Robert Newman knows every movie theater in Los Angeles—where it is, what kind of seating it has, how many trailers it shows. Six of those theaters are on his speed dial. The numbers link him not to a recording but to a person who can tell him how big the screens are, which shows are most crowded. He loves crowds. He has never understood private screening rooms. He won’t watch a movie with just ten people if he can help it. He tries to see everything, preferably on opening weekend. If he hates a movie and walks out, at least he got a feeling for the audience, what the vibe was. “You walk in,” he says. “You have a point of view. The trailers go on. Okay. Done. Count me in.”
Most people think agents like Newman are soulless hucksters, chameleons, shape-shifters, Sammy Glicks. Insincerity of the “love ya, baby” variety is commonplace in Hollywood, and agents—conduits who connect actors, directors, and writers to movie studios and television networks—are usually masters of the art. For them, phoniness can be a skill, a way of manipulating whomever they’re addressing.
No wonder agent jokes never go out of style. There are jokes about aggressiveness (What’s the difference between a pit bull and an agent? Jewelry) and about disloyalty (What’s the difference between a bantam rooster and an agent? A rooster clucks defiance. An agent fucks da clients). There are jokes that cast agents as unctuous (Two agents meet at a dinner where Sophia Loren is receiving an award. First agent: “Why Sophia Loren? She’s so over.” Second agent: “She’s my client.” First agent, without missing a beat: “Let me finish”). The most biting jokes skewer agents for ignoring their clients (A screenwriter comes home to find a pile of smoldering rubble where his house used to be. “Your agent came to your house,” a policeman tells him, “slaughtered your family, burned your home to the ground, and then danced on the rubble in hobnailed boots.” The screenwriter looks dazed. Then his face brightens: “My agent came to my house?”).
Newman, who is 44, is head of International Creative Management’s motion picture literary department, which means he leads a 25-agent team that shepherds the careers of about 250 directors and screenwriters in exchange for 10 percent of their earnings. Newman’s list includes actors Lucy Liu and Jet Li and the Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Hodge. But he is best known for representing directors, many of whom are widely considered the Industry’s most vibrant and original. Among them: Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids), Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge), Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia), Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie), Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty), Wayne Wang (Smoke), Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides), Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End), Alex Proyas (The Crow), Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove), and Todd Solondz (Happiness).
“If Robert Newman opened a movie studio with just his clients, it’d be a kick-ass studio,” says Mike De Luca, the production chief of DreamWorks SKG. Still, neither his clientele nor his job title fully conveys the singular place Newman occupies in the Hollywood firmament. It’s not that Newman is more intimidating than other agents. The guys at Endeavor Agency, for example, who give out Louisville sluggers as agency Christmas gifts, cultivate a tougher image than the wiry Newman could ever hope to pull off. It’s not that he’s the next hot young player at Creative Artists Agency or William Morris or United Talent. Last year, when Details magazine listed 12 “Special Agents” 35 and younger who “have made the town forget Mike Ovitz,” Newman was too old to be included. What sets Newman apart is this: Of the hundreds of agent jokes, not one applies to him.
Robert Newman’s handshake swoops toward you, his thumb rigidly perpendicular to his fingers, and it culminates in a single tug, firm but brief, as if he’s ringing a bell. The effect is assertive and a bit playful. “Newman here!” he says by way of greeting. His good-bye is simply “Later!”
Newman has a bouncy intensity, like a Doberman puppy. He has a balding head and a slightly maniacal grin that make him resemble John Malkovich’s younger, geekier brother. Once, at a movie premiere in Los Angeles, someone mistook him for Malkovich and began pitching a script idea. Newman just let him talk. In a business that pays lots of attention to the markers of success—where an expensive car or a new, younger wife helps establish one’s place in the pecking order—Newman drives a BMW 525i, no clunker but certainly no Porsche. He has loved the same woman since he was 19 years old. While other agents fight to get their names included in Daily Variety‘s stories about their clients, Newman insists that his be omitted.
“Robert doesn’t seem to be packaged like the other guys,” Lee Tamahori told me just before the James Bond sequel Die Another Day—a directing job Newman got him—became America’s number one movie. “In a town of people who fake being interesting,” says writer-director Greg Berlanti, another longtime Newman client, “he is the genuine article.”
What makes Newman a “rare bird” among agents, as one studio executive puts it, is his deep, abiding, obsessive love of film. It’s an obsession he’s had since he was a kid growing up in Brooklyn who dragged his friends to see Buster Keaton, Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski, Mel Brooks, and Akira Kurosawa. Newman wrote his film school thesis on Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which he saw for the first time at age ten. He’s watched it 19 times since.
Ask Newman to describe the last night he saw his mother, or how he courted his wife, or why being profiled in this magazine makes him uncomfortable, and he will start with a movie. Throw out a title, and he can tell you where in the theater he was sitting when he saw it. He was 8 when he saw Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (in Coney Island), 9 when he saw Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (at Manhattan’s 34th Street East), 13 when he saw John Boorman’s Deliverance (at Loew’s Tower East), 15 when he saw Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (at the Paramount), and 20 when he saw Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (at Loew’s State). Other than his family, Newman cares about nothing more than entering a darkened theater and watching what unfolds. Movies are not just a job. They are, for him, a way of making sense of the world.
