- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Take the telephone firmly in hand and dial the first of about 60 calls. Take a half-dozen meetings, often at chic restaurants where the point is the deal, not the meal. Be rejected countless times.

This is the life of a Hollywood producer as jauntily outlined in "Hello, He Lied," an American Movie Classics special loosely based on producer Lynda Obst's 1996 best-selling memoir.

Moviemaking is a grueling experience for the man or woman who sees a film through assembly, production and distribution, according to the documentary from Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.

"Hello, He Lied" (10 p.m. today) jumps lightly over the subject that Miss Obst's book covered in intimate detail. Instead, it offers Miss Obst as host and the experiences of other top producers as illustrations of how the game is played.

The game, at first, seems very fuzzy. As veteran producer David Brown ("Jaws," "The Sting") acknowledges, "Nobody knows what a producer does, including the producer's wife."

Schmoozing apparently takes up a good part of the day, with writers, agents and studio decision-makers among the producer's chief targets.

This frenzy of fellowship is aimed at locating good material, convincing a studio the idea is worth pursuing and persuading actors and directors to enlist in your cause.

Between the script and the green light for production comes what Hollywood fondly refers to as "development hell."

There's one particularly telling scene in "Hello, He Lied" that has a veteran writer warily fielding suggestions from fresh-faced studio executives.

One executive comments that he's cool toward the story about Napoleon because "this era just never appealed to me on a visual level."

The clearly annoyed writer parries: "I don't take that personally because I feel like your tie defines your taste."

A script that passes through development takes a huge step toward greenlighting if a big star can be "attached" to the project, so for the producer, it's back to networking.

The documentary supplies a list of four top Los Angeles-area schmooze spots, including a yoga center, parents' night at a particular private school and the In-N-Out Burger on Sunset Boulevard.

"Remember, no one meets anyone in Hollywood for lunch, [a] drink or an AA meeting without an agenda," Miss Obst advises.

All this effort, and not a minute of film has been shot.

Given that the average Hollywood movie costs $65 million or so, most of the scripts bouncing around town will never see the dark of a movie theater.

If a film does get made and, by a miracle, is a hit, the general public likely will applaud the stars, the director, even (rarely) the writer before the producer gets a nod.

The money also, Miss Obst suggests, is not all it's cracked up to be.

So just what is the attraction of producing?

"My theory is that when producers were really young, their mothers dropped them on their head," a wry Miss Obst says before getting serious.

"I think there are people who are in love with making movies, with the sort of Irving Thalberg ideal of being a producer, of managing something into existence and then being a sort of den mother to its talent."

Producing calls for an entrepreneurial instinct, Miss Obst says. "It's people who feel they can get their best work done managing talented people rather than being the talent themselves."

She has experienced the highs and lows of her chosen career. She's proud of some of her films, including "Sleepless in Seattle" and "The Fisher King," some of which had the added bonus of being box-office hits.

Her greatest disappointment came when a long-nurtured project, "The Hot Zone," stalled after she had gotten Robert Redford and Jodie Foster attached as well as director Ridley Scott ("Alien").

A rival Ebola-virus drama, "Outbreak," beat Miss Obst to the punch, and "The Hot Zone" went cold. Such heartbreak is not included in AMC's "Hello, He Lied," but there are signs aplenty that producing is a tough gig.

One producer laments that she would have avoided the business if she had known it meant hearing "No" over and over to projects she loves.

Yet listen to the soft-spoken, intelligent Mr. Brown, and you get the impression there's some room for art and passion in Hollywood.

Producers such as Mr. Brown and Saul Zaentz ("The English Patient") serve as inspiration, young producer Gary Foster comments in "Hello, He Lied."

They are producers who "cared about the material, nurtured the material and found a way to get their movies made, no matter how long it took," Mr. Foster says. "That, to me, is what a producer does."

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