Jerry Weintraub is 75, but he has no interest in retiring to the golf course. For him, that’s work. He’d rather be making movies.
The legendary Hollywood producer has spent the past 55 years managing talent. He took Elvis and Sinatra on the road. He has Nashville, The Karate Kid and the Ocean’s Eleven films on his résumé. And after 55 years in the business, he has struck gold yet again as producer of the recent HBO hit Behind the Candelabra. The biopic of Liberace scored 15 Emmy nominations and has been sold to markets worldwide.
“I’m at a point in my life now where I’m not supposed to be producing,” Mr. Weintraub said in an interview in Victoria, where he was a featured speaker at the annual Global Summit of Leaders conference.
“It was a big deal for me, from a life standpoint. It’s nice to be 75 and have success, and still be relevant, which happens to be the title of my new book, 76 and Still Relevant. I’m still selling.”
Mr. Weintraub runs with a pretty exclusive crowd, counting as friends the likes of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon, but he’s more businessman than celebrity.
In the past, he has referred to himself as a marketing guy who knows how to sell things, and he credits his father for his “hereditary” skills.
While he takes issue with the characterization of Hollywood as a “snake pit,” it’s an industry that values youth. Actors and directors are often only as good as their last film or show, and new trends can leave a lot of people behind.
“The reason I’ve survived, and the reason other people have survived, is because they have talent,” Mr. Weintraub said. “It’s different than most businesses because not only do you have to be a businessman, you have to be creative at the same time. And you have to be able to communicate well ….
“The people who work on my films, and who work with me, put complete faith in me as a businessman, and me as a creative entity. So if you have those two attributes, you can be very successful in Hollywood, in the film business, and in the entertainment business in general. If you don’t have those, you will not be, and you won’t last, and you won’t have a fulfilling career.”
Tanned and fit, Mr. Weintraub has a relaxed and easy-going manner, a natural charisma honed by years of networking and storytelling. He’s not shy about professing his talent (“Am I great salesman? Yeah, I’m a great salesman”) or his influence.
“I have friends in every country in the world, in villages and cities. I can get anything done with a telephone,” he said. “Things people dream about, I can get done in a hour. It can take them 20 years.”
One thing he did have a tough time with was raising the money to make Behind the Candelabra. The movie studios, he said, loved the script, but they didn’t want to commit to the project. Director Steven Soderbergh has said that Hollywood executives “basically said it was too gay,” and Mr. Weintraub agreed that the subject matter might have been the issue, adding that the accountants didn’t think the studios would get their money back.
HBO came on board, along with stars Michael Douglas and Mr. Damon; the film made its début at Cannes this year, and it was a critical success to boot. Speaking of which, said Mr. Weintraub, the studios are all “kicking themselves in the behind.”
But more importantly, in his opinion, Behind the Candelabra was a game changer. “You’re going to see a lot of films going on to cable television – like Netflix, Showtime, HBO and Hulu – and then those films will go theatrical around the world,” he said. “It’s important from a business point of view because I own the film in the other markets, and it’s selling very well, it’s doing great around the world. At the end of the day I make more money.”
The impact of the Internet on the television and movie industries, he pointed out, is “all anybody talks about” in Hollywood. Is it a category killer? Absolutely not, Mr. Weintraub insists.
The same argument, he explained, was made about films when the first TV set was delivered. More eyeballs means more dollars, no matter how those eyeballs are viewing. “Everybody talks about looking at movies on their watch. Who cares? I don’t care where you watch the product as long as you watch it.”
So Mr. Weintraub is not getting any closer to that dreaded golf course. He still has work to do. There are five series in the HBO pipeline, his latest book will be published on his birthday, Sept. 26, and he’s working on a movie reboot of Tarzan.
“I obviously have some kind of sixth sense to choose stuff that works – and I’m not supposed to know what works now because I’m too old.”
His ‘a-ha’ moment
“When I was 26, I started with $500, and $500 was a stretch at the time. I had Elvis and we started a tour in Miami Beach and we ended in San Diego. When I got to San Diego, I walked into the venue and my accountants came over and said: ‘Do you know how much money you’ve made on this tour?’ I said, ‘No, I have no idea, I just know we’ve been sold out of all the sessions we’re doing and everything’s great.’ And they said, ‘Well, you have $3-million in the bank.’ I said, ‘I have what? ... That’s not possible.’
I remember pulling back the curtain from backstage and I looked at all the people in the arena, 20,000 people, and it hit me. I said to myself, ‘My God, my life is never going to be the same. It’s changed. I got it. I did it.’
Advice for aspiring producers
“There’s no school to go to, to become a movie producer. If you find a piece of material that you’re in love with, that you care about, that you think is going to work, get in the ring and fight it out. Don’t stop until you win.”
Hollywood in the 1970s, and now
“The films made today, by and large, are films for kids, because that’s who goes to the movies. You go to the movies to have experiences with other kids. But the television business and the cable network business has picked up the slack. ... The great content – the great writers, the great directors, the great producers, the great filmmakers – are working in television as well as in film. … There’s more money in it now than motion pictures. And you’re not just appealing to a young audience, you’re appealing to everybody.”
Why the big names work with him
“They work with me over and over again because they like working with me, because I’m fair and because we get along. I protect them and they protect me. And at the end of the day we have something that works.”
How he chooses his projects
“I get involved in projects that interest me, that I think are different and exciting, and excite me creatively. It doesn’t mean I haven’t let things go that I should have made, or shouldn’t have made. I have my share of the pie, or my share of Hollywood, or my share of Broadway, or my share of the music business. Wherever my tastes are, are what I give to the public.”