Sidney Kimmel is living the Hollywood dream.
This story first appeared in the April 21, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
As chairman of Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based wholly independent finance and production company, Kimmel has financed and produced about 40 feature films, including “9 1/2 Weeks,” “Blame It on Rio,” “Breach,” “United 93,” “The Kite Runner,” “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Moneyball” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.”
While his track record doesn’t exactly put him in Hollywood mogul status, he’s having the time of his life. About one third of his movies have made money or broken even, and his net worth — which Forbes places at $1.3 billion — is none the worse for it.
Here, Kimmel talks about how he got into the movie business, parallels to the fashion industry, his passion for film and art, why he loves producing films and his wide-ranging philanthropic endeavors, to which he has donated more than $700 million.
WWD: Do you see similarities between being in the movie business and running a fashion company?
Sidney Kimmel: You’re starting a collection five times a year with fabrics and colors. [In movies] you’re starting with a story idea and a script and you develop it like you develop a line. [In fashion] you’re always juggling to get it right. The movie business is not that way. I only spend time in developing material. We get locations, we pick our director, we settle on the shoot, what tax rebates we’re going to get. Once we go into production, shooting the movie, I very seldom go out there. That’s the mechanical part. It’s not different than my going into a factory and watching them sew my garments. I get dailies every day. I have 14 people in my office. I named a new woman, Carla Hacken [president of production at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment]. She developed some good movies in her previous life. She did “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Walk the Line.”
WWD: How did you get your start in the movie business?
S.K.: I met this girl at a party one night, Yvette Mimieux. I walked her home. This is a girl I thought I could date. It was 1983. On the way home, she said, “My husband would like to meet you.” He was a well-known director. His name was Stanley Donen. He ended up sending me the script [for “Blame It on Rio”]. I read it, and I produced the movie. It was the first one I ever did. I relied on Stanley for the most part. Producers, for the most part, will end up putting in the money or gathering the money. If you have a good director, he doesn’t need you other than the money. Some directors will say, “Butt out and let me do my own thing.” Other directors will take direction because they want to cater to the boss. It depends.
WWD: What’s been your most successful movie?
S.K.: “9 1/2 Weeks.” I couldn’t believe they came to me with the script. I got to do this movie [in 1984]. Why did everybody pass? They were afraid of it at the time. Women’s victimization. It did great in Europe. In 1987, we were hitting a roadblock [at Jones]. I straightened it out, and then in 1991 we went public. I read the script, they told me the budget, what my risk was, and I went ahead. I just wanted to get my feet wet in the movie business. We shot “9 1/2 Weeks” in New York. I worked all day at 1411 Broadway, and then at night, I’d take off my suit and put on a sweater and go to see the dailies and watch them shoot night scenes. I loved it. They were shooting some good stuff. I didn’t realize “9 1/2 Weeks” would be a major hit. We shot that in 1984, and to this day, I’m still getting checks. It’s on French television. It starred Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke. We license the film to television. I made a lot of money in it. Probably about $40 million over the years.
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WWD: Are you more interested in telling a good story or making a commercial hit?
S.K.: I’m interested in minimizing my risk on a per-picture basis. My second most successful film was “The Lincoln Lawyer.”
WWD: Does the movie business excite you more than fashion?
S.K.: I have a different headset today. I love the film business because I’m not required to work 10 hours a day. I don’t have to go into the office every day. When the weather breaks and it’s warm, every Tuesday I have my staff come out here [to Malibu] for a meeting. We serve lunch and we talk.
I’m lucky to have a second career, otherwise I would have gone crazy. I would never have gone back into the apparel business.
WWD: If you weren’t this wealthy, would this business be too risky? Are you having so much fun because you have a financial cushion?
S.K.: I know in advance that I’m not going to make money in the movie business. I know that I’m going to lose money in the film business. It’s my golf game. It’s an expensive golf game, but I can afford it. As long as I’m making more money than I’m losing, then I’m happy.
WWD: Is your company known for a particular type of movie?
S.K.: I’m told I have a very good reputation for making good movies. I don’t make any zombie movies, or cutthroat or gory movies. Last year, I made “The Place Beyond the Pines,” with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper. It did well. I read all day long. I read scripts, I read crime thrillers, and I read biographies. I just read the most fantastic book, “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. Universal picked it up and is making a movie. It’s about an Olympic runner, shot down and held prisoner in Japan. I heard that Angelina Jolie is going to direct it.
