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DIAMOND VISION: Brian Oliver Brings A Ballplayer's Instincts To Producing Feature Films

Posted By Michael Ventre , Monday, January 4, 2016

Handsome, fit, personable, Brian Oliver looks the part of an all-conference infielder at UC Berkeley, which he once was. You could easily imagine him as one of the earnest young guys on the bus peppering Crash Davis with questions about life in the major leagues in Bull Durham.

The baseball reference is important here because, while Oliver never made it to "the show”—though he did distinguish himself in semi-pro ball and had fun doing it—the producer of such big-screen titles as Black Mass and Legend learned some invaluable lessons during his days on the diamond.

"Baseball is one of those sports where, if you fail seven times out of 10, you’re successful and you’re a .300 hitter,” says the president of Cross Creek Pictures. The film business, he continues, is a slate business, where "one’s going to do great, one’s going to do OK, one might lose a little money, one will be a home run, one will be a single, one will be a double.

"And by playing baseball and having to fail most of the time as a sport for a lot of my life, it teaches you the ups and downs and to keep it even keel with everything.

"There will be times when everything will be going good in the film business,” he added, "and there will be times when everything will be going bad. You can look at any studio in town and see that it’s very cyclical. So you just have to keep your head up, keep doing it, and just make sure you’re winning more than you’re losing.”

Oliver can’t boast Ted Williams numbers in cleats, but he’s killing it in loafers.

Along with his Cross Creek team, Oliver has presided over the psychological thriller Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman; The Ides of March with George Clooney and Ryan Gosling; and the Formula One drama Rush, top-lined by Chris Hemsworth. This year alone, he’s released the Whitey Bulger crime drama Black Mass, with Johnny Depp in a command performance; Legend, the story of British gangsters the Kray brothers, starring Tom Hardy; and the adventure-thriller Everest, with Jake Gyllenhaal heading up a strong ensemble. Next Valentine’s Day brings the much-anticipated release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

It’s that even keel developed in the batter’s box that has helped Oliver ride the peaks and valleys of a notoriously fickle business and still maintain focus and enthusiasm for the next project.

"With success, sometimes it goes to people’s heads,” he says. "And they start changing their business model, or thinking they know more than they do. This business is one where knowing what you know is important … Just keeping to your business plan and the type of projects you want to do. Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid.”

Oliver, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, received a bachelor’s degree at Berkeley and a law degree from Whittier College, with the intention of becoming a sports agent. Instead, he got a job at William Morris and transitioned into film. "I always loved film,” he says. "I always thought it was a great way to go escape reality for a couple hours—the lights go out and you can enter someone else’s world.”

He says the agency life served as a terrific introduction to the position he now holds.

"I just did an interview with a kid (who wanted) advice on how to get into Hollywood,” he explained, "and I say the quickest way to get into the business and learn who all the players are—how everybody lines up, who does what, how, where, when—is at an agency.

"At William Morris, I came in from outside Hollywood,” he continues, "and had to learn the movie business really fast based on that. Also by working at an agency you can see every aspect and you can decide which way would be right for you. That kind of pushed me toward the film production side.”

Rick Hess, a former agent at William Morris, mentored Oliver and eventually brought him along to Propaganda Films. "He was a guru of putting film financing together and being one of those guys who can make something out of nothing,” Oliver says of Hess.

Oliver, along with investors Timmy Thompson and Tyler Thompson, started Cross Creek Pictures in 2009. It began solely as a production company, but has since added film financing to its banner. Its first picture, Black Swan, brought an Academy Award to Portman and garnered four other nominations.

"Our taste is somewhat distinct,” Oliver says. "We obviously like true stories. We like stories about lead characters in conflict or chaos. I think books are often great sources of material. That said, there’s not a specific type of movie that we look to do. We try to find good stories that are worth telling. People always ask me, ‘What type of material are you looking for?’ and my answer is always, ‘the good kind.’”

