By FRANK SWERTLOW
The oldest of Marvin Davis' four children, John Davis, chose the entertainment industry to make his fortune instead of following his multibillionaire father's footsteps in oil and real estate.
In 1986, he founded Davis Entertainment, which has produced 50 films for television and theatrical release. Davis has 54 film projects in development many of those the result of a first-look development deal with Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., the studio his father once owned but sold to Rupert Murdoch.
Among Davis' films are "The Firm," "Grumpy Old Men," "Courage Under Fire" and "Daylight." His newest is a remake of "Dr. Doolittle," the 1967 Academy Award-nominated Fox feature that starred Rex Harrison as a veterinarian who talks to his patient-animals. Eddie Murphy stars in the update, which hits movie houses this week.
Davis Entertainment is currently developing "The Breakers," a thriller starring Cher in a mother-daughter con-team caper.
Those who know and work with Davis describe him as "the happiest rich guy we know. He loves what he does." Davis was interviewed in his office at Fox Plaza, the Century City skyscraper that is owned by his father.
Question: You have a Harvard MBA. Why did you decide to get into the motion picture business and television?
Answer: I see my business as five distinct entities. It mixes my love of creative endeavors with my fascination with business and deals and creating operating companies. I am in five businesses: classic films (the low-budget movies for art houses), TV programming and event movies like "Asteroid." In addition, we are in the feature film business with Fox and the TV station business. I own stations and I am in partnership with Fox in building new stations. The first two go on the air in the next 90 days. I am also in the venture capital business. My father and I were the initial investors in WebTV, and we later sold our interest. I bought a food company last year. My business background comes in there, and then my creative desire also comes into play.
Q: Of all the films you have done, which do you like the most?
A: "Grumpy Old Men." I thought it had a lot of heart and I loved working with those guys (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau). It was about people who were reawakened in life. You are not dead until you are dead. "Courage Under Fire" dealt with the integrity of a very flawed individual as he worked within a system that demanded conformity. I love "Dr. Doolittle" because it is a guy who gets in touch with himself again, even if he needs animals to do it.
Q: Why did you choose to produce "Dr. Doolittle," a remake of a fairly successful film?
A: I had seen "Babe" and we knew the technology was developing to bring lifelike animal performances to the screen. We went to Jim Henson's Creature Shop, and they showed us they had the ability to have full-functioning faces of animals that can do 190 different things, so you could create all the expressions of the human face. We knew that it would be possible to make a film where the animals were actors. The film was then Eddie Murphy and seven other comedians. Technology allowed you to do something different.
Q: Did you have trouble getting Eddie to work with animals?
A: We had to convince him to work with certain animals that were next to him on the set. He had never acted with a tiger. A goat bit him in the butt. He was fine with the monkeys, hamsters and certain of the birds. He wanted to leave each day with all his fingers attached.
Q: You have watched your father own a studio, real estate and oil. Which business is the toughest?
A: I find the entertainment business so competitive. There is a lot of pressure to create product. There are a lot of people to create it, a lot of funds available, but they are always seemingly limited when you want to access them. It is a rough-and-tumble business, a slugfest.
Q: How did watching your father help you in the entertainment business?
A: I saw him handle disappointment and failure, but what was coming up next was potentially the mother lode. He went through a period where he drilled 80 straight dry holes. My mother said to him when he was at a gas station and the gas pump didn't work that he couldn't even find oil at a gas station. This helped me prepare for this business. You develop a lot of scripts that don't become movies. You pour your heart into a movie sometimes a year or two years, four years, eight years. And then you make it and it doesn't work. You are crushed.
Q: What did you learn the most from your father?
A: Work hard, be stubborn, never give up and never let frustration overtake you.
Q: Which is tougher, TV or film?
A: Film. The bar is higher. In features, they vote with their dollars.
Q: What do you let your kids watch?
A: They are not allowed to watch much. They are allowed to watch certain things on Nickelodeon, very few movies, certain videotapes. We don't let them see violence or mature subject themes. It is very controlled what they see.
Q: Do you think violence on television leads to violence in our society?
A: We have grown up in a violent society. It is a fact of life. The sale of guns is so plentiful that a 15-year-old can buy a gun for $100 and blast away at school. It's sad. I wish guns weren't so plentiful. I think that we (in the entertainment industry) have a responsibility that we don't do anything that is gratuitous. On the other hand, if we are reflecting the world we are living in, then we are echoing a reality that is out there, unfortunately.
Q: What is a typical day for you?
A: I am up and running at 7 or 7:30. Sometimes I read a script before I go to work. A lot of times I will take a breakfast meeting. My business is a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day business. As long as there is a script to read or a phone call you can make, you tend to be doing it.
Q: You get to the office at 9?
A: This business doesn't really get started until 9:30. I'll do a breakfast. I exercise over lunch, if I don't have a meeting. I put a pair of running shoes on and just run. It breaks the day up. You get that endorphin rush. But I try to get home around 6:30 p.m. to be with the children.
Q: Your family is noted for its charitable works. The Carousel Ball for Hope is one of the biggest fundraising events in Los Angeles. Where does that feeling for the needy come from?
A: If you can give money away and feel like you are making a difference, it is a blast. What greater luxury is there in life than knowing that you have made life better for someone else? I think it comes from the idea that we all have a sense of responsibility. If you have the resources, you have an obligation to give back to a system that enabled you to live your life the way you wanted to live it. You have an obligation to create a society that is better than you grew up in because you have kids.
Q: When you went into the entertainment business, a lot of people may have dismissed you as a rich kid with a toy. How did that play out?
A: I needed to support myself. I grew up in a wealthy family and there were certain things I wanted, but I needed to support myself. I ran my own race against myself.
Q: A lot of people probably wonder, why does he bother trying to earn money when his father is a multibillionaire?
A: It wasn't given to me. And maybe there is a lesson in that. You can't give your kids money. The history of giving kids money is not very good. I knew I had to take care of myself and my family.
Q: If things really went dark you always had someone to fall back on, though, right?
A: Yeah, but that would have really bummed me out to do that. That more than anything else would have made me feel bad.
Q: What's the best part of what you do?
A: I do exactly what I want to do. I get to play with ideas all day, hang out with writers, inventors, with ideas. I have a great lifestyle.
Q: Worst part of the job?
A: It is a pain in the ass to get your movie made, getting the right stars into the right projects. Venture capital deals are difficult. If they work, they come from death's door to huge success in a few months. At the end of the day, though, I am dependent on getting American audiences to like my projects.
Q: What would happen if your father decided to retire from actively participating in his business? Would you take over?
A: You know, we really haven't discussed it. I like what I do and my brother who is in Houston with the oil business likes what he does.
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