Newman’s name may not be known outside the entertainment industry, but moviegoers all over the country have felt his impact. Not since the emergence of the blockbuster in the late 1970s has the auteur director had such opportunity in Hollywood. Newman is part of the reason why. As much as any agent, he has helped link maverick filmmakers to the cash and distribution muscle of the major studios. Sometimes this has meant brokering deals that enable a director to bring his own off-kilter vision to the screen—Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas is just one example. Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is another. Other times Newman has married independent filmmakers with big-budget mainstream projects. Not everyone sees this as progress—the consensus on 2000’s The Beach, the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle, was that the director, Danny Boyle, had failed to live up to the promise of his heralded black comedy Trainspotting. Similarly, most people who saw 1997’s Alien: Resurrection, the fourth installment of the Fox horror franchise, agreed that director Jean-Pierre Jeunet was, as one critic put it, “oh-so-wrong” for the project. Still, there’s no question that over the last decade, Newman has made America a vastly more interesting place in which to go to the movies.
“So many people are just ‘Can I get $17 million for the next sequel?’ Robert takes a much more long-term view,” says Miramax cofounder Harvey Weinstein, who gave Newman his first job out of film school in 1981. “He thinks like a marketing executive and an agent at the same time. He’s intimately involved in selling the movie, getting his directors to promote the movie, and generally leaving no stone unturned so that there is success at the end of the day.” The result, Weinstein says: “He can get projects made that another agent couldn’t.”
Robert Newman is on location, staring down a dead horse. The bloodied animal—a stuffed prop—lies in the back of a pickup truck, its tail hanging over the tailgate. Chester, as the film crew has nicknamed him, has just been hauled out of a bloody swimming pool—you can see the matted path where he was dragged across the lawn. Even when the actor Dennis Quaid strolls by smoking a Camel, it’s hard not to focus on Chester.
“Poor Chester! We’ve been trying to make flies land, so we’ve been pouring honey on him,” Mike Figgis says, welcoming Newman to the set of Cold Creek Manor, a thriller starring Quaid, Sharon Stone, and Stephen Dorff. Newman put Figgis up for this job, which is shooting about an hour’s drive west of Toronto, and the director looks pleased to see him.
It is early September, the cicadas are thrumming, and Figgis is amazed, he says, to find himself already a third of the way through a 64-day shoot. After all, it was just March when Newman walked up to Nina Jacobson, Disney’s head of production, and floated Figgis’s name. Movies often take years to put together. To go from an agent’s initial query to “Roll cameras!” in less than five months is unusually quick.
It started at a party thrown by another star agent at ICM, Ed Limato, who represents some of Hollywood’s biggest names. Limato’s annual bash, held the Friday of Oscar weekend, is one of the most exclusive in town. All Oscar nominees are invited, as are favored clients and studio brass. Newman was there, standing next to the buffet, when he spotted Jacobson. “I’d read the script—it was written by Richard Jefferies, an ICM client—so I said to Nina, ‘What do you think about Figgis?’” Newman recalls. He knows Jacobson pretty well—last year, during the NBA play-offs, she joined him in the agency’s skybox at the Staples Center—and he likes the way she nurtures young directors like Wes Anderson and M. Night Shyamalan. So he was glad when Disney flew Figgis in from London for a meeting. “Usually if a client has a meeting at 11 a.m. and I don’t get a call from the studio before lunch, maybe they’re interested, maybe they’re not,” Newman says. “This wasn’t that. Mike wasn’t even in the elevator before they called.”
“So I say ‘Let’s do it,’” interjects Figgis in his gentle British accent. Figgis worried, though, that the salary Newman planned to ask for was too high. The director, who had success making thrillers like 1990’s Internal Affairs, was eager to return to the genre. “I remember saying, ‘I’d be happy if you’d slightly tone that down.’ I was willing to compromise. But Robert is like, ‘No!’” Figgis says. “He’s terrible, isn’t he? He’s a monster. I can’t control him.”
Figgis wasn’t always so content at ICM. Each client of the agency—Newman’s included—is shared by a team of agents. Back in the early 1990s, when Figgis was writing Leaving Las Vegas, the director’s principal agent was Newman’s boss, ICM president Jeff Berg. But the team system—“which means you can call Jeff if you’re desperate,” Figgis says, “but you work day-to-day with a string of other agents”—left him feeling neglected. “I was seriously thinking of taking a hike.” Then Figgis met Newman. “I thought, ‘I’ve got this wacky little project. We’ll see how this goes.’”
Newman recalls a colleague telling him Leaving Las Vegas would never get made. Newman disagreed. “I read it in my office over lunch. I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, this is really good.’ It wasn’t a $100 million movie, but it was like a cool ’70s movie. I thought Elisabeth Shue could be like Jane Fonda in Klute—the ingenue who plays a hooker. There’s a bedrock audience like myself who would be attracted. So we took it door-to-door, pitching it.”