WWD: Do you socialize with the Hollywood crowd?
S.K.: I don’t. I didn’t mix and mingle with the fashion crowd. I don’t have to mingle. Some of my closest friends happen to be singers or composers, Paul Anka, Burt Bacharach and Frankie Valli.
WWD: Have you ever had any aspirations to perform yourself?
S.K.: When I was in the Army, I sang for the Armed Forces Radio Network. I was a ham. I loved to sing. I fulfilled my desire in 2010. Paul Anka offered to produce an album for me. He took me to Capital Records, where my idols — Frank Sinatra, and guys like that — used to record, and I made an album. I did 14 songs.
WWD: What inspired your interest in films?
S.K.: I always loved movies. When I was a kid, I used to go to the movies and see Tom Mix and the cowboy movies, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. I think it’s a wonderful art and a great craft.
WWD: As a producer, do you take a lot of meetings?
S.K.: While we’re shooting, I watch dailies. We have a weekly development meeting where four or five of us sit around and discuss a script. We all read the same scripts over the weekend. Monday or Tuesday we have a meeting and decide what we liked, what’s worth considering. Is there a director? Is anybody attached? That’s the key phrase: “Is anybody attached yet?”
WWD: Is the movie business a lot harder than you thought it would be?
S.K.: It’s a lot harder to be in profits. There are some statistics out there. I would guess that about 550 movies are made every year, at the most, 10 to 15 percent make money, 10 to 15 percent break even, and the rest lose money. Some of them lose big money. In studios, there are guys who get fired because they lost $65 million on one movie.
WWD: Was there anything you got involved with that you thought would be a huge success and it was a total flop?
S.K.: I don’t think anything will be a huge success. I will explain what our thinking is in making our movie. You have to measure what your risk is. I can make a movie that costs $30 million to make, but my risk might only be $4.5 million because I’ve got tax rebates, depending on where you shoot. Each state has its own tax rebate, and you can get as much as 25 to 30 percent of the movie cost for shooting the movie and employing local talent. You get international money. Before I make any movie, I give it to my international sales agent to read, and he can tell me, “I can bring in $15 million [on a $30 million] movie”; the $30 million has been reduced by the tax rebate by 20 percent, which comes down to $24 million, and then he gets $15 million, and the balance is $9 million and that is called the gap and that’s what your risk is. If I take in a partner, I’m risking $4.5 million on a $30 million film.
WWD: Does it bother you if a movie loses money?
S.K.: Sure it bothers me — no businessman wants to lose money. Maybe one third of my movies made money or broke even.
WWD: What kind of movies do you aspire to make? Anything you’re dying to do?
S.K.: We’re in production right now on a movie called “The Age of Adaline,” with Blake Lively and Harrison Ford. We’re shooting it in Vancouver. It may be released sometime in the fall. When November comes around, you’re competing with the big tent holders. Movies that studios paid $150 million to make. So it may have to go into the spring of 2015. And I’m prepping another movie that we start shooting in New York in June called “Sleeping With Other People.” It’s a light comedy with Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie.
I have the final say [on the cast] depending on the partners. I sometimes do it alone, and sometimes with a partner. Sometimes a person will call me, and I will become a partner.
WWD: Are there other honchos from Seventh Avenue who made the switch to the film industry?
S.K.: If you want to go back 150 years, Louis B. Mayer was from fashion, Sam Goldwyn was from fashion, and Adolph Zukor. All these guys started out in New York in the fashion business and then discovered talkies. Bob Evans made a couple of movies, and ran Paramount Studios. Max Raab did “A Clockwork Orange.”
WWD: How many movies will you do a year?
S.K.: One year I did six, and one year I did none, and I average two or three a year.
We have eight or 10 things [we’re working on at once]. It’s very difficult, sometimes we’re interested in a project, and the next thing I know, Fox came in and swooped it up and paid a higher price. I couldn’t outbid the studios. They’re working with other people’s money. I’m working with my own money.
WWD: Are there a lot of people like you out here in Hollywood?
S.K.: Fewer and fewer because it’s very hard to make a lot of money and be an independent producer. I need the studios to distribute my movies. It’s a difficult balance. You need to market a film, otherwise it gets lost. It’s quite a challenge to be profitable in the film business when you consider that 60 to 70 percent of the movies that are made in America don’t recoup their investment. You look for one good one that will cover the losses on two or three others.
