Howard Rosenman is a Hollywood veteran, with forty years experience as a producer, and a mightily impressive filmography. He's experienced highs and lows, the changing face of the industry, various kinds of production roles, and success and failure, and he's a man who is not only responsible for smash hit entertainments, but also intimate dramas and a series of documentaries dedicated to improving tolerance and understanding of issues relating to gay life and HIV sufferers and AIDS victims. I spoke to Howard about his fascinating career.
How did you get started in the movie business?
It's a long story! In 1967, I
was in medical school. My parents are Israeli, and I volunteered for the Six Day
War as an extern, which is an intern without a medical degree. Over there,
thirty days after the War, I met Leonard Bernstein whom I had known previously
in New York. He recognized me and invited me to a concert he was doing with
Isaac Stern - Mahler's 'Resurrection Symphony.' At the after-party, he asked me
if I would be interested in being a gofer on a documentary that was being made
about him conducting the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra in Judea and Samaria
for the Israeli Defense Forces. I said yes, and we got to know each other a
little better. He saw that I was a storyteller and convinced me to eventually
abandon my medical studies.
I went back to the States in September '67,
and at first, took a leave of absence from medical school. I came to NYC and
fortunately got a job working on a Broadway musical called 'Coco' with Katharine
Hepburn. I did two more musicals and during that time met Barry Diller, who had
just invented the 90-minute 'Movie of the Week' for ABC TV. We became friends
and he told me that when I was ready I could ask him one favor and one favor
only: "You can exploit me once but never again. I want to be your friend." He
knew that friends in Hollywood always end up exploiting each other. I got a job
at an advertising agency called Benton & Bowles making commercials. Within
nine months I had won my first Clio on a Cool Whip commercial ('Anniversary
Five years later, my girlfriend Kitty Hawks (the daughter of
Howard Hawks), was working for Ron Bernstein at ABC (he's now a very important
literary agent at ICM). She showed me a manuscript called 'Great White,' which
was about a killer shark off the coast of Long Island. I liked it and thought it
would make a great movie. I decided it would be the only favor I was going to
ask of Barry Diller. He loved the idea of the story and brought me out to
California. Unfortunately, we couldn't get the rights because the writer's
agents wanted much more money than we were willing to offer. ABC was now making
a hundred of these films a year. Both Spielberg and Michael Crichton got their
starts making films for this unit.
Ron Bernstein was working with Daniel Melnick and David Susskind at
the time, and he found a piece of material called ISN'T IT SHOCKING? (1973). It
was about a guy who goes around killing people with a electro- cardiograph
machine. Deanne Barkley, the head of the division that made the 90-minute
'Movies of the Week', liked it and it was one of John Badham's first movies. He
later directed SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) and WARGAMES (1983). We had a great
cast (Alan Alda, Ruth Gordon, Will Geer, Edmund O’Brien, Lloyd Nolan, Dorothy
Tristan and Louise Lasser) and it did very well in the ratings. It was a
really witty movie. Ron Bernstein and I became partners and made a lot of TV
films. We started a company for Robert Stigwood called RSO Films. Stigwood was
an Australian entrepreneur who managed the careers of Andrew Lloyd Weber &
Tim Rice, The Bee-Gees and Eric Clapton. We made films like KILLER BEES (1974)
with Gloria Swanson, Kate Jackson and Eddie Albert (Curtis Harrington directing)
and ALL TOGETHER NOW
(1975), which was Randal Kleiser's first film. He later
did GREASE (1978). I then introduced Stigwood to Barry Diller who by now was the
Head of Paramount Pictures. Out of that relationship came SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
and GREASE - humongous hits for Diller and Paramount.
He was a window dresser at the time I
met him in New York in 1969. We became friends. He is, and remains, a great
raconteur and anecdotalist. I remember being on Long Island together on a really
hot day listening to The Supremes on a loop. We both loved R&B. His displays
on Mondays in the windows of Bendel's on 57th Street and 5th Avenue became like
fashion underground events. All the fashion types would come and watch Joel
create his displays. Joel stripped the mannequins, dumped them in vats that had
various shades of coffee and twisted them into various shapes. This was before
Benetton created their multi-culti look. One night he put three mannequins in
red dresses in the window and one of them had paillettes all over them. One of
the sparkling pailletes fell on the floor and as I passed it to Joel, it glinted
in the light. I said to Joel "We've got to make a movie about these three girls
in the red dresses and call it 'Sparkle'.'' We both really wanted to go to
Hollywood and make movies.