In the ’50s, when studios were the only source of financing for movies, agents didn’t have to troll for seed money. Now it’s an essential part of their job. Leaving Las Vegas was a tough sell. Nobody wanted to finance a dark comedy about a man bent on drinking himself to death. Newman convinced Lumiere, the French film production group, to put up the $3 million budget. That was just the first step. Once the film was completed, it lacked both a distributor and—after film festivals like Cannes, New York, and Venice turned it down—the means to create a buzz to lure one. Newman lobbied the head of the Toronto Film Festival, who agreed to present the movie. Simultaneously Newman persuaded United Artists to buy it. The movie was released in 1995. The National Society of Film Critics named it the best film of the year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Figgis twice—for Best Director and Best Screenplay—Shue for Best Actress, and Nicolas Cage for Best Actor. Cage would take home his first Oscar.
Robert Newman’s brain is an archive. In it he keeps bits of dialogue, shot-by-shot breakdowns, posters, and trailers from all the movies he has seen—a vast file that he calls on to help him win clients. Lee Tamahori signed with Newman and another ICM agent, Ken Kamins, after the New Zealander’s Once Were Warriors caused a stir at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. “All the other agents told me to come to their hotel lobbies, where they would buy me drinks,” he recalls. “Robert took me to get a milk shake and a hamburger. And remember, hamburgers are bad in France. But the first conversation we struck up was about Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel, two of my favorite filmmakers. He knew absolutely what he was talking about.”
One day Newman told me how he coaches his directors. “Most people are concerned about whether people like them—whether the studios like them. But it’s not a personality contest,” he said. “Ultimately, that’s not what a director is being hired for—to be liked. A director is paid to make a great movie. At the end, he can’t be saying to the studio, ‘But you wanted that scene in there. But you wanted to cast him.’ His job is to cut through the 40 opinions and make the right call. Don’t be afraid of not getting the job or of losing the job once you get it. Be afraid of not doing a great job.”
Newman could just as easily have been talking about himself. Not that he is at ease doing that. He accepts as a cardinal rule that an agent’s place is behind his client, not out in front. He also believes that agenting is collaborative—he’ll talk your head off about ICM colleagues without whose expertise he’d be lost: the TV agent Nancy Etz, for example, or the expert on film finance Bart Walker. Mostly, though, Newman prefers to talk about movies—which he uses to explain everything, even his own reticence. “Remember Absence of Malice?” he asked me at one point, glaring at my notebook. Later he announced he was “going Greta Garbo” once this article saw print. “Remember that scene in The World According to Garp, when the members of the Ellen James Society cut out their tongues?” he asked. “That’s going to be me.”
But when he meets a filmmaker whose work he loves, Newman can’t stay silent. At a screening at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, Newman bumped into the director David Cronenberg, who is repped by another ICM agent. Newman introduced himself, passing along his colleagues regards. “I’ve been a very big fan for a very long time,” he said earnestly. “I loved Scanners. I’m looking forward to Spider. And I just watched the new DVD of Dead Zone.”
Cronenberg’s wife raised an eyebrow. “We haven’t gotten one yet,” she said. Newman reached into his jacket, fished out a tiny leather-bound notebook—he doesn’t like PalmPilots—and scribbled himself a note: “Send DeadZone DVD.”
About a week later, Newman flew to New York to meet with Jonathan Demme. Long before Newman became an agent, he had admired the director. He saw Last Embrace at the University of Miami in 1979, Melvin and Howard at the Beekman in 1980, Swing Shift in Times Square in 1984, Stop Making Sense on 57th Street in 1984, Something Wild in Port Washington, New York, in 1986, Married to the Mob at Loews 34th Street in 1988. Demme had gone without an agent for more than a year and was being courted by several firms. But after heating Newman’s ideas about how to market his next film, The Truth About Charlie, the director signed with ICM.
“Robert’s like a fan. A fan that somebody let into the club,” says Greg Berlanti, whom Newman called up out of the blue one night in 1996 after reading the young writer’s spec script about a group of gay friends coming of age. Berlanti, then 22, signed with Newman and has gone on to direct that film, The Broken Hearts Club, and to create a hit TV series, Everwood. “He sees something in you that you don’t necessarily see in yourself yet,” Berlanti continues. “He’s the un-agent agent.”
Robert Newman works standing up. He chose his desk because it hits his five-feet-ten-inch frame at about waist height. When he puts on his headset and talks on the telephone, he walks around behind the desk, which is usually empty but for a computer monitor and a stainless steel pitcher of iced tea. He doesn’t pace exactly. He just can’t be still.
Newman’s second-floor office is brightly lit, with white carpeting and a wall of windows that overlook Wilshire Boulevard. Bookshelves holds scripts, carefully arranged. Frames display black-and-white photographs of his wife and daughters (taken by Lucy Liu as a surprise birthday gift). On the walls are a still from A Clockwork Orange—his favorite Stanley Kubrick film—and a caricature of Newman drawn by Robert Rodriguez in the style of a movie poster. A FISTFUL OF CASH says the poster, which depicts a muscular Newman wearing dark glasses with dollar signs on the lenses.
