DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Hollywood producer Roger Birnbaum speaks at Alumni Symposium

With credits on some of the biggest movies of the past 15 years — including The Sixth Sense, Rush Hour, Shanghai Noon and Bruce Almighty — Roger Birnbaum (attd. 1968–71) has made his mark in Hollywood. He returns to his alma mater Oct. 2–3 as a keynote speaker at DU’s Alumni Symposium, which gives alumni the chance to participate in classes taught by University faculty.

Birnbaum attributes much of his success to his time at DU — it was as president of the Board of Governors, a student group that brought speakers and musicians to campus, that he was first bitten by the entertainment bug. After working at NBC in New York City for a short time in the early 1970s, he experienced one of those magic DU coincidences:

“I ran into a guy who was now working for a record company, and he was the manager of a band that I had hired to be the opening act for one of the bigger shows at DU,” Birnbaum says. “And he offered me a job as his secretary, and I took it.”

That job led to vice president positions at A&M and Arista records, which led to similar jobs in the film industry at United Artists and 20th Century Fox. In 1998, Birnbaum co-founded the production, finance and distribution company Spyglass Entertainment.

“It was all a little DU connection, which is why I agreed to do [the symposium]. While I’m not a graduate of DU, I didn’t end up going to school anywhere else, and it served me well,” Birnbaum says. “Maybe not the way most people get served by going to a college or university, but for me it was a gigantic petri dish where I kind of grew up.”

We asked Birnbaum more about his star-studded career.

Q: What exactly does a movie producer do?
A: If there’s an analogy to sports, a producer of a film is pretty much the general manager of a team. The way it usually works is there is a piece of material that a producer has developed, and he brings the material to a studio and says, “I would like to make this movie.” If they like the material then they’ll ask, “How much do you think it will cost, can you put a budget together?” If the budget is something that sounds reasonable to the studio, they’ll say, “Let’s go find a director and some stars.”
Q: Where does this material or these scripts come from? Do writers pitch you ideas?
A: Writers come and pitch ideas, you read books, you read articles, you hear a news program — they come from all different sources. You’re an observer of life, and where there’s a good story to be told, you try to tell it.

Q: We keep hearing how the industry’s focus has shifted to a film’s opening weekend gross — have you seen that change during your years as a producer?
A: Yes, because it’s very expensive to open a movie. You can make a $35 million movie and still have to spend $50 million [on advertising] to get to the first weekend. And when there are six other movies in the marketplace, if [your film] doesn’t catch fire right away, it’s not going to.

Q: So what’s the trick to getting people to come to your movie? Is there more to it than a good ad campaign?
A: It’s everything — do you have a good story to tell? Are there stars in the movie that people want to see? What’s going on in the world outside? You can have a bad day in the world and people stay at home.

Because of the Internet and because of Twitter and all these things, if a studio has a preview of a movie in some remote location to test it in front of an audience — years ago it would live and die in that room. No one would know about it. Now these kids go home and they get on Twitter: “Hey, I just saw this movie.” It starts. And before you know it, everyone’s talking about your incomplete movie, whether it’s good or bad. If you have something great, it can really work in your favor. If you have something that’s not quite ready yet, it can become very, very dangerous.

Q: What’s the movie you learned the most from as you were making it?
A: My Cousin Vinny. At that point I was the president of 20th Century Fox and I was making two movies at the same time. One of them was My Cousin Vinny, and the other was a film called Come See the Paradise. And Come See the Paradise was being made by Alan Parker, who is a very well-known, Academy Award-winning director of films like Midnight Express and Fame. And he’s making this movie for me, Come See the Paradise, which is about the American internment camps during World War II, where the Japanese were sent.

I’m looking at the dailies of Come See the Paradise, and I’m thinking, “Wow, this is really beautiful, this is really important — this is great.” And I’m looking at My Cousin Vinny, which looks not funny, a little over the top, and sloppily made. And then the movies are done, and Come See the Paradise is boring and just does not really work emotionally for me as I thought it might, and My Cousin Vinny, regardless of how over the top and how sloppily it was made, was hysterical and became a big hit.

I realized, “You know what? You can’t really know what a movie is going to be until you’re done with it.” I remember when we screened Home Alone for the first time. I thought, “Oh, this is a nice little movie, a little comedy, family movie, we’ll do a little business, no one’s going to get hurt.” And we went to Chicago to have the preview, and we were in a pretty tough neighborhood.

I sit in the middle of the theater and this kid sits next to me and he’s got a Mohawk and he’s got piercings and earrings and tattoos, and I thought, “This is going to be awful. This is just not going to go well.” And at the end of the movie, when the parents come home and the little boy is hugging his parents, I look over at this kid with the Mohawk, and he’s crying. And I said, “Uh-oh, this is going to be big.”

For more information on the Alumni Symposium, visit www.du.edu/alumnisymposium.

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