WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – John Goldwyn’s grandfather was the G in MGM. His father, a producer, gave Julia Roberts her big break in “Mystic Pizza.” His brother, an actor, is playing the president on ABC’s “Scandal.”
As royal Hollywood families go, the Goldwyns are the real deal.
But success in the movie business is no cinch, even for a prince. John Goldwyn started as a mail room attendant, climbed all the way to vice chairman at Paramount Pictures, where he helped deliver Oscar winners like “Forrest Gump,” and then – kerplunk. In 2003, with the hits drying up and his personal life in turmoil, he stepped down to become a producer on the Paramount lot. He has since failed to deliver a breakout movie, with attempts like “Hot Rod” and “The Guilt Trip” fizzling badly.
Now comes a chance to turn a cold movie hand hot. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” directed by and starring Ben Stiller and produced by Goldwyn, is arriving in theaters from 20th Century Fox.
Having experienced his share of triumph and failure, Goldwyn, 55, is blunt about the film business and the culture of hit-making that still defines it. “The bottom line is that Ben made a terrific movie,” he said over coffee this month at the Sunset Tower Hotel here. “But I do feel an incredible, crushing pressure for it to succeed.”
For Goldwyn, “Mitty,” adapted from the 1939 James Thurber short story, is more than a $90 million jump-start. To a degree, the film comes with tremendous dynastic stress.
Goldwyn’s grandfather Samuel found a hit in 1947 by adapting Thurber’s story for the screen. Goldwyn’s father, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., tried for years to remake it, eventually turning over stewardship to his son. In a Hollywood where third-generation Warners or Disneys are few, “Mitty” is Goldwyn’s chance to show that his lineage endures.
Whether “Mitty” will hit pay dirt is still anyone’s guess. While office analysts are predicting solid ticket sales, reviews have been mixed, and theaters are crowded with big releases.
But Samuel Goldwyn Jr., 87, said focusing on only revenue would be missing the point. “This game is not played for one shot,” he said by telephone. “It’s played for survival, and what is important is that Johnny never gave up. I’m incredibly proud of him.”
Over the course of an interview, John Goldwyn repeatedly returned to the subject of overcoming obstacles, starting with his last name.
“It’s both an asset and a liability, but mostly you have to figure out how to negotiate around it,” he said. “My father, who had grown up as a Hollywood prince, understood the traps and helped me learn. You cannot trade on it because people will resent it, and then they will kill you for it.”
Instead of getting help from his father, Goldwyn took a mail room job after graduating from Stanford with a degree in history.
He also worked as a chauffeur for producer Alan Ladd Jr., who gave Goldwyn his break in 1983 – a production gig on “Police Academy,” which became an unlikely hit and spawned six sequels.
“There was never anything about John that was entitled,” said Sherry Lansing, an ex-chief executive of Paramount. “If anything, it made him work harder.”
Goldwyn – handsome, intellectual, a bit bashful – has also had to move past turbulence in his private life. He is now married to Jeff Klein, who owns the Sunset Tower.
But in 2001, he was still closeted and married to character actress Colleen Camp, with whom he has a grown daughter, Emily.
As Goldwyn transitioned to producing, a pivotal ally was Lorne Michaels, the “Saturday Night Live” creator, who became Goldwyn’s business partner; together they delivered screwball comedies like “Hot Rod” and “MacGruber.”
Goldwyn said he quickly learned that disappointment as a producer is much different from disappointment as a studio executive.
“When you have a bad movie and you’re inside the administration building, there is always another movie coming down the conveyor belt,” he said. “So we never dwelled on a miss or two. But when you are a producer, you wear each failure for life.”
“Sherry once told me, ‘There is no such thing as permanent luck in Hollywood,’ ” he added. “But in some ways all I knew was luck. I finally understood what she meant when I became a producer because I basically failed, certainly by the standards by which success is judged in Hollywood.”
Some of Goldwyn’s producing endeavors have been successful. “Baby Mama,” another collaboration with Michaels, turned a modest profit.
In 2007, he worked on “I’m Not There,” a Bob Dylan biopic that became a critical darling. With Sara Colleton, Goldwyn produced the hit serial-killer drama “Dexter,” which recently concluded its eighth season on Showtime.
“John is a very civilized guy, which gives him a huge leg up,” said Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment and a former Showtime president. “The enemy to getting things done well is going into a corner and locking horns with the network. John doesn’t do that. He is a great moderator.”
Stiller said he experienced that side of Goldwyn on “Mitty.”
“I relied on him to help assuage the studio’s fears and concerns,” said Stiller, who also has a producing credit on the film. “There were times when we would submit a budget for something, and the studio would freak out, and he would explain – calmly, always with this great calm vibe – why we needed the money.”
(Goldwyn, with a sense of Hollywood’s realpolitik, put it this way: “As an artist, Ben pushes boundaries. If the studio draws a line in the sand, he says: ‘Oh, really? Watch how I erase that.’ I would talk to him about the bigger picture. Sure, you can get this money now. But down the line we are going to need this, this and this. We need to preserve some asks.”)
With “Mitty” behind him, Goldwyn must now evolve once more. A decade ago, studios kept vast stables of producers on their lots, but now many of them are having to fend for themselves. Goldwyn is no exception. His producing deal with Paramount is ending.
Goldwyn is rising to the challenge by taking on a fleet of projects, including a high-profile adaptation of the British crime drama “Broadchurch” for Fox and the movie “Loomis Fargo,” which stars Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis.
And then there is a potential remake of “Guys and Dolls” for Fox. A Goldwyn produced the last one. If Fox has its way, a Goldwyn will also produce the next one.