All around are snapshots of Newman with Hollywood people he likes. Nicole Kidman is the only one you’d recognize. Mostly they’re directors. Newman and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whom he’s repped since 1991, mug in front of the spacecraft from Alien: Resurrection. Newman smiles devilishly in a shot snapped by Steve Norrington in 1998, the year his movie Blade was released. At the bottom Norrington wrote, “His every word is gospel.”
Newman’s two assistants answer about 150 phone calls every day. This afternoon the agent is on with Baz Luhrmann. Newman has dined recently with producer Dino De Laurentiis, who is teaming with Luhrmann on his next film, the big-budget epic Alexander the Great. “It was a great dinner,” Newman reports. “Oh my god! I said, ‘How did Three Days of the Condor come together? Serpico? Mandingo? Crimes of the Heart? Wild at Heart? Dune?’ It was like hearing war stories. I could have been there for another five hours.”
Newman will always be a New Yorker—he still roots for the Jets—but his accent is less striking than his delivery. He talks fast, but he is decidedly not smooth. There are interruptions and exclamations and bursts of merriment. “The Verdict has one of the greatest lines of all time,” he’ll interject out of nowhere and then quote the film exactly: “Good man? Goodman? He’s the prince of fucking darkness!” Sometimes this talent seems like a tic. Mention Dog Day Afternoon, and the word “Attica!”—Al Pacino’s famous rallying cry—flies out of his mouth. Acknowledge Newman’s baldness, and he lets Orson Welles do the talking: “As they say in Citizen Kane, ‘As it must to all men, death came to Charles Foster Kane.’”
Newman is known for being prepared. If he’s taking a business associate to a Rolling Stones concert, he finagles a way to get the set list—just to know what’s coming. On the weekends, if he takes his 14-year-old daughter shopping in Beverly Hills, he can be found on the sidewalk outside, squinting in the sunlight, reading a script.
“Typically from an agent you get ‘I read your script and I loved it!’ and you question whether they read it at all,” says Greg Berlanti. “The first time Robert called, he did what has since become a sort of ritual for us. He went through my script page by page, pretty much line by line, pointing out his favorite parts. He gets into your vision. You really feel like yours is the only creative mind that he’s connected to.”
He can be curt. In the departmental meetings over which he presides each Wednesday morning, two things make him nuts: ignorance and long-windedness. “He’s very aware that we’re shutting down the agency for two hours,” says ICM agent Ben Smith, a former Newman assistant who has seen his impatience up close. “Whatever people say in that meeting had better be worthy of that.” One well-known entertainment lawyer says Newman’s patter “lacks slick gloss. Robert is bang! There’s an abruptness about him. He cuts to the chase.”
That’s what he’s doing now on the phone with Luhrmann. “At one point Dino says, ‘Fox! I’ve got no problem with Fox. But who runs the movie? Universal or Fox?’” Newman is telling his client. The producer’s question is understandable: Alexander the Great looks, for the time being, to be cofinanced by 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures. “I told Dino, ‘I’ll tell you who Baz wants to run the movie.’ And I pointed at him. ‘You. That’s who. Baz didn’t get into business with you, Dino, because you had a piece of material. He got in business with you because he wanted to call upon your expertise. Whatever the politics are, you figure them out.’”
Luhrmann says something that makes Newman laugh—a syncopated blast that sounds something like a seal barking. A message from an assistant flashes on Newman’s computer screen. “I have someone calling from a set right now, Baz. Can I call you back?” He punches his phone. “Hel-lo!” he says to one of the producers of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. They talk briefly about springing Lucy Liu early so she can appear on The Tonight Show. “All right,” he says. “Get back to me as soon as you can.”
Another call is put through. It’s one of the producers of Pitch Black, the movie that made Vin Diesel an action star. Newman, who has always loved genre pictures and what he calls “trash,” represents David Twohy; who wrote and directed the film and who is doing the same with the sequel, Chronicles of Riddick. Twohy has finished a draft of the script, but Newman won’t hand it over until Twohy’s contract with Universal Pictures is agreed upon. Now he’s delivering that message.
“My feeling, just so you know where I’m coming from on this, is that the economic issues are real,” Newman tells the producer. He appears to be enjoying himself, like a dancer who knows all the steps. “The folks at Universal are good guys, so I’m not unduly concerned. But we’d like to see that reflected in the paperwork.” He looks up, smiles conspiratorially, then issues a directive to be passed on to Universal’s top executives. “Just make sure they know that they should be encouraging their colleagues in business affairs to conclude the deal,” he says. “Then they can see the script.”
Newman slides off his headset. “I have a large degree of empathy for the studios,” he says. “I know what their profit margins are. They’re slim. I know where the studios make money that they acknowledge, and I know where they make money that they don’t acknowledge in terms of the fact that they own their own cable systems and TV networks. When you say you’ve spent $40 million on advertising, but $20 million went to ABC, which is part of your larger conglomerate, there’s nothing untoward about that. But …”
He starts again. “Look, directors put years of their lives into doing a project. So if a movie’s a runaway hit, I want them to participate.”
