Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz

John Davis (Prolific Producer & Entrepreneur) on Filmmaking, the Art of Negotiation, and Perseverance

July 19, 2023 Kevin Goetz / John Davis Season 2023 Episode 23
Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz
John Davis (Prolific Producer & Entrepreneur) on Filmmaking, the Art of Negotiation, and Perseverance
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Kevin is joined by John Davis, prolific producer and founder of Davis Entertainment.

John Davis, Producer, Entrepreneur, and Founder of Davis Entertainment

Kevin Goetz is joined by John Davis, a renowned producer and the founder of Davis Entertainment. This powerhouse production company has left an indelible mark on the film and television industry. With an impressive list of credits to his name, Davis has consistently delivered captivating projects that have resonated with audiences worldwide. From high-octane action blockbusters like Predator, I, Robot, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to heartwarming family favorites like Dr. Dolittle and Garfield, Davis has demonstrated an exceptional range and an eye for engaging storytelling. In addition to his success in film, Davis has made significant contributions to television as an executive producer on critically acclaimed series such as The Blacklist and The Player. With Davis Entertainment as his platform, he continues to push boundaries, captivate audiences, and shape the future of storytelling in film and television.

Entrepreneurship and John’s Secret Sauce (03:10)
John discusses his love for entrepreneurship and how he sees producing movies as similar to starting a new company. John credits his success to having mass taste and understanding what audiences want to see.

Giving Back (15:30)
John and Kevin discuss the importance of giving back and how John and his wife have been passionate about providing scholarships and supporting educational institutions.

Grumpy Old Men (21:28)
John shares the determined process of getting this hit film made, including committing to produce another movie just to get Walter Matthau on board.

Audience Reactions and Test Screenings (28:14)
John and Kevin discuss the role of audience reactions in shaping a movie's success and share stories of screening experiences that made a significant impact, including how testing Jungle Cruise changed the movie.

Waterworld: A Challenged Production (42:01)
John discusses his involvement in the film Waterworld, addresses the controversy and difficulties it faced, and how he turned it into a positive.

Personal Favorites (46:42)
John reveals three movies that hold a special place in his heart and encapsulate his journey as a producer. He talks about the impact and significance of Dolomite, Predator, and Grumpy Old Men on his career and personal growth.

Tune in for a candid conversation with renowned producer and entrepreneur John Davis as he shares captivating stories and valuable insights from his prolific career. Join us as we explore the art of negotiation, the power of perseverance, and the lessons learned from both successes and failures.

Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: John Davis
Producer:  Kari Campano
Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, Kari Campano

For more information about John Davis:
Davis Entertainment:

For more information about Kevin Goetz:

46s Film Making
46s: Filmmakers talk origins, challenges, budgets, and profits.

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Podcast: Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz 
 Guest:  John Davis – Prolific Film and Television Producer and Entrepreneur
 Interview Transcript:

Announcer (00:02):

There's a little-known part of Hollywood that most people are not aware of known as the audience test preview. The recently released book, Audienceology, reveals this for the first time. Our podcast series, Don't Kill the Messenger, brings this book to life, taking a peek behind the curtain. And now, join author and entertainment research expert, Kevin Goetz.

Kevin Goetz (00:23):

I'd like you to close your eyes and imagine this. Your dad is a wealthy oil man in the Rocky Mountain region of our country and he's leveraging his own money to buy one of the major film studios in California. You are a recent graduate of Harvard Business School and you're facing a dilemma. Do you join your mentor at a regional sports cable network while working on your PhD and teaching at business school or do you follow your dad to Hollywood? Hmm. Well, my friends, John Davis was in that situation in 1981, and he did, in fact, choose Hollywood, thank God. Today, John is one of the most prolific producers in our town with over 100 feature films which have earned more than, you're ready for this, 8 billion at the box office. His television credits include The Blacklist and Magnum P.I. His movie credits go back so long from The Firm to Jungle Cruise, I, Robot, Courage Under Fire, the Predator Series, Dr. Doolittle, Daddy Day Camp, Waterworld, Grumpy Old Men. It goes on and on. And aside from his entertainment career, John's business ventures include Wetzel's pretzels, Blaze Pizza, Dave's Hot Chicken, and Pop-up Bagels. John, I'm tired even just introducing it all. We have been friends for over 35 years and I am so happy to welcome you to our show.

