Bill Immerman

Bill Immerman, Producer
by Elizabeth Willoughby 
While growing up in New York, Bill Immerman fell in love with film. He went to the movies every weekend, sometimes twice. At only eight years old he knew that film was the industry that he would become a part of in one capacity or another. His father, a lawyer, wanted Bill to follow a legal path. Bill found a way to do both.

After completing his undergraduate degree and a stint in the army, he decided to go to Stanford Law School and then go on to practice entertainment law. In college he was involved in film, theatre, radio and television, and when he graduated Stanford, at age 25 he headed straight to Los Angeles. Over forty years later, he’s still there. He’s seen many changes and contributed to many film projects over the years, from Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry to Ray to The Maiden Heist, but his journey has not been a predictable one, and it’s one he’s not ready to see come to a close anytime soon.

Bill Immerman shares his thoughts and experiences with WorldGuide:

on his first hurdles in Los Angeles...

My intention was always to get into the entertainment industry, but I couldn’t find the right opportunity. So, I decided as an attorney to get experience as a trial lawyer. The best place to get experience as a trial lawyer is at the District Attorney’s office because they send you right into court. So, I was sworn in as an attorney at noon, and at 1:00 the district attorney handed me my first case.

It was a man who was charged with a sex crime. That’s not a particular thing that you study in law school, so I was probably unfamiliar with what even the law was on the matter, but luckily the policeman who had brought the charges, who was there with me, said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got an airtight case.” As it turned out I won the case, but as a result of that, I ended up being given cases in that area, which was not something that I particularly wanted to do. I don’t think most people dream of becoming a prosecutor as a specialist in sex crimes.

on his big break...

I was assigned for awhile to Glendale, which at that time was an extremely conservative suburb of Los Angeles. A young actor and his boyfriend were at Disneyland promoting a new Disney picture that was about to come out. This was the late 60s, when actors didn’t come out about their sexual preferences and certainly Disney actors didn’t. They made a wrong turn and ended up in Glendale, pulled into a park and proceeded to show their affection for each other. Unfortunately, the park they picked was really a cemetery and the police patrolling the cemetery arrested them. I was assigned the case and arranged a plea; the thing never got out publically and Disney was able to release the picture.

About two months later I got a call from the defence attorney and he said I had saved Disney millions of dollars and made him an enormous hero because there was no way that Disney could have released the picture starring this young man if it had come out that he was a homosexual and that he was smoking marijuana. He took me to lunch and said, “I’m very good friends with a Stanford lawyer who represents a lot of film companies. Let me talk to him.”

His friend represented a company called American International Pictures (AIP), which at the time was the first company that was making films aimed at the teenage market. They were doing what was known as the beach party films – Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello – so I went to an interview and they hired me as associate council. That’s how I got my first job in the film business.


It's a lawyers life

on The Way Things Were at AIP...

In the film business, lawyers are generally broken up into two categories: the council or legal department and the business affairs department. In 1965, when I started at AIP, there was a general council and myself. He was a much older guy and he was the type of lawyer that if you had problems and you went in to see him, he would tell you all the things you did wrong, which didn’t make him the most popular guy around. I learned very fast that if you worked with people and became a problem solver, then they’d come to you. You could actually do a great service to your company because you were solving things before they got worse. But if you were the kind of person who was always just telling people what they did wrong, you never learned about the problem until it was about to become a disaster. So, I used to call him Dr No and I always tried to be Dr Yes.

After about a year, they made me head of business affairs. In the business affairs department, lawyers do the negotiating, work with the producers, and try to prevent problems from happening. I was dealing with all of the agents in town, negotiating contracts for actors. I still had my love of the theatre, so I went to a lot of local theatre productions here in Los Angeles, and got to know a lot of the young actors. Because AIP did not have a casting director and because I knew actors and we were a company making pictures very cheaply, I became not only the head of business affairs, but also the casting director. It caused some unusual situations. An actor would come in to read for a role, look on the wall and see my law degree and say, “Oh I must have walked in the wrong room,” and I’d say, “Don’t worry, I’m not suing you, I’m trying to cast you.” It was fun doing both jobs.

