The Wall Street Journal: Hollywood’s Anonymous Power Player


Steve Golin

Steve Golin: Hollywood’s Anonymous Power Player

From WSJ, by John Jurgensen

Producer Steve Golin won’t stand out among the movie stars at the Academy Awards on Feb. 28, but his work will.

“The Revenant,” a film he put together—and helped survive during a dicey wilderness shoot—goes in with 12 nominations, more than any other film. It’s vying for best picture against seven other movies, including another top contender Mr. Golin and his team shepherded, “Spotlight.” The true tale of journalists exposing the Catholic Church’s coverup of abuse has six nominations.

For Anonymous Content, the low-profile producer’s aptly named company, the Oscar showing represents more than a coming-out party. It’s the result of a multitentacled business model and a perpetual willingness to pivot quickly in response to shifting industry dynamics. The 60-year-old producer, who is dyslexic and uses an iPad app that reads scripts aloud at double time, started with straight-to-video schlock like “Hard Rock Zombies.” Producing influential MTV videos and commercials in the 1980s and ’90s fueled his company’s rise in movies.

Anonymous Content also assembled the popular dramas “True Detective,” “The Knick” and “Mr. Robot,” which won a Golden Globe for best TV drama on the same night “The Revenant” dominated the film categories.

Though his company is just one hub in Hollywood’s sprawling machinery of financiers, talent agencies, production companies and distributors, Mr. Golin’s career mirrors the changes reshaping the industry.

He has long specialized in small and midsize films, from “Being John Malkovich” to “The Meddler,” an April release starring Susan Sarandon as a busybody mom. There’s little room left for movies like that in a market ruled by megabudget superhero pictures and franchise sequels. Though his films have brought Anonymous Content plenty of glory and new business this awards season, Mr. Golin says, “I wouldn’t want to make my living doing them.”

He turned elsewhere, five years ago, when he saw “House of Cards” sold to Netflix as a two-season package complete with movie stars and director David Fincher. He told his staff to double down on its then-slight television business. Anonymous expects to have 11 series on the air this year, including new shows on Netflix, Hulu and cable channels such as Starz. While a movie is usually a one-off for production fees and other revenue, TV shows can keep on giving over numerous seasons.

Anonymous is a rare example of a production company that moved into talent management. The company manages some 500 actors ( Emma Stone, Samuel L. Jackson), directors (Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh) and writers (Nic Pizzolatto of “True Detective,” Pulitzer-Prize winner Brian Yorkey). By making relationships with strong creators a cornerstone, Mr. Golin’s independent company became a busy conduit for scripts and nascent projects, which in turn fuel the company’s production pipeline. Meanwhile, the company earns the most cash, as it always has, from making TV commercials.

“It’s a virtuous cycle,” Mr. Golin says, using a phrase his employees echo in the L.A.-area headquarters where his petite mutt, Friday, roams the polished concrete halls and a plush screening room anchors a new wing. “Virtuous cycle” is now part of the pitch investment bank Guggenheim Partners is using as it looks for a big media partner to help extend Anonymous Content’s international reach and access to the best material. As the company accelerates and Mr. Golin’s staff takes more autonomy, quality control is a challenge.

Mr. Golin says that while he wants to step back a little as his company grows, he wants it to diversify, going into genres where modest-budget projects can still pop, including comedies, young-adult movies and action films like “Triple 9,” a police-heist movie with Casey Affleck and Chiwetel Ejiofor opening Feb. 26.

At the Anonymous offices in Culver City near the old MGM studio lot, gift-wrapped boxes of champagne were ready to be sent out to award recipients. Down the hall, at a weekly all-hands meeting, about 30 managers and producers sat at a square conference table with an open center.

They ate a catered lunch as they watched a reel of the company’s latest ads and movie trailers, then took turns briefing the group on the status of their clients and projects, a list that filled 16 pages.

Clients who were tied up on jobs, such as Patty Jenkins, busy directing “Wonder Woman,” were listed as “unavail.”

Manager Bard Dorros mentioned an imminent trip to the Sundance Film Festival with client Nate Parker, whose slave-rebellion film “Birth of a Nation” was “one of the movies everybody’s excited about, and hopefully it will sell.” It would—for $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight, a record sum for a film at Sundance.

Others were looking for the next job. Joking about an A-list client, one manager said, “He wants to go back to work in April, make a movie and be paid a lot of money. We support all those agendas, and we’ll find him something fabulous.”

“The Revenant” was on and off the table at such meetings for 11 years, since Anonymous producer Keith Redmon first optioned the novel, a 19th-century frontier revenge tale written by client Michael Punke. Several directors circled it before Mr. Golin landed it with Alejandro G. Iñárritu, with whom he first worked in 2001 on an online film for BMW, and later on the film “Babel.” The project lingered on as lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio went off to make “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which gave Mr. Iñárritu time to direct “Birdman” (which went on to win four Oscars last year, including best picture and director).

