Video: Tom Pollock/Courtesy Image
Former entertainment attorney, studio executive and film producer Tom Pollock passed away on August 1 at the age of 77. His extensive resume includes being the former chairman of Universal Pictures and Chairman of the American Film Institute. He was instrumental to the release of films such as Do the Right Thingand Star Wars. More importantly, he was greatly appreciated by his colleagues, which included some prolific film directors.
Do the Right Thing director Spike Lee released a statement, saying “My deep condolences to Mr. Tom Pollock’s family. He was a key figure in my development as a young filmmaker while he was head of Universal Pictures. He let me make and supported my films. He was the unsung hero of Do the Right Thing — he put his neck on the line. He did not cave in when many racist pundits told him not to release the movie in the summer for fear Black folks would run amok, would riot coming out of movie theaters. Despite tremendous pressure, Mr. Pollock stood his ground, releasing Do the Right Thing on June 30, 1989 (the same day as Tim Burton’s Batman), and so helped change the her/history of American cinema. I will miss you, my friend.”
How important was Tom Pollock’s courage?
Not only is it impressive that Pollock was so instrumental to the release of a classic movie, but it’s also heartwarming to find out that he stuck up for Lee when he was dealing with racism in the industry. It’s harder to do the right thing (no pun intended) when the right thing isn’t in style. Of course, racism and discrimination were still rampant in the entertainment industry in 1989. If it weren’t for Pollock being open-minded and giving the green light, we might have never gotten to see Do the Right Thing.
Pollock’s most significant career move, though, was successfully negotiating Star Wars licensing rights on behalf of director George Lucas. Lucas also gave a statement in the wake of Pollock’s passing.
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Pollock and Star Wars
“Tom was an important adviser in pretty much everything I did and was responsible for the development of Lucasfilm Ltd. He was always good-natured but serious when he had to be. He negotiated the contract that gave me some control over Star Wars licensing and the film sequels. On The Empire Strikes Back, Tom actually developed a distribution contract and presented it to the studio rather than the other way around. That was probably one of the only times that has successfully happened; nobody had done it before — and it likely won’t happen again.”
If Pollock hadn’t gotten that deal for Lucas, the entire Star Wars franchise would have been radically different. Lucas wouldn’t have had as much control, which probably means the movies wouldn’t have been as good. After all, the Star Wars universe is his creation. Plus, he wouldn’t have gotten $4 billion from Disney, who made The Force Awakens and the rest of the sequel trilogy. If it weren’t for Pollock securing one of the best deals in the history of the film industry, Lucas probably doesn’t become as successful as he became.
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How did he pull it off?
Pollock did an interview with Deadline in 2015, explaining how the agreement came to fruition.
“So in the negotiations that were going on, we drew up a contract with Fox’s head of business affairs Bill Immerman, and me. We came to an agreement that George would retain the sequel rights … Fox would get a first opportunity and last refusal right to make the movie. Bill Immerman and Laddie are both still around, and to this day, Bill says Laddie approved this, and Laddie says Bill did this on his own. Obviously, it’s one of those deals where it’s not just about the $4 billion that came later from Disney, but all the money that was made in between that can be traced back to this decision. It’s important to remember that none of the original deal came out of money as those who know something about it might think. It came because George just wanted to be able to make the movies he wanted to make.”
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Pollock continues, “So we closed the deal, and Star Wars got made and it’s a humongous hit; the biggest movie of all time, at the time. When we made the sequel deal, the deal we came up with and proposed to Laddie and maybe it was Dennis Stanfill or Marvin Davis at that point. In that deal for The Empire Strikes Back, George made the decision to self-finance the film. Lucasfilm made a lot of money on Star Wars and would reinvest the money in the movie. The deal that was offered to Fox was, you get distribution rights theatrically and video around the world for seven years, and we retain everything else. And, by the way, we want the merchandising back. Fox had started with the merchandising in that first year, or two, and did very well too. He wanted the merchandising back as of the time Empire came out. That meant soundtrack albums, music publishing, television, all rights other than the rights we were granting to Fox under this deal. We tried to get the first deal back so he would own Star Wars, but Fox refused to sell it and rightfully so and they have it to this day.”
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Reflecting on Pollock’s impact
Iconic American athlete Jackie Robinson said “a life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.” It’s safe to say that not only did Pollock radically change his colleagues’ lives, but he also changed the lives of countless movie-watchers. Imagine how different the world would be if the Star Wars franchise didn’t become a huge hit? That’s not a world that I would want to be a part of.
While behind-the-scenes executives like Pollock don’t tend to get a lot of public attention, it’s nice to discover the unsung heroes behind the best films to hit the big screen. Hopefully, future Hollywood executives learn from his progressive ideals and shrewd negotiating skills.
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