I’ll do a movie for $5 million or I’ll do a movie for $40 million. It depends what the bottom-line risk is. How much I get international, how much I get out of tax rebates. Sometimes if you have a very good script, you can get an actor to play for virtually nothing. Matthew McConaughey did “Dallas Buyers Club” that cost $5 million, because he was willing to work for scale. Now he can command whatever he wants on the next movie.
WWD: Is Sidney Kimmel Entertainment profitable?
S.K.: No, it’s not profitable, but I have a film library. Eventually it will get sold, so it will recoup a good part of what I’ve invested. We have a library of old movies. Movies have ongoing value because of TV around the world.
WWD: Which movie do you love the most of what you’ve done?
S.K.: I’d have to say “9 1/2 Weeks,” because it was such a great experience. “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “The Place Beyond the Pines” are two that I’m really proud of.
WWD: I always got the impression that Ralph Lauren wanted to be in the movie business.
S.K.: Last time I saw Ralph we went to the Barbra Streisand concert in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. He always asks me, “How’s the movie business?” I say, “Stick to your day job.”
WWD: Tell me about your investment in the Miami Heat.
S.K.: I own a piece of the Miami Heat. At the time when I wanted to sell my interest, I used to live in Palm Beach with my wife. When we moved out of Florida and came here I didn’t go to the games anymore. I wanted to sell my interest in the Heat. First Calvin [Klein] wanted to buy it. Then he backed out. Then Alex Rodriguez wanted to buy it. I used to give him a couple of my seats to watch the game. The Heat has won two national championships in a row. It doesn’t make money. They spent a fortune building a new stadium, and they spend a fortune on the players. Once I was thinking of buying the Sixers. When I saw this contract, I saw that if I buy this team I’d have to give Allen Iverson a $35 million contract, I’m going to pass.
WWD: Do either Caroline or you have children?
S.K.: Neither one of us has kids. She changed my life. With Caroline, we haven’t had a day of stress in 15 years. I met her at a black-tie event. I was with Rena [Rowan] and she was with a couple of girlfriends. [Later] I was sitting in the office of Ronald Perelman and he’s always talking about girls [and I asked him], “Do you know a girl named Caroline Tose?” He gave me Caroline’s number. She had just gotten divorced and was living in New York. I called her up for a date. I asked, “Why don’t we have dinner one night?” She said, “How about tonight?” and I knew she was the girl for me. Except for one night, we’ve never been apart in 15 years.
WWD: Who have been your favorite directors to work with?
S.K.: I’ve had several good ones. Stanley Donen did “Blame It on Rio,” Adrian Lyne did “9 1/2 Weeks,” Marc Forster did “The Kite Runner,” Paul Greengrass did “United 93.”
WWD: Would you consider producing TV shows?
S.K.: We’re getting into TV now. We just optioned a true story that happened in Philadelphia. Two young Jewish girls working as reporters. They wrote a book, “Busted,” which is about police corruption in Philadelphia. It would be a series. [As far as TV,] it’s less risky, and if you hit one you can make a lot of money.
WWD: Why did you focus on cancer charities and performing arts?
S.K.: My closest friend lost a daughter. She was 24 years old. He ran around the country looking for hope, and he ended up in San Diego at a little clinic there where they thought they had experimental things that could possibly work. I felt so bad for him. I gave the clinic initially $5 million to jump-start that thing. She eventually died. He told me a story that Harry Connick visited her in the hospital and she remembered it because he was a favorite of hers. It just compelled me to do something with cancer research. I knew that eventually the two major thrusts of my charity were going to be cancer and cardiac.
WWD: I understand you’re the biggest individual donor to cancer research?
S.K.: I’ve been told that I’m the country’s largest individual donor to cancer research. I’m sure that somebody will top me someday. I’d like to see Bill Gates or Warren Buffett write a check for $6 billion.
WWD: Do you think they are close to finding a cure for cancer?
S.K.: I don’t think there will ever be a cure. Hopefully one day it will become a controllable chronic disease. They’ve made certain advances and strides. They’ve done wonderful things.
WWD: How much money have you given to charity so far?
S.K.: All told, I’ve given $700 million and there will be more. When I pass away, all that money goes to charity. Except what I leave for my wife.
WWD: Why did you decide to donate to the performing arts in Philadelphia?