John Davis (01:57):

Well, thank you. And I'm happy to be on the same stage, so to speak with you. Because I'm always watching you on the stage and now I can participate with you.

Kevin Goetz (02:09):

Oh man, we have been through it. But I have to say one of the things that I find that we come together on so intrinsically and organically is the fact that we are both entrepreneurs. Have you always had that in your blood?

John Davis (02:25):

Yeah, I have. I love starting new companies, and I love movies and TV series because it's like starting a new company. You know you start with an idea and you try to bring it out of the ground and you try to put it on the screen or you try to put it on air. And so I think it's the same process, it's the same mental muscles you use to do both.

Kevin Goetz (02:48):

What's your secret sauce though? When I think of you, and I mean this in the best sense, I think of a guy who knows how to make money, and I love that about you and I can relate to it because I really also love making money and finding ways to do it creatively and not necessarily in media and entertainment.

John Davis (03:10):

Okay. If I have a secret sauce, I think it's this. I have mass taste, I have taste that is very common to large numbers of people in this country and internationally and that has helped me in the movie business. In the TV business, people say to me, why do you make the things you make? And I go, I make the things I want to see and that's really easy and simple. But it allows me to approach everything with a lot of enthusiasm and passion and excitement in terms of the food business, like what foods do you want to be involved in? What food companies do you want to bring out of the ground? Same thing I have mass taste. What are the largest group of people in this country excited about? Because I'm actually kind of very excited about the same thing.

Kevin Goetz (03:56):

How are you your mom and dad's kid, meaning what is the DNA that you inherited in the best sense of what they both offered?

John Davis (04:09):

Well, my father had a very interesting way of approaching the oil biz, but my father was a real entrepreneur. He was a wildcatter, the riskiest way of looking for oil. You look for oil where there has been no exploration before. So you're taking huge risks. And he had this theory that helped me a lot growing up. His theory was I'm going to find oil because I'm going to drill more oil wells than anybody in the world, but how am I going to finance it? Well, here's how I'm going to finance it. I'm going to go third for a quarter, I'm going to sell these investors 33% stake for a 25% interest, which means I have a free carry quarter, and by the way, when my oil wells are dry, I'm going to sell the data from those oil wells to other oil companies. And so actually I can make money with a dry hole, but I can make a lot of money when I hit. And he became at one point in time the most prolific producer of oil in the country.

Kevin Goetz (05:09):

Where were you from?

John Davis (05:11):

He started off in Texas. So my grandfather very interestingly was in the schmatta business and he wanted my father to go in that business with him. And my father kind of was 6’4” and 330 pounds and really kind of a guy's guy didn't really want to do it. They used to walk up and down Fifth Avenue on Sunday nights with my grandmother, and they would sketch the dresses in the windows of Bergdorf Goodman and Best and Company, whatever. And the next day they'd have them out on the street for three bucks.

Kevin Goetz:


John Davis (05:42):

He was a gambler. He won an oil lease in a poker game, and he said to my grandfather, look, I gotta go to Texas tomorrow, I won this oil lease, I gotta figure this out. And my grandfather was like, what? What are you doing? He said, see you later. And he met H.L. Hunt and I think the time H.L. Hunt had probably multiple wives because I think he would say to me, I kept meeting a different wife and going like, wait, is that your wife? And took him under his wing and taught him how to drill for oil, put together deals, do it. And by the time he was 28, he had made a million dollars and he decided to retire and he moved back to New York where he met my mom. He got a white Cadillac convertible, camel hair coat, hit the clubs for a year and then decided after a year I really want to go back to work. And he married my mom. They moved to Denver and he drilled in Colorado and Wyoming and Louisiana and Oklahoma.

