Legendary Studio Executive David Picker speaks at the 51st New York Film Festival

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For four decades, David Picker was a film executive at many of the greatest studios including Paramount, Columbia, and most notably, United Artists during the height of its New Hollywood dominance. A third-generation cinephile, Picker garnered multiple producer nominations and wins from the Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globes.  In Must, Maybes, and Nevers: A Book About the Movies, he writes about his fascinating career, telling real stories about the decisions he made and the notorious cinema greats with whom he worked. Those stories are full of humor but don't shy away from portraying his colleagues'' less honorable traits. Promising Woody Allen to produce his darkest film only after the filmmaker delivered United Artists four others first, cutting down Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World from four hours to two and half, and fortuitously signing the Beatles to a movie deal right before their popularity soared are only a few of the tales this author tells about how such a coterie of amazing films came to be made.  Picker relates his failures as well, including being unable to convince his bosses that United Artists should produce American Graffiti, thus losing themselves any chance at the Star Wars franchise. 

Must, Maybes, and Nevers is about more than entertaining stories of Hollywood history, however. It's about how a film executive deftly wrangles incendiary personalities, creative visions, and budgets to create box-office masterpieces that please audiences. As Peter Bart wrote in his review of the book on Variety.com, being a film executive is "a perilous job." His review highlights the international connections Picker made with geniuses such as Ingmar Bergman and John Schlesinger. Some relationships, such as United Artists' partnership with Robert Altman, were more difficult, but Picker went with his gut at all times, gaining the trust and respect of the filmmakers he brought into the fold.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center, in collaboration with the Producers Guild of America, arranged for this intimate conversation with David during the 51st New York Fim Festival.  In this panel discussion, Picker opens up about his family's history in cinema, including learning from his uncle, Arnold Picker, who preceded him at United Artists. He shares how his uncle, along with United Artists' heads Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, led the transition from a studio-based dominance of filmmaking into one where creative control was given to the filmmakers themselves. An inside view of the negotiations that led to the acquisition of the Bond franchise is especially of interest, as is his account of his first meeting with Ingmar Bergman.  

Must, Maybes, and Nevers is a compendium of movie trivia not to be missed, but it also offers an insightful look into the film magic that goes on beyond the camera and in boardrooms and bars from one of Hollywood's most well-respected executives.

 

David Picker recounts the historic shift in United Artists' approach to making films that occurred right before he started in the industry. The studio moved from approving every detail of a film to allowing filmmakers to deliver their work without studio interference as long as they stayed within budget. The success of the new policy was proven with Oscar winners Around the World in 80 Days and Marty.

 

Picker recounts how his uncle, Arnold Picker, made the smart moves needed to win international success in filmmaking when he joined United Artists. His strategy was to make local pictures in those countries first, thus building up the brand. David Picker was later able to make deals from the foundation his uncle had laid overseas. 

 

Picker's early days working with Max Youngstein, his mentor at United Artists, were a joy.  Max never stayed at a job for long, but he stayed with UA for 11 years. When he left, Picker ended up as the head of production and marketing—but he didn't end up with his salary.

 

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Taking a chance on the first script he read after being promoted really paid off. Picker discusses how the cross-collateralization strategy resulted in a two-picture deal with Tony Richardson and an Oscar for that first film, which was Tom Jones. Picker also jokes about how the Academy disallowed producers from accepting Oscars for filmmakers after he did just that for Richardson. 

 

 

The strategy of building trust in foreign markets led to Picker working with many of the world's greatest filmmakers. In this clip, he remembers Ingmar Bergman's agent Paul Kohner and how allowing him to conduct business with other studios by phone in the other room led to one of the most rewarding meetings of Picker's career

 

Picker and his United Artist colleagues went to pains to keep their meeting with Ingmar Bergman a secret. He describes Bergman's intimidating office, his attractiveness, and what happened at that first meeting.

 

Bergman's fourth film with UA didn't have the same feel as his previous works. Picker hedged on giving Bergman his opinion, but he shared it honestly, which Bergman respected. Bergman's prediction that he would care for five whole minutes if it was poorly received came true.

 

Picker gives his family's history in cinema, starting with his grandfather's borrowed $500 for opening a nickelodeon in the Bronx. He explains his grandfather's vision of everyone having two businesses: their own and the movies.

 

Because Picker had read one of Ian Fleming's books on his cousin's husband's recommendation, he knew better than to let the opportunity pass when Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman approached him with the rights to the films. Columbia Pictures was not so lucky.

 

United Artists had produced a few movies with Dick Lester already, but one of his shorts showcased a completely different style that Picker knew meant Lester was the man for the first Beatles film. He admits that anyone could have made a successful Beatles film but maintains that only Dick Lester could have made A Hard Day's Night.

 

At the Cannes showing of Mademoiselle, Picker watched from the back of the room with Tony Richardson. The French audience hated the film and turned on it fast, but Richardson's response was surprisingly low-key…because he'd anticipated the reaction and taken a few valium beforehand. 

 

Picker answers a question about what inspires him about film today by recalling his recent viewing of Gravity. He knows the producer's father and e-mailed him to share how proud he should be of his son. Having those connections enable Picker to take satisfaction from today's best films.

 

As part of UA's five-picture deal with Woody Allen, all he had to do was describe his movies in three sentences to get a go from the film executives. When he described his first as about a clarinetist with a cocaine problem, Picker readily green-lit it…for the fifth of the five pictures.

 

The first movie David Picker saw was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. His father played it at their nickelodeon for his birthday. Picker was terrified of the evil queen and ran out of the room screaming, which gave Musts, Maybes, and Nevers its provisional title: I Ran Screaming Out of the Projection Room

 

 

 

 

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