Photo courtesy of Frank Price
In the 2nd part of our interview, Frank Price talks about the business of film making as well as some of the iconic films he’s made, including Tootsie, Gandhi, and Boyz in the Hood. [28:59]
Frank Price, part 2—Podcast Transcript
Tootsie trailer excerpt
Jo Reed: That was a clip from the 1982 movie Tootsie, starring Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange, it was directed by Sidney Pollack and made by Columbia Pictures under the supervision of its Chairman and CEO, Frank Price, who is also a member of the National Council on the Arts.
Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
As I said last week in part 1 of my interview with Frank Price, he has had a far-reaching impact on media culture in the second half of the twentieth century. Last week, we concentrated on his career in television. This week, we focus on his movies.
In 1978, Frank Price left Universal Television and moved to Columbia Pictures, first as President, then as Chairman and CEO. He turned Columbia Pictures around—taking a struggling company and remaking it into one that produced movie after movie that swept the Academy Awards. He oversaw the productions of some of the touchstone films of the 1980s, such as Kramer vs. Kramer, Das Boot, Ghostbusters, Tootsie, andGandhi. Frank then went to Universal Pictures where he supervised the productions of still more iconic films like Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, and Out of Africa. Frank Price returned to Columbia as Chairman and green-lighted another set of groundbreaking projects, including A League of Their Own, Groundhog Day, and Boyz N the Hood. After leaving the studios in 1991, he formed his own company Price entertainment and continued producing films such as Shadowlands and The Tuskegee Airman.
Clearly, the man knows how to get a good movie made and that’s what we’ll talk about in part two. We pick up the conversation with Frank's move to Columbia Pictures—a step that was surprising to some given his great success as president of MCA/Universal Television and the grave troubles Columbia Pictures found itself in.
Jo Reed: Well, you went to Columbia Pictures, which was having issues…
Frank Price: Yeah.
Jo Reed: as a company.
Frank Price: Oh, many.
Jo Reed: It was not doing very well.
Frank Price: There was the big scandal about financial irregularities. Plus, the company was in trouble. The stock was at $3.00 a share. And when I was trying to get out of my contract with MCA, Lew Wasserman had said to me, “Why would you want to leave MCA where you’re one of the three guys that will inherit this company and go to a company that may not be in business six months from now?” And I said, “Lew, it’s because I don’t wanna look in the mirror when I’m 65 and say, “Gee, I wish I had done that. I wish I’d done movies. And I can’t do them here. The job’s already filled.” Ned Tanen was doing it and, you know, doing a good job at at Universal. So I had to go somewhere else. So Lew let me out of the contract. Had I got tough with him, I never would’ve gotten out. But I knew that, you know, making a human appeal to him, he would listen to that.
Jo Reed: He would do it.
Frank Price: Yeah.
Jo Reed: And what year was this about?
Frank Price: ’78. 1978.
Jo Reed: ’78. So how did you do this turnaround at Columbia? Because what you accomplished there is really astounding.
Frank Price: I had the great benefit of working for Lew Wasserman, for one thing. I had the great benefit of running Universal Television. I had made movie after movie after movie. I had also produced shows. So I knew how to make pictures. What I hadn’t made were movies, the theatrical version. Although, by the way, while at Universal I had developed for television the two sequels to air part. Because I couldn’t get additional money from ABC, so I turned them over to the theatrical arm and said, “Here are your sequels.” So uh.. which I- I thought of both of them, on flights around.
But anyway, going to Columbia, I benefited from the fact that, you know, I spent a long time as a reader and story editor and I know story pretty well. So one of my first hits was “Blue Lagoon,” which Randal Keiser had come to me and he wanted to remake a failed movie. I liked the concept and I liked the fact that it was $4 million. I could make it for $4 million in Fiji. And we had no money.
Jo Reed: I was about to say, that was the other problem there.
Frank Price: Right. I couldn’t commit further than six months out, because we were running such a tight ship at that point. So I was scrambling to get things, but, I mean, fortunately, that became one of the most profitable movies anybody’s made in the sense that production costs were very low and I think we did 60-some million dollars in box office so we did well on that one. And then I had a very good relationship with Mike Ovitz, which was good because I was the new guy in motion pictures.