Kevin Goetz (06:44):

And there's oil, obviously in Colorado? I didn't know that.

John Davis (07:02):

<laugh>, there's a lot more in Wyoming but there is oil in Colorado. But he got prolific and understanding the geology of the Rocky Mountains. Did great there. And then you know, he made a lot of money at the time oil zoomed. It was during the oil crisis and he basically got bored and said I want to do something different. So he bought a movie studio, leveraged buyout was the time with a little bit of money you could borrow a lot of money and buy something. There was a lot of mishigas going around Fox. They're all fighting with each other. The stock was down. He somehow got control of the company and he was just going to divide up all the assets because they had Coke of the Midwest.

Kevin Goetz (07:25):

Why a movie studio though? What did he know about a movie studio?

John Davis (07:29):

He said to me, I want to do stuff that's fun. And so it was interesting, and that permeated my thought process. I was at Harvard Business School, and I had all these offers from these investment banks, from these consulting firms, going to work for these conglomerates. And all my friends were sitting there going like, where are we going to go? What do we want to do? And I took a weekend and it dawned on me his philosophy. What's fun? I decided over the week, the two things I love are sports and movies. We owned a movie theater, a twin in the neighborhood that I grew up in. And I would see two or 300 movies a year. It was a blind bidding stage. I gotta see all the movies early, always watch two or 300 movies a year. But loved sports also. And I was going to go into sports, Bill Daniels offered me an opportunity. I was doing my senior marketing thesis on the viability of regional cable sports network.

Kevin Goetz (08:27):

And that was the guy that we were talking about in my intro. Correct?

John Davis (08:30):

Yeah, and so he helped me do my thesis and then he said to me, we should do this John, why don't you run this? And I was going to do it, he did it without me. He did great. He created what became the Fox Sports Network, was Prime Sports at the time. But he went and did it. He was brilliant and he was brilliant at cable and understanding the markets. And there were two stream of incomes for the first time, you had one stream of income from advertising and you could have another stream of income from cable operators. So it became a really interesting profitable business. You could do more niche kind of programming. And so my dad said to me, I'm going to buy Fox, I'm only going to own it for a short period of time, and why don't you come with me?

John Davis (09:11):

And I said I’ll come on one condition. What was that? There's this company called ESPN. It's losing a lot of money, but I think it has tremendous potential. They're covering volleyball right now and high school softball, but it's kind of a really cool company. And my dad said, okay, why don't you go see if you can get a deal done and we can buy it through Fox, and maybe it's a good compliment. And I almost got the deal done. I came really close, and we were going to buy it for a hundred million dollars, which was a lot, a lot of money at the time.

Kevin Goetz (09:43):

How old were you at that time?

John Davis (09:45):

I was 27.

Kevin Goetz (09:46):

Hold on, I just want to say look at your father making his first million at 28, and you're 27 and in the same sort of position kind of interesting.

John Davis (09:55):

Yeah, so we got really, really, really close. But they said to us that Getty Oil donated and there was a connection between our oil company and theirs. They said this is the only fun thing we do. We drove for oil, we have ESPN, we have a walnut operation so we can't let it go even though it doesn't make any sense. So they backed out of the deal, they got taken over six months later by Texaco, Texaco forced it out and forced it into the hands of ABC and I was kind of there and I knew my dad was only going to own the studio for a short period of time. He was doing brilliantly. He took Pebble Beach and he built another golf course and he built a hotel. He took Aspen, he built a new hotel, all assets of 20th century Fox and a gondola and the real estate. And he was spinning these out and all that stuff and he was having fun being a movie mogul but it didn't make sense for him long term. And so I said, okay, I got three years before he sells it, maybe three and a half. I'm going to learn every possible thing I can learn about this business, and this is going to be my career.

Kevin Goetz (11:00):

My understanding is that you first sought out people like Frank Capra and George Lucas.

