“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 the producers!”
Groucho Marx at a 1950 awards ceremony.
The producer may not have the least understood role in show business. (I nominate best boy.) But it’s definitely up there. Especially for someone like Platt, who has moved seamlessly from off-Broadway plays to films and TV to Broadway, and enjoyed dizzying success in all of them. What, I wonder, are the ingredients of a successful producer?
“There are many elements,” he answers. “It’s the ability to facilitateto facilitate individuals, to facilitate talent, to recognize good stories and special talent, to navigate a business with something that’s intangible, whether it’s a play or a film. To navigate the film business, the studio system, the marketing distribution, the pressures that come to bear when you work with a studio.”
In his case, the formula seems to be equal parts talent, drive, and people-skills.
“There are two ways to survive in Hollywood,” says Stacey Snider C’82, who worked with Platt as president of production at Tri-Star and later at Universal; she is now co-chairman and CEO of DreamWorks. “One is, if you have the best project, you win, because people are always drawn to great projects. Marc’s got really unique skills, in that he has great taste and is always attracted to interesting, provocative, ambitious pieces, and he is very hands-on when it comes to production. He is there when you need himand that’s what you want from a producer: someone who manages the larger vision but also keeps an eye on the details.
“On a personal level, Marc is tenacious and hard working, and he is also a very fair and loving and soothing person, so people want to go out of their way to make sure he does flourish,” she adds. “If it’s a close call, people tend to give a break in Marc’s favor because they like him.”
But at the heart of Platt’s success is his skill in telling a good story and his savvy in getting it to people. “It’s having a vision and knowing how to bring that vision to fruition,” he says. “Getting people to do what you need to doand picking the right people. Especially the right filmmaker, director. Then, knowing when to say, ‘Go with the director,’ or when to overrule the director. When to continue cutting the film or taking out scenes or when it’s right. What the right music is, when to release the picture.
“What’s interesting is nobody really has the monopoly on the right answer,” he points out. “I always say my friend and mentor Steven Spielberg sort of does, but most people don’t, because there’s really no such thing as a bad idea in my mind. It may not work, ultimately, but ideas are just thatthey’re ideas, and they can come from anyone and anywhere.”
Asked what was the most challenging film he’s produced, Platt doesn’t hesitate. “Philadelphia,” he says. “Nobody wanted to go near it. To make a movie about a gay attorney who’s wrongfully fired because he had AIDSthis is in 1990, a very different time in our countryit’s hard. In 1992, even at my own companyI was president of Tri-Star at the time, and I worked for Sonyand even Sony had very, very significant barriers and challenges that many times almost prevented that movie from getting made. It took commitment and passion, not only from myself but from the filmmaker [Jonathan Demme] and the writer [Ron Nyswaner], and the actors [Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington], both of whom worked for far less than their usual fees in order to make the film work.”
“Marc believes Philadelphia is the most important movie he’s ever made,” says Julie. “He’s extremely proud of it. It brought the face of AIDS to the American movie-going audience.” The Platts, along with Demme and some of the other notables behind the movie, were invited to the White House by President Bill Clinton for a private screening, she adds. “It was such a significant film that he wanted to watch it himself.”
Oddly enough, one of Platt’s personal favorites“a little tiny movie” called Rudy, about an undersized kid whose goal in life is to play football for Notre Damewas also one of his biggest box-office disappointments.
“I loved that movie,” he says. “Loved everything about it. I was president of Tri-Star at the time, and when I was testing the movie, the market-testing consistently scored as the highest movie I’d ever tested. Higher than Sleepless in Seattle, higher than Silence of the Lambs, higher than Jerry Maguire. And yet when it opened at the box office, it was not successful at all. It was a big disappointment.
“What I have since discovered is that somehow, through the life of DVD and cable television, this film is actually a widely known and beloved film. That’s a great joy to me.”
Having gone from president of Orion to president of Tri-Star in 1992, and to the same slot at Universal four years later, Platt had compiled a dazzling filmography. By his third year at Universal, though, he was getting restless.
“When you’re an executive, the more successful you become, the further removed you get from the creative process,” Platt points out. “You can own something to a certain extent, but it’s very different from being in the trenches and being on a set every single day or being in rehearsal of a play from morning till night. I’d been an executive for many years and quite frankly I tired of it. It wasn’t satisfying me.
“I was ready at this point in my life to own what I was successful or not at and have found that to be just enormously satisfying,” he says. “Both in success and failure. You know, the failures hurt deeply but they’re mine. And I like that.”
Marc Platt Productions is located on the grounds of Universal Studios, which gets first dibs on all of his projects. If they turn one down, he’s free to peddle it elsewhere. He did that with Legally Blonde, which first came across his desk at Universal, and which ended up being financed and distributed by MGM.
“Legally Blonde is a film that I always believed in, and there was only one person that I wanted to play that roleperiod,” he says. “It was Reese Witherspoon, and she was, at the time, not a star. She’s a very, very smart woman, very eclectic taste. And she wasn’t interested in Legally Blonde. And I pursued her and pursued her and convinced her that not only was she the only one to play this role, but by her playing the role she could create something quite memorable.”
“Platt is renowned as a producer of films for teenage girls,” wrote Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing in their 2004 book, Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession, which chronicles the high-stakes production and release of several 2003 summer big-budget films, one of which was Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde. Noting that two of Platt’s five children are daughters, the authors added: “he excels at devising what he calls ‘character environments’: settings where audiences want to spend ninety minutes and people with whom they would want to be friends. Though no one in the film business would want to admit it, it’s the same operating principle that governs TV sitcoms. Though Legally Blonde remains his high-water mark, his résumé includes rocker-girl romp Josie and the Pussycats and Flashdance-y hip-hop melodrama Honey. Even Wicked … turns on the catty rivalry between Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch echoing scheming snob Selma Blair’s rift with Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde.”
Though the book on the whole portrays Platt quite sympathetically, that description does pigeonhole him and, in the process, short-changes him a bit. It may also explain why at one point in our interview he emphasizes the need to explore new styles and contents.
“For a little while, every movie about a young girl or female empowerment came my way because of Legally Blonde,” he says. “And that’s all well and good. It’s a market I understand really well. But it’s not my only interest. As a producer, you’re lucky to get to pursue lots of different ideas and genres and tones.”
It wasn’t a surprise that Marc Platt Productions would hit pay-dirt on the big screen. But Platt himself still had some unfinished business.
“My whole tenure in Hollywood, while successfuland I was lucky to be involved with many well-known filmsI did sort of look over my shoulder a lot of times and think: ‘What’s going on on Broadway? Am I ever going to get back to what I initially thought I wanted to do?’”
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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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COVER STORY: Passion Plays