Jo Reed: And Michael Ovitz was CAA then, Creative Artists Agency?
Frank Price: CAA wasn’t in motion pictures. Mike was trying to break into motion pictures with his agency. Well, we were the television guys. So he and I hit it off well. I was able to help him; he helped me. That was part of it. I also found Columbia was vastly overstaffed with a lot of producers. I wanted to make deals with directors like Sydney Pollack and Ivan Reitman, and so I sorta cleaned out a lot of the producers. I formed a very good relationship with Ray Stark, who was a terrific producer and became a terrific friend. We finally got a lot of things happening. One, because of my background with Wasserman and that, I knew that we had to have certain deals. I saw HBO the way MCA saw NBC. It’s somebody you make a deal with. So we were in. We made a huge HBO deal. We needed money. They needed movies. The studios tended to be disdainful of them.
I wasn’t. I was, “Let’s make a deal.” So we made that deal. I also got a deal in place with RCA. VCR. What was the business going to be like down the line? Were you going to have video discs? Were you going to have videotape? Was it going to be a rental business? Was it going to be a sale business? What- what was it? We didn’t know. So we made this deal. We thought we needed a record company. And we knew we needed somebody with cash. RCA put up a hundred million dollars in advance, domestic, a hundred million foreign, and we had a very good joint deal that we had an out in 10 years. ‘Cause we figured, “We don’t know the business. We’ll get out of it in 10 years.” But meanwhile, we’ve got cash.
Jo Reed: And you could make movies like…
Frank Price: We were able to make movies then.
Jo Reed: Well, like Kramer vs. Kramer.
Frank Price: Right.
Jo Reed: And Tootsie.
Jo Reed: And Ghostbusters and Gandhi. And, I mean, the list goes on and on and on. You were sweeping Academy Awards left, right and center.
Frank Price: We were. We were. The year I remember in particular we had “Das Boot.”
Jo Reed: Was that yours?
Frank Price: “Gandhi” and “Tootsie.” And I remember being at the Director’s Guild because the three directors, Wolfgang Petersen and Dickie Attenborough, and Sydney Pollack were at my table. And so I was having to be absolutely neutral as the awards were coming up, whoever won what.
Jo Reed: That’s hard.
Frank Price: And even in reacting to success, I had to make sure that I didn’t go overboard. Because I had the two other guys, to console.
Jo Reed: I would think part of what you also need to do as head of a studio is you say “no,” a lot. I know you say, “yes,” and that’s fantastic. But you really have to say “no” to a lot of people a lotta the time.
Frank Price: That’s the main part of the job.
Jo Reed: That would be difficult.
Frank Price: Right. You destroy people’s dreams.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Frank Price: Not easy.
Jo Reed: No.
Frank Price: Not easy. It doesn’t get any easier as you’re doing it but you know, you have to be basically nice but coldhearted about it.
Jo Reed: I interviewed a writer who, I think he was 55 or so when he published his first book, and it became quite a prizewinner. And I said, “God, that’s a lot of rejection.” And he said, “I worked as a screenwriter.” 99 percent of everything you suggest is vetoed. You just learn to roll with it. z
Frank Price: Yeah, yeah. Well, I would say to writers, the most important thing is persistence. Don’t give up. I’ve seen mediocre writers who just wouldn’t give up go on and become very successful writers. And I’ve seen highly talented people who just couldn’t stand “no.”
Frank Price: And therefore, they’d run away.
Jo Reed: There are two films I want to talk about pretty specifically. “Gandhi.” A very important movie. Very path breaking in very many ways. And brilliantly directed, brilliantly acted, brilliantly written. But also brilliantly marketed. Because when the film was first proposed, I think the criticism about doing it was 50 percent of the people are not going to know who this man is.
