Rob Friedman's cousin was worried about his slacker ways, so he got him a job in the mailroom at Warner Bros. It was 1970 and that was the beginning of his studio career. Friedman is now chief executive of Summit Entertainment LLC, which just had a monster hit with "Twilight." As a child, Friedman came to Los Angeles from a small town in North Carolina and soon became an avid surfer. His love for the ocean led him to scuba diving and the desire to become a marine biologist. Instead, he dropped out of college to travel in Europe. When he got back, he started working his way up at Warner, eventually becoming a marketing executive. Friedman then went to Paramount Pictures, working alongside Sherry Lansing on the launch of "Titanic," and many of the studio's other blockbusters and franchises. In 2007, Friedman started Summit with Co-Chairman Patrick Wachsberger. The mini-studio has already had its first hit with the teen vampire romance "Twilight." Friedman, who often does business meetings over lunch, sat down with the Business Journal recently to talk about how sorting mail at Warner Bros. sparked his desire to become a studio chief exec.


Question: Where did you grow up?

Answer: In a small town in North Carolina called Fuquay Springs. I moved to California when I was 10, and I have been in Los Angeles since then.

Q: Why did your family move to Los Angeles?

A: My parents were originally from New York, and my father had been a country doctor for 15 years. We came out here in 1959 for a Christmas holiday, and it was sunny, 69 degrees and beautiful and not nearly as crowded as it is today. So, the next year, we moved.

Q: What did your parents do?

A: My dad was a veterinarian and mom was an assistant, in those days it was a secretary.

Q: Did you want to be a veterinarian?

A: I was attempting to go to college to be a marine biologist. But I realized I did not have the scientific fortitude. I had converted at age 17 from a surfer to a scuba diver, and scuba diving was my hobby and my passion. I thought it would be good to combine that with my interest in science and be a marine biologist. But you had to excel in chemistry, which I couldn't do.

Q: What did you change your major to?

A: Fun, I switched to fun and I didn't graduate. I only went to college for a year and a half. I went for a year to Valley College here in Los Angeles, and six months at Arizona State University. And a brief stop at the University of Hawaii.

Q: Did you want to go into show business?

A: No, not at all. It never crossed my mind. As a teenager, I did work at the Lankershim Theater in North Hollywood. That was the closest thing.

Q: What did you do after dropping out of college?

A: First, I traveled around Europe for six months, and then I came back to Los Angeles. I had a cousin who worked at Warner Bros., and he was concerned that I was draining my parents' income and thought that I should get a job. So, he got me a job in the mailroom at Warner Bros. And then he quit.

Q: Is your cousin still in the entertainment business?

A: No, not anymore. He retired. He was one of the producers of a successful television series, "Barney Miller." That ended up giving him the ability to change careers. He opened an art gallery in Santa Fe and is now retired.


Q: How long did you spend in the mailroom before moving up?

A: At Warner they used to post job opportunities. And there were two jobs that were available: One was the director of foreign film shipping, which would have been a nice raise and a director's title; the other was a position in the publicity mailroom, which I knew was known as one of the great party departments. I chose that one.

Q: Did working in the publicity mailroom result in future advancement?

A: First, I was the vice president, executive assistant to the president of advertising and publicity. In 1989, I became the president of worldwide advertising and publicity.

Q: Which movies did you do marketing for?

A: I was what they call a project executive on the original "Superman," working within the department. I did the same on "A Star Is Born" with Barbra Streisand, I did a lot of movies with Barbra Streisand. When I was the actual head of marketing at Warner Bros., I did the "Batman" movies, the "Lethal Weapon" movies, "Ace Ventura," "Unforgiven." A lot of big movies, I don't even remember 90 percent of them, but some very big franchises.

Q: But you didn't have a degree in marketing.

A: I learn by interacting, observing, listening. I am of the philosophy that if you don't learn something knew every day, it's not been a great day. That's sort of how I grew my career. Not only did I do the job that I was assigned, but I helped others who had other responsibilities and I learned what their responsibilities were.

Q: Why did you decide to leave Warner Bros. for Paramount?

A: I wanted to be involved in running the whole studio. When I met with Sherry Lansing and Jon Dolgen, they offered me the opportunity to be involved in all aspects of the studio, and the opportunity for future growth as well. It was hard to pass up.

Q: Was moving to Paramount a big change?

A: I enjoyed the increased responsibility, not just being limited to the marketing of the movies, and the running of the company as chief operating officer. And meeting all new people, I had been at Warner Bros. for 27 years and it was like moving to a whole new city, a whole new town, a whole new culture. I learned a tremendous amount from Sherry Lansing and Jon Dolgen, who had both been senior executives longer than I had. To be able to learn at their side was a great experience for me.

