President, chief operating officer
Organization: Motion Picture Association of America
Born: 1943, San Jose
Education: B.A., San Jose State; J.D., University of California at Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law
Most Influential People: Wife, Carolyn; his children, and his grandmothers
Career Turning Point: Leaving a stable partnership at a major law firm and going into the entertainment business, where people get fired all the time
Hobbies: Spending time with his kids, skiing, hiking, fishing, reading, going to the movies
A 35-year veteran of the entertainment industry, Robert Pisano is a respected, longtime Hollywood insider, one who has held positions at the industry's highest levels at studios, the primary actors' guild and now an industry trade organization. Pisano became president of the Motion Picture Association of America in 2005 under Chairman and Chief Executive Dan Glickman, the former agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration. Before than, Pisano was national executive director and chief executive officer of the Screen Actors Guild for fours years and presided over a tumultuous period for the guild, one that saw infighting and staff casualties. He also was executive vice president and vice chairman of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., where he oversaw the company's business activities, including film, television, home entertainment and consumer products operations. Prior to joining MGM, Pisano was the executive vice president and general counsel of Paramount Pictures Corp., responsible for legal, legislative and regulatory affairs and business development.He found his way into the entertainment world after working as a partner with O'Melveny & Myers LLP in Los Angeles, where he specialized in entertainment and business litigation matters for 12 years, including three years as the partner in charge of the firm's office in Paris.
Question: How did you get into the entertainment world?
Answer: Through the back door. I was a lawyer, and when I was living in France, Paramount approached me about a problem they were having with some theaters that were part of a Paramount joint venture. I worked on the problem for almost nine months and solved it by having the interests of Paramount bought out by a third party. This person I was working with ended up becoming a personal friend and was appointed to become a very senior executive at Paramount's then-parent company, Gulf & Western. When I returned to the states, he asked if I would be interested in becoming general counsel at Paramount.
Q: Was it a difficult decision to make?
A: In that age, 1985, it was very unusual for a person to leave a major law firm as a partner and go to work for a company. For me and my family it was doubly scary because I had virtually no experience with entertainment. It was a decision I pondered for six months. I've never regretted it.
Q: What were your concerns about making the transition to the entertainment world?
A: My wife was concerned about being part of Hollywood and the lifestyle. There's an element of Hollywood that's in the tabloids and there's an element of Hollywood that are just normal people; they put their pants on one leg at a time. We've been to the Academy Awards more times than we can count, and it's always fun, but I don't need to walk down the red carpet at this stage in my life.
Q: Were you star struck at any point during your early career?
A: It was fun at first. I would be walking around the lot and running into Eddie Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg and Bill Shatner. That's pretty heady stuff for a guy from San Jose, whose grandparents emigrated from Italy. It's Hollywood.
Q: What are some of the clearest differences between the corporate world and the entertainment industry?
A: When I was at the law firm as a partner I had a relatively small office and shared an assistant with another partner. I get hired as executive vice president and general counsel of Paramount Pictures Corp. and I drive through the gate on my first day, go to a parking place with my name on it. I go to the administration building and I am shown to my office, which was easily four times bigger than any office I had ever had O'Melveny & Myers. I had an assistant in a private office and I have a button on my desk that I push and the door shuts. I even had my own private bathroom.
Q: In your time at MGM and Paramount how involved were you with the creative side of the business?
A: People who can read a script and visualize what it will look like on a movie screen or a television screen have a gift. I don't think you can learn that. I think you have it or you don't. I wasn't hired for those skills; I was hired for my business and organizational skills. My job was to keep the trains running on time so the creative people could do what they do, which is a unique thing. To put it in the vernacular, I was a suit one of the guys who ran the business side. And I wore a suit, as opposed to the creative guys who wore open collars and polo shorts and shorts. As I look back on some of the decisions that got made about what movies to make it was clear that my taste in what would sell or wouldn't sell was way off.
Q: How important is the so-called Hollywood power lunch in the business, really?
A: The younger generation in the entertainment business the agents, the development executives still does those lunches because it's ritual. The older generation, and I put myself in that category, realize that it's show, and at this point in my career I don't need show. Though Hollywood lunches are legendary, it's an overstatement that all deals are done over lunch or drinks. Some deals are done over lunch, some done over drinks, but some are done on the telephone. If you are trying to hire an actor and you are not dealing with the A list, most of those deals are done over the phone.
Q: Are any of your children interested in entertainment?
A: Hopefully not. My twin daughters, who are 20, soon to be 21, got recruited by a talent agent type right at the time I joined the Screen Actors Guild, and I remember thinking: This is not a good thing. One of them actually was a double in a Warner Bros. movie, "Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood," though I had nothing to do with her getting that. It was this agent that had glommed onto them. She worked three days and said to me "Dad, this is really boring," and they both lost their interest in it, which was just fine with me.