Frank Price: Nobody under 40 would know who he was, which was true. And I was given the other line, which is, “Nobody’s gonna care about a little brown man wandering around in a diaper.” But we did undertake it. Dickie Attenborough did a great job on it, and the financing came from a company Jake Eberts set up. And we persuaded Jake that it would be in their interest and ours to hold the movie for a year because we had a lot of work to do. Number one worked on the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times. Fortunately, they liked what they saw, what we screened for them. And we were able to get six major articles out of them over the next year on various aspects of India, Gandhi, so on.
Jo Reed: That’s a feat.
Frank Price: Yes. Oh, yes. If you don’t have the movie, none of these things happen.
It all boils down, “Do you have the goods or not?” We have it. So the important thing was to sell it properly, sell it right. So the other thing we did was to work out an arrangement with the National Educational Association to put into classrooms throughout the country information about the Gandhi story. Because we felt that we’ll start with schools, and make the young people aware. They’ll even then maybe talking to their parents, saying, “Have you heard of Gandhi?” so on. So that educational thing went on. Then we carefully scheduled when we would open the picture. We wanted to open it on Christmas Day, where the adults would be available. We’d open it on a very limited basis. Platforming, so-called, so that we’re not in many theaters at that point. We would open on that day very close to the time of the Academy Award nominations. What we were wanting is open it, get our reviews, get our Academy Award nominations, which we then trumpet in our advertising and then, of course, we roll up to the actual Academy Awards. We wouldn’t depend on them, but we’d be prepared for another burst there. So it all worked, because we swept the Academy Awards.
What was great about it was that we used our U.S. performance to really sell the movie in the rest of the world. Because selling a film that swept the Academy Awards, that had all this publicity and that, gets a lot easier to do good business.
Jo Reed: The other film I really would want you to touch on is Boyz n the Hood.
Jo Reed: Because that came out of nowhere. No one had heard of John Singleton. It was an unknown writer about an inner city. But an inner city that didn’t have white faces in it, which was very, very unusual when that movie came out. It’s 21 years ago now. But we still see that now, if you think about the book The Help.
Frank Price: Ahh.
Jo Reed: We still, you know, it’s a fine book, a fine movie, but we still have, you know, the white woman who’s really front and center. And Boyz n the Hood told a very different story from a very different point of view.
Frank Price: Back story, I had been experimenting for quite a while on what would work with the black audience. I’d had a big success with the movie called Stir Crazy,which you know, with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. And I remember being delighted at the test screening we had in San Francisco, because the movie was drawing an audience that was half black, half white. Everybody was in stitches. They couldn’t hear the dialogue. So I loved it. I mean, it was clear we had a bit hit. So I had so I had that experience in my mind. We did “Soldier’s Story,” and that I saw, it drew a middle-class black audience and a liberal white audience. And that meant we did about $12 million in our film rental. Eight million dollar production cost, so we made money, but was modest. I kept seeing that. I saw, what the Malcolm X story---it drew that same audience. It wasn’t a young, black audience. I had returned to Columbia. Second time that I ran Columbia. And Amy Pascal and another young woman, Stephanie Allain, came to me for my weekend reading. Amy said, “It’s very uncommercial, but we think it’s good, we’d like you to read it.” So I took the script on “Boyz n the Hood,” along with some other reading. When I read it, it was just terrific. The movie was very clear, it was there. It was a great insight into the inner city, what was going on, and it reminded me of a movie I had seen when I was fairly young, which was The Bicycle Thief. That came to my mind because I was thinking-- was trying to figure how people would relate. And I was saying, “Well, I related to this story of post-World War 2 Rome, and a kid there,” and it’s the same sort of thing. You’re relating to other people. So they may have different backgrounds and that. So I felt people could relate to it if we handled it right. Monday in the studio I said “Tell me more about this.” They said, “Well, he wants to direct it.”
Jo Reed: John Singleton, the writer.
