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Summer Movies Blast Off With A Howl

Oh, sure, $79.3 million later, everybody can say now they thought J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot was a sure thing. But there was a time when Paramount was scared shitless about how it would fare. Cautionary words around Hollywood were that Star Trek could wind up the next Watchmen (that is, disappointing).

The studio was praying for a domestic weekend total of at least $50 million as a sign that the pic had attracted a new and younger audience instead of relying on the franchise’s old but loyal fan base of Trekkies. Paramount even had the arrogance to market the movie as “not your father’s Star Trek.” But when the critical reviews came in 96 percent positive, the studio breathed a collective sigh of relief. Now it’s busy counting the cash even if the fanboys are mad as hell that the new Star Trek turns almost everything they know and love on its head.

Fuck them. All Paramount cares about is that Star Trek passed Fast & Furious as the second-biggest opening of 2009, behind only X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which opened on May 1 better than the first and second installments in the franchise, but well behind the third. Amazing it did so well despite Internet piracy, swine flu, NBA and NHL playoffs and lousy reviews. And the fanboys hated it. But pics with built-in fan bases are bulletproof. Then again, the first weekends in May always prove lucky for summer blockbusters.

There’s no doubt that Star Trek was a difficult pic to gauge since it’s been seven years since the last franchise actioner, Nemesis, hit theaters, nearly 30 years since the first movie franchise, Star Trek: The Motion Picture — and a lifetime from the original TV series airing from 1966 to 1969.

Other reboots, like Batman Begins and Casino Royale, had trouble harnessing younger males and were strongly driven by older males. But Paramount’s strategy was to open Star Trek at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 7, allow Trekkies to come out, then go to work on Friday and tell people how much they liked it, allowing word of mouth to spread. It worked.

But what really counted with this reboot was foreign acceptance, because the franchise had done virtually bupkis internationally. Paramount set out with J.J. Abrams to change all that. The old Star Trek movies started “in the middle,” assuming that audiences knew the back story. Abrams’ version smartly starts at the beginning so international audiences could get onboard. Star Trek beamed up a solid rather than spectacular $35.5 million foreign. “Remember, this movie franchise has never done $100 million international before,” a Paramount exec reminded me.

The veteran agent was just a few days shy of his 80th birthday and had only recently retired. During his more than three decades at ICM, he represented top actors, directors, writers, playwrights and composers including Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Marshall Brickman, E.L. Doctorow, Nora Ephron, Bob Fosse, Jackie Gleason, John Guare, Kander and Ebb, Peter Maas, Arthur Miller, Paul Newman, Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Peter Stone, Meryl Streep, Steve Tesich, Lily Tomlin, Kathleen Turner, Sigourney Weaver and Dianne Wiest.

Rarely has there been a more interesting, powerful, eclectic and irascible ten-percenter in Hollywood history. (I once spent a week in and out of his NYC office interviewing him.)

The wealthy scion of his grandfather and father’s Independent Oil Co. fortune, which the family sold to Standard Oil in the 1930s, Cohn headed ICM’s New York office for almost 25 years. He signed up most of the New York theater circuit, then began to focus on the movie side of the biz. As a New Yorker profile observed, “In 1981, 10 feature films and nine Broadway or off-Broadway plays opened that were written, directed or produced by one of his clients or in which a Cohn client had a major acting role.”

He found a dancer-actress named Whoopi Goldberg, who had spent most of her life in Northern California on state assistance until Cohn spotted her in a small workshop and signed her on the spot. He found Cher, written off by the cognoscenti, doing Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean at the Martin Beck Theater, and signed her on the spot. He saw recent Yale theater-department grad Meryl Streep performing The Cherry Orchard and took her away from one of ICM’s own young agents.

For decades, the so-called Mayor of New York held court at lunchtime at his right-front table in the old Russian Tea Room. Cohn was not in the biz for the fame or fortune: He considered himself a facilitator of the arts rather than an agent-salesman. He spent hours hashing out parts and dissecting scripts with clients. Not many agents could claim they saw a client’s film 24 times, but that’s what Cohn did for Altman or Fosse. He would basically become a collaborative partner, and fight the studios when they wanted changes.

The agent generated his own mythology, and Sam Cohn stories were repeated on both coasts. Screenwriter Ephron even spoofed Cohn in her first directorial effort, This Is My Life, in which Dan Aykroyd played a crew neck–wearing, khaki-clad agent whose notorious habit was Cohn’s — ripping up pieces of paper and chewing them into human cud. Cohn was infamous for furiously scribbling deal memos on paper napkins. One time, the agent lost a deal when he accidentally ate the napkin. High-strung and neurotic, he saw a therapist every day, which even his assistants laughed at behind his back. (“Can’t you tell he’s getting better?” one staffer sarcastically quipped to me.)

Inside ICM, the agent was known as abusive to colleagues. He considered business-affairs people as disposable as toilet paper. He could be imperious, insensitive and, at times, scathing. As someone who worked for him told me, “Nobody could make you feel better; and nobody could make you feel worse.” He made no secret of his contempt for Hollywood and rarely flew to the West Coast. “I wouldn’t want to live in L.A. any more than I would want to live in Los Alamos,” Cohn quipped.

If an ICM agent out in Los Angeles needed a Cohn client for a package, forget it. He ran his own shop. Cohn packaged his projects individually, without any interference from Los Angeles: Still of the Night, Silkwood, The World According to Garp, Plenty, Breaking Away, Kramer vs. Kramer, All That Jazz and other films. But the younger ICM agents came to bitterly resent that Cohn would never lend them a helping hand and wouldn’t even speak to them.

Cohn’s refusal to return calls was almost pathological; eventually, he stopped returning phone calls even from his own clients. Unreturned calls mounted into the hundreds. One time, when I asked Cohn to explain, the agent simply shrugged and said, “I hate giving bad news.” But the obdurate silence was cited as one of the biggest problems at ICM by a consultant’s report about why the agency was so dysfunctional: “In the last five years, I’ve never been able to get Sam Cohn on the phone,” castigated one anonymous agent in the report.

CAA co-founder Ron Meyer courted Cohn’s clients from Malibu. For months and months, Meyer talked up CAA and talked down Cohn: The ICM agent was not responsive to clients, he wouldn’t return phone calls, he wasn’t plugged into the Hollywood studios. In just over a year, Meyer stole many of Cohn’s stars. Cohn never recovered professionally from the CAA onslaught. He remained a legendary agent but never again a show-biz powerhouse. The industry will never see his kind again.


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