Neal Moritz, a producer with his finger on the pulse of the populace
Neal Moritz is the kind of producer who leaves nothing to chance. Even though “Battle: Los Angeles” was on track for a strong opening this past Friday, he spent a morning the week before the film’s release huddled with top marketing executives at Sony Pictures, examining 15- and 30-second TV commercials the way a dentist studies X-rays of a patient’s teeth, looking for a cavity.
“Battle: Los Angeles,” which debuted at No. 1 this weekend, making $36 million, is a cross between a war movie and an alien invader saga, with a plucky group of Marines battling a seemingly unstoppable array of spindly extraterrestrials who look like “Transformers”-style robots after a weight-loss program.
After Moritz watched one commercial, which showed the Marines — many of them Latino and African American — in action, he shook his head. “I don’t love that one,” he said. “What I’m worried about is that it starts with basically the same shot it ends with.”
The studio’s brain trust, which includes marketing chief Marc Weinstock, senior creative executive Josh Goldstine and creative advertising chief Tommy Gargotta, who strummed a guitar throughout the meeting, defended the spot, saying it had an appropriate sense of urgency. Moritz kept firing off questions, including what the research numbers were like for “Battle’s” rivals and whether they could have run a two-minute spot for “Battle” during one of Charlie Sheen’s recent TV appearances.
In between the business, jokes — about Gargotta’s office clutter, and “Stealth,” one of Moritz’s rare flops — flowed easily. No one was standing on ceremony, perhaps because Moritz, who just signed a new first-look deal at the studio, has been making movies at Sony for nearly 15 years.
Critics rarely love his movies — “Battle: Los Angeles” earned a lowly 33 at Rotten Tomatoes — but rank-and-file moviegoers regularly embrace them. He’s had 15 films open at No. 1, including the recent “Green Hornet” as well as “I Am Legend,” “S.W.A.T,” “Click,” “XXX,” and three of the four installments of the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, which Moritz produced for Universal Pictures. “Fast Five,” the latest in the series, is due out next month.
Moritz’s longevity at Sony is rare in today’s movie business. Apart from a dwindling number of in-house producers, like Jerry Bruckheimer at Disney and Joel Silver at Warner Bros., most producers have become vagabonds, taking work where they find it. But Moritz is a good fit at Sony, with his fondness for popcorn movies providing a nice balance for studio chief Amy Pascal’s more upscale tastes.
Though Moritz has worked with A-listers like Will Smith, Adam Sandler and Reese Witherspoon, most of his films, like “Battle: Los Angeles,” are ensemble affairs, crammed with a host of familiar faces who may not have high-wattage star power but appeal strongly to specific demographic and ethnic groups. In an era when there are no minorities in any of the top jobs at Hollywood studios, talent agencies and management firms, it is striking how many of Moritz’s films are heavily populated with African American, Latino and Asian talent.
Moritz has collaborated with the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Foxx and Ice Cube, along with a host of rappers-turned-actors, including LL Cool J, Xzibit, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris and Ne-Yo, who costars in “Battle” alongside Michelle Rodriguez, Michael Peña and Ramon Rodriguez. Moritz’s “Fast and Furious” films have been loaded with blacks, Latinos and Asians like Jin Auyeung.
The broader color spectrum extends behind the camera — the second installment of “Fast and Furious” was directed by John Singleton; installments three, four and five have had Taiwan-born Justin Lin at the helm.
Moritz views this more as good business than affirmative action. “If you’re going to make movies about things that are cool, whether it’s music or fast cars or extreme sports, or even the Army or the police department, then it makes sense to draw on an ethnically diverse group of talent because all those areas are actually diverse in real life,” he said. “Most of the lifestyles that interest me as movie subjects just happen to have a lot of people of color. If I didn’t use those actors, it would feel false.”
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that minorities are big moviegoers. Moritz says that 50% of the people who went to the fourth “Fast and the Furious” on opening weekend were Latinos. According to early marketing research, “Battle: Los Angeles” atttracted a similarly large minority audience. “I’m not trying to send a message or anything,” he said. “I just gravitate to making movies with entertainment value — it’s the way my brain works.”
Moritz’s popcorn mentality is in his bloodlines. His grandfather was a Los Angeles movie theater owner. His father, Milt Moritz, spent years as a marketing executive at American International Pictures, the fabled B-movie assembly line. When Neal was a kid, he’d run the projector every weekend in the family screening room. His father’s work at AIP left its mark. The “Fast and the Furious” franchise was a reboot of an old Roger Corman-directed AIP film from the 1950s.
When Moritz sings the praises of his favorite actors, he ends up not talking about their artistry, but their work ethic. “It’s why I love Sam Jackson,” he said. “He doesn’t put up with any nonsense. He does a great job, always comes prepared and then goes off to play golf, so with Sam you know you can make your day and move on, which helps me do my job.”
Moritz is especially open to new talent, whether it’s a hip-hop artist from Queens or a little-known director from South Africa like Jonathan Liebesman, who ended up landing the “Battle: Los Angeles” gig.
“We were about to hire another director, but when Jonathan showed me the material he’d prepared for the movie, I called Amy and [Columbia Pictures President] Doug Belgrad and said, ‘You have to see this.’”
“When it comes to making movies, I only go with my gut,” Moritz said. “Every time I’ve gone against my gut, I’ve made the wrong decision.”
Photo: Neal Moritz at the premiere of "The Green Hornet" at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images