“In this business,” said producer David Brown, who died Monday at 93, “you’re either an artist or a salesman. When you fall in between it becomes problematic.”
David Brown fell in between. He came to power in the 1970s, at a time in Hollywood when the industry was losing its first generation, and with it, it’s old-world, old-fashioned power hierarchies. “Things had changed,” Brown said. “Actors were telling the Studios how to make a movie, agents were just as powerful as producers. The Moguls didn’t understand that world and couldn’t tolerate it. It was a Hollywood Darryl F. Zanuck wanted out of.”
The system was in flux. What it needed was producers who could help the young talent translate their ideas – ideas not customarily associated with Hollywood fare – into studio terms; producers, in other words, with one foot in the old and one foot in the new. That was David Brown. To see him you would see good taste. And that’s where you wanted your money.
He was from New York, a journalist, Columbia educated, and he looked like it. He looked like the kind of man you wanted on your side, a gentleman equally at home in boardrooms as he was at Le Dôme. His battles, after all, we waged on both fronts.
It took the vision of an artist to see in the unproven Steven Spielberg the makings of a giant, and it took the chutzpah of a salesman to get the ridiculous proposition of Jaws into production. Everyone in pictures has to fight, but on Jaws, David Brown did double duty in two wars, against the studio and against the Spielberg, the sharks and the shark. Rather than make him seem duplicitous, Brown had a finesse, an air of suave in style and substance, that made his wrangling invisible, or if he got caught, justified, putting him in that ultra rare echelon of Movie Generals, who not only knew which battles were worth fighting, but how to win them.
An artist and a salesman. The salesman saw The Verdict, Driving Miss Daisy, and A Few Good Men to their maximum box office potential, but the artist saw in The Player, Michael Tolkin’s Hollywood novel, a “true authenticity,” and bought the rights. Movies about movies never do business. But Brown was in the business of quality.
As if making a movie of The Player wasn’t risky enough, Brown agreed that Robert Altman – renowned for his temper, the liability he brought to his productions, and his recent succession of flops – was flat-out perfect for the job. “Bob,” he said to Altman, “I agree you were born to direct this, but you have to be a good boy and play ball.” “I will,” Altman said. He didn’t.
Altman might have smirked to himself as he got off the phone with Brown, thinking he pulled yet another fast one on yet another suit, but chances are the fast one was on Altman. At that point, after forty years of finesse, Brown knew what he was getting himself into. He knew Altman thrived on resistance, so he gave it to him, and in the space of a few words, the artist transformed into the salesman, which proved he was a better salesman than he’d ever let on.
David Brown, September 25th 1916 – February 1st 2010.