Last Friday, film producer Roger Birnbaum visited UCSB’s Hollywood Industry class in Pollock Theater to reflect on his career in the music and film industries and impart artistic advice.
With his casual New Jersey accent and warm, inviting smile, one would hardly guess that this unassuming man has built entertainment empires since his late twenties. Among Birnbaum’s many credits are: founder of Spyglass Entertainment, producer of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and co-CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. Birnbaum has contributed to the creation of the films “Skyfall,” “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “The Vow,” “Bruce Almighty,” “Home Alone,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Rain Man” and “The Sure Thing.”
Yet before entering the film industry, daring Birnbaum prematurely dropped out of the University of Denver to answer “the call of the wild”: working for the music company A & M Records. Explaining his musical business strategy of signing American rock bands, Birnbaum commented, “I just used my 18-year-old brain and heart to bring in who I loved to the studio.”
Addressing the experimental nature of his job progression from student to music representative to executive to producer, Birnbaum said, “There are many doors of opportunity. You should try each door. Sometimes there’s gold and your dreams on the other side of the door, but you don’t know unless you try. And if you hear the door knocking, answer it … When faced with the opportunity to explore something new or different, I just do it. So you have to remember this. You shouldn’t be afraid of opportunity — you should be excited by it.”
From A & M Records, Birnbaum moved to the Sony Music record label Arista to provide music for films by Columbia Pictures. Birnbaum worked in the music industry at a time when films were shifting from accompaniment by scores to enrichment by soundtracks with lyrics. So at 26 years old, Birnbaum put his foot in the door of the film business with his motivation to “put real music into the movies.”
As his career evolved, the entertainment businessman ventured to join Twentieth Century Fox and co-found his own production company, Spyglass Entertainment. Feeling “compelled” to finance his movies, Birnbaum started creating after-school specials and television movies. From this starting point, Birnbaum found his break-out film story through amateur writer acquaintances he made at a student short film showcase at the University of Southern California. The aspiring film-makers offered him their script — what would become actor John Cusack’s first major film collaboration with Birnbaum, the romantic comedy “The Sure Thing.”
In “The Sure Thing,” Cusack was quite improvisational, ad-libbing entire sentences outside of the script on set. As a teenager in high school, Cusack had to be emancipated in order to act in the film, so Birnbaum became Cusack’s legal guardian during shooting. In a fond fog of nostalgia, Birnbaum recalled “Johnny” Cusack appearing at his doorstep, “a bit inebriated, a cut on his forehead,” explaining that he had been watching “Conan the Barbarian,” playing a drinking game that involved crushing beer cans on his head each time Schwarzenegger delivered a line badly. Birnbaum chuckled, “That’s when I realized that actually we weren’t the same age.”
After “The Sure Thing,” Birnbaum worked on “The Vow,” a story based on true events, for sixteen years before it materialized. Most of this time, he way trying to get studios to finance it, but Birnbaum said, “When I had my own money, I paid for it myself. These people who were clearly soul mates inspired me. There was something about this story that stuck with me … I just could never let that go, because I wanted to make a real love story. It’s hard to make a love story because they can come off as melodramatic and contrived. But this story was true.”
How can a producer recognize a hit song or film story? Birnbaum asserted that the key to artistic choice is sincerity and intuition. He said, “You have to go with your instincts. I’m just an average guy with average tastes. I don’t pretend to be something else. I don’t try to out-think the audience. I try to be part of it.”
About one his most recent film productions, the largest-grossing James Bond film “Skyfall,” Birnbaum revealed, “It was a risk because we moved away from the traditional Bond movie where there were girls and guns. We went to a more emotional, darker place.”
Finally, Birnbaum reiterated his humble confession of normalcy in a hopeful speech assuring the present UCSB film students, “If this could happen to me, it could happen to any of you in this room. I’m not a genius. I’m an average guy. I just think I’m in tune with what the audience likes because I’m one of them. But you must have a point of view. If you don’t have a point of view, then don’t bother. And learn to articulate your ideas; you’ve got to be able to sell them. Now I mean this from the bottom of my heart: If it can happen to me, it can happen to you. I mean that.”
Birnbaum’s newest production, the José Padilha remake of the 1980s film “Robocop” will be released in February 2014.
A version of this article appeared on page 10 of the Thursday, November 7, 2013 print edition of the Daily Nexus.