John Davis (11:07):

Yep, George Lucas agreed to see me. I went up and saw him, and I think it was Atherton when he gave me his perspective on the business, which was stay away from Hollywood because you can't trust those guys. And Frank Capra, I met him in Bailey and we were fishing and he was talking to me and he said, you have a tremendous responsibility as a filmmaker because you can teach people because they're going to be staring at a blank wall with flickering images and you have their attention for two hours. What are you going to teach them or what are you going to say or what is your responsibility? And that really landed heavy on my shoulders. Because I realized you actually had to do something important. You actually had to say something important, even if you were going to entertain people because you had this unique opportunity, and this is your challenge and you have to do this. I mean years later, I made a Holocaust movie. I feel every Jewish boy has in the film business has to make one Holocaust movie.

Kevin Goetz (12:02):

Which one was that?

John Davis (12:03):

It was called Miracle at Midnight. So my father-in-law was Danish and told me stories how they hid the Jews in their attic and the whole family and how in 48 hours when the Nazis said round up your Jewish population, they hid them and got them out of the country and they saved like 93% of their Jewish population. And I was inspired by this so I made a movie about it.

Kevin Goetz (12:26):

I think they got them into Sweden if I'm not mistaken.

John Davis (12:29):

They did, they got 'em into Sweden. And so I made a movie about it. We got a lot of visibility. I made it at Disney. It was a Disney Sunday Night Movie. They distributed it to grade schools throughout the country in an effort to teach tolerance and all that stuff.

Kevin Goetz (12:43):

Oh, that's marvelous.

John Davis (12:44):

You know, but I've had other opportunities to feel the values that I feel are represented in some of the films I make. And what Frank Capra said to me, he goes, just remember the common man can do uncommon things. It takes one person who believes in himself to do something inspirational. So I was all in on that. I really, I got my start, I learned everything I could in three years I met everybody I could meet. I got a unique opportunity, and then he sold the company and then I put my little film company's logo out there and I started.

Kevin Goetz (13:18):

How did your father, who was such a big man, how did he try to give you, I guess, a normal life? Because you have this innate sense of fairness and innate sense of goodness. I find you to be a really, a good citizen, a good guy, always have. And I admire that about you. And it had to come from him or your mom in some way.

John Davis (13:46):

Well I think two things. I think I was very fortunate to grow up when my father was struggling. And so I remember he drilled 90 straight dry holes and they were really struggling. My parents, we lived in a very modest small house in a suburb of Denver and my mom said to him at a gas station one day when the gas pump broke, Marvin, you can't even find gas at a gas station <laugh>. 

Kevin Goetz (14:11):

And that was Barbara.

John Davis (14:12):

And so he didn't really hit it until I was like 15 years old. And so I saw him struggling.

Kevin Goetz (14:19):

Wow, that is really, really interesting. So you got to see the hard, hard work that he had to put into it and then hit.

John Davis (14:28):

Yeah, it was difficult. We didn't have money to take guitar lessons. I remember my parents fighting about whether or not we could afford guitar lessons. They grew up with a lot of scarcity. And then when I was 15, he just kind of nailed it, and then he kept nailing it. And so I think that helped. I think the other thing that helped is both my parents loved to create hospitals. I grew up with a lot of doctors around the house. So my dad created a geriatrics institute in Colorado and brought in all these doctors and my grandfather had a stroke and my father got very interested in how to help people as they were aging. And then my mom got into diabetes, and she created her diabetes hospital, the Barbara Davis Diabetes Center in Colorado, which treats lots and lots of people for free. I think one of the most important research hospitals, the two of 'em together created the research hospital at Cedars. So I've had the example from them of how do you help others. I had a fortunate upbringing. How's that?

