The Go-to Guy

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On a snowy winter's day in New York, a bestubbled Jim Carrey tears himself away from the monitor where he's been watching rushes from the morning's location filming on Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His laughing offer of a chat during makeup is tempting. But the subject of this interview is Steve Golin, founder of Anonymous Content and the movie's producer; not Carrey, who co-stars alongside Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood.

While Gondry fusses in another room, Golin takes a break to talk, muttering about the crew's snowball fights, and Gondry's obsession with location shooting. The relaxed Carrey aside, there is tension in the air. This is the last day at this particular location. "We are leaving, you can't fuck around," Golin says. During a scrambled eggs on toast (no butter) lunch, Golin's cell phone rings incessantly - as it has done every day for years, first at Propaganda Films and now Anonymous. He is gracious with the callers. Despite the stress, Golin is unequivocally happy to be here - in a way only someone who successfully battled cancer last year could be.

Dealing with stress is a producer's life. That applies to any producer who works with directors, let alone directors of the level at which Golin deals. Nevertheless, in 1999 he chose to build Anonymous from scratch, hot on the heels of his ouster from the storied company he co-founded, Propaganda. Why did he bother? He didn't need the work, or the bullshit - or he could have simply produced movies. "I was stupid. I was mean. I was vindictive. I felt I had been badly treated by those people [SCP Private Equity Partners, the group that acquired Propaganda]. It was also a very euphoric time in advertising and new technology. The recession hadn't started yet in '99. If I knew how hard it would be, I maybe would have done it differently. We had a very, very tough year after 9/11 and I had a tough year personally. Maybe I shouldn't be working this hard. Maybe the extra stress brought on some of the illness.

"You know, I was mad at how I was treated by those idiots that bought Propaganda," he continues. "And I went after the directors. [They were] completely disrespectful of me and what I had done and my knowledge, and thought that they could just do it and take it away. I was very vindictive. I woke up every day, angry. I wasn't very wise politically. I made a lot of mistakes. Believe me, if I could do it all over again I would do it very differently. If I was smarter, if I was politically more savvy then, I could have kept Propaganda," he says with a hint of resignation. "I'm really a mom-and-pop businessman. I'm not very sophisticated, I don't have relationships with investment bankers."

On paper, this will read like pretty aggressive stuff - a function of Golin's bluntness. But his tone is good-natured and mildly wistful. Any flashes of frustration are reserved for questions regarding the rumors first about the ultimately acrimonious failed merger with RSA Films, and - especially - last year's received wisdom that Anonymous would follow Propaganda and others out of business. "We'd hear all this stuff," says Golin wearily. "But everyone is so full of shit in this business. I don't know why everyone is so gossipy. We had a tough time, but so did other people. We're doing really well now. I'd argue we have the best roster of directors in the business. There are rumors every day about other companies. I don't spread them. This is our life. What are we going to do? When Seagram's bought Propaganda, they had these human resources people come in to fire us all. They had some corporate crap about re-education where they sit you down and say, 'Well, hey, maybe it's time for a career change?' Well, hey, maybe I should be a neurosurgeon. What the fuck are you talking about, career change?"

Instead, Golin, David Fincher and others set up Anonymous, reuniting with Propaganda directors including David Kellogg, Neil LaBute, Mark Romanek and Gore Verbinski. It's been a hell of a three years by any measure. The acrimonious split, the early battles with Propaganda, fighting for directors with MJZ and others, the messy RSA saga. Then, there was his illness, setting up the television, music video and management units, perhaps three movies this year alone, and of course the success of the first BMW, and the loss of the second phase. This was the cause of a major fallout with his long-term partner, the superstar director Fincher. "I was upset [with Fincher] re the BMW thing," Golin says. "I was very unhappy with the way the BMW thing came down. I think Fallon could have behaved better, but we blew it. It was the day I was getting my surgery, and I was very emotional about it. Fincher and I have had massive fights over the 17 years we have worked together. Dave is a brilliant filmmaker and I admire him so much. But he is a difficult guy. I love him but, we were in a place where his agenda and the company agenda were not completely lined up. He's in a place in his career where that's OK, and we were in a place with the company where we were trying to build a brand and it's important to us. And it got fucked up. It's fine now. We just did a BMW job with Fallon, actually."