Q: As a young attorney, who had just graduated from Cal, was it your goal to come live and work in L.A.?
A: I seriously contemplated going to New York when I graduated but I got recruited by O'Melveny & Myers. I packed up my 1962 Plymouth and drove down here with $20 in my pocket. I started at O'Melveny in October of 1968. I didn't really like Los Angeles, though I liked the firm a lot. In my era, you didn't move from a small firm to a large firm. You started at a big firm. You basically couldn't move from a small firm to a large one. They were pretty structured in recruiting right out of law school. In those days there were two major law firms in L.A., O'Melveny & Myers and Gibson Dunn.
Q: Before you landed at Paramount, you were living abroad. How did you end up living in France?
A: We lived in France for three and a half years, from 1979 to 1983. My wife and I moved over there right after we were married and our two oldest children were born there. We have particularly fond memory and soft spot in our hearts for France, we go back as often as we can, which isn't often enough. It was another one of those crazy twists in life. I had just finished a major anti-trust trial, a three-year case and a trial that lasted nine months and I needed a change of pace. My firm was looking for someone to go to Paris and run our Paris office and I volunteered, with absolutely no experience for the job. My French was terrible, and I was a litigator, not a transactional lawyer.
Q: That's got to be a big change coming from Los Angeles.
A: Culturally it was very hard, even now it's a very different culture a 35-hour work week, five weeks of vacation, and everybody takes August off, well, because everyone takes August off. In the late 1970s or early 1980s business people didn't have breakfast; breakfast was not part of the business day. That has changed. In those days the typical lunch was an hour and a half, with wine.
Q: Your tenure at SAG came during a pretty contentious period within the guild. What was it like to shift from the studio side of the business to the guild side?
A: It was fun. It was an interesting experience dealing with some wonderful people from a perspective I never had as a studio executive. As an executive I dealt with performers or directors from the context of how we were employing them to make a movie for us or do a television show. When you take actors out of that context and put them in their union, it's a really interesting take. Most actors don't have control over their life. They are dependent on a casting agent casting them, the director saying yes, their agent negotiating a deal, if they are lucky. And once on set they are dependent on the director liking the shot or not and retaking it or not. The way I describe it is, lack of control. And couple with it the feeling that you never know where your next job is going to come from. This is a feeling that was very palpable, even with successful actors. You put them in the union context and this is their union and they want control. I think it's an element of 'this (SAG) is something I can control.'
Q: What's your take on the increasingly visible presence of genres like the graphic horror and torture films that have emerged over the past several years?
A: I'm not sure how I can explain the horror porn that's out there now. I haven't seen any of it and I don't have any desire to see it. I can't imagine these folks who work for us, who are parents, who rate these movies. These people who have to watch these and rate them, and I tell them, "You have a job that I couldn't do, to sit there and watch this stuff." I think the pendulum is swinging against that, I think people are turned off by it at this point.
Q: Are there any particularly memorable stories from your time at Paramount?
A: We did a reunion on the Paramount lot for our 75th anniversary. There was a shot taken in front of the Paramount gate that was published in Life Magazine. We had a reception on a sound stage and had invited all the living Paramount stars who we could find and would come. Some of the younger stars were in awe of the stars of old; When Elizabeth Taylor walked in it caused a stir. Jimmy Stewart, too. When we got ready to take the picture, the divide between those who came up through the ranks in the contract system and those who didn't was interesting. As they had set up the shot and were trying to get it off multiple takes, of course Robin Williams decided to have fun and started doing a riff and of course he broke the place up because he is so funny and talented. He was trying to do what he does and it was very funny but ultimately someone had to say, "Hey, Robin, shut up" so we could get it all finished.
Q: What's your opinion of the rash of well-publicized bad behavior among some of today's stars?
A: Stuff, frankly, that we had to deal with in the 1980s on the lot with substance abuse and things like that, would not be tolerated for a nanosecond today. Misbehaving on a set is real serious because then you are costing money. I've had problems like that; you try to cope with them. You are presented with bad choices. One choice is to fire the person. Well, if you fire the person then you have to recast the person. Another choice is to try to get the person under control, and that's hard if they are out of control with substance problems or alcohol problems. Sometimes you try to surround the person with influences that will help get the job done. What you are confronted with there is a bunch of really bad choices. One of the things you can do as a studio executive, when you know somebody misbehaves, you don't hire them again. That lesson is sometimes hard learned. When you've been around the business as long as I have you know the lesson real well and you do not hire people who misbehave. I don't care how talented they are.
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