I wrote a treatment, based on the
relationships Berry Gordy had with Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. We
sold it to Robert Stigwood, for $5, 000. We then hired a writer called Lonne
Elder III, who had written SOUNDER (1972) and been nominated for an Oscar. By
this time I had also started a company with Stigwood called RSO Films, and made
quite a few TV films with Ron Bernstein, including KILLER BEES. While we were
making that film in the Napa Valley (we used the house that Francis Ford Coppola
now lives in), Lonne Elder's script came in and I read it. It wasn't any
good. Joel was doing the production design on KILLER BEES for me after doing the
costumes for ISN'T IT SHOCKING, and he elevated those movies with his work. I
remember us driving in the Napa Valley together and me telling him "Our movie
will never happen unless you write it." He wrote a new script on spec and we
sold it to John Calley at Warners.
Calley called Joel and I into his
office after he had read the 400-page script. He told us "I'm going to make this
movie under the following four conditions: 1. We're going to cut the movie down
to 110 pages. 2. Curtis Mayfield is going to do the music. 3. Sam O'Steen is
going to direct it. 4. The budget is going to be $1.6 million. Boys, take a walk
around the block, think about it and come back and give me your answer.
Joel said he was willing to step aside as director. He had wanted to do
it. Sam O'Steen was one of the greatest editors in the world. He had edited COOL
HAND LUKE (1967), THE GRADUATE (1967), ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), CARNAL KNOWLEDGE
(1971), CATCH-22 (1970) and CHINATOWN (1974). He was both John Calley and Mike
Nichols' favorite editor. Sam had just directed a four-hour musical for CBS TV
called QUEEN OF THE STARDUST BALLROOM (1975) with Maureen Stapleton. Marilyn and
Alan Bergman (Barbra Streisand's writers) had done the music and Calley wanted
them for SPARKLE. Curtis Mayfield ended up doing the music because he had just
done a deal with Warners. I had wanted Ashford and Simpson. We decided the film
could be done on that budget. We saw Curtis Mayfield as our Barbra Streisand.
We told him we accepted his conditions, and within three weeks we were on the
lot making the movie. Irene Cara (FAME, 1980), Lonette McKee (THE COTTON CLUB,
1984) and Philip Michael Thomas (TV's 'Miami Vice') had all never made a movie
Can you talk about the 2012 remake?
We shot the film in
October and November 2011 in Detroit. The original film was about three black
girls in Harlem in 1956 who become a girl group. The new movie is about three
black girls in Detroit in 1968. Salim Akil, who directed JUMPING THE BROOM (201)
and created 'The Game' for TV, directed the film. His wife Mara Brook Akil wrote
the screenplay. She wrote the TV series 'Girlfriends'. It's a fabulous movie and
is better than the original. It's a very different film and it stars the late
Whitney Houston as the mother of the three girls. Jordin Sparks plays Sparkle,
Carmen Ejogo plays Sister and Tika Sumpter plays Delores. Those roles were
played by Irene Cara, Lonette McKee and Dwan Smith in the original. Derek Luke
(ANTWONE FISHER, 2002) is also in the cast of the new film. We used five Curtis
Mayfield songs and R.Kelly wrote three new songs for us.
What were some
of the first lessons you learned as a producer?
This business is about 99.9%
rejection. I teach a class on how to pitch movies at the USC School of Cinematic
Arts and what I tell my students is "Because so many people will reject
everything that you do, it means that there is always one schmuck somewhere who
will buy it!" It's all about tenacity. Networking is also key as
How do you choose your projects?
Ideas are submitted to me,
or I come up with the idea myself. FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1991) was a remake of an
old Spencer Tracy movie that I liked. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1992) was a
script by Joss Whedon that was submitted to me. THE MAIN EVENT (1979) was the
idea of my partner Renee Missel. RESURRECTION (1980) was an idea of mine. GROSS
ANATOMY (1989) was based on my years in medical school. SPARKLE was of course an
idea of Joel's and mine.
Do you get frustrated by the image of producers
as people who sometimes meddle and prevent directors or writers from achieving
If the movie's a hit, the director gets the credit. If the
movie's a flop, it's the producer's fault!
Do you feel that the role of a
producer is misunderstood?
You can't make a film without a producer. He's
the first one in and the last one out. He's the one who has to carry it all, put
all the elements together and has to keep it going. Most movies take an average
seven years to develop. Some of them can take twenty. Some take one year to
develop. Unless you have the tenacity, the passion
and the willpower to make
the film, it won't happen.
How important is a good working relationship
with the director on a movie?
Once the director gets on the set, he has all
the power. According to the DGA union and Director's Guild rules, he can throw
the producer off the set if he likes. A good relationship with the director is
very important. It doesn't often happen that an unhappy relationship results in
a good movie.
