He knows the movie business as well as anyone, and when he talks, studio chiefs listen. He’s Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart, and he lives in curious coexistence with the industry he covers
Originally appeared in Los Angeles Magazine September 1, 2001
BY: Amy Wallace
Peter Bart is on the phone, and he’s threatening to sue.
“I really take umbrage at the gotcha nature of your interrogation,” he says. His voice is taut. I can’t see his knees, but I’m sure at least one is twitching.
Bart, the editor-in-chief of Variety, the entertainment industry’s dominant newspaper, is accustomed to being in charge. Studio heads woo him; strivers kiss his ass. Everyone wants his insight and his wisdom — or prominent placement in Variety’s big, glossy pages. In his weekly column, “The Back Lot,” he alternately strokes and scolds moguls and movie stars, addressing them by their first names. When Bart telephones the powerful, he is put right through. Now he’s calling me.
“I think to plunk documents out of context,” he says, “on people whose lives are as busy as yours or mine is a little unfair. This is not consistent with the access and cooperation I have afforded you.”
Over several months I have encountered a dizzying variety of Peters. I have spent many hours with Charming Peter, who is smart, funny, fierce. I have gotten to know Judgmental Peter, who loves to size up others. I’ve met Crude Peter, Brilliant Peter, Hypocritical Peter, Loyal Peter.
Bart calls himself “Zelig-like.” A setter of rules who hates to follow them, a lover of labels who resents being characterized, a seeker of the truth who doesn’t always tell it, Bart believes he is immune to the conflicts that derail lesser men. It’s one of the things that place him among the most despised and feared people in Hollywood. I listen to him speaking now. It’s a Peter I’ve never met.
“When you’re in public life, people attack you,” Intimidating Peter tells me. “But I’m taken aback by a bogus document suddenly being slammed on the desk. I’ll send you a note saying I will sue you, which I sure as hell will.”
IF YOU ARE A DOCTOR OR A GROCER or an airline pilot with no ties to the business that produces America’s number-one export – entertainment — you probably have never heard of Peter Bart. But if you are among the 70,000 people in Los Angeles, New York, and around the world who can’t start the day without knowing which big-name movie director just got a two-picture deal, Bart is an institution.
Over nearly four decades in Los Angeles he’s been a reporter for The New York Times, an executive at three movie studios, an independent film producer, a screenwriter, and an author of both novels and nonfiction. For the past dozen years he has been the editor of and most influential columnist at Daily Variety and Weekly Variety, the sister publications whose zippy headlines, who’s-in-who’s-out reporting, and largely anonymous sources routinely make and break reputations. In clout-conscious Hollywood, that makes Bart not just an observer but a player.
There are two keys to success in Hollywood: relationships and information. Bart traffics in both. He lunches almost every day with a studio chief, a marketing executive, a top manager or talent agency head, an entertainment lawyer or lobbyist. In the course of just a few weeks earlier this year he dined with Screenwriter William Goldman; Ron Meyer, president of Universal Studios; Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Warner Bros. president of worldwide production; Michael Ovitz, CEO of Artists Management Group; Mike De Luca, former New Line president of production (and now production chief at DreamWorks SKG); Mike Medavoy, chairman of Phoenix Pictures; Tom Sherak, partner at Revolution Studios; Rob Friedman, vice chairman at Paramount Pictures; John McLean, executive director of the Writers Guild of America; Don Marron, chairman of PaineWebber; and Skip Brittenham, a partner in the entertainment law firm Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca & Fischer.
These meals aren’t interviews, according to Bart, but meetings between equals. After all, in his 17 years as an executive, most prominently at Paramount Pictures, Bart was one of them. He likes to think he still is. “Some people say I owe Joe Roth a lot,” Bart says of the former Disney chief who now runs Revolution Studios. “But I don’t. Joe Roth owes me. I gave him his first job. “(While Bart was president of Lorimar Film Company, Roth produced the 1979 dud Americathon, but it was Roth’s fourth film, not his first.)