Picker earns credibility points by not making himself the hero of every story. He admits his mistakes and cites some of the blockbusters he missed out on, among them Star Wars and Bonnie and Clyde. He is also unapologetic about his dislikes and grudges, and is especially incensed at self-aggrandizing directors who showed no gratitude for the freedom that United Artists afforded them.
UA financed and distributed movies based on one-line pitches, long-standing relationships, and handshakes, with its four partners (including David’s uncle Arnold) working in profitable alignment for decades. Picker went on to stints at Paramount and Columbia, among other companies, which made him appreciate the uniqueness of United Artists all the more.
Here’s just one example, taken from a time just before David joined the company. As he writes, “I once read in an industry publication that in 1953, Otto Preminger released his film The Moon is Blue without the seal of approval from the Industry’s Production Code Administration. It’s the kind of misinformation that is found over and over in books and articles about the movie business… Simply put, Otto Preminger never ‘released’ a movie in his life… it was United Artists.” You may recall that the flap was over the word “virgin.”
Picker continues, “By contract the company could have insisted that Preminger make the changes that would have gotten the seal of approval, but it didn’t. Instead, UA resigned from the organization and released the film without the seal. It was appropriate, and the smart thing to do both creatively and financially. Although there were some theaters that refused to play a film without the seal, there were enough that would do it so the controversy around this slight little comedy generated far more positive results than if the code hadn’t objected in the first place.” It wasn’t the first or the last time that the UA partners backed one of their filmmakers on a sensitive issue. (He later adds, “I can candidly say that in over fifty years of working with talent from all over the world, he was unequivocally the most unpleasant, arrogant personality I ever dealt with in this business—and that’s saying a lot.”)
Musts, Maybes, and Nevers is a great read that offers many life lessons about show-business survival and a look back at a bygone era when, at least at one company, there was a gentlemanly approach to the game.