Agent, Producer, Studio Executive (CAA, The Aviator, MGM, Universal)
By Dayna Wilkinson
When people want to hear your opinion, you don’t sugarcoat it or manipulate them. You tell them the unvarnished truth in a way they can absorb and embrace.
When Sandy Climan was growing up in the Bronx, no one would have thought Variety would later call him “the consummate Hollywood insider.” He was the kid who went to math camp, won science competitions and graduated first in his class from the renowned Bronx High School of Science.
“I grew up in a lower middle class, white-and-blue collar neighborhood,” Sandy says. “I hardly ever left the Bronx and, of course, there was no internet then. I went to the movies all the time and watched television incessantly, including great PBS programming like Masterpiece Theatre, Greek dramas and Athol Fugard plays. The only way for me to travel and explore other cultures was through books, television and movies, and they informed me about worlds I had never seen.”
Harvard was, in Sandy’s words, “a chance to look more broadly at my life than ‘every good Jewish boy should be a doctor.’” Freshman year he decided to comp for the Harvard Lampoon, which conflicted with his coursework. “The Office of Career Services told me ‘you have a choice. You can either do well on your courses or give up on the Lampoon,’” Sandy recalls. “The Lampoon won, so I got my very first D--in Organic Chemistry, my major—and spent most of my time at the Lampoon.”
Although Sandy had been Treasurer of the Harvard Lampoon and had gone on to Harvard Business School, he wasn’t interested in a career in finance. “I wanted to get deeply into the creative process to learn how to take ideas and turn them into something that touched people’s lives,” he says. “I met with the late Jason Rabinovitz ’43, MBA ’48, then CFO of MGM, who gave me names of a fascinating group of key people to see in Hollywood when I finished HBS, but as you might expect, it was impossible to get hired for anything other than a bureaucratized entry-level finance job.” Eventually Sandy found a job as the second secretary to the CEO of a foreign film distribution company. “I sent telexes, typed up notes from executives’ conversations and got ear infections from the Dictaphone headset. And I read every script that came in the door. As I was carrying boxes down the hall one day, legendary financier Richard St. Johns, the CEO of our parent company, shouted ‘you went to Harvard for that, Sandy?’ Then I got a call from Jay, who told me to go see Jack Gordon, the head of international theatrical distribution at MGM.”
“I started as Jack’s executive assistant, which, in this case did mean executive rather than secretary, and then quickly moved into the film production side of the studio, assuming that I would work at MGM for life,” Sandy says. “I didn’t know people came and went with each regime change. I survived the first regime change, but when the head of the studio was forced out by his old talent agency partner, the new studio head fired me while interrupting a phone conversation about reupholstering his couch.
“I got an unexpected break when my friends in the MGM publicity department placed a prominent article in the Hollywood Reporter saying I was fired. The headline was “Climan Ousted at MGM by (Freddie) Fields,” but the entire article highlighted my projects and qualifications. It effectively circulated my resume, let people know I was available, and made me seem far more important than I was. Two weeks later I was back on the MGM lot, hired by television titan David Gerber, who had the largest television production company at the studio, producing about half of MGM’s TV shows. Overnight, I went from being a junior film production executive to being the Gerber Company’s Vice President of Television Production—same building, higher floor, nicer office, more money, kept the parking spot. More importantly, I went from being a buyer of creative properties to being a seller. It is a hard transition, but a critical skill for everyone to learn!”
While still in his twenties, Sandy became President of Wescom Productions, the San Francisco Chronicle’s film production unit. Next, he led a turnaround effort of Lion’s Gate Films (no connection to Lionsgate Entertainment), where he restructured the business and sold the company to New World Pictures.
From the moment he arrived in Hollywood, Sandy’s goal was to join Creative Artists Agency. “Their agents were the best of the best, the most dedicated and knowledgeable people you could ever engage with,” he says. “When I was at MGM, CAA was a tiny agency without a screening room, so anytime I saw a film by an innovative director, I’d invite CAA agents down to watch it in an MGM screening room. I tried to be helpful to the young CAA agents, and they kept urging Mike Ovitz (CAA’s co-founder and head) to hire me. The timing was never right until six and a half years later, I met with Mike and handed him an article from a magazine he had never heard of, profiling the next generation of star media investment bankers. I am sure he thought he hired me for finance, but from my perspective, the relationship with talent is what gives you currency to do everything else.”
Sandy was part of CAA’s senior management team for twelve years, helping run the agency and representing talent including Robert De Niro, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner and director Michael Mann. As the founding head of CAA’s corporate practice, he bridged the worlds of entertainment and finance, working with global companies on major media acquisitions.
He also acted as a trusted advisor. “Sometimes when things got really ugly, or clients needed counsel on confidential business or personal matters, they’d come to me to help set things on the right course,” Sandy says. “No one would ever know that I did what I did, and I was privileged to play that role for a lot of extraordinary individuals.”
“When people want to hear your opinion, you don’t sugarcoat it or manipulate them. You give them insights and tell them the unvarnished truth in a way they can absorb and embrace. I was blessed when I was at CAA, because all the talent clients I worked with were honorable in their dealings.”
Sandy later became Corporate Executive Vice President and President of Worldwide Business Development at Universal Studios. Today, as president of Entertainment Media Ventures, he continues to lead and advise organizations and initiatives spanning the worlds of finance, business, technology, media and entertainment.
Sandy has this advice for people making their way in Hollywood: “Humility, discipline and unflagging perseverance will help you succeed. Build relationships, learn from other people, try to help them and understand how they might help you. Be as constructive and as uplifting as you can. Be of service to others. Whether or not there is karma in the world, you should leave this planet better than you found it.”