Kevin Goetz (15:30):

Well, it speaks to something very important and very near and dear to my heart, which is the idea of underrepresented groups. And when you look at a raw talent of an entrepreneur who doesn't have that break, who doesn't have a father who has a studio, it just makes me think we have to give people the opportunity, the chance to shine, the opportunity to show your stuff. You were so lucky to have that opportunity. But I do want to say you can't teach entrepreneurship. You cannot teach someone to be an entrepreneur. You can teach them how to be a good one. You can teach them business practices. And I think that's where I find wanting to give back is to provide jobs for people and to give people the opportunity. Because I came from a very humble background myself and I'm a self-made guy, so I get it completely.

John Davis (16:30):

Well, one of the things my wife and I have been doing, and we've done for years, is we believe in the power of education. And so what we've done is given away scholarships to a lot of different institutions. Wonderful. Whether it's Harvard Graduate School of Education, where Jordan and I serve on a board, if it's the Harvard Business School to Duke, to UCLA, to you know, Wellesley College, where my wife went, to Bowden where I went undergraduate, but also other colleges that people wanted to go. We always believed that the most important thing we could do is send people to college who couldn't go otherwise.

Kevin Goetz (17:08):


John Davis (17:09):

A lot of those people came back to me years later and I have a relationship with them and a lot of 'em are doing really, really well, and some of 'em even went into the entertainment business. But we felt education was really the best way to access the system and we wanted to make that available. So we've kind of been passionate about that and doing that, and I think where does that entrepreneurial zeal come from? I think it comes from the excitement of really taking that risk to do something different.

Kevin Goetz (17:39):

That's incredible and I couldn't agree with you more. Do you also agree that entrepreneurship is something that's sort of inside of you that you can't necessarily teach it?

John Davis (17:50):

It's so interesting. I think it's maybe genetic because my father really was an entrepreneur and loved doing various companies.

Kevin Goetz (17:58):

Are your siblings?

John Davis (18:00):

No, but my son has already created six or seven companies. A lot of them are really around media and entertainment, some of them around food, but he's already a serial entrepreneur. I have a daughter, she's both an actress, wonderful actress and a producer and she's got these great projects and she dreams them up from scratch and she's been selling the studios and streamers and my wife who was a studio executive when I met her and we had our first child and she said, I'm going to retire for a while and be a mother. Is that okay? I said, absolutely. I would be so excited about that. Kids grew up, left the house. My wife made three movies last year and did a talk show <laugh>. So the whole family loves this process. It's a family business. It's handed down now from generation to generation.

Kevin Goetz (18:50):

That's just fantastic. I'm going to take a break now, and when we come back, I want to talk about you as a filmmaker and how you approach that mass appeal, and how you have that nose for it. We'll be back in a moment,

Announcer (19:07):

Get a glimpse into a secret part of Hollywood that few are aware of and that filmmakers rarely talk about in the new book Audienceology by Kevin Goetz. Each chapter is filled with never before revealed inside stories and interviews from famous studio chiefs, directors, producers, and movie stars, bringing the art and science of audienceology into focus. Audienceology, How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love, from Tiller Press at Simon and Schuster. Available now.

Kevin Goetz (19:39):

We're back with John Davis. John, how do you choose the movies that you want to make? Is there a formula that you have? I know that you have the nose to sniff out mass appeal properties and other businesses, et cetera, but what's your process when it comes to a specific movie?

John Davis (20:00):

If I hear an idea, I can tell you whether I'm excited about it or not, and I can tell you instantly. I can tell you two lines in if I want to be involved, if I want to do it. I got a really great, an easy process for picking things I want to do. Then there's certain books I love, and we've bought those books. The Firm. And I read a book, and there's an idea behind the book, and it feels to me like that would be entertaining, that would be great. Then I will hear pitches from people, and I'll go like, that is really clever and smart. I really love that. Sometimes we'll sit around a table and we will come up with an idea. What would be a great fun movie to do? I remember, you know we did a movie called Heartbreakers, and we were sitting around a table going, let's come up with an idea, but where do we want to shoot the movie? And it's like, let's shoot it in Palm Beach. How fun would it be to go do a movie in Palm Beach? All right, how do we build a story around going to Palm Beach <laugh>, Hey how about a mother daughter con team? It's like, yeah, in Palm Beach there's a lot of rich people there that actually could be fun. And it became a movie.

