For Tom Hanks, Just Another Day at the Office

July 30, 2006


Seemingly every Hollywood studio and production company coveted “Mamma Mia!,” the international musical that had been planting Abba’s infectious songs inside theatergoers’ craniums since 1999. But Judy Craymer, the musical’s global producer, had rebuffed all advances — even Tom Hanks’s.

On the eve of the show’s Los Angeles premiere five years ago, Gary Goetzman, Mr. Hanks’s partner in the production company Playtone, met with Ms. Craymer at the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills. Mr. Hanks’s star power wasn’t enough, though: Playtone received the same polite no as all the rest.

So the people at Playtone applied the full extent of their trademark charm. Mr. Hanks called Ms. Craymer to convey his personal interest in the project. Rita Wilson, his wife, sent her a note gushing about the production the couple had seen in London. Mr. Goetzman, the sort of Hollywood dude who’s partial to calling everyone he meets dude, kept in touch too, even paying a visit to her home in London last fall. All along, the message was low-key but clear: In Playtone’s hands the movie would be faithful to the campy, winking stage show, and the members of the main creative team behind the original would be full partners.

It wasn’t until last year that Ms. Craymer said she felt ready to go ahead with a movie, and by that time she had come to regard the folks at Playtone — who had since produced “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” — as friends. And uncommonly resourceful friends, at that: during his visit to her home, Mr. Goetzman arranged for Harrod’s to deliver her drink of choice (Champagne, Dom Perignon in this case) and his favored Belvedere vodka. When they failed to arrive, he rushed to the store — which had already closed for the night — and sweet-talked the security guards into letting him inside to find his parcel.

“I thought, I have to work with this man,” Ms. Craymer said. “No raised voice, no kicking in the door.” He and his colleagues simply got things done.

Over the last several years they have gotten a great deal done, quietly turning Playtone into one of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmaking entities. Mr. Hanks is characteristically self-deprecating about its growth. “It just happens. It’s not like I sat down and had a meeting on the Death Star with my crack advisers,” he said with a laugh, then lowered his voice into movie-villain mode: “Now, we make our move.”

On Friday the company’s animated feature “The Ant Bully” was released on 3,050 regular and Imax screens by Warner Brothers. Lined up behind it are nearly three dozen projects. The ambitious mix includes studio movies like “Mamma Mia!,” which is being developed with Ms. Craymer’s company and Universal Pictures; independent films like “Starter for Ten,” a British comedy about a working-class student; a sprawling HBO mini-series about President John Adams; and a big-screen production tentatively called “Baseball 3-D: The Imax Experience.”

Playtone has attracted top-tier talent to many of its projects. “Charlie Wilson’s War,” about a Texas Congressman who helped arm the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, stars Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman alongside Mr. Hanks, and is directed by Mike Nichols. “The Great Buck Howard,” about a young man who becomes a magician’s assistant, stars John Malkovich. And Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” is being turned into a movie directed by Spike Jonze.

All this as studios are slashing the number of actor-run production companies, many of which were little more than vanity projects, places for stars to hang their Kangol hats and pretend they were movie moguls. According to Variety, in 1998 some 60 actors, including Sylvester Stallone, Ice Cube, Jason Patric, Julia Ormond and Demi Moore, had production deals with studios; by last year that number had dwindled by half, and none of those actors still had deals. Meanwhile two of the leading companies — George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh’s Section 8 and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s Plan B — are dealing with aftereffects of divorces of the professional and personal kind. (Mr. Clooney recently announced that he would form a new company, Smoke House.)

Mr. Hanks was initially reluctant to be interviewed for this article. “Why would I want to — so I could see my name in the paper tomorrow?” he joked. “I get my name in the paper when I go out and buy socks. I go to Gray’s Papaya in New York and I’m on Defamer.com.” Both he and his partner said they hate to talk about themselves or their strategy. “We’re more for having fun and doing things that are important,” Mr. Goetzman said. “We just want to tell good stories.”

But associates and competitors were less reticent, identifying Playtone’s devotion to projects that reach above the lowest common denominator, as well as a light touch with its own celebrity, as reasons the company has flourished.