A big movie shoot typically involves about 15 camera setups a day. “The Revenant” crew, shooting in remote mountain locations in Calgary, could only accomplish one or two because of the creators’ decision to use natural light and shoot the film in sequence. They often had only 90 minutes of the right light to nail their shot. If bad or inconsistent weather scuttled it, Mr. Golin recalls, “I’d have to call the studio and say, ‘We didn’t get anything today.’ That’s $300,000 out the window. We were on a trapeze with no net.”

Billionaire Arnon Milchan’s New Regency, the production company footing the bill, hung in as the movie’s expected $100 million budget grew to $135 million. Last March, the shoot had to shut down in Calgary. “We were completely out of snow and couldn’t finish the movie,” recalls Mary Parent, another producer.

Pressure mounted as Mr. Iñárritu began editing a movie that hadn’t shot an ending, and Mr. DiCaprio and co-star Tom Hardy put their schedules (and woodsman beards) on hold.

In July, when scouts found a similar landscape with snow in Patagonia, the production revved up again there to shoot a climactic face-off.

The movie is a sustained hit with more than $150 million at the box office. Mr. Golin spent almost every day on the high-altitude set, except when he was visiting the “Spotlight” shoot in Boston and Toronto.

“It was an amazing experience and one that I never want to do again. If ‘The Revenant’ didn’t turn out it would have been ‘Heaven’s Gate,’” he says, referring to the 1980 Western that bankrupted a studio and remains a cautionary tale about bloated would-be epics that flop.

As Mr. Golin steps back from the trenches, he’s focusing on the mentor’s role of “producing producers,” such as Anonymous staffer Joy Gorman, who worked with him on two movies before orchestrating the new Netflix teen-suicide drama “13 Reasons Why.” Other lieutenants include Doug Wald, whose client Michael Keaton gave “Spotlight” a big nudge toward the starting line when he signed on.

Michael Sugar, who first brought “Spotlight” to Anonymous, recalls his first day in 2005 as a fledgling manager. He randomly saw a DVD of young director Cary Fukunaga’s work and got Mr. Golin’s permission to take a red-eye to New York and sign him. Nearly a decade later, Anonymous paired Mr. Fukunaga with screenwriter client Nic Pizzolatto and brought them to HBO for the breakthrough first season of “True Detective.”

Mr. Golin grew up in a bedroom community north of New York City, where he had only a passing interest in movies: “I only knew who Hitchcock was because he had a TV show.”

He graduated from high school giving little thought to his career and ended up in New York University’s film program. An excitement for moviemaking kindled, and he went to California for a fellowship program at the American Film Institute.

He came out of school as the home-video market was exploding, and learned the ropes on straight-to-VHS flicks like “American Drive-In.” In 1986 he co-founded Propaganda Films, representing more in-demand directors, including Propaganda co-founder David Fincher and rising star Michael Bay.

In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, music videos by Propaganda directors dominated MTV. Advertisers wanted to work with them, too, so the company began producing commercials. This led to higher-profile movies, including Madonna’s “Truth or Dare” and David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart.”

Propaganda had success with auteur films such as 1999’s “Being John Malkovich,” based on a high-concept script that seemed impossible to produce. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman recalls, “Every meeting I had contained the phrase ‘This will never get made.’ “

Mr. Golin leveraged the reputation that director Spike Jonze had in the music-video and ad business to recruit stars, which attracted funding. A similar route led to director Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” also written by Mr. Kaufman.

The writer, who says Mr. Golin is the kind of producer who makes good calls on creative matters, describes him as “human,” no small compliment in an industry with a surplus of big egos. “He genuinely seemed to appreciate what I do, not whether he could make money off it,” Mr. Kaufman says.

Mr. Golin is particularly fond of “Eternal Sunshine” and its “weird melancholy,” in part because the shoot coincided with his recovery from bone cancer after a year of radiation, chemotherapy and surgery to remove his left shoulder blade.

The producer’s career has survived disaster, too. He lost control of Propaganda after its parent company was sold to Seagram. When he founded Anonymous Content in 1999, he raided his previous company for talent out of spite, he says. In 2008, Anonymous was in the midst of a big campaign for General Motors when the economic crash brought advertising to a halt.

But there are always second chances. He recalls getting close to a green light for a love story of magical realism with then-married Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon attached. Fourteen years later, after hearing that the script is available again, the producer wants to make another run at “The Flying Smiths” with fresh talent.

“I start thinking about that, and I get all excited again,” he says, “You get a director, some actors and go.”