BMW Films passed, ironically, to RSA. Golin declines to comment on the second series. He has become good at compartmentalizing the past. Partly for the very good reason that he's got a hell of a lot going on now. The projects come thick and fast. "We're doing really well in commercials - I'm shocked," he says. "Last year ended up good for us, more profitable than the year before. That being said the first five months were horrible. The last two months we really rocked it out." Anonymous recently signed Robert Logevall, and is seeing directors like Carter and Blitz, Pat Sherman and John Dolan begin to take off in the $500,000 a job category. Further up the ladder, David Kellogg and Andrew Douglas are both busy, and Malcolm Venville has hit a stride (his VW work last year proving a real breakthrough). There's a host of names, from Stephane Sednaoui and Jeffery Plansker to Mark Romanek (who just shot Johnny Cash's "Hurt" video) and Garth Jennings of Hammer & Tongs (who just finished Beck's "Lost Cause"), who dip in and out of projects from movies to videos. Then, of course there is Fincher, and also the lucrative tie-up with arguably the hottest commercials production company in the world, Gorgeous, that brings award-winning board flow through Frank Budgen, Chris Palmer, Tom Carty and Peter Thwaites. The breadth of roster is his answer to the charge that, as with Propaganda, if he achieves his stated intention to break directors into movies, then surely he harms his commercials business? "We don't have any director who is such a big portion of our business where it will kill us if that happens," Golin replies. "Look, if I develop a movie with Malcolm, he's not gonna work. I did the same at Propaganda: a movie with Dom Sena, with Nigel Dick, with Spike. I take them out of the rotation on the commercials side. Dave Morrison [Anonymous' L.A. rep] doesn't freak. He's going to produce Malcolm's movie with me. Maybe he won't want to do commercials in a couple of years' time. The company is a shell for the people. I have a different philosophy. I want people to have opportunities."

This applies to directors working with other companies on movies (as he is doing so with Partizan's Gondry). Golin is animated on this subject: "The movie business is all about material. If I am representing, say, Andrew Douglas, and someone else has material he wants to do, he has to be free to do it. Anything that limits a director's creative options is stupid. They have to be free. That's why we have so many directors. And we're doing really well with our directors not pitching against each other. We're very careful about who we sign and how they're managed. From a gross point of view, it's tricky. Commercials is by far the biggest division. But the TV division, the movie division, the management division they are all profitable this year."

Golin has been in the branded content space for years already. Currently, Anonymous is working on a project with Sony to turn the children's Play Doh character into a sponsored TV character in a half-hour sitcom with Sony products in it. "This stuff is happening. But doing something good is very hard. Doing something good with brand integration involved, too, just makes it harder. You have to be careful of the tail wagging the dog. Everyone is desperate for money right now. Warner Bros. is fucked, so is Vivendi. Disney is sucking wind. Everyone is looking for a new way to finance content through sponsorship and brand integration. Everyone is more open to Madison Avenue, but it's hard." He admits he only knows "enough to be dangerous" about television, "a writer's medium" despite having Twin Peaks and more in Propaganda's past. He leaves it to Larry Kinnaird and David Kantor. They have just sold The L Word, a series that promises to be a lesbian Sex & the City, and 12 new episodes of Crime and Punishment. There are five further pilots in development. "Our management division? We just merged with a company called Strong Marrone. I'm really happy with it. But, we have 90 employees, you know what I mean? That doesn't include directors or freelance producers. It's a substantial operation," he says, smiling. "We have a great team in commercials: Dave Morrison, Andy Traines and Lisa Margulies now. We have great reps, they know how to run the commercials business. I talk to Dave 10 to 15 times a day. I'm involved but I don't solicit jobs, or go to prepro meetings or agency dinners. I make maybe six calls a year with Jeff Goodby or Andy Berlin or whatever."