I THINK actors are motivated to make better movies,” said Michael Shamberg, co-chairman of Double Feature Films, who with his partner, Stacey Sher, ran Jersey Films with Danny DeVito for 13 years. “They don’t always succeed of course, but the last thing an actor-producer does is just package cheesy movies.”

That hyphenated role first emerged in 1919, when three of the silent era’s biggest stars — Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin — started United Artists, along with the director D. W. Griffith. As the studio system began to crumble in the late 1940’s and early 50’s, individual performers like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster formed companies, largely to produce their own star vehicles.

By the 1980’s the Creative Artists Agency (which represents Mr. Hanks and Playtone) and other top talent representatives made the studio production deal a routine component in a star’s career apparatus. In flush times studio executives were happy to spend a few hundred thousand dollars on an office, a development executive and some assistants if it also bought the loyalty of the star.

But it often didn’t. Actors, it turns out, go where the best parts and biggest paychecks are. And their passion projects weren’t always easy for the studios to swallow. “You have the worst of both worlds,” said Peter Guber, who cut many such deals as chairman and chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and who is now the chairman of Mandalay Entertainment Group and one of the host of “Sunday Morning Shootout” on AMC. “You have the ego of the actor, and they have your money.” Under the new Hollywood calculus — slowed revenue growth and increased corporate oversight — that combination no longer made sense.

But Playtone was something different: a company that had interest and experience in the nuts-and-bolts process of making successful movies. “They’re focused and precise,” said Donna Langley, president for production at Universal Pictures. “They don’t throw a lot of things up against the wall and see what sticks.”

Playtone’s roots stretch back to “Philadelphia,” the 1993 AIDS drama in which Mr. Hanks starred. He was in the midst of a career transformation, having gone from cross-dressing (in the sitcom “Bosom Buddies”) to comic run-ins with a mermaid (“Splash”), a donkey (“Bachelor Party”) and a giant danceable keyboard (“Big”).

Mr. Goetzman, who as a child played Dick Van Dyke’s son in “Divorce American Style,” had since made a name for himself in the music business, co-writing songs for Smokey Robinson and composing and producing songs for the likes of Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan and the Staple Singers. He was also learning the movie business, and was working on “Philadelphia” as executive producer. When Mr. Hanks made his writing and directing debut with “That Thing You Do!,” about a 1960’s pop band, he turned to Mr. Goetzman, not just to write some of the fictional group’s songs but to produce the movie.

After winning an Oscar for “Philadelphia,” Mr. Hanks went on to “Forrest Gump” (and another Oscar), “Apollo 13,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Green Mile” and “Cast Away,” thus cementing his position as a new generation’s Jimmy Stewart. And to capitalize on that position, in 1998 he and Mr. Goetzman formed Playtone, using the name of the record label in “That Thing You Do!” Mr. Hanks had had development deals in the past, but this time he had a real producer on his side. “Without that, there’s no reason to have an office,” Mr. Hanks said, “except to make long-distance calls and use the postage machine.”

Playtone currently has 18 employees in a Santa Monica office, a soon-to-be-renewed deal with Universal for about $2 million a year, and a record label with Sony BMG.

The first movie under the Playtone logo — “Cast Away,” based on an original idea by Mr. Hanks — took in more than $233 million at the domestic box office after its release by Fox and DreamWorks in 2000. But it was a film he never appeared in that proved the company’s true vitality.

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” Nia Vardalos’s comedy about a young Greek-American woman and her wacky extended family, found a champion in Ms. Wilson, who had seen Ms. Vardalos’s one-woman show in Los Angeles. But it was hard to raise enough money for even a small-budget version. HBO’s theatrical movie division, for example, had already passed. Then Chris Albrecht, who was then a top HBO executive and is now the cable channel’s chairman and chief executive, got a call from Mr. Goetzman. “He said, ‘I really want to do this. If I can get half of the $5 million, will you put up the rest?’ ” Mr. Albrecht recalled.

Mr. Albrecht said yes, though he hadn’t yet read the script.

It helped that HBO had worked with Mr. Hanks on the mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon” (for which Mr. Hanks did much of the writing). It had also joined with Playtone and Steven Spielberg to produce “Band of Brothers,” the $120 million mini-series about a rifle company in World War II. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” went on to make $241 million at the domestic box office.

