PGA Milestone Award Honoree Toby Emmerich On How Warner Bros. & New Line ‘Hits ‘Em Where They Ain’t’

Matt Baron/Shutterstock

In presenting the Producers Guild of America’s Milestone Award to Warner Bros. Pictures Group Chairman Toby Emmerich tonight, A Star Is Born director and star Bradley Cooper shared his experiences about the studio boss that underscored Emmerich’s innate ability to gamble on raw talent, and win.

Not only did Emmerich take a chance on having a young Cooper cast in Wedding Crashers back in 2005, but the studio boss rolled the dice on the actor again when he asked to make the fourth remake of a movie as a first-time director-writer with a pop singer who hadn’t previously starred in a major studio motion picture.

“He took a huge swing [on me], the same as he trusted [Wedding Crashers director] David Dobkin,” Cooper said tonight.

Even more sublime for Cooper was how Emmerich allowed him to change the ending of A Star Is Born halfway through production “against all logic and mass market research,” said the actor.

A Star Is Born
Warner Bros

The end results speak for themselves: A Star Is Born has amassed $406.5M off a $36M production cost with a huge voice this awards season including a PGA best picture nomination tonight, seven BAFTA noms, wins at the Critics’ Choice and Golden Globes and four SAG noms next weekend including best ensemble, best actor for Cooper, best actress for Lady Gaga and best supporting actor for Sam Elliott.

Cooper lauded Emmerich’s down-to-earth quality as a person: “While everyone was finding in-vogue hotels to stay at in New York, he stays at his mom’s apartment every time he goes there.”

Taking the stage, Emmerich thanked Cooper (“I’m so glad to be your wing-man on your maiden voyage”) before quipping, “I have no idea how I got here, other than I took Sunset to Whittier.”

Emmerich shared with the crowd how he fell in love with cinema. He grew up in Manhattan with his brothers, a classical musician mother and a father who repped sculptors. With his allowance money, Emmerich bought the family their first color TV and stayed up all night watching black-and-white movies like From Here to Eternity, Notorious and Double Indemnity. 

The first time Emmerich went alone to the movies was at the Trans-Lux on 85th Street, when they had matinee chaperones at the theater. He went to see the 2pm showing of Peter Yates’ 1972 title The Hot Rock (starring Robert Redford and George Segal) and sat through three showtimes. He headed home that night in a raging New York blizzard and when he arrived his mother was waiting at the front door. “She called the police, thinking I was kidnapped,” said Emmerich, “as I drifted off to sleep, I thought about going to the 9pm show.”

When he was 16 years old, he became an usher at the 84th St. and Broadway Loews Cinema, and that first stint in the film industry ended abruptly at the end of the summer when the theater was robbed at gunpoint. In 1987, he got the chance to break into the soundtrack business at Atlantic Records, which led him to a music executive position at Bob Shaye’s New Line, an experience he called “the best film school I could have ever gone to.”

Although Emmerich made a movie entitled Horrible Bosses, “I never had any,” he said, and he praised his mentors: Doug Morris at Atlantic Records, Shaye, former Warner Bros. President/COO now Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn, and Warner Bros. Entertainment Chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara.

Jeff Goldstein, President, Domestic Distribution, Warner Bros. Pictures; Richard Brener, President and Chief Creative Officer, New Line Cinema; Carolyn Blackwood, President and Chief Content Officer, New Line Cinema; Toby Emmerich, Chairman, Warner Bros. Pictures Group Shutterstock

“As you get wiser, it’s not who you work for, but who works for you that determines your ultimate fate,” Emmerich told the crowd and then extolled New Line President and Chief Content Officer Carolyn Blackwood and the studio’s President and Chief Creative Officer Richard Brener for carrying on the mini-major’s legacy well after Shaye.

Before tonight’s show, we spoke with Emmerich about his gut instinct for profitable slates, and discovering and nurturing filmmaking talent like Seth Gordon, Dobkin and It writer Gary Dauberman, who is making his feature directorial debut on the next Annabelle movie.

Emmerich told Deadline: “It’s super intuitive, and it’s not one person in a room saying, ‘Oh this guy is a genius, I know it.’ It’s a company, it’s a group of colleagues, it’s the marketing people, it’s the production people, it’s the publicity people, it’s the physical production people, it’s the post production people, it’s everybody saying this woman or man is a director. And if you work with a lot of directors who are good, you get to know the breed. You start to know the characteristics. It’s a very contradictory, paradoxical set of qualities: incredible confidence with incredible insecurity, incredible decisiveness and incredible pre-conceived notions but also very profound open-mindedness and a will to collaborate with actors and other people, because it’s a collaborative art form.”

And when Emmerich first took the podium at tonight’s awards show, he pointed out how Cooper possessed all these attributes.

We talked with Emmerich about another rule of thumb he has when it comes to making movies and running a studio: “Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t”

“That’s a baseball expression from [New York Yankees right fielder] ‘Wee Willie’ Keeler. Obviously if you hit where the players are, they catch the ball and you’re out. If you hit where they’re not standing, then you can get on base. For me, when I was at New Line, in those days they didn’t compete with Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros., so they had to be scrappy and they had to make movies that weren’t necessarily what the big studios were making and therefore, those movies were targeted for an audience that the other majors weren’t targeting: an undeserved audience.”

Crazy Rich Asians
Warner Bros

The “Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t” philosophy has been in full effect at Warners since Emmerich took the studio reins with movies such as Crazy Rich Asians, A Star Is Born and The Meg, and they continue to bank on burgeoning talent, i.e. Lights Out filmmaker David F. Sandberg with Shazam! and Sundance winner Cathy Yan with Birds of Prey. 

Emmerich ended tonight reflecting on his admiration for the tenacity of producers and how humbled he was to receive tonight’s honor.

“They’re the first ones on, the last ones out, and the last to get paid,” said the Warners boss about producers.

“My job title is best described as ‘Dr. No.’, but in accepting this award, it’s a meaningful ‘Yes’ for me.”

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