Case in point: Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper. "Brian’s had a lot of success with the types of films that will get me out of the house and into a theater,” Cooper explains. "Brian optioned the book many, many years ago and knew the story inside and out. He was always a great resource for getting me to meet the right people as I was shaping the narrative into the resultant film.

"Making any film is hard,” Cooper added. "Making a film like ‘Black Mass’ is next to impossible. So having a producer who doesn’t say, ‘This is impossible,’ is just what I want to hear. Brian was very supportive in bringing my vision to the screen.”

The same persistence by Oliver and his Cross Creek partners was evident on "Legend,” made with help from producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. The November release of the long-gestating project—in which Hardy plays a dual role as both menacing British brothers—brought great satisfaction, says Oliver, but it was also "strangely anticlimactic.”

"It’s like you work on something for so long and it finally makes the big screen and there’s such an excitement and nervousness and everything that comes along with a movie being released,” Oliver says. "And then after that it’s the quiet after the storm. Then you’re on to the next thing. It’s a month of craziness, and then calm. Then another month of craziness, and then calm.

"And then if the movie warrants it,” he continues, "the movie comes back around when people start talking about awards. Each film we do is like being on a team. You’re on that team and you play your year out—because it usually takes about a year—and then you go to a new team. It’s a weird feeling because it’s a sense of excitement but disappointment leaving all these people you worked with for a year.”

Oliver says that having a financing arm at Cross Creek is a nifty advantage, but it comes with a caveat.

"As a producer, the hardest part of the financing side of a movie is to find the equity needed. Having some of that equity going in makes it easier,” he says. "It’s kind of the glue you can pull all the other things together with. You have your foreign sales contracts, your tax rebates, your domestic distribution. Having the equity in the middle kind of allows you to make it all stick and turn it into a film.

"But it’s a double-edged sword: As an independent producer your job is, ‘How do I, at all costs, get this movie made?’ As a producer with financing, it’s like, ‘How do I put this movie together and have it make sense financially?’ At the end of the day, when you’re putting your own money or your fund’s money into a movie, it needs to work. The movie needs to make money in order to continue with that business model.”

When it comes to the February 14 release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Oliver is supremely confident that prosperity will follow, so much so that on one particular day, he spent all morning on the phone with the studio, planning the sequel.

"Sony loves the movie,” Oliver says of the big-screen mash-up that stars Lily James and Lena Headey. "It was a project that I always liked and not just because it’s a zombie movie and not just because it’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s the idea that you can mix those two genres and make a movie that kind of works for both audiences.

"And my biggest excitement for the movie is that (director) Burr Steers gets the credit he deserves for what he did,” he added. "It’s a very difficult proposition to pull that off. He made a movie that not only are we proud of, but that people will be really, really receptive to.”

Steers says Oliver’s perseverance was crucial to the movie’s existence.

"It wouldn’t have gotten made without him,” the director says. "The first thing he did that made it real was to name a start date. The movie starts to crystalize when everyone realizes it’s a real movie. Then it gets momentum. If you don’t have that going, it doesn’t come together. He just had the guts to say, ‘This is how you make movies.’ You set a date, it’s a real movie, and people become attached to it and it miraculously comes together.

"The other thing he provides is the trust that, if something happens, you know he’ll fix it and make things work. He provides a great deal of confidence. That’s what you need to have.”

These days, one of Oliver’s greatest challenges is attending his kids’ baseball games without spending the whole time doing business.

"I try to be at all of their games and not be on the phone the entire time, which is very hard to do,” says Oliver, who dotes on sons Aidan, Julius and Liam and daughter Ariana, along with wife, Amira. "It’s kind of tough managing a career in Hollywood and having a family, because our job doesn’t end at 6 o’clock. It just doesn’t. You can’t be one of those people who turns off their phone and doesn’t check it. I wish I could, but I can’t. Especially when you have movies in production. It’s kind of like being a doctor. You’re always on call.”

Or like being a ballplayer. Winning today’s game is great, but you’ve got to put on the uniform again tomorrow. It’s a long season, after all.

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