Kevin Goetz (21:14):

What was the movie you were most excited to make? In other words, you either read it or pitched it, came up with it, but you went, this is the one that I know is going to be successful when others maybe didn't see it.

John Davis (21:28):

Well for me it's sometimes like what was the most interesting process? And so I was at Orion Pictures and I was making a movie there, Last of the Finest. And I was walking out to the elevator and the receptionist ran up to me while I was waiting for the elevator and said, would you read my script? And I go like, uh okay, hands me the script. He runs back to the reception desk, I'm at home that night. It's sitting on my desk, it's sitting on my desk, it's sitting on my desk. And for some reason I read it because like, I mean how do you know? Right?

Kevin Goetz (22:06):


John Davis (22:07):

And I loved it, and it was Grumpy Old Men

Kevin Goetz (22:12):

Oh wow.

John Davis (22:13):

I called in a day and I said, I think we should do this movie, and I think we should do this with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon.

Kevin Goetz (22:22):

What? Wait, wait, hold on. How did you, that's great casting. How did you think about them? Did they come right to you when you were reading it?

John Davis (22:29):

We were really friendly with Walter. My dad was good friends with Walter. I would go to Walter's house. I loved Walter in Jack's movies as a kid, movies as a kid growing up.

Kevin Goetz (22:38):

So great, right? 

John Davis (22:40):

Yeah, so I knew him. And so I give the script to Jack first, and I knew Jack,

Kevin Goetz (22:45):

You didn't have Donald, Donald Petrie wasn't on it yet, was he?

John Davis (22:48):

He wasn't on it yet. He said, I love this. He goes, I'll do it. And I give it to Walter and he goes, this sucks. This is terrible. I go, Walter, it's actually good. Jack likes it. He goes, what does Jack know? Right? And I'm going like, what do I do? What do I do? I had sold it to Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers said, you know, we'll make it with the right cast. I said, Walter, what do I gotta do to get you to do this movie? He goes, my son Charlie has this movie he wants to direct. If you can make it happen, I'll do the movie. And I'm going like, oh my God, this is really nuts. So I go to Terry Semel and I say, would you give me a distribution deal because I can finance Charlie's movie off the distribution deal if Walter commits to this movie. He said, I will give you a distribution deal for like 30 theaters. But that was enough to get the other movie financed. So I get the other movie financed. Walter and Jack actually agreed to do the other movie also.

Kevin Goetz (23:50):

Also. What movie? What movie was that? Do you remember the name of it?

John Davis (23:53):

It was The Glass Menagerie. Am I remembering it right?

Kevin Goetz (23:56):

Tennessee Williams?

John Davis (23:58):

Yes. And Walter does Grumpy and…

Kevin Goetz (24:02):

It's a huge hit.

John Davis (24:02):

It was so much fun. And then we made a sequel which was just so much fun. I ended up doing four movies with them, and that meant a lot to me.

Kevin Goetz (24:10):

Did you do Out To Sea also? I did because Martha Coolidge was a guest here.

John Davis (24:15):

Yeah, I remember I brought Martha in to direct it, she was a buddy of mine and I said, Martha, I think we could have a lot of fun doing this movie. And we did, and I love Martha and we had a really great time and it was great doing it with Walter and Jack. I mean we had a really, really, really, really great time. And I had just grown up watching The Fortune Cookie and The Odd Couple and so for me, oh my God, what could I ask for? So I've remade certain movies that I love growing up as a kid. I remade Flight of the Phoenix, I remade Dr. Doolittle, I also love IP. So I've been really good at getting famous IP, and that has translated into getting movies made also. And sometimes I just have relationships with certain movie stars and talk about what kind of things they'd like to do. And that becomes movies.