He admits to being bitterly disappointed that Spike Jonze, Dante Ariola and Kuntz & Maguire joined MJZ, not Anonymous, after Propaganda's demise, but claims to be more pragmatic and realistic after his illness. Maybe, tougher, too. "We all bid up the value of the directors to the point where it jeopardized the health of the companies and that was a mistake," he concedes. "The business has changed a lot. Directors have to understand that the health of the company is critical to their career. Dave Zander [owner of MJZ] wanted to legitimize his company so the strategy was worth it to him. I want everyone to do well. I'm friendly with Stavros [Merjos of HSI], friendly with Jon Kamen [of]. Look, commercials is very tough. But I'm not even sure that it's so bad. It's still ridiculous. I'm on this movie and then the other day I went to L.A. on a commercial. The level of grandeur on the commercial is 10 to 20 times the level on this movie. The trailers, mobile home, hotels, craft services, food ... it's ridiculous, it's what they expect."

Today, Golin concentrates on talent spotting and movies. He may do three this year, a lot by anyone's standards. After the Gondry film, there is 51st Kisses with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore (Pete Segal directing), "a huge movie". Then, there's Malcolm Venville's first movie project. "We all talent spot," Golin says. "We have a meeting every week about who are the new directors. We're in the talent scouting business. We had seven people at Sundance. We saw every film. The reason I can sign people over others is that I have this track record and have signed and developed this director and that director - both at Propaganda and Anonymous."

There are a few people with not so many good words to say about Golin, after such a tumultuous and high profile career in businesses like this, with startups and acrimonious fallouts aplenty. But it is clear that talented directors want to work with him - or at least his companies. And it's clear that he can spot talent or hire others that can spot talent. Who's the best he has worked with? "What interests me about this business is the creative process and how each director approaches the creative process completely differently," he starts by way of replying. "I think people do not have to be outlandish or abusive to be creative. Spike's not an asshole, Michel's not."

Reluctantly, he continues: "In commercials, David Kellogg is such a consistently great director, Frank does such few jobs, but they're all brilliant. I like working with Spike because sometimes I look at his ideas and think, Oh, my god, but then they're always brilliant. Fincher is great. Technically, I learned the most from him. And Dominic Sena is a great cameraman, I learned a lot from him. Gondry is very hard. His brain works in a different way from mine. He's not that articulate, so you're not always sure what he's doing and then you see the results and you're sure. Fincher is a lot more analytical and technical. In the Hitchcock vein, he has everything meticulously crafted and rigidly thought out. Michel is more experimental, more freewheeling, let's throw some magic out. Spike is more like Michel, he is a little less technical. But, he is very clever with the actors, the way he gets performances out of them."

Golin believes that brilliant people have bad ideas. That if you do not have enough ideas that "fuck up," you're not trying. After 30-something movies he admits that for every The Game, or Sleepless in Seattle - which both took about $200 million worldwide, or a Being John Malkovich, he has his share of bad ones to his name.

The cell phone goes - again. On top of all this he is also in the process of buying back shares of the company from Herb Miller, who backed it in 1999. The management group will own the company in a little over two years. Golin is the biggest shareholder. So why is he taking this path? "It's hard, I am away from home [in L.A.]. I miss my kids. People do things for money, and they do things because they want to, too. We do commercials for money. I know every commercial we get is not going to be some big award-winning special. That's reality. I won't do a movie just for money any more though. It's too big a commitment."

Golin earned this perspective in the most difficult way. In early January 2002, he felt a pain and noticed a lump on his shoulder. By January 26, he was beginning chemotherapy treatment that did not finish until September 1. He was extremely sick. "Chemo sucks," Golin says bluntly. "No one will tell you it's any fun. I've been very aggressively treated: chemo, radiation, major surgery on my shoulder and arms. Now, I feel good. There is no sign of anything. But you have to wait it out. It may come back, or it could never come back. It was a really trying and stressful year. I worked every day except for surgery, but it was more like maintenance. With the surgery, radiation and then chemotherapy at the end, I got pretty run down." Although his arm is damaged, he looks good.

"I'm not the same person," he says. "Lying in bed at 3 a.m., all alone, having chemo pumped into your body, you think, Maybe this is it. You definitely reprioritize things. It's hard. Then you get back into the groove of life and you forget a little of what you learned. But relationships with my family are more important now, and certain types of business bullshit I will not put up with anymore. I have both a shorter and longer fuse.

"This is my life," he concludes. " This is what I do. I could stop. I could retire, but I don't want to. I would lose my mind."

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