Which collaborators have you enjoyed working with the
I greatly enjoyed working with John Dahl, who directed YOU KILL ME
(2007) with Ben Kingsley and Tea Leoni. We just set it up as a series on
Showtime. I enjoyed working with Tea, who also did THE FAMILY MAN (2000) for me;
Brett Ratner who directed that film; Joel Schumacher, and Ellen Burstyn, who
starred in RESURRECTION (1980). Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman, who directed the
three documentaries that I made with them: COMMON THREADS: STORIES FROM THE
QUILT (1989), which won an Oscar and a Peabody; THE CELLULOID CLOSET (1985),
which was nominated for an Oscar and won us our second Peabody, and PARAGRAPH
175 (2000). I now am making a narrative feature film with them called ANITA
about Anita Bryant, starring Uma Thurman. Darren Star, Dennis Erdman and Jeffrey
Schwarz are our partners, and Chad Hodges wrote the script.
working in Hollywood for five decades now. What are the most significant changes
you have seen take place?
It's changed a lot. It used to be the wild, wild
West out there and a lot of fun. Now it's very corporate. They used to make $30m
dramas in Hollywood and now that is the realm of the indies. Movie studios
usually only make tentpole movies now - $150 to $200m movies that have some sort
of 'brand.' They're either from a comic book or graphic novel or have some
What do you enjoy the most about producing in
Every day's a challenge that brings a hundred different problems
that you have to figure out. You meet the most interesting people in the world.
Everyone gravitates towards Hollywood, so there isn't a person in the world that
I can't meet.
What do you like the least?
Like I said, it's 99.9%
rejection. It's very, very competitive and every day is a
Which of your successes are you the most proudest
FATHER OF THE BRIDE, THE FAMILY MAN and as a TV series, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE
SLAYER, were all big hits. SPARKLE was of course Joel and I's baby, which we
loved the most from the beginning, and now we've remade it. But the things I'm
most proudest of are four documentaries that I have made.
STORIES FROM THE QUILT is about the AIDS quilt. It follows six people from the
time they are infected until their names end up on the quilt. Dustin Hoffman
narrated it. Vito Russo was one of the six people in COMMON THREADS that we
followed, and we created a quilt in his honor. He wrote a book in 1981called
'The Celluloid Closet,' based on a series of lectures he did on the history of
gay and lesbian images in Hollywood films. Rob Epstein, Jeff Friedman and I
turned it into a documentary in 1995. PARAGRAPH 175 is about gays in the
Holocaust. BRAVE MISS WORLD (2012) is about my friend Linor Abargil. It's all
about her rape ordeal before she became Miss Israel and six weeks after that,
Miss World. It's directed by Cecilia Peck, who is the daughter of Gregory
I do all these documentaries for nothing. It's all about giving
back something and they give me the most fulfillment.
How did the
outbreak of AIDS affect such a small community as Hollywood?
It was a scary,
paranoid and devastating time. From 1980 to 1990 was the worst period ever. I
knew over 2, 000 people that died from AIDS, and there were about fifty people
that I went through the process with. from 1980 to 1987, all my friends were
getting sick, and I also didn't know whether I was going to get sick or not. It
What was Hollywood's immediate reaction to the crisis?
mobilized immediately. Sidney Sheinberg and Barry Diller created organizations
to combat the disease both medically and socially. They rose to the occasion in
the biggest way possible. It united the community. I started a non-profit
organization called Project Angel Food, which is a Meals onWheels service for
HIV and AIDS patients. It's now one of the biggest charities in Southern
California. I formed it with Marianne Williamson and about ten other
Is your aim with such work to increase awareness and tolerance
towards those suffering from HIV and AIDS, and increase tolerance and
understanding towards gay people?
Yes, I think the documentaries helped
create a better social climate.They put a face on AIDS and homosexuality which
helped create the more tolerant conditions we have now. There's been a gigantic
shift. In the beginning you couldn't even talk about homosexuality. Hollywood
has always been tolerant as long as you're making money. The social mores of the
country have changed so drastically. Now gays can get married in about seven
states. 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was repealed. There are TV shows with homosexual
characters on air which have helped change the climate. Americans now accept
people who are gay and they understand that being gay is not a choice. The new
generation that's been brought up during the last fifteen years doesn't care at
all. They're surprised by homophobia. It's only the fundamentalist right that
have a problem.
You acted in Gus Van Sant's film MILK (2008). Were you
familiar or friendly with the real Harvey Milk?
Yes, we were both brought up
in the Five Towns area on Long Island, and we knew each other very well. I also
knew the character I played, David Goodstein.