Robert Newman doesn’t keep a diary. He compiles scrapbooks. They are filled with color snapshots of movie people that he takes with a point-and-shoot camera. He keeps them at home, not at the office. “One day I made a decision,” he says. “I’m going to get to see a lot of things in this job, and I want to remember them.” It took months, however, to get him to show me shots of himself with Tim Robbins at the MTV awards, Harvey Weinstein at Disneyland, Leonardo DiCaprio on a movie set in Thailand, and Jennifer Lopez and Colin Farrell standing in front of corporate jets. Newman works in an industry in which exploiting one’s connections to fame is an integral and accepted part of doing business. Yet Newman’s photographs of public people are, to him, private. “This isn’t big-game hunting for me,” he says. “These are just my remembrances.”
At this point you’re probably wondering: Is this guy too good to be true? I wondered, too. Backbiting in Hollywood is like grooming in a family of apes—everyone does it to everyone else. But ask people about Newman, and the sniping pretty much stops.
“You will not find a person that will say a bad word about him,” says Scott Stuber, Universal’s president of production. With the exception of a few rival agents who claim that the size of Newmans list limits his effectiveness, Stuber is right. “You remember who talks to you when you’re nobody,” says one executive. “Robert does.” “I trust Bob,” says DreamWorks’ Mike De Luca. “There’s no bullshit. I think he tells the truth.” “Here’s the postscript to your story,” another executive tells me. “Thank God the movie business has him.”
All this was seeming like a bit much when I checked my voice mail one afternoon and found myself in Newman’s pocket. I couldn’t see a thing. But I could hear plenty.
“They withdrew the offer,” I could hear Newman saying. “If I’d been a total pig about it, okay. But …” He was talking to somebody—but not to me—on one of his two cellular phones. Probably it was one of his colleagues at ICM or someone else he keeps on speed dial. “I told them,” he was saying. “I said, ‘Look, money is money.’”
Then I realized: I was on his speed dial, too. He doesn’t usually do business on his cell phone, but we had been trading phone calls at a film festival, and he was on the run. By accident Newman had dialed my answering machine on his one, pocketed phone while doing business on the other. The voice mail message was a journalist’s dream: a chance to witness my subject without being present, to see what emerged when I wasn’t around. “It’s going to be the fucking biggest Bond movie ever!” Newman said. “Right?” There was a loud rustling. I imagined Newman waving his arms. There was a squeak of car brakes. Newman’s voice was fading. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said as static rose. “The cast members: Brian. Denzel. Ed. All right? Cool. Later!”
I was familiar with the Newman who knew I was there. Now I compared him to the Newman who didn’t. The uncensored Newman sounded exactly like the one I’d already met.
Even as a kid, Robert Newman understood the art of the deal. During the years when he lived for comic books, he staked out the newsstand at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn, learning the delivery schedule for his favorite titles and boning up on artists. “It wasn’t just the A-list,” recalls James Mulligan, who has been Newman’s best friend since they were seven years old. “He could tell you every single comic book that Bernie Wrightson, who was a great horror illustrator, had on the shelves, what was coming out soon, and why it was going to be an interesting read.
“He was somebody who from very early on knew exactly how to say no,” continues Mulligan, now a lawyer in Vermont. “He’d read a price list once and he’d know for all time what Conan the Barbarian number 17 was worth. So if somebody at a comic book convention was trying to sell him something for $4 that was only worth $2.50, he’d just walk away. The person would be running after him saying, `Wait, I’ll give it to you for $2.75.’ He had an ability to make people come to him.”
Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter for A Beautiful Mind, used to play with Newman and Mulligan. “Robbie was very decisive, very aggressive, and therefore very impenetrable to me,” recalls Goldsman, whom Newman still calls “Keevie.” “I did, even then, get the feeling that Robbie somehow was getting the better deal.”
Newman and Mulligan lived on the same block. Both were the only children of single, working moms (Newman was four when his father left his mother; he hasn’t seen him since). When they were teens, the boys ditched comics for the movies. “I think both of us were having some difficulty feeling connected in our day-to-day worlds with our moms,” Mulligan says. “Neither his nor my mom were around much. I think we both took refuge a lot and quite often in film.”
Together they spent hours at retrospective houses like the Elgin Theater, seeing Alfred Hitchcock, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin. They went to Times Square for schlock- Roger Corman films and William Crain’s Blacula. They saw Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and Bob Fosse’s Lenny. They saw A Clockwork Orange, and from the first frames—the close-up of Malcolm McDowell, the Beethoven, the Moog synthesizer: “Dah!”—they were Kubrick fans.
“Robert envisioned even then that he was going to get into the film industry,” says Mulligan. “He would scope out what was coming up, what was old and good, what was old and bad.” Movies became—and remain—a shared language, a way of communicating meaning, of enhancing the flavors and colors of everyday life.
