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By Myles Ludwig
Inside film producer John Daly's Brentwood home, nestled in the hills above Los Angeles, an autographed photo speaks eloquently of his ability to bring out the best in people. The photo shows Muhammad Ali poised in the center of the ring, a defeated young George Foreman sprawled at his feet on the canvas. The inscription, written boldly in silver ink by The Greatest himself, reads: "John, you told me I could do it. Kindness to others is the rent we pay for our room on earth."
Daly's room on earth seems vast indeed. Extending from steamy Kinsasha in Zaire, where he promoted the historic "Rumble In The Jungle," to the Forbidden City of Beijing, where the Oscar-winning Best Picture "The Last Emperor" was made under Daly's aegis, it also encompasses the torpid jungles of the Philippines that stood in for Vietnam in "Platoon," yet another Academy Award-winning Daly project.
For a shrewd businessman, Daly is characterized by his largesse, and Robert Littman, a Hollywood agent, testifies to it. "When I was just starting out, I was representing James Mason on this side of the Atlantic," Littman says. "He had another agent for Europe. His career was languishing and I made a deal for him to co-star in a picture John was producing for a $200,000 fee. It was scheduled to be shot in Mexico, but at the 11th hour, the location was changed to Spain," the province of Mason's European agent. "Mason refused to pay me a commission," says Littman, "but when John heard about it, he sent me a check for $20,000."
Daly has been producing independent films in the tinsel jungles of Hollywood since long before the "indie" picture became a cause celebre. As financier, producer/executive producer, and once motivating force behind a large production company, he can take credit for bringing to screens around the world such films as Cannes Film Festival award-winner "Images," as well as "Terminator," "The Falcon and the Snowman," "Hoosiers," "At Close Range," "Chattahoochee," "Vincent and Theo," "Tommy," and Oliver Stone's "Salvador."
Now, having navigated through a period of professional and personal turbulence ("I've been observing for the past five years"), Daly is back in the ring as an IP producer. Operating out of his home with an administrative assistant and a business aide, he's producing six pictures in the U.S. and the U.K.
Making movies is expensive, and expenses are harder to meet when you're without the help of a major studio budget. To keep the cost below the $80 million-a-picture common in Hollywood today, Daly will shoot them on High-Definition Digital Video instead of on film.
"Studio budgets are bound by guidelines and restrictions that don't necessarily apply to independents," he explains as we ride in his sleek charcoal-green Bentley Turbo R with saddle-leather seats and burlwood trim. He's talking about the difference between making a picture on his own and as part of a big studio bureaucracy, or, for that matter, for one of Hollywood's quasi-independent production companies, which tend to be vanity operations or boutique divisions of the studios.
"The studios typically have millions tied up in the development of 20-30 projects and hope to pick maybe six or eight to do," Daly says. "Only one in 20 is successful. As an independent, I do the development work and come in with off-the-balance-sheet funding. But I take all the risk, trying to lay off as much as possible through sales to foreign markets, government subsidies, cable guarantees... You have to know where all the money comes from, from the ticket takers at the multiplexes right on through.
"There's the classic story of the young executive who's doing a deal with Dino DeLaurentis, the past grand master of [financing film production]. The executive says, 'No doubt, Mr. DeLaurentis, you'll want a share of net profits.' And DeLaurentis answers, rather imperiously: 'Net is for fishes, young man.'
"Each picture is different," Daly continues. "Each one is like a mini-corporation."
In this case, the IP producer functions as a CEO. He assembles the project team -- actors, director, technicians, specialists -- for the picture and oversees every element, from funding through production to marketing. "It's about turning money into dreams," he says wryly.
"How does a project get from conversation to cinema?" I ask.
"First, you have to investigate it thoroughly. A lot of people claim they've got Jack Nicholson in their picture and half the money. You find out 'half the money' is actually your half and Jack, well, he never heard of the project. That's showbiz. It doesn't phase me."
"This makes it seem more like the money business than like the movie business," I say.
"That's exactly why I want to be doing HDDV. I can make creative decisions based on the material, rather than on money exclusively."
It's the material, and the passion of the people involved in shaping it, that most excite Daly.
His workday begins early, before 7 a.m., usually with a phone call to business aide Mark Tolnar. The daily routine involves reading scripts, viewing completed or partial films, lunching with actors at the Sunset Plaza Cafe (one of his unofficial offices), and responding to the frequent chirp of his cell phone.
Today, a sunny but brisk spring morning, is about the business of the business, however. Daly's in deal-seeking mode.
He strides jauntily across the marble-floored lobby of a deluxe boutique hotel in Bel Aire at 9:00 a.m., dressed in a slate-blue linen suit and dark olive linen shirt, no tie. He's trim and his gray hair is parted in the middle and slicked back to curl over his collar, framing the long oval of his gray, stubbled face. I notice he's wearing brown patchwork-leather boots. The stubble and the boots add a raffish touch. He's carrying a couple of scripts and a black alligator zippered diary.
Tolnar, a distribution executive, and two principals of the PR agency seeking Daly's account are already ensconced in the banquette of the lemon-and-cream-colored dining room, which is conservatively decorated with oriental jars and gilt-framed monoprints and drawings. Daly takes a seat at the head of the table. "I'm in turnaround," he jokes. "Making a bit of a comeback."
The banter dwindles, Daly confers quickly with Tolnar, takes off his jacket, and swings it over the back of the chair. "All right, my love," he says to the PR lady, launching into a description of his plans.
Even when he appears to be sitting calmly, I can see that Daly is a man in motion. He says little and speaks quietly. He has a way of making people feel like collaborators. Hype doesn't stick to him. Even his enthusiasm is underplayed. "Let's do it; let's get it going," has been his mantra deal after deal: movies, television ideas, soundtrack recordings, corporate mergers, stock opportunities, pay-per-view concerts.
Household names and multi-million-dollar figures pepper the conversation. Daly has a kind word for everyone, including parking attendants and waiters, and endless amusing anecdotes.
The meeting moves from dining room to patio, patio to Bentley, Bentley to the living room of Daly's Brentwood home. He greets the pets when he walks in: "Hallo birdies, hallo doggies." He ducks into the office where shelves are piled high with scripts, then out into the garden where three rambunctious dogs bark at him affectionately.
"Life's a challenge," he muses. "Keeps you on your toes. The challenge keeps me going. I don't have to keep working, but life would get pretty boring without it. It all comes down to doing what you enjoy doing."
In a moment he's spinning an idea for a new movie. He sketches the plot. I'm drawn in by his enthusiasm. "Fantastic! C'mon, we'll write it; we'll get it going!" he says. I feel the force of his charisma. It's not mere industrial-strength persistence. It's inspirational: "John, you told me I could do it."
Next thing we're back in the Bentley, crawling along the traffic-choked freeway to Century City, where we'll make a quick stop to sign some documents before heading back to the hotel for a light lunch with a foreign investor.
As the shadows lengthen, we move into the hotel lounge for yet another meeting. Throughout the day, Daly's been attentive to his associates, as if they were guests at his moveable feast. He darts out, returning with a bowl of strawberries and whipped cream, coffee, plates of cookies...
By 5 o'clock I'm flagging. All the talk has exhausted me. I feel like it's sucked up an awful lot of LA's limited air supply. But the frenzy has had the opposite effect on John Daly. As he leaves the hotel, there's a spring in his step.
Edited by Eric Gershon
Illustration by Lawrence San
Production by Keith Gendel
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Myles Ludwig is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. If you'd like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with him, or with anyone named in this article.