That was just the first step. Once the film was completed, it lacked both a distributor and — after film festivals like Cannes, New York, and Venice turned it down — the means to create a buzz to lure one. Newman lobbied the head of the Toronto Film Festival, who agreed to present the movie. Simultaneously Newman persuaded United Artists to buy it. The movie was released in 1995. The National Society of Film Critics named it the best film of the year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Figgis twice — for Best Director and Best Screenplay — Shue for Best Actress, and Nicolas Cage for Best Actor. Cage would take home his first Oscar.
ROBERT NEWMAN’S BRAIN IS AN ARCHIVE. In it he keeps bits of dialogue, shot-by-shot breakdowns, posters, and trailers from all the movies he has seen — a vast file that he calls on to help him win clients. Lee Tamahori signed with Newman and another ICM agent, Ken Kamins, after the New Zealander’s Once Were Warriors caused a stir at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival.
“All the other agents told me to come to their hotel lobbies, where they would buy me drinks,” he recalls. “Robert took me to get a milk shake and a hamburger. And remember, hamburgers are bad in France. But the first conversation we struck up was about Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel, two of my favorite filmmakers. He knew absolutely what he was talking about.”
One day Newman told me how he coaches his directors. “Most people are concerned about whether people like them — whether the studios like them. But it’s not a personality contest,” he said. “Ultimately, that’s not what a director is being hired for — to be liked. A director is paid to make a great movie. At the end, he can’t be saying to the studio, ‘But you wanted that scene in there. But you wanted to cast him.’ His job is to cut through the 40 opinions and make the right call. Don’t be afraid of not getting the job or of losing the job once you get it. Be afraid of not doing a great job.”
Newman could just as easily have been talking about himself. Not that he is at ease doing that. He accepts as a cardinal rule that an agent’s place is behind his client, not out in front. He also believes that agenting is collaborative — he’ll talk your head off about ICM colleagues without whose expertise he’d be lost: the TV agent Nancy Etz, for example, or the expert on film finance Bart Walker. Mostly, though, Newman prefers to talk about movies — which he uses to explain everything, even his own reticence. “Remember Absence of Malice?” he asked me at one point, glaring at my notebook. Later he announced he was “going Greta Garbo” once this article saw print. “Remember that scene in The World According to Garp, when the members of the Ellen James Society cut out their tongues?” he asked. “That’s going to be me.”
But when he meets a filmmaker whose work he loves, Newman can’t stay silent. At a screening at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, Newman bumped into the director David Cronenberg, who is repped by another ICM agent. Newman introduced himself, passing along his colleagues regards. “I’ve been a very big fan for a very long time,” he said earnestly “I loved Scanners. I’m looking forward to Spider. And I just watched the new DVD of Dead Zone.”
Cronenberg’s wife raised an eyebrow. “We haven’t gotten one yet,” she said. Newman reached into his jacket, fished out a tiny leather-bound notebook — he doesn’t like Palm Pilots — and scribbled himself a note: “Send Dead Zone DVD.”
About a week later, Newman flew to New York to meet with Jonathan Demme. Long before Newman became an agent, he had admired the director. He saw Last Embrace at the University of Miami in 1979, Melvin and Howard at the Beekman in 1980, Swing Shift in Times Square in 1984, Stop Making Sense on 57th Street in 1984, Something Wild in Port Washington, New York, in 1986, Married to the Mob at Loews 34th Street in 1988. Demme had gone without an agent for more than a year and was being courted by several firms. But after heating Newman’s ideas about how to market his next film, The Truth About Charlie, the director signed with ICM.