Frank Price: Yeah, John Singleton. Who’s, I don’t know, 21 years old. So out of USC film school. Didn’t take directing, took writing there. I said, “Well, set up an appointment. Have him come in.” So when he came in, personal young guy, I asked him how he would shoot the helicopter sequence. What was his approach to that? And what he said was, “I don’t need a helicopter.” He said, “It’s night. I can do it with lights and sound.” “Well, he thinks practically anyway.” Because clearly if we were going to make it, it had to be made for a price. So, so I talked about actors. And he had some people in mind. So I gave him a camera and some money and said “Shoot some of them and bring it in and show them to me.” So what he brought back was Ice Cube, and that was the first I looked at that. And I said, “Wow!” ‘cause he jumped off the screen. It was Cuba Gooding, and some of the others he couldn’t shoot, but I knew who they were.
Boyz n the Hood excerpt
I decided that even though he was inexperienced, a thing I’ve always believed with writers is they’ve already directed it once. If you’ve written the script, you have directed it. I knew if we put a good production guy with him that that would be a start. So there was one that had worked with Rob Reiner. I think his name’s Steve Nicolitis. I felt he would be good because he was good on production. But he also was good at catering to understanding the artistic needs of a sensitive director. He had done it with Rob. So therefore, right guy to be on. He wouldn’t try to crush the new guy.
So anyway, we got it together. We looked for where we could shoot it. The only place we could do it was in L.A. I could’ve made it a little cheaper elsewhere, but it wouldn’t have been the same picture. The problem in shooting it in L.A. is you’re right under the nose of the union, so you’re going to be union. And you’re now shooting in South Central L.A., some problems that way. But I also wanted you know, as much of the crew to be black as possible. Anyway, we shot it. In our minds, if the picture turned out as well as it looked on paper, we would take it to Cannes. ‘Cause the objective would be to put a different label on it. We didn’t wanna make a movie that would be labeled “an inner city black movie.” The problem with the script, everybody turned it down. It was a good writing sample, but nobody wanted to make it, because they thought, “It’s an inner city, black movie. It’ll have a limited audience.” I felt, “I think we can handle this so it attracts a white audience.” And one way you go to Cannes and you make a big deal out of it and you make a big international deal out of it, which we did. By the way, our first test screenings were fabulous. We did them on the lot. Because we wanted to keep this quiet, we needed it controlled. That was very interesting. I sat in the middle of the audience and it was very different kind of screening because there was so much more audience participation thing about. They reacted to the movie, they were with the movie. They were warning people.
I learned from it. But anyway, we decided we did have the movie. We took it to Cannes. We got some very good reviews. In Cannes, what we did was we took some billboards and put graffiti on them. Uh.. we didn’t say anything about “Boyz n the Hood,” but we just had graffiti. And then we gave a rap party. They’d not heard of rap in France at that point. It was new. Ice Cube came over. We weren’t in the main competition. We were in something, Director’s cut or whatever it was. But we were the most in demand ticket. There were 700 seats in the theater when we screened. And there were 700 people in addition outside, waiting, to try to get in. Word had gotten around that this was a picture to see, so the Cannes thing gave it, I think, a visibility that it ultimately, after the picture finished its run, it had attracted about half white and half black.
Jo Reed: And an Oscar nomination for John Singleton…
Frank Price: Oh, yes.
Jo Reed: as director.
Frank Price: Youngest person nominated, so--
Jo Reed: And wasn’t he the first African-American director..
Frank Price: Yes.
Jo Reed: --nominated?
Frank Price: Yes.
Jo Reed: And a great film.
Frank Price: He did a fabulous job on it.
Jo Reed: Looking at the trajectory of your career, and I know you’ve said this, but it’s so clear from your work as well, you really look at women a lot.
Jo Reed: And you look at race. Those are two touchstones you keep coming back to.
Frank Price: Yes. Those are two I think things about contemporary society that I think are most important and they’ve fascinated me, so, you know, that’s- that’s been true whether it was what, “Out of Africa” was a story, a woman ahead of her time, and how she had to cope with “A League of Their Own” was another one that I enjoyed doing with Penny Marshall. I don’t think that would’ve gotten done without me. I happen to have a particular sensibility and I don’t know that they would get done in Hollywood normally. It’s like Barry Diller came up to me after we screened for an industry audience “Out of Africa.” And he said, “Frank, I thought you were crazy making this.” And he said, “I love the movie. It’s a wonderful movie. I’m glad you made it.”