Kevin Goetz (25:02):

You've also had a lot of really good people work for you and with you, and they've gone on to bigger things. Who are some of your most proud proteges?

John Davis (25:12):

Well, I feel sorry for my assistants because I always say to them, look, off this desk have become big studio execs, off this desk have become writers, off this desk have become important agents, and off this desk came a United States ambassador who is now in the State Department. And I said, so you got big shoes to live up to, right? And I think they all probably go like, would you stop telling us these stories?

Kevin Goetz (25:39):


John Davis (25:40):

But I’m actually proud of them because I'm happy those kids have done so well and those people have worked for me have done so well. I mean they've done great, and so I'm really excited about it. But I also had Wyck Godfrey come to work for me.

Kevin Goetz (25:53):

He was my guest a couple weeks ago

John Davis (25:55):

And I love Wyck and I remember he was working for somebody else. I tried to get him to come to work at my company.

Kevin Goetz (26:02):

He was at New Line, wasn't he?

John Davis (26:04):

He had moved over to another producer and I brought him in as the CE and he grew up into the president of the company. We did great together. But he was really sitting in that other producer's office. And I walked by the window, and I said to him, you're making a mistake. You're making a mistake. Come with me, come with me. You're making a mistake. And he said Okay. So I literally took him out of the window and into my company. Oh and then John Fox, who's been with me a long time, who I love and I met John Fox, we were making a movie Norbit with Eddie Murphy at Dreamworks. And I met John and we just clicked and I thought he was so bright and so full of great ideas that I loved him so much. I talked to people into Fox into hiring him and bringing him over as an executive so I could make more movies with him.

John Davis (26:54):

And I made a bunch of movies with him at Fox and then I basically went to him and said, you know what? Let's just make movies and TV shows together. You make a lot more money not being an executive and being a producer, you're going to have a lot more fun. How would you like not to have to go to meetings all day long? Packaging meetings and business affairs meetings. And he said, yeah, that sounds like fun. And so we've been together a long time and he's just really bright and fun to be with and extremely creative.

Kevin Goetz (27:22):

You know, you and I have been through probably hundreds, maybe, of screenings over the last 35 years, and you really pay attention to the audience. I've always thought that that was another one of your great strengths. What was one of the stories, one of the screening stories that you can remember that sort of made a huge difference on a movie because the audience's reaction?

John Davis (27:49):

Well, the first thing I'm going to remind you is in 2004, we made eight movies. Just everything came together, everything just happened. Everything just clicked. And the studios wanted to screen those eight movies at least five times with an audience. And for some reason they wanted to do all of them in Orange County.

Kevin Goetz (28:11):

And so you bought a condo in Orange County? <laugh>,

John Davis (28:14):

No. I spent 40 days driving through all of that 405 traffic to Orange County to get the screening on time. That was a slog. I always learned stuff from the test screenings we do. First of all, you're a genius at leading an audience. Nobody can do what you do. There are other people that try. I don't know why you're the only person that can do it, but nobody else is any good at it. You are instinctual, you know how not to lead an audience. You know how to get a real response. You know what questions to ask, and that's why you are who you are. The only person that can do that.

Kevin Goetz (28:48):

That is incredibly kind and generous. I will say I have to disagree with that. I have people that work with me I think that are wonderful moderators. But I will accept your beautiful words, and I appreciate that. What was a time when like the movie maybe wasn't working so well and because you made this change, all of a sudden the scores went up 20 points. Do you remember something like that?

John Davis (29:14):

Well I would, do you remember when we did Jungle Cruise?

Kevin Goetz (29:17):


John Davis (29:18):

Well, if you remember that movie, we must have tested it seven or eight times. Correct. And I could tell from the first number of tests, audiences really liked the movie. They really connected to it. But something was keeping them from embracing it. And what often happens is it's the end of the movie. Because you and I both know the last 15 minutes of a movie is the most important, has a disproportionate impact on how people perceive and remember and like their experience.

Kevin Goetz (29:48):

And it had something to do with the mythