From his modest start as a staff writer at 20th Century Fox, Sid Ganis has built an uncommonly long and successful career in Hollywood. The well-liked Brooklyn native gravitated to marketing and publicity, eventually working his way up to the Warner Bros. executive suite in 1977. At George Lucas’s behest, he moved to the Bay Area to spearhead Lucasfilm’s marketing of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983) and the first two Indiana Jones movies. Ganis returned to L.A. to assume the presidency of the Paramount Motion Picture Group, and subsequently joined Columbia’s senior management team before striking out on his own as a producer. His credits include the Adam Sandler flicks Big Daddy and Mr. Deeds, and Akeelah and the Bee with his wife Nancy Hult Ganis, a former journalist and documentary filmmaker. As a sign of his respect in the industry, Ganis served four terms as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science from 2005 through 2009. Ganis divides his time between Southern California and the Bay Area, where he sits on the boards of the San Francisco Film Society and the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive. We spoke on the phone in mid-December.
SF360: You’ve completed your term as President of the Academy, is that correct?
Sid Ganis: It’s called the Immediate Past President. (Laughs.)
SF360: All the benefits and none of the headaches. What do you consider the greatest accomplishment of your tenure?
Ganis: Well, I point to the rest of the world, not the good old USA, as the benefactor of the Oscars and the Academy programs. My goal was to create awareness of the fact that this is about film from all over the world, not just film from Hollywood or Los Angeles or America. It’s about the art of film all over the world. And I think I was able to create a certain kind of awareness, even among the Academy members. Internationally, the hunger for film art is more obvious than it is at home. My job [was] to spread the word that we’re here and willing to accept film as a fine art. It’s subtle but it’s something that I’m most proud of.
Getting the museum off the ground by purchasing every last lick of land that we’re going to need to build one day, when we can raise the funds for it, which we can’t do now, was another big piece of the job. Basically, we bought eight and a half acres in the middle of Hollywood, California. And on those eight and a half acres one day will rise the Academy Museum of the Motion Picture.
SF360: Was something famous on that lot a hundred years ago, say, D.W. Griffith’s studio?
Ganis: (Laughs.) No, it was everything from a used car showroom to, today, a couple of postproduction houses and a yoga studio and a few other varied businesses and some residences. But it’s now ours, and it’s nice to know we have it and we’re paid in full and one day a museum dedicated to the art of film will rise up on that spot.
SF360: I have to say that every year it seems that the studios, which are owned by conglomerates, are more interested in blockbusters than in adult films.
Ganis: It’s true. That’s the dichotomy here. And that has to do with the part of this industry that the Academy itself is not at all interested in, which is the economics of commercial film distribution. It’s not the Academy’s mission to do that. And there’s not much we can do about that except continue to promote film as art, but also film as commercial art. There’s nothing wrong with that. You make a movie, you don’t make it to show to yourself in your bathroom mirror. You make it for the masses, and the studios sometimes go too far when they create for the masses. I was thinking this morning as I was reading the Hollywood Foreign Press [Association] nominations [for the Golden Globes]; there’s not much here in this list that is great art. Maybe it doesn’t rank with the very, very best of the work that’s been done for 110 years of moviemaking in this country, in this world. But there’s some pretty good stuff. And on a certain level, it’s excellent work. It may not be the grandest and greatest, but it’s excellent. I mean you think of Quentin Tarantino’s movie as splendid film work. Somebody will say, ‘Yes, but it doesn’t hold up to It Happened One Night or Gone With the Wind or Stalag 17.’ But it’s good work. And good work does get noticed and good work does do business.
SF360: Before we leave Hollywood and talk about the Bay Area, you began as an actor, yes?
Ganis: No. I began as a publicist. I acted in junior high school. That’s where I got the bug for show biz. It was semi-amateur, semi-pro in that I began acting in the play Life with Father, only my dramatics teacher rented the costumes from Brooks Costumes. And they were the costumes that were worn on Broadway, so that’s why I say semi-pro.
SF360: I was thinking that maybe the roles that the late Sydney Pollack and Alan King once got, maybe you could step into.
Ganis: Jumping into the shoes of those guys. One of them was a pretty close friend, a very close friend. I know those shoes. I inspired those shoes. They wouldn’t fit me.
SF360: What’s your candid assessment of Hollywood North, the Bay Area film scene, at this point?
Ganis: The Bay Area has always been burdened and never quite plowed to the extent that it could be. To me, San Francisco and environs is actually so much more interesting in every way than Los Angeles. Even in terms of the light available for shooting. For one reason or another it hasn’t quite been consistent in being the place that people come to shoot. Part of that these days has to do with pure economics. The whole state of California is in the same boat. It’s hard to shoot in the Bay Area on a tight budget.
SF360: Do you see the possibility that new technology, in hand with the filmmaking talent in the Bay Area, could create a new model for movies? Will the prevalence of watching movies on small screens alter or shrink the concept of a movie star?
Ganis: Right now, at the end of 2009, on our way into a new decade, the business once again is speculative. In the ‘50s it was speculative because television was growing in popularity. In the ‘60s it was not doing so hot and people were wondering about the beginnings of new technology. In the 70s popped up Star Wars from the Bay Area. And the world of video–
SF360: Home video?
Ganis: Home video was ready to bring the movie business to its knees. Then in the ‘80s the DVD was invented, and the ‘90s put it to use and it became the model for success in this business. The theatrical release provided the marketing push for the sale of DVDs. So it changes all the time. And I must say, the experience of going to the movies hasn’t changed at all. This year, theatrical motion pictures did better than ever. And the technique of producing movies, something I’m involved with now every day, has changed also. It hasn’t become less expensive but we are more facile now, we can move around quicker and shoot faster and swifter and with more stealth and less hubbub than we ever have been able to. A movie crew is a movie crew is a movie crew, but there are variations on that now that allow us to move very quickly. And then the talent, I must say it still comes down to the same thing—a great story and then great performances to go with that great story. A great story being the operative issue.
SF360: What is the one thing you love the most about producing?
Ganis: It’s a very interesting question. I think about that all the time. I can only tell you that working in the midst of the creative world of filmmaking creates blissfulness in me. I feel most comfortable in my skin when I’m part of the process of creating art in any form. That’s the best way I can say it. I hope you understand it. I feel great when I’m sitting on a movie set and dealing with the issues of the day on a movie set. I’m a producer; I have a certain job. That job, it changes during pre-production, postproduction and production, but I’m a producer and I feel best when I’m producing and I’m in the middle of it.
SF360: What are you’re working on now? Are you shooting at the moment?
Ganis: No, we’re not shooting. It’s harder these days to get movies going. So I’m in the process of getting a number of movies going, but they’re not greenlit yet. And the new thing for us is that we’re working in television. I’m working with my wife Nancy, and together we’re working on three television series that have generated interest in the community. I don’t want to say we’re shooting them because we’re not. But we’re getting close.
SF360: Do any of the projects have a Bay area connection?
Ganis: One of them was created by a Bay Area writer.
SF360: Is it set here? Is there a chance it would be—
Ganis: Shot in San Francisco? Not logically, no. One of them is definitely a Los Angeles locale, so that one’s out of the question. One is a period piece that will be shot on a stage somewhere. I guess it could be San Francisco. This is where Los Angeles does win, because everything’s handy here. And the third one also is a period piece, but would be on location in Washington, D.C. and Boston.
SF360: In closing, is there something that no one ever asks you and that you never get to expound on?
Not that I can think of, except for one thing. It was pointed out to me recently that I’ve been in this business a long time, and there was a number put to it. ‘Oh, you started in such a year, and do you realize you’ve been in this business for so many years?’ And I can tell you that I can look back to my youth when I started in this business, and I can look to this very day, this very moment talking to you on the phone, and I can tell you I love this business as much today as I did then. And it’s only because we have the opportunity of expressing ourselves in a way that might be beneficial in the world. In other words, we make movies, mass consumption art, and if we do it right we can tell a story that might even be useful in society. Wow, I can’t believe I said that.
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