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Interview: Movie producer Roger Birnbaum

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 returned 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. More than 250 alums participated in this year’s symposium.

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. He later held 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.

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: 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: 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.”

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