It was a small company and we all did everything. Occasionally they used my voice on the sound track. I even did a small role in one of the movies when an actor didn’t show up. It was a great way to learn the film business because everybody’s office was open and if you had natural curiosity and wanted to know about marketing, you could wander down to the marketing department and the head of marketing was very happy to explain what they were doing and why, and the sales department would do the same thing. I learned a tremendous amount – much more than I would have if I’d gone to work for a studio, because a big motion picture studio tends to put you into a certain area and it’s very hard to get out of that area. At AIP it was incredible because I had contact with everybody in the company and I could ask questions and learn.

on the problems encountered in business affairs...

There could be a situation where the writer had read someone else’s script on the same subject before he turned in his script and now he’s worried that we could get sued for stealing the script, so we’d make a deal with the other person ahead of time to acquire the rights. Or, a producer or director may have promised the same role to two different actors, thinking the first person wouldn’t do it but didn’t withdraw the offer before offering it to a second person, so we’d have to work something out – maybe offer him another role. There were problems where they had made arrangements thinking the picture would shoot in three weeks but now it’s five weeks and they’ve used up the budget in the three-week offer. There are all sorts of those kinds of problems. They’re not really litigation problems, but they are legal problems that need to be worked out.

on his business affairs strategies...

There are a lot of things that can go wrong with the schedule, so you learn to schedule a certain amount of free time for an actor when you negotiate a deal. If an actor has another picture to go to in five weeks and you say that’s no problem because you only need him for four weeks, what happens if somebody sprains an ankle and you have to delay shooting some scenes, or you hit bad weather or planes get delayed or the director gets behind schedule?

To analyze the situation and look not only at the expectations but the possibilities, that’s a good business affairs executive, and a good producer. He has the ability to anticipate what may happen even if it is not what is expected and make sure that he’s covered himself so that he doesn’t find himself out of money and not being able to handle the situation.

Good Old Days at the Studio
on comedian Mel Brooks...

Mel is one of the nicest people in the business. He’s the kind of guy who was always “on” as a comedian. Mel was under contract to us at 20th Century Fox when I was an executive there. Normally we were very casual at Fox. We didn’t get dressed up. But, one day I was in my suit because I had a meeting in my office with the representatives of Bank of America and we were negotiating a line of credit for the studio.

I think Mel was in-between pictures at the time or developing another picture but not shooting anything, and as was his habit, he’d wander the halls and drop in and say hello to people. My secretary knew he knew me, so when he wandered into the office and asked for me, she said I was in with some bankers. He asked if he could say hello and she figured it wouldn’t hurt – bankers love to meet movie stars – so she let him in. Mel walked in and he looked at the bankers and he looked at me and said, “I just wanted to congratulate you that they expunged your felony record.” The bankers did a double take and I had to explain that this was Mel Brooks.

on actor Gene Wilder...

Because Dick Silberman, who was my roommate at university, knew I was interested in film and theatre, he would always fill me in on his cousin, Jerry, who at that point was in New York on Broadway in a play. He was getting great reviews, and Dick was very proud of his cousin, who had changed his name to Gene Wilder. Occasionally, for short holidays when it was too long to drive back to New York, I’d go into Milwaukee and stay at [Dick’s] house, and I’d meet a lot of people who were also friends of Gene Wilder. So I knew everything about Gene Wilder but had never met him.

Years later, we were shooting Young Frankenstein. I had just signed a deal with Gene’s agent, and I thought it would be nice to go over and say hello to him. We were shooting a very funny scene where Madeline Kahn was saying good-bye to Gene Wilder on his way to Transylvania. When they finished the take, I walked over to Gene Wilder and instead of introducing myself, I said, “Oh my God, Jerry Silberman!”