S.K.: I’m a Philadelphian, and Ed Rendell, who was then mayor, is a close friend of mine. I went to him and asked him what I could do for Philadelphia. He said they’re planning something on Broad Street and they want to make it a major thoroughfare for the arts. And that’s when we came up with the idea of building a major art center, the Kimmel Center. The Philadelphia Orchestra is there. The Kimmel Center controls the Academy of Music and the Merriam Theater. Our new building has great acoustics. They have all kinds of things. Jerry Blavat, a local disc jockey, does the doo-wop shows there. I built it from the ground up. I’ve given about $72 million to the Kimmel Center. It’s mostly symphonic music, Elton John, Paul Anka. I’m trying to get Burt Bacharach. He’s coming over for dinner tomorrow night. He’s one of my favorite guys.
WWD: Have you made any charitable contributions in California?
S.K.: UCLA gave me a visionary award a few years ago, but that was an attempt to get me to write a big check. Out here, even in New York, I’m a Johnny-come-lately. Whatever I do out here is going to go unnoticed. Philadelphia is my place. I was born there, that’s where I’m going to die, or at least get buried there. I make more of an impact. I still feel I owe something to Philadelphia. I went to public schools there, and I didn’t do badly.
WWD: Do you finance scientists?
S.K.: What I really enjoy getting involved in is the Kimmel Scholars Program. I’m sure my wife will continue with it long after I’m gone. We get about 180 applications a year from students who want to go into their first labs, postdocs. We pick 15 of the most promising submissions and we give them $200,000. It costs me about $4 million a year. They come to me, we have a dinner and they are working doctors. I’m giving the students a jump-start. They have no money and they need to buy equipment. I give them $100,000 a year for two years. I’ve been doing it for 17 years. We have about 270 doctors. The lead brain surgeon at UCLA is a woman named Linda Liau; she was one of the first recipients of the Kimmel Center grants. She saved my friend’s life.
WWD: Do you get a lot of people soliciting donations?
S.K.: Every person who is known to be charitable gets letters. Everybody is asking. I get letters from people in jail. There are some people who don’t give a penny and give it all to their kids. I’m not a proponent of inherited wealth.
THE MALIBU LIFESTYLE
WWD: Tell me about your lifestyle.
S.K.: I love this house. I’m in this house eight years. I decided to buy it within five minutes. It took another couple weeks to negotiate. I said to my lawyer, “Tell Johnny Carson’s widow: Please can you leave the pictures and I’ll pay you for them?” It was 25 years of his guests on “The Tonight Show.” She wouldn’t leave them. My wife decorated this house. She could have been a great stylist.
Out here you don’t get dressed [up]. She got me involved in the gym. I do cardio and I do weights. I have a trainer. We’re living the good life here. I can afford it and why not? I used to play schoolyard basketball until I was 50, but gave it up. I played tennis, but too hard on the knees.
She [Caroline] can cook, but we have a chef here. I like dinner for eight, dinner for four. I like intimate dinner parties. I don’t get to meet [the stars]. I don’t go on the set. I meet their agents. I knew Kim Basinger. I know Mickey Rourke; I know Michael Caine very well. I’ve done two or three movies with Michael. He has a beautiful wife, Shakira.
WWD: Are you digitally savvy?
S.K.: I don’t do e-mail to this day. I have a secretary who does e-mail, and I have a wife who does e-mail. I don’t even carry a cell phone. I used to carry one, but it was too cumbersome. I like the land line. I’m always with Caroline or my driver.
WWD: Do you travel to Europe frequently?
S.K.: The only place I really enjoy going is Paris. I go once a year. I have my own plane. I don’t like to travel as much as I used to. You get a little bit complacent when you have a place like this. We’ll do weekends in Vegas. It’s 50 minutes away by plane. We just came back from Aspen for 10 days. My wife is a great skier.
WWD: What type of artwork do you like to collect?
S.K.: I collect good stuff. I don’t buy cheap art. I’d rather buy one good piece than five little pieces just to hang on the wall. I used to be an active collector. I don’t have enough wall space. It’s all glass. There are two Picassos, there’s a Giacometti sculpture, I have a Henry Moore sculpture. The Man Ray artwork is hanging up here. I like Impressionist, Matisse, Picasso, I love Giacometti. When you first come in the driveway, there’s a Rodin of three men. Most of the art I bought before I met Caroline. We have some pieces being sold in May in Christie’s in New York. It came out of the apartment in Beverly Hills. I’m selling a Léger. I have a New York home on Central Park South. If it wasn’t for the weather I’d spend more time in New York. We used to go to the South of France twice a year. I look back here [on the oceanfront property], and it’s the South of France to me.