Columbia Makes Big Apple Move, Brings Elvis Back to NYC

It’s déjà vu for former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell. A little less than a year after he left The Times in a huff, the elusive yet ubiquitous boulevardier finds himself once again in the familiar confines of a movie studio. On Valentine’s Day, Doug Belgrad and Matt Tolmach, co-presidents of Production for Columbia, expressed their love for Mr. Mitchell by announcing that he, along with veteran producer Deborah Schindler ( How Stella Got Her Groove Back), would be heading up the freshly minted New York outpost as executive production consultants. The move signaled a willingness on the part of the studio to take a chance both on Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Schindler, and on the commercial viability of New York’s artistic community.

“I don’t look at it as a chance; I look at it as an opportunity [for Columbia],” said Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, the head of Revolution Studios East. Ms. Goldsmith-Thomas produced Maid in Manhattan and Mona Lisa Smile with Ms. Schindler, and currently has several projects in the works with her. “I think with [Deborah], also, to take a physical producer and make her an executive consultant, I think that could maybe create the best of both worlds. I think it’s a great positive step for the film community in New York that Columbia is taking it so seriously.”

Ms. Schindler is a natural fit for Columbia. In fact, she’s been working on the studio’s behalf for some time now. Most recently, she helped negotiate the deal that brought the motion-picture remake rights to Dan Klores and Ron Berger’s documentary Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story to the studio.

“They’re the two least-likely Hollywood people,” said Mr. Klores from his cell phone, commenting that Mr. Mitchell had seen the film at Sundance and that ultimately both he and Ms. Schindler made him feel comfortable working with a studio. “And that, to me, was a deal-maker.”

From Columbia’s point of view, this type of teamwork has to be the ideal: two non-L.A. intellects making sense of the crowded art-house world with an eye on the bottom line. (Mr. Mitchell, Ms. Schindler and executives at Paramount couldn’t be reached for comment by press time.) But let’s not forget that Mr. Mitchell has been here before. Over a decade ago, Mr. Mitchell did a brief tour of duty at Paramount Pictures as a director of development. Either unwilling or ignorant of the potential conflict of interest, Mr. Mitchell continued to do film reviews for NPR after being hired at Paramount. His stint as a studio executive lasted six months. Thankfully for Mr. Mitchell, the dynamic at Columbia is a bit different. He has been assigned the welcome task-apparently Mr. Mitchell gets antsy if he isn’t traveling (which explains a lot)-of trolling film festivals for potential acquisitions and evaluating the Columbia library for potential remakes. Neither endeavor appears to require the same attention to studio politics and practicalities-which seem to have caused Mr. Mitchell trouble at his former post-as development. But that doesn’t mean he will not encounter any obstacles.

“When you’re a critic, you have the luxury of thinking about whether a movie is good or not according to your own aesthetic response to it,” said Mr. Mitchell’s former fellow critic in arms, A.O. Scott. “If you’re an executive in the movie industry-in whatever sector of it, however independent-you have to make a commercial decision.” He added, however, that Mr. Mitchell is more than qualified to understand that distinction. “He’s extraordinarily knowledgeable. He has insights into movies and ways of understanding how they work that didn’t always comes across on the page.”

Currently, neither a spokesman for NPR, where Mr. Mitchell continues to do reviews on Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, nor Ruth Seymour, the program director at KCRW, the Santa Monica–based radio station where he hosts a half-hour-long interview show called The Treatment, know if he plans to stay on. But they are counting on it.

“I hope so,” said Ms. Seymour, speaking over the phone from her office. “The people who been with us a long time-these people are like family.” And since his program doesn’t involve film reviews and his interview subjects are outside the film industry, she doesn’t see a potential conflict of interest. Either way, she asserts that Mr. Mitchell will never pander. “He has a purity of vision,” said Ms. Seymour. “He’s not going to say something that he doesn’t believe.”

David Edelstein, the film critic for Slate, seconds Ms. Seymour.

“In the case of Elvis, I think it is important to say that no one has ever, to my knowledge, questioned his integrity as a critic,” said Mr. Edelstein. “He was not your typical suck-up who was trying to use a position of some power to get into the industry.”

But it is Mr. Mitchell’s fierce individuality that could come back to haunt him. It surely didn’t work for him at Paramount.

“It’s counterintuitive to me,” said Jay Rosen, former chair of N.Y.U.’s journalism department and author of What Are Journalists For? “I wouldn’t think that a critic would be good. Writers, I don’t think they’re basically good at anything where you have to make these practical calls all the time, all of these compromises. It’s all about the art of the possible: working under rough conditions, tempestuous people, always radically imperfect.”

In 1979, Pauline Kael, the only other well-known critic to attempt the jump from criticism to studio commercialism, was an executive consultant at Paramount. It only took her five months before she became fed up with studio politics-apparently, a euphemism for Don Simpson-and returned to the comfortable confines of The New Yorker. And while much has been made of Mr. Mitchell’s reported friendship with Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Amy Pascal (they are said to have met through her husband, former Times colleague Bernie Weinraub), it will soon become evident whether this connection is enough to protect Mr. Mitchell from the corporate stringency that doomed his career at The Times-and perhaps more to the point, his career at Paramount Pictures.

For now, however, the addition of two creative executives to the New York film world is a boon. With these hires, Columbia Pictures has added itself to a list of studios-including Warner Bros., DreamWorks S.K.G., Fox and Paramount-which maintain a constant creative presence in the Big Apple.

“[Columbia's] totally thinking outside the box,” said Ms. Goldsmith-Thomas. “I’m excited for them. And I am excited to see how this is going to work.”