Jo Reed: Or even a movie like “Tootsie,” which is so funny, and at the same time it really does talk about women’s issues in a way that anybody can hear them.
Frank Price: Yes. I don’t wanna lecture, but I like to point out things. If you see Tootsie, I would say, there are lessons in there for society. So now it’s been around a long time, so perhaps society has learned some of ‘em.
Jo Reed: But that’s the fun thing about “Tootsie.” Even if society has, it’s still fun seeing that movie.
Frank Price: I had a fun time on one flight, on my way to New York, “Tootsie” was playing on the plane. And I spent the flight actually watching the people’s faces as they were watching the movie. I knew the movie pretty well, so I didn’t need to watch it. But watching their faces was a joy.
Jo Reed: Well, that’s one of those movies where obviously it was so well cast with Dustin Hoffman, with Jessica Lange and Charles Durning. But Sydney Pollack was brilliant in that film. And so was Bill Murray. Those small parts were so beautifully cast.
Frank Price: Both came about in unusual ways. Number one, there was a lot of fighting that went on between Sydney Pollack and Dustin Hoffman in the making of the picture, for a variety of reasons. Too long to explain, but--
Jo Reed: Some of which I have a feeling we’ve seen played out in the movies.
Frank Price: But since there was such a struggle going on between them, Dustin wanted Sydney to be an actor in the picture. He basically wanted to show Sydney up, get him out from behind the camera and take him on. So Sydney had come to me and said, “Look. I’ve got my hands full with this. I don’t want to act also. But,” he said, “I also don’t want to get him offended. So I said, “Sydney, do it.”
Frank Price: So he did and Dustin’s plot failed because he was so good.
Jo Reed: He was so good.
Frank Price: Bill Murray, there was a restaurant it’s a New York steakhouse, and I had taken a room and had a birthday party for my wife Katherine. And I invited to it all her favorite people. Sam Cohn, Sydney Pollack Dustin, Bill Murray. It was a fun group. And Dustin and Bill got acquainted and Dustin was the one who started talking to Bill. “You gotta be in the movie. You gotta play my roomy.” So we went from there. We worked out a deal ‘cause I couldn’t afford Bill’s normal fee, so Bill’s in it uncredited. I forget what I paid him, but we weren’t supposed to use him in the advertising. We cheated on that a little.
Frank Price: We made a mistake with that.
He was wonderful in it. And with Bill, some of the best lines from him are the ones that he improvises.
Jo Reed: And finally, in closing, you’ve been so good at looking ahead and seeing what’s coming down the pike from television, moving to film, from film thinking about HBO. What do you see now?
Frank Price: It’s a pretty murky picture right now. There’s a lot happening and I think the entertainment world has been changin’ since I got into it. And generally, whatever it’s evolved into has been somewhat better. I’ve got a son who works for Amazon and he’s head of Amazon Studios. And they’re developing television shows and movies, and they’re doing it in a new fashion. They are reaching out to the world for people with creative desires. It reminded me of the fact that when I was working at CBS in the story department one of the things I did was I volunteered to read the slush pile. In the slush pile was a envelope from Cincinnati, and I read a good script in it and gave it to one of the this was before I was a reader. I gave it to one of the regular readers, and I said, “I think this is pretty good.” It was from a guy named Rod Serling, who had just sent in a script. So we got him an assignment on Lux Video Theatre, and so that was the start of his career.
Jo Reed: And the rest, as they say, is history.
Jo Reed: Frank Price, thank you so much.
Frank Price: Well, thank you very much for having me.
Jo Reed: It was a pleasure. Thank you.
That was writer, producer, executive and member of the National Council on the Arts Frank Price
You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from "Going to the City of Emeralds" by Francesco Lettera from the cd,Absolute Balance.
used courtesy of Creative Commons and found on WMFU's Free Music Archive atwww.freemusicarchive.org
Excerpt from the trailers to Tootsie, Boyz n the Hood, and Gandhi used courtesy of Columbia pictures
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Next week, artist Jennie C. Jones
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening