I think there is the incorrect perception sometimes that people who write about movies professionally automatically have to dislike studio heads or hate executives. That somehow there is an inherent antagonism.
But that’s crazy. Because someone greenlights the movies I love. Yes, there are times when I am confounded by decisions made by a studio, but every single time something great comes out, I am amazed all over again that the system works at all. And I am encouraged by the way some people approach the balance between commerce and art, between entertainment for the masses and something that aims higher. Anyone who can do that well for any amount of time at all deserves respect.
And Ned Tanen was one of the guys who did it really well when he did it. The legacy of films that were made under his watch is impressive. “American Grafitti.” “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” “Blues Brothers.” “The Deer Hunter.” “Jaws.” “On Golden Pond.”
“E.” Freaking. “T.”
Tanen was an agent first, and then ended up running some record labels that were owned by his agency. He was already in his forties when he moved over to the film division. Quickly, he gained a reputation for putting hits together, and went from being a hot-shit junior exec to the guy running the whole show. From 1976 to 1982, Universal was the Ned Tanen show. Jumping ship after delivering a hit like “E.T.” was certainly going out in style. He gave a whole generation of hip a foothold in mainstream Hollywood and made a ton of money doing it. I wish more people had instincts like his, and the nerve he had in terms of supporting some really bold filmmakers when they were still unproven.
And if you’re an ’80s kid, you have Tanen to thank for making at least some of that happen. When he left as head of the studio, he took a couple of projects with him, and “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club” were both films he made happen.
Maybe focusing on a few films instead of a full slate recharged his batteries, because he ended up taking the top job at Paramount for a while. “Top Gun” was one of his big monster studio hits. “Ghost” was another.
And then, as a producer at Sony, he made a few forgettable pictures during the ’90s. Not a terrible ending to an impressive career. But no matter what his last onscreen credit was (and he didn’t have many… executives in that era didn’t), he made a huge mark on the exact years of cinema that sort of turned me into the film viewer I am today.
I’m throwing something on in honor of him tonight, but I’m not sure what yet.
Geek trivia bonus: Yes. Biff Tannen in the “Back To The Future” films is named after him. How cool is that?
He was 77 years old. They don’t make them like Ned Tanen anymore, and I’m not sure they ever made more than a few. And as much as my sympathy goes out to his family and all his many friends in town tonight, I am more interested in offering up a virtual toast to him for being a champion to so many films I love so much.