He looked at me, of course, because he’s never met me in his whole life. I proceeded to tell him about everybody, all his friends, and he was looking at me like he had early onset Alzheimer’s disease. He was horrified – he had no idea who he was talking to but I was obviously one of his best friends in the whole world. After about 20 minutes, I finally said “Gene, you’ve never met me,” and then I told him who I was. He got a big laugh.

The next day, I ran into a friend of mine who was writing for Time magazine doing a story on Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. I said, “You’ve got to do me a favour. When you walk into the office and see Gene for the first time, say, ‘Oh my God, Jerry Silberman!’’’ Gene was sitting there in one of those swivel-back chairs and when my friend said, “Oh my God, Jerry Silberman!” both Gene and his chair fell over.

Producing Motion Pictures
on what it means to be a producer...

There are really two types of producers in Hollywood and there is sort of a big contest between them. The Producers Guild, which is not really a union but more of an association of producers, are producers who are primarily under contract to studios, who do big studio pictures, and their function is usually finding a property and developing it. Very often they go to production and sit on the set, but in today’s world there’s generally a line producer on the set who makes most of the technical decisions.

Independent producers, in addition to doing everything else that a producer does, have the responsibility of arranging the financing of the picture, which is among the most difficult things to do, whether it’s with private investors or by pre-selling foreign contracts and taking them to the bank, or going to places where there are subsidies for films. The Producers Guild and the major studio producers don’t recognize that as a producer’s function, although traditionally that is what producers did.

on his own style of producing...

These days, I act as an executive producer, which means I’m involved from the very beginning in putting the project together, I go on location for a short period, and then I get involved in the editing but not on a day-to-day basis – they show me the film, I make some suggestions.

When I was younger, I used to enjoy sitting on sets, but now I enjoy the process of developing the scripts and the process of editing the film a lot more than the actual filming because, really, the filming is the domain of the director. The director is really in charge of the set. The producer is waiting for a problem to happen, but if he’s done his work ahead of time, there’s nothing to do as a producer. Of course, that never happens, but he’s essentially sitting on the set with not a lot to do until something goes wrong. Actors rarely come over to the producer just to have a nice, social conversation. They generally have one or two things on their minds: “Can’t you get me better living expenses?” and “Could you intercede with the director to get me more close-ups?”

on technology...

I think what’s exciting now is all the new technological things that are happening, and there’s a lot of potential. If you look at the industry as peaks and valleys, we’re in a valley right now because the DVD business is in decline and that’s become an important part of the revenue of films. On the other hand, we can see that it’s a mountain ahead of us that we can get up to the top of with some of the new technology , including all the “on demand” technology that will make it easier for people to access content.

It’s all a matter of understanding where the industry is going and then coming up with some marketing strategies. The key is not to look at the status quo, but to try to look five or six years ahead.

It’s an industry that has not had a lot of success in doing that because the compensation structure and the bonus structure, to a great degree, has always been based on short term gain. Executives in our business are kind of like sports managers – we’re expected to have immediate returns.

Part of looking at where we’re going is, of course, looking back at where we were. If you study the history of the business you see certain patterns and the key is to try to identify those patterns and see how they affect what’s happening from here on in.

on current projects...

Right now, I am working on several projects. One is a film called Rat’s Tale. It’s the Cinderella story told from the point of view of the rat who became the coachman. I’m also working on a film about a very famous hockey player named Gordy Howe. The story is how Gordy comes out of retirement to play with his sons when a new hockey league is formed, and how they go on to try to win the championship that season. It’s a little bit in the mould of Slap Shot.

on retirement...

In the next years, I see myself doing what I’m doing now. I think in this business you don’t retire. They just come in one day to take your pulse and there is none. I’m one of the lucky people whose work is my hobby, so I can’t imagine ever retiring. It’s a business that tends to be youth oriented. I’m lucky to be in one of those positions where age doesn’t necessarily work against you. For writers and actors it’s always a problem.

This article was published at ©WorldGuide 2010

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