Class of ’83 | Bo Zenga C’83 was two years into a promising banking career when he broke the news to his father: He was going to Hollywood.
Dad flipped. “Are you nuts?”
“I was enjoying Wall Street, and my dad was so proud of me, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do my whole life,” says Zenga. “It was a pretty tense conversation. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as film school, let alone what a producer did.”
Fast forward to now and Zenga’s daring gamble has paid off. Best known for executive-producing the Dimension/Miramax teen horror spoof Scary Movie (which spawned an $800 million franchise), he’s also had luminaries like Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, Ron Howard, Will Smith, and John Travolta attached to his projects. His producing and writing credits include MGM’s Soul Plane (starring Snoop Dogg, Mo’Nique, and Tom Arnold) and the independent films If Tomorrow Comes (James Franco) and Turistas (Olivia Wilde and Josh Duhamel). Two years ago, Zenga made his directorial debut with the comedy horror film Stan Helsing. He’s now readying three film projects through his Los Angeles production company, Boz Productions (bozproductions.com).
“Every producer should get an Oscar just for getting a movie made, because it’s such a hard process,” says Zenga. “Going the studio route is like herding cats. I have contracts for movies I sold to studios that never got made. They still may, but I can either keep pushing the studios to make them, or spend the same amount of time putting together a movie independently.”
That transition came easily, courtesy of his Wharton classes.
“Numbers and spreadsheets don’t freak me out,” he says. “They’ve given me a certain comfort level, especially when people try to snow me with financials.”
Zenga’s gift is his whimsy-and-logic interplay, says occasional collaborator Margaret French Isaac, an executive vice president with Infinitum Nihil, Johnny Depp’s LA production company. “He is the rare combination of an idea guy who also has the business acumen to push the idea forward by putting the pieces together to get the movie made.”
Zenga has always juggled creativity and business. At Penn—which his mother, then Madeline Cleary Nu’57, had attended—he performed in Penn Players, wrote short stories, and played football. He also planned on a double major in English and economics (even chairing the Student Activities Council’s finance committee), hoping to earn a dual College/Wharton undergrad degree, until he unintentionally landed a job on Wall Street—at which point he only had enough credits to graduate as a C’83.
“Everyone in Wharton was trying to get a Wall Street job. I had offers, but still wanted to get a Wharton degree,” he laughs. “My father found out about my getting wined and dined but not taking the offers, and was furious—‘You’re taking the next offer you get!’” That offer was from Manufacturers Hanover Bank, now JP Morgan Chase. “Banking was fun, but restrictive,” he says. “They wouldn’t even give me time off to go to my graduation ceremonies at Penn.”
Two years later, in 1985, he bolted for LA, initially to make a living as an actor and knowing nothing about the business. He tended bar and managed restaurants at night while auditioning by day; eventually he landed guest spots on shows like LA Law, Melrose Place, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. To get more control over his career he began writing, and in 1990 enrolled at the American Film Institute in Hollywood to learn more about filmmaking.
“If I’d known how hard it was to get a movie made, I might have thought twice about attempting it,” he says.
Zenga was guided by a combination of naiveté, tenacity, and pluck. After a screenwriter friend lent him a book that described how veteran low-budget producer Roger Corman gave several now-famous filmmakers their first breaks, Zenga cold-called his office. That led to a pitch meeting with Corman, who went on to option and produce Zenga’s script, Body Waves, in 1992.
“I was too green to realize that having your first movie project get made never happens,” laughs Zenga. Returning the book, he relayed what transpired to his friend. “His jaw dropped. He’d been struggling for years. But it was a great stepping stone, and affirmed I was on the right track.“
His big break came in 1996, when his romantic comedy script, As Time Goes By, sparked a studio bidding war that Warner Brothers finally won. While the script was never filmed, it launched Zenga on a movie-selling streak that landed him on the July 1998 cover of Written By, the Writer’s Guild of America magazine.
“I was the hot new guy,” he says. ”But in 1999, I woke up and realized I was making lots of deals, but not movies. So I made that my New Year’s resolution. That year, I made two indie films and Scary Movie.”
A few years later, Zenga wrote and produced Soul Plane. By the time it came out in 2004, he decided to skip the studio route. He made his next film, Turistas, independently and had 20th Century Fox distribute it.
“I used to think financing my own films was too complicated. I just wanted ‘Daddy’ to give me the money,“ he laughs, referring to the major movie studios. “But it can go through a Byzantine development process. And if it’s a huge hit, the studio makes a ton of money, and serves a much smaller piece of the pie to you. I’d rather put together a movie independently, then have a studio distribute it, because they have the machine to get it to the widest audience.”
Currently, Zenga has three very different movies moving towards production: Mischief Night, a horror script he co-wrote about teen pranksters whose previous antics come back to haunt them; a Pygmalion-like drama, Becoming Ursula, that he’ll direct; and a hot-topic comedy, Spambox, that he co-wrote and will direct. “That one is very high-concept, so we’re rushing it into production so no one else will do it first,” he says.
At Penn, Zenga’s friends teased him about having a secret life because he’d disappear on the bus—to catch movie matinees downtown.
“When they ended, I’d stay and watch the credits roll,” says Zenga. “I’d be sad without knowing why. Looking back, I realize it was because I wanted to be a part of it.”
— Susan Karlin C’85