Deputy Film Editor, The Hollywood Reporter
Risky Business column, 4/15/05

It's Hollywood's toughest gig: A good studio production president needs to be talent-spotter, canny script doctor, politician and manager, not to mention social gadfly. And he or she has to learn to say no -- all the time -- without making hordes of agents, filmmakers, writers and actors hate his or her guts.

The burnout factor is huge. This week, the team of Scott Stuber and Mary Parent, who have been ably running Universal production for the past four years, announced that they are moving into an exclusive producing pact at the end of the year. In doing so, they are following the path taken by their studio predecessor, Kevin Misher, who left the stressful post as production head in 2001 after three years for his own first-look deal.

The transition from powerful studio president to independent producer is not a smooth one. "If you particularly enjoy the exercise of power as an executive, then the transition is harder," ex-Columbia Pictures president Lisa Henson says. "Not having power is a big change for anybody." But with three films under his belt in three years, Misher makes the shift look relatively easy.

As his third production, Sydney Pollack's "The Interpreter," opens April 22, Misher finds himself surprised at the kind of producer he has become under the deal he negotiated with Universal Pictures' Stacey Snider when he relinquished his production post.

As soon as Misher started Misher Films, his phone sheet shrank dramatically. After 12 years of being a studio executive bombarded with incoming information, Misher was forced to become a self-starter. "You have no idea what it feels like when you're outside, until you're the leaf on the wind," he says. "As a producer you have no choice but to go get your information out of the slipstream. Suddenly you're rethinking yourself and who you are."

Luckily, even during his tenure as production head, Misher was accustomed to initiating new projects. Visiting his parents' kitchen in Queens, N.Y., he read the story behind "The Fast and the Furious" in the New York Daily News. "Meet the Parents" was lying dormant at Universal until Misher, who had liked the Emo Philips short film on which it was based, pushed it forward.

After Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson popped out in the dailies of "The Mummy Returns," Misher suggested that Universal nurture him as a new action star and spin him off as the lead of a prequel. "The Scorpion King" became Misher's first movie as a producer. It was followed by "The Rundown," yet another robust Johnson vehicle. And Misher hopes that John Ridley's sci-fi adventure script "Species Human" will mark his third movie with Johnson.

Once he had transitioned into producing in 2002, Misher found himself pursuing his own interests and curiosity. He researched the town of Gander, Newfoundland, which housed 6,000 stranded airline passengers after Sept. 11, and optioned the book "The Day the World Came to Town" for "American Splendor" writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini to adapt for the screen. Having collected the "Submariner" comic book as a kid, Misher brought on writer David Self ("Road to Perdition") and director Chris Columbus to adapt the Marvel property as a potential franchise. A Ray Bradbury fan, Misher bought the film rights to "The Martian Chronicles" when he was still at the studio "and stayed with it," he says. And his love of hip-hop led him to buy "Life & Def," the autobiography of fellow Queens native Russell Simmons; Misher is in talks with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("21 Grams") to direct for Universal's Focus Features.

After 12 years in the business, Misher relies on plenty of relationships, including those at the studio. "All the people, writers and directors you have worked with," he says, "if you have been professional and honest and thoughtful and haven't been cavalier and taken people for granted, then they'll want to work with you."
After Misher acquired film rights to "Public Enemies," Bryan Burroughs' nonfiction book about Melvin Purvis, a Depression-era FBI agent who chased down Chicago's toughest gangsters, he sent the project to manager Rick Yorn, who showed it to client Leonardo DiCaprio. They in turn brought director Michael Mann on board.

And having made "Man on the Moon" with Jim Carrey and his manager Jimmy Miller, Misher approached them with the sports drama "Strutter," which is set up at Columbia Pictures. Carrey is now attached to play an aging racewalker with one last chance to make the Olympic team.

"The Interpreter" came to life during a London meeting with Working Title partners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner (who have a Universal production deal) when Misher was still supervising Universal production. Misher asked if they had any paranoid Hitchcockian international thrillers. "I thought there was a void in the marketplace," he says. "I'm always looking for genres to revisit that haven't been exploited for a while."

It turned out that Bevan and Fellner had just such a story. "It was a brilliant idea," Misher says, "an assassination thriller set at the U.N." They dusted off the script, and after Misher went indie, Bevan and Fellner asked him to produce it with them. Screenwriter Charles Randolph wrote a draft strong enough to lure Pollock to executive produce and direct; A-list writers Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian reworked the leading roles for Nicole Kidman (as the interpreter who overhears an assassination plot on the U.N. floor) and Sean Penn (as the Secret Service agent trying to protect her).

"Kevin was a producer long before he became one," Working Title's Liza Chasin says. "It was too easy. His transit was as graceful as anyone's could have been."

Three years in, while Misher might miss the ability to give an instant "Yes, let's do it" to a project, he is now more comfortable in his own skin. He's finding out who he is -- and what he likes. "I am becoming who I should be," he says. "I had to define my own taste. The things I have a real passion for are the things I'm working on. Now I've got to get them all made."

Anne Thompson can be reached at