Which of your films'
failures disappointed or hurt you the most? How do you deal with it when it
You can't have success without failure. You learn from every single
one of them. There isn't a person who hasn't failed and hasn't learned from it.
What you learn to do is pick yourself up and move ahead. It's very disappointing
when movies don't pan out. RESURRECTION was disappointing. The original SPARKLE
wasn't a hit although the soundtrack album that Curtis Mayfield and Aretha
Franklin did well. Many of my movies haven't been hits. BUFFY wasn't a hit
until it became a TV series. The film version was the most disappointing to me
because we had a terrible director. We had the same problem on GROSS
You've done different kinds of producing. You've produced for
hire, you've run companies and divisions, and you've run your own production
companies. Which do you prefer?
I like it all. I'm very independent now so I
can do whatever I want. When I was running big companies I had a lot of
responsibility, but I was very productive. I worked with people like Sandy
Gallin and Robert Stigwood. After that, I worked for Brillstein/ Grey's
management companies and I had such leverage. We managed the careers of people
like Michael Jackson, Neil Diamond, Dolly Parton, The Pointer Sisters, Whoopi
Goldberg and Richard Pryor, and in all venues of their work. We, as managers,
steered them to their agencies. In Sandy Gall's case, we steered most of them to
the Creative Artists Agency (CAA). We were writing a cheque for $30m every year
to Michael Ovitz, so he had to pay a lot of attention to us. He would introduce
us to his clients and get us spec material. He'd help us to get our movies put
together and done effectively, which is why we worked with him.
you come to get involved in the 'Bond Girls are Forever' (2002)
This is another long story! Maryam d' Abo, who was a Bond girl
in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987), actually made the film and it brought it to me.
I got involved because I know her husband, the director Hugh Hudson, who did
CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981) and GREYSTOKE (1984). He made a movie for me in 1987
called LOST ANGELS, which starred Adam Horowitz from The Beastie Boys. Hugh and
I didn't get along originally. He was an aristocrat from Britain, and I was a
boy from Brooklyn. He kind of took over LOST ANGELS and I resented it. One day
he said to me "Boy, you are tough." I remember one day thinking that I had to
make the relationship right. I realized the only way to get him to understand
me was for him to see me in a vulnerable position.
This was the time of
the laying down of the AIDS Quilt in L.A. It was the first time people were
going to see it in the city, and it was the size of a basketball court.
Eventually you could stretch it from the White House to the Washington Monument
and back. The last time it was unfurled, in 1994, it was the largest piece of
artwork in the world. Each panel was 6ft times 3ft, and all the panels were
interwoven together to make this gigantic quilt. I was there laying down panels
for four of my best friends. There was a big ceremony at the Pauley Pavilion at
I invited Hugh to see the ceremony. The panels were floating from
the rafters and on the sides and all over the floor. The ceremony was so moving,
and I started to cry as I laid down the panels. I saw Hugh come down from the
rafters, and he took me in his arms and whispered "You've gotta make a movie
about this. You've got to put your anger and grief into a movie." From that
moment on, Hugh and I have remained close. He's like a father figure to
Are you a Bond fan?
Yes, big time! I've seen every single one.
They have glamour and glitz, and characters that you love. They're irreverent
and funny, and chic and stylish. There's always a lot of action and adventure.
The villains are always interesting.
Are you a fan of Daniel Craig's
Although Sean Connery is still my favorite, I love Daniel Craig. I
think he's fantastic.
How has your religious faith influenced your choice
My faith has had a big influence on my choice of projects. My
parents are Israeli and they are seven generations born in the Old City of
Jerusalem. I made a film called A STRANGER AMONG US (1992), which was about
Hassidic Jews, which ire my familial roots. I made it as a tribute to that way
of life. The Biblical values that I was brought up with are ingrained throughout
my documentaries and my films.
What are some of your upcoming
I have about thirty projects on the go. With my partners Carol Baum
and David Permut, I just sold the remake rights to an Israeli film called A
MATTER OF SIZE (2009) to Paramount. It's about sumo wrestling and was Israel's
most successful comedy. I'm producing NAPOLEON with Al Pacino. I am producing
two Broadway musicals. One is based on SPARKLE. The other is based on a dream I
had in 1985. I convinced Anne Rice (the writer of 'Interview with a Vampire') to
write a treatment. It's called 'Anne Rice’s ''The Seventh Song'' ' aka 'Anne
Rice’s ''Voce'' '. Craig Lucas (PRELUDE TO A KISS, 1992) is writing the
libretto, and Elizabeth Scott and Lance Horne are writing the music.
I spoke to Howard by telephone on 14th June 2012 and would like to thank him for the generous use of his time and the breadth of his answers.
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.