was there because of an out-of-court settlement of his claim of responsibility for the original idea) and Sandy Climan, associate to Michael Mann, would not make the final cut. That left Mann, who developed the project, and Graham King as the producers eligible for the award.

"They don't just say, 'Well, Michael Mann's a well-known guy and Graham financed,' " King says. "From what I hear, they do a lengthy investigation." He's pleased the decision was left up to the committee. "I would never be the one to tell someone they can't accept an Academy Award."

The "Million Dollar Baby" production team also left it up to AMPAS to designate the three nominees entitled to statuettes if they win. Albert S. Ruddy made the cut, along with Tom Rosenberg, whose Lakeshore Entertainment financed, and Clint Eastwood, who is also nominated as actor and director. Losing out was Paul Haggis, but he has picked up a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination.

Ruddy has been down this road before. He picked up the Best Picture Oscar at the 1973 telecast as producer of "The Godfather." Ruddy thinks that the credit creep phenomenon is "totally insane" and is pleased by the effort to stop the proliferation so that only those who really nurse the project through get credit.

"I got the material, developed the script, financed the script, took it to [co-stars] Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank, made the deal with Clint Eastwood, made the deal with Lakeshore and the studio. [Producer] Tom Rosenberg, the same thing. He was going to finance even before Clint got involved, and still when no one wanted to do this movie, Tom and Clint and I were schlepping it from studio to studio trying to get someone to buy it. So we were all involved with it for a long time."

Producer Stuart Benjamin, who has been in the business more than 30 years, first initiated "Ray," the biopic about musician Ray Charles, in collaboration with Taylor Hackford back in the late '80s. Howard Baldwin, also nominated as producer, got involved about 2000 when the script was officially put into development. There was a fourth producer, Baldwin's wife, Karen, but Benjamin says she "was very gracious and stepped back and said, 'The three of you should be it,' " so they made the cut themselves. That leaves him feeling a little rueful, though he understands the academy's concern about "how many producers you can put on the head of a pin."

"Finding Neverland" -- with two producers, Richard N. Gladstein and Nellie Bellflower -- and "Sideways" -- with only one, Michael London -- avoided producer-overload issues.

London thinks he managed to remain the lone producer of "Sideways" because "the stuff that I like is not stuff everyone gravitates toward. Frequently in Hollywood there are multiple producers on movies because there are movies everyone wants a piece of, for better or worse, and usually for worse." It took him about seven years to bring the comedy about "two forty-something, semi-alcoholic, washed-up losers" to the screen.

He says producing is "definitely an undervalued profession and there are a lot of fake producers, neophyte producers, amateur producers, so I think producers give producers a bad name." He says the PGA and academy rules will help restore luster to the job and maybe even help curtail the filming-by-committee syndrome that has overtaken Hollywood.

"The same way the academy is saying we can't have all these people running up onstage, the studios should be saying, 'We can't have all these people running around a set . . . telling a director, or the actors, what they think the movie should be,' " London says.

The academy asks that only one Best Picture recipient speak, so the winners will have to make that choice -- unless, of course, "Sideways" wins.

"Ray's" Benjamin says: "Taylor and Howard and I are going to work something out. . . . But let me just say, having been in the business as long as I've been at it, and having schlepped this movie up these hills since 1988, if we are lucky enough to get to that point, I think they might have some trouble shutting me up."

And if "Million Dollar Baby" wins? "If Clint hasn't been up onstage to collect another award before then, he gets to talk," Ruddy says. "I mean, please, you've got Clint Eastwood, me and Tom. You can't have Clint standing around. But, maybe if he's already got an award or two, and he's a little talked out, I will be happy to say something."

Ruddy laughs, well aware that if he does, the television audience will probably be wondering: Who the heck is that person and what is it that he actually does?

© 2005 The Washington Post Company