Smooth working relationships — and substantial financial returns — have persuaded many of Playtone’s first-time partners to sign up for more. HBO turned to Playtone to handle the day-to-day production of “Big Love,” its dramatic series about a polygamist family in Utah. The two companies are also collaborating on a seven-hour mini-series about John Adams, and reuniting with Mr. Spielberg for a companion series to “Band of Brothers,” about the war in the Pacific. (Development of a sitcom based on “Lloyd: What Happened,” a satirical novel about the corporate world by Stanley Bing, dragged on for several years before the project died.)

Imax, another regular Playtone collaborator, created 3-D versions of “Polar Express” and the newly released “Ant Bully,” as well as the Imax original “Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D,” and is considering a more formal alliance with Playtone to produce shorter giant-screen films. “I want to hitch my wagon to them,” said Greg Foster, chairman and president of Imax Filmed Entertainment.

And Picturehouse, which is releasing “Starter for Ten,” is negotiating a distribution deal with Playtone for several films a year, each budgeted at less than $15 million, Mr. Goetzman said.

“Tell good stories for a good number,” he said, “and that is what’s really going to help the movie business more than anything.”

More than a few hard-boiled Hollywood veterans have been beguiled by what they describe, without embarrassment, as Playtone’s penchant for niceness.

A little less than four years ago, for instance, Diana Ossana found herself, along with her longtime collaborator Larry McMurtry, in Playtone’s Santa Monica offices. Mr. Hanks had read Mr. McMurtry’s post-Civil War novel, “Boone’s Lick,” on a camping trip in Idaho; when he got home he called the author to talk about turning it into a movie.

Five minutes into a subsequent meeting, Ms. Ossana said, Mr. McMurtry — a skeptic about business dealings — knew he wanted to work with the Playtone folks. It wasn’t the passion for manual typewriters that he and Mr. Hanks share. (The actor’s collection is on view at the company’s offices.) It was how serious and intelligent the Playtone executives seemed. And, Ms. Ossana said with a laugh, “they never interrupted when we spoke.”

The Playtone principals will, however, push back when necessary. One example: Mr. Goetzman argued that the polygamy stories in “Big Love” should not overwhelm the other aspects of the main character’s life. “He was kind of a lone voice in the room,” said Mr. Albrecht, who sided with Mr. Goetzman.

But they are loyal, said Mike Nichols, who starts production on “Charlie Wilson’s War” in September: “Whatever wall would come up at the studio, they would find a way around it. Tom will say, instead of getting into a long negotiation, ‘Take it out of mine.’ Or Gary will say, ‘We’ll give in on that.’ ”

Though Mr. Hanks and Mr. Goetzman profess discomfort with discussing their creative choices, certain interests and themes are clear. American history, from the Revolutionary War to modern days, for instance, has driven many acquisitions, including the recent purchase of the movie rights to David McCullough’s best seller “1776” and David Maraniss’s Vietnam War book, “They Marched Into Sunlight.”

“The thing about Tom is that he happens to be a movie star, but he could have been the greatest history professor you’ve ever had,” said Nora Ephron, who directed him in “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.”

A love for music shows up in movies like “Mamma Mia!” and Jonathan Demme’s documentary “Neil Young: Heart of Gold.” And well-known children’s books to which they have aqcuired the movie rights, like “Amelia Bedelia” and “The Spider and the Fly” define another niche.

Playtone also has what some describe as a commitment to classic storytelling: “Main characters who go through some sort of awakening and become proactive in their lives,” said Cary Granat, president of the Anschutz Film Group, which through its Walden Media and Bristol Bay units is producing two movies with Playtone, “City of Ember” and “The Great Buck Howard.” In “The Ant Bully,” a young boy takes out his frustrations on an anthill. But when he’s shrunk down to the size of the ants, he must help save them from the annihilating spray of a bug-ridden exterminator.

While Playtone’s movies may strive to be about more than rollicking car chases, saw-wielding maniacs or flatulence jokes, that doesn’t mean the company sneers at commercial viability. “I don’t think they’d ever want to do a movie that didn’t do well,” said Mr. Foster of Imax.

Or as Mr. Guber said of Mr. Hanks: “He’s not going to do the movie about a proctologist from Mars. Unless it’s starring Adam Sandler.”

By Lorne Manly

Source : Collider