When Newman was 16, the boy without a father lost his mother as well. Newman and his mom had gone to see Chinatown that weekend, and he likes to recall how much she enjoyed it—particularly the barbershop scene. “This guy is giving Nicholson a hard time,” Newman explains, “and Nicholson asks him what he does for a living. ‘Mortgage department, First National Bank,’ the guy says.” Newman’s mother was a mortgage broker. “I remember she laughed scornfully when Jack says, ‘Tell me, how many people a week do you foreclose on?’” The next night Selma Newman died in her sleep. She’d had a heart attack. She was 50.
The movies—already an emotional tether—became a lifeline. To this day, if you catch Newman in an unguarded moment and ask why he so loves the movies, he will say: “I’m not alone. It’s just that simple. It ain’t just me.”
After high school Newman lived briefly in a Florida retirement community with his godfather. It was there, in 1976, that he met 16-year-old Cindy Karesky, who had come to visit her aunt. On their second date Newman took her to see Robert Zemeckis’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand. The Deer Hunter came soon after, and then Apocalypse Now. They’ve seen hundreds of movies together since. They married in 1986. “That was a good summer,” Newman will say “The Fly we saw at the 8th Street Playhouse. Aliens we saw the day we came back from our honeymoon at Loews 84th Street.”
Hoping to be a director, Newman went to New York University, where he majored in film. “I liked entertainment,” he says. His classmates, by contrast, were into the avant-garde and thought little of his first short—an homage to Fritz Lang’s M. In 1981, Newman saw an ad on an NYU bulletin board. Miramax needed a messenger for $3.50 an hour. Miriam Weinstein, the mother of Miramax’s cofounders, Harvey and Bob, hired him, and over the next six and a half years he rose from gofer (“I used to get Harvey’s lunch: tuna on toasted rye with a slice of American cheese and a Diet Coke”) to an executive who acquired films and helped decide how to market them.
“Miramax was a great place to start out,” Newman says. “Everything was focused on how do you sell tickets. We used to literally stand outside theaters where a successful film was showing, handing out leaflets for our movies.”
In 1988, Newman—tired of being just part of “Bob and Harvey’s show”—went into distribution on his own. His first acquisition: U.S. rights to a Russian film called Little Vera. Borrowing a play from Miramax, he convinced Playboy to put the movie’s star on its cover. The film, which he’d paid $50,000 to release, made $1.2 million. Newman was 30 and successful, but he was missing something: the chance to form partnerships with filmmakers that lasted longer than a movie’s release. While at NYU, he’d read a New Yorker profile of Sam Cohn, which made the ICM agent seem almost mythic. So Newman cold-called Cohn’s boss, Jeff Berg.
Berg can be brusque—his nickname is “Ice.” He is also impressive, the kind of agent who, after 22 years as the head of an agency can still be found at a revival screening of Touch of Evil. It was Berg who, in the late 1970s, put together the groundbreaking deal that gave George Lucas the merchandising and sequel rights to Star Wars. Today he counts Julia Roberts and Roman Polanski among his personal clients. Berg believes in the traditional method of training agents: starting them out in the mail room, apprenticing them to established agents, and then promoting the best. But he was struck by Newman’s experience and his unpredictable tastes. “He was not influenced by the film du jour,” Berg recalls. “He had a good historical and academic understanding of global cinema. He read Film Quarterly.” Berg figured what Newman lacked (relationships with movie studios) was counterbalanced by what he had (ties to the independent film world). He offered Newman a job in Los Angeles.
From his years at Miramax, Newman knew foreign sales agents who could tip him to emerging talent around the globe. But he had no client list, no track record. Newman’s first clients were films—he represented The Beastmaster, for example, finding distributors and making pay-TV and video deals. It wasn’t glamorous. “But once I started,” he says, “I realized it had all been leading to this.”
One of Newman’s first acts was to contact the French producer Robert Hakim. Belle de Four, Luis Bunuel’s erotic classic starring Catherine Deneuve, had gone ten years without being seen in the United States. Hakim was its producer and, with Newman’s help, he arranged for a screening at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991. Not long after, Miramax rereleased the film. Newman made no money. But he accomplished what he wanted: A film he loved got seen.
A few months after The Full Monty became 20th Century Fox’s runaway hit of 1997, Robert Newman took director Peter Cattaneo to lunch at Spago. Together the agent and his client read the studio’s accounting report, which concluded that while The Full Monty had cost just $3 million to make and had made almost $200 million worldwide, Cattaneo was not yet due any back-end money.
So perplexed was Newman that when the head of the movie studio, Bill Mechanic, walked by, he invited him to sit down. He pushed the accounting statement across the table. Mechanic read it and pushed it back. “We owe you some money,” the executive said. A few days later Fox sent over a check for $1 million.
It is the job of an agent to say things his clients would find difficult to say. It is also an agent’s job to say things his clients would love to say if they had time enough—and were savvy enough—to say them. This is a tricky business, speaking on behalf of another. To do it successfully, you must know each client as well as you do yourself. Misjudge and your clients won’t be your clients for long. Anticipate correctly and you’ll be indispensable.
When Richard Gere won a Golden Globe this year for his tap-dancing and singing role in Chicago, he thanked his agent “for talking me into it and talking them into it.” Those are an agent’s two fundamental goals: to persuade movie studios and TV networks of the merits of each client, while also guiding clients to make shrewd choices for a long-lasting career.
“Great agents are really emissaries,” says Baz Luhrmann. “The coalition between money and art is always precarious. Creatives get wildly out of control and emotional and impractical. You need agents to communicate to the artist the reality of the studio’s point of view, because the studio is not always wrong. But creatives can also get squashed like a fly when it becomes about economics. You need a champion in your corner.”
Luhrmann had made just one film, Strictly Ballroom, when he chose Newman from a throng of agents who were vying to represent him. Newman made his pitch at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival: “I can’t raise the dead, I may not necessarily be your friend, but this is what I can do, and this is what you may need.” From the beginning Luhrmann told Newman he was not a director for hire—that he had several of his own projects he wanted to get made.
“Robert is not about ‘Who do I want you to be?’ but more ‘I need to learn who you are,’” Luhrmann says. “He backed the vision of not taking the big bucks early, and I can tell you it’s been a far less exciting thing for him financially in the short term. He and ICM could have made a lot more money after Strictly Ballroom if I’d gone out and done slapstick comedies.” Instead, when Luhrmann’s audacious interpretation of Romeo and Juliet was competing against a more traditional treatment at 20th Century Fox, Newman convinced Fox executives not only to pony up the $17 million Luhrmann needed to make his movie but also to pay $5,000 to get the director his green card.
Romeo + Juliet made more than $150 million worldwide. Luhrmann’s next film, Moulin Rouge, grossed about the same and garnered two Oscars last year for Luhrmann’s wife, the costume and production designer Catherine Martin. C.M., as she’s known, is also a Newman client.
If Robert Newman kept a tally of his triumphs as an agent, which he doesn’t, Robert Rodriguez would probably be number one on the list.
When Newman signed him in 1992, Rodriguez was 22, with nothing to his name but a trailer for a tiny Spanish-language movie, El Mariachi, that he was making with $7,000 in credit card advances. Now, at the age of 33, Rodriguez is working on the third installment of Miramax’s big-budget franchise Spy Kids and finishing Once Upon a Time in Mexico for Sony and Miramax. He will have final cut on those films, which is not uncommon for a director with his track record. What is uncommon is that Rodriguez has always had final say. In addition, he has veto power over the marketing campaigns for his films and shares in the spoils of all revenue streams that flow from his work. “A studio can’t even put a poster out that I don’t like,” Rodriguez says. “By not following the typical handbook rules, Robert has got me—this guy in Texas who makes weird movies—in a very unreal position.”
Rodriguez gives Newman a lot to work with. The director not only writes his own scripts but serves as his own cinematographer, editor, and composer. Rodriguez can make a movie relatively cheaply. Everything he’s made has been profitable. Newman makes the most of these assets. Studio executives say the way he’s handled Rodriguez’s career is brilliant in that it is based, at any given moment, on a precise understanding of what the market will bear. In moviemaking, as in comic book trading, you drive the hardest bargain when you know what you’ve got and what it’s worth to those who are bidding on it. Newman has protected Rodriguez’s worth while driving it steadily upward. Rodriguez is widely considered to have one of the best directing deals in Hollywood.
On El Mariachi, Newman insisted that Columbia Pictures give the director a larger-than-usual slice of the video proceeds. More than a decade later, Rodriguez still gets residual checks. On 1995’s Four Rooms, a quartet of interconnected shorts, Rodriguez—like all the directors on the project—got final cut. Newman used that as grounds to insist that Rodriguez get final cut on his next film, the full-length feature From Dusk till Dawn, written by Quentin Tarantino. Newman also argued for Rodriguez to be paid as much to direct the film as Tarantino had been paid to write it—a smart move, given that after Pulp Fiction, Tarantino was commanding a big salary. Since then, Newman has made sure that all merchandising, soundtrack, and sequel rights to Rodriguez’s films are frozen pending further negotiation.
“I tell the studios, ‘You’ve got to make another deal with Robert,’” says Rodriguez. “They’re like, ‘What? When did this happen?’ Until they do all the numbers, they don’t realize how over a barrel they are.”
Sue Mengers, the Industry’s first female superagent, used to warn her younger colleagues at ICM about the fickleness of clients. “Honey, remember one thing,” she’d say. “They’ll always leave you. So don’t let ’em into your heart.” Newman has lost a handful of clients over the years—among them directors Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls). But Darren Aronofsky’s departure really stung him.
Aronofsky sought Newman out at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, telling him, “I’ve been looking for you.” That year, the 28-year-old director’s movie Pi, the story of a mathematician who has discovered the meaning of existence, won the festival’s dramatic directing award. Newman signed him and set to work. The agent had a part in putting together his next film, Requiem for a Dream. Then Newman got Aronofsky hired to direct the next installment of a going franchise—Batman: Year One—even as he was pushing the director’s third original script, The Fountain, through development at Warner Bros. Both films were departures for Aronofsky—major studio pictures with hefty budgets and big stars. The Fountain was reportedly going to cost more than $70 million and was to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. But Warner Bros. wasn’t pleased with the script—a “psychological journey” that spanned 1,000 years—and was worried about ballooning costs. Pitt was weighing other offers.
Aronofsky, who declined to be interviewed, apparently got scared that the project was falling apart. Last July he left ICM to go to CAA, which also happens to represent Pitt. Five days after Aronofsky defected, Warner Bros. announced that it had given the film the go-ahead. Aronofsky had made a trade-off, leaving Newman in the hopes of locking in Pitt and holding his movie together. But one month later—and just weeks before the film was supposed to begin shooting—it fell apart again.
“Pitt Splits Fountain,” said the Variety headline. Pitt wanted to play Achilles in a movie being directed by another CAA client, Wolfgang Petersen—Troy, an adaptation of The Iliad. Aronofsky’s movie was, and remains, dead in the water.
“I’ve always thought Darren was talented. That hasn’t changed,” Newman told me. That’s all he would say. But in an earlier conversation he said this about his client list: “It’s not a numbers game. I just look for what interests me. New films. New relationships. That’s what’s exciting to me.”
This year at Sundance, Newman arrived excited. Four of his directors had films in the festival—Danny Boyle, Mike Figgis, Alex Proyas, and an unknown named David Gordon Green, who signed with ICM last year. A few months after signing him, Newman landed the 28-year-old one of the most sought-after projects in Hollywood: the long-delayed adaptation of John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. It begins production this spring.
One Sunday last December, Robert Newman flew to Toronto to visit client Nick Hamm on the set of a movie he’s directing that stars Robert De Niro and Greg Kinnear. The following Monday Newman flew to New York for the Broadway premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s production of the opera La Boheme. He also stopped in at the premiere of Gangs of New York. Tuesday he flew back to Los Angeles for the premiere of Chicago, whose ensemble cast includes Lucy Liu. On Thursday he left for China. He arrived in Beijing on Saturday, attended the premiere of Jet Li’s Hero that night, then got up on Sunday morning and flew 6,257 miles home.
“I’m not too lagged,” he said on his return. He was in a good mood. Director Wayne Wang’s Maid in Manhattan was number one at the box office. Jonathan Demme had landed his first ICM-procured job: directing Denzel Washington in Paramount’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate. What’s more, The New York Times that day had reported that La Boheme had presold $500,000 in tickets, becoming the hottest show on Broadway.
Several weeks earlier, when Luhrmann was still smoothing his opera’s rough edges in San Francisco, Newman had flown up for the West Coast premiere. Two of the five major movie studios—20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures—sent their top executives. There were publicists, lawyers, agents. Kevin Spacey and Andy Garcia milled around. Standing in the gilded lobby of the Curran Theater, publicist Pat Kingsley hovered near her client Nicole Kidman, and gave former Warner Bros. chief Terry Semel a hug. “It’s like L.A.,” she told him.
Newman despises opera—“It’s fucking unlistenable,” he’d declared on more than one occasion. But he looked jubilant as he surveyed the dark theater. It was Luhrmann’s moment. It was also Newman’s. The agent wasn’t merely a part of the Hollywood lovefest surrounding the director. He had created it.
After the performance the agent joined the crowd at the cast party. Past midnight, Newman, who had eaten no dinner, sat down with a plate of paella that he looked eager to devour. Then, at the next table over, he saw a seat open up next to Kidman.
Kidman has been an important actress to more than one Newman client. Her performance in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge made the movie. At a party at Newman’s house she had met another of his directors, Jonathan Glazer, and soon agreed to star in his upcoming thriller Birth. So when Newman spotted the empty seat, he couldn’t let the opportunity pass. He slipped over and passed along Glazer’s regards. They talked for 15 minutes. Dinner could wait.
The next morning Newman bummed a ride home on Universal’s jet. The flight could have been downtime, but he was still working. Before the pilot closed the door, Newman had already expressed Luhrmann’s gratitude to Stacy Snider, the studio’s chairwoman, and her production chiefs, thanking them for making the trip. In Burbank the door of the Gulfstream popped open, and Snider and her lieutenants hurried down the stairs toward three Town Cars that waited with engines running. Newman was last off the plane.
“Stacy!” he called, waving his point-and-shoot camera at the departing studio chief. Snider looked startled, then bemused. She turned and walked back to the jet. The rest of her team followed. Newman lined everyone up—eight in all, with himself in the middle—and handed one of the drivers his camera. As the man fumbled with the viewfinder, someone said gently, “Maybe we could all just remember this.”
But of course, Newman couldn’t. For him, film is memory. He just wanted to make a picture. “Smile,” Newman said. And everyone did.
This feature appears in the March 2003 issue of Los Angeles magazine