“Robert envisioned even then that he was going to get into the film industry,” says Mulligan. “He’d scope out what was coming up, what was old and good, what was old and bad.” Movies became — and remain — a shared language, a way of communicating meaning, of enhancing the flavors and colors of everyday life.
When Newman was 16, the boy without a father lost his mother as well. Newman and his mom had gone to see Chinatown that weekend, and he likes to recall how much she enjoyed it — particularly the barbershop scene. “This guy is giving Nicholson a hard time,” Newman explains, “and Nicholson asks him what he does for a living. ‘Mortgage department, First National Bank,’ the guy says.” Newman’s mother was a mortgage broker. “I remember she laughed scornfully when Jack says, ‘Tell me, how many people a week do you foreclose on?’” The next night Selma Newman died in her sleep. She’d had a heart attack. She was 50.
The movies — already an emotional tether — became a lifeline. To this day, if you catch Newman in an unguarded moment and ask why he so loves the movies, he will say: “I’m not alone. It’s just that simple. It ain’t just me.”
After high school Newman lived briefly in a Florida retirement community with his godfather. It was there, in 1976, that he met 16-year-old Cindy Karesky, who had come to visit her aunt. On their second date Newman took her to see Robert Zemeckis’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand. The Deer Hunter came soon after, and then Apocalypse Now. They’ve seen hundreds of movies together since. They married in 1986. “That was a good summer,” Newman will say “The Fly we saw at the 8th Street Playhouse. Aliens we saw the day we came back from our honeymoon at Loews 84th Street.”
Hoping to be a director, Newman went to New York University, where he majored in film. “I liked entertainment,” he says. His classmates, by contrast, were into the avant-garde and thought little of his first short — an homage to Fritz Lang’s M. In 1981, Newman saw an ad on an NYU bulletin board. Miramax needed a messenger for $3.50 an hour. Miriam Weinstein, the mother of Miramax’s cofounders, Harvey and Bob, hired him, and over the next six and a half years he rose from gofer (“I used to get Harvey’s lunch: tuna on toasted rye with a slice of American cheese and a Diet Coke”) to an executive who acquired films and helped decide how to market them.
“Miramax was a great place to start out,” Newman says. “Everything was focused on how do you sell tickets. We used to literally stand outside theaters where a successful film was showing, handing out leaflets for our movies.”
In 1988, Newman — tired of being just part of “Bob and Harvey’s show” — went into distribution on his own. His first acquisition: U.S. rights to a Russian film called Little Vera. Borrowing a play from Miramax, he convinced Playboy to put the movie’s star on its cover. The film, which he’d paid $50,000 to release, made $1.2 million.
Newman was 30 and successful, but he was missing something: the chance to form partnerships with filmmakers that lasted longer than a movie’s release. While at NYU, he’d read a New Yorker profile of Sam Cohn, which made the ICM agent seem almost mythic. So Newman cold-called Cohn’s boss, Jeff Berg.
Berg can be brusque — his nickname is “Ice.” He is also impressive, the kind of agent who, after 22 years as the head of an agency can still be found at a revival screening of Touch of Evil. It was Berg who, in the late 1970s, put together the groundbreaking deal that gave George Lucas the merchandising and sequel rights to Star Wars. Today he counts Julia Roberts and Roman Polanski among his personal clients. Berg believes in the traditional method of training agents: starting them out in the mail room, apprenticing them to established agents, and then promoting the best. But he was struck by Newman’s experience and his unpredictable tastes.
“He was not influenced by the film du jour,” Berg recalls. “He had a good historical and academic understanding of global cinema. He read Film Quarterly.” Berg figured what Newman lacked (relationships with movie studios)was counterbalanced by what he had (ties to the independent film world). He offered Newman a job in Los Angeles.