Every Saturday, as a kid growing up in Teaneck, I took the No.78 bus into Hackensack and I’d go to either the Fox or the Oritani movie theater and watch double features,” Roger Birnbaum recalls with affection. “It was a ritual. Never did it occur to me that the movies were a business or something that I could do. I never even thought about it. I just went to the movies for entertainment and I loved them.”
And today, right now, as you read this, Birnbaum and Gary Barber, one of his closest friends and his producing partner at Spyglass Entertainment, are settling into their new positions as the co-chairmen and co-CEOs of the legendary MGM Studios, which has emerged from bankruptcy and aims, under their guiding hands, to regain its luster. Birbaum plans for Leo the Lion to roar again -- and to roar more fiercely than ever.
Obviously, Birnbaum still loves movies. Over the years, he and Barber have brought dozens of movies to a theater near you: The Sure Thing, Angels in the Outfield, Inspector Gadget, Rush Hour, Bruce Almighty, Seabiscuit, 27 Dresses, Invictus and more. He also helped develop or finance numerous films -- among them Rain Man, The Sixth Sense and Tim Burton’s Batman -- for which he did not receive a producing credit.
On the way is the horror movie Cabin in Woods. There’s a reimagining of Red Dawn and a comedy called Zookeeper. Each of those three films was produced by the previous MGM administration. James Bond will be back, too, with Daniel Craig returning for his third go-round as 007. And MGM is partnering with Warner Bros. on The Hobbit, which is now shooting, and on Hansel & Gretel, with Jeremy Renner as the lead. Birnbaum and Barber are also sifting through the intellectual property that MGM already owns, including RoboCop, The Magnificent Seven, Poltergeist, Mr. Mom and The Idolmaker, as possible reboot options.
But the studio can’t exist on in-the-pipeline projects and reboots alone, so Birnbaum intends to move the company forward by creating original projects and franchises. And this is a whole other story, but Birnbaum must also juggle MGM’s home entertainment, television and international divisions. “Every big decision that is made here, Gary and I consult each other on and agree on before we push any button,” Birnbaum says. “It’s a true, true partnership. My feeling about how a big company like this, which has many divisions, can be successful is that the people who are running those divisions are capable of doing the job. That’s the key to it, hiring the right people.
“You have to hire people that you trust, and you must be able to delegate,” he says. “That’s a very, very specific talent. If you don’t hire the right people and you don’t delegate, you’re going to get mired in the details and you’re not going to be successful.”
From Teaneck to Tinseltown
Much of the producer’s touch, the instinct that drives Birnbaum to financially back a script or to help nurture a pitch into a script and then into a feature, and his overall taste as a filmmaker, can be traced back to his formative years in Teaneck. He was raised there and attended Teaneck High School. After he attended college at the University of Denver, where he booked acts to play on campus, he kicked off his career in earnest. He started in the music industry and rose swiftly through the ranks before shifting to movies, first at Monument Pictures, and then at the Guber/Peters Company, United Artists, 20th Century Fox, Caravan Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment.
In all that time, Birnbaum maintained his ties to, and a profound affection for, Teaneck. “I think I grew up as an average kid,” Birnbaum says. “When I look at the way I create entertainment, whether it was first in the music business or now in the movie business, I look at it from the point of view of an average person.”
When he’s asked how he knows what will be a hit movie or how he comes to the decision on what to make into a movie, he replies, “Making movies is storytelling. Centuries and centuries ago, people sat around fires, and they grunted stories out and it evolved over time. Storytelling has always been around. Now our storytelling is on the screen. And I’m just a storyteller. I try to tell stories that affect me. If I read a script or a book or a magazine story, or if someone tells me an idea they think could be made into a movie, and it affects me, I make the assumption that it will affect a lot of other people because I see myself as a rather average person.
“I grew up as a very average kid in a very average community in America,” he says, “and I think it’s served me well in the choices that I make today creatively.”
There’s no need to prod Birnbaum for additional stories about Teaneck. He’s full of them. He played Little League baseball in town. Noted composer Alan Silvestri and Birnbaum have been buddies since they were pre-teen boys running around together on the streets of Teaneck. He happily recounts a visit not too long ago to Bischoff’s and then a drive past his old house, which, mysteriously enough, was covered in yellow police tape.
“Memories, of course, of your past are influenced by the life that you’ve lived since then,” Birnbaum says wistfully. “I have a daughter who is 24 now, and she’s a very, very big part of my life. So when I think about Teaneck, I think about growing up as a kid there. When I was raising her, I would always compare everything to the way I grew up.
“I could leave my house early in the morning and not come back until it was dark outside,” he says, “and I could hear my mother calling to come in for dinner. There was no adult supervision. There was no staying close to the house. You just went out and played. I remember that. I remember playing and feeling safe in the environment I grew up in.
“When someone says Teaneck,” he says, “I always visualize myself in front of the house, playing baseball, or riding on my bicycle through West Englewood, which is a part of Teaneck, and going over a bridge and going to one of two places. One of the places was a little store called Holder’s. I’d have 25 cents and I’d buy a comic book for 10 cents, a balsa-wood airplane for 10 cents, and I’d have five cents left over to buy a Snickers bar or something like that. And that would usually start my Saturday. Or I’d go to this other place called Hy & Harry’s, where they had a counter. I’d sit up there and have either a virgin lime rickey or an ice cream soda with my friends. I have very, very, very vivid memories of that.”
Birnbaum can’t stay lost in his reveries for much longer. He’s got a company to run, after all. And if anyone’s up to the task of resurrecting MGM and ushering the studio back to Tinseltown glory, it’s Birnbaum. “It’s an honor to do it,” Birnbaum says as the conversation fades to black. “It’s a challenge. It’s very exciting to me to think that a kid from Teaneck, New Jersey, who used to take that bus to the Fox and the Oritani to see double features for 25 cents, is now the co-chairman and CEO of MGM. I’m proud of that accomplishment. There are days when I’ll think, 'Did this really happen to me?’ And I still have the enthusiasm and excitement for the business, for making movies.
“It means a lot to me,” he says. “I don’t look at this and take any part of it for granted. It’s been a crazy ride. It’s been exciting. It’s been fulfilling. I’ve been lucky. I have a great partner in Gary Barber. I trust this guy with everything in my life, and he’s like a brother to me. I have great friends. And I’m having a blast doing this. It’s very, very hard and it’s very time consuming, but it’s energizing to me. I could have just walked away into the sunset, but rather than do that, I took on what is probably the biggest challenge and the most exciting challenge of my life.”