Q: Do you consider Sherry and Jon mentors?

A: I do. Everybody I have worked with in my career I view as mentors: Bob Daly, Terry Semel and Sandy Reisenbach at Warner. They were all great influences for me. I have always had excellent working relationships, and I feel, as I said, I learn every day from people.

Q: What advice did you receive from Sherry and Terry?

A: Sherry would talk about the brighter side of the entertainment business, that the glass is always half full. And, she would say no call can go unanswered. Terry stressed the importance of having relationships with filmmakers.

Q: What advice would you give to others who want to become a studio executive?

A: Develop the stamina to keep going. Have confidence in your abilities, listen to what everyone around you says and, above all, be kind to assistants they will be your biggest allies.

Q: Which movies did you work on while at Paramount?

A: I had the great fortune of launching "Titanic," and a lot of great movies at Paramount. But "Titanic" is the biggest movie in history, so that will stay on my resume forever.

Q: How did you start your own studio?

A: When I decided to leave Paramount, I had the idea that I wanted to build a new studio model. I went out and built a business plan, and went to Merill Lynch to raise financing, and then about four or five months later I met Patrick Wachsberger of Summit, which was a production and distribution company.

Q: How did you meet Patrick?

A: When I did my business plan, I had a foreign sales component as part of the overall business plan. So I called Patrick, as he's the best in the business, and scheduled a meeting to talk to him about several of my ideas. In the process, I realized that he also had a desire to grow his company, and we hatched the idea of combining the two entities.

Q: Was it scary for you to go out on your own and launch a studio?

A: Yes, but scary in a good way, in an adrenaline kind of way. But it was scary to raise the funds. Once we raised the funds, it was exciting to build. Then once you start releasing your movies, it gets scary again.

Q: What have been the biggest challenges as the chief executive of a smaller studio?

A: Establishing a reputation, and establishing a confidence level in the creative community that we can operate as well as the bigger establishments. Another challenge has been finding the right people, because, as a smaller organization, every position is a critical hire. Managing people and their personalities is a bit more challenging than managing 2,500 people.

Q: "Twilight" cost $37 million and grossed $363 million; how did you get your hands on it?

A: It was a project that was developed at Paramount that one of my former colleagues at Paramount attached herself to as producer. When she moved to another studio, she brought it with her, but they put it in turnaround. Then she brought it to our head of production and then she called me on the phone one day to remind me about it and to remind me that she had lunch with my head of production. We loved the idea and we acquired it.

Q: Did you think "Twilight" was going to perform as well as it has?

A: No, you never think they do as well as this. It did feel that it had a great opportunity to capture an audience. But you never think in those terms, nobody does. Especially not a movie that was so inexpensive to make.

Q: What's your daily routine like?

A: I have two small children, so my morning starts early. I spend time with them because I don't get to see them before they go to bed at night. So that's my time with them during the day. At 7 o'clock the BlackBerry comes out, the phone comes out, and I'm usually well into it by the time I leave, which, if I am taking my daughter to school, is about 8:30 a.m. The day doesn't usually end until the whole world is asleep because we are a worldwide company. From an e-mail perspective, I usually shut down about midnight if I am lucky.

Q: It doesn't sound like you get much sleep.

A: Sleep has never been a luxury I have had in my whole life. Luckily, I don't require much. I only shutdown the e-mail at midnight, I don't go to sleep then. I still have scripts to read.

Q: Do you still surf?

A: No, I don't surf anymore. I would love to be able to surf again, I think. I still scuba dive, I play golf and I run. I do a lot of stuff, but I don't surf.

Q: Where is your favorite place to go scuba diving?

A: The Red Sea off the coast of Egypt.



Q: What is your favorite movie?

A: It's really hard for me to say. Obviously there are so many brilliant movies in the world, and I like them all. All of the movies that I have ever worked on are sort of like my children. "Titanic" will hold a special place in my life, as will "Batman" since it was my first solo. And "Unforgiven," it was a great experience to work with Clint (Eastwood) and the people who had always worked alongside Clint.


Rob Friedman

Title: Co-chairman and chief executive

Born: Raleigh, N.C.; 1950

Company: Summit Entertainment LLC

Education: Attended Los Angeles Valley College and Arizona State University

Career Turning Point: "Befriending Steve Ross, a former chairman of Warner Bros. Inc., when I was still in the mailroom at Warner."

Most Influential People: Father and mother. Steve Ross, Sandy Reisenbach, Joe Hyams, Sherry Lansing, Jon Dolgen

Personal: Married with two children; two grown children from a previous marriage

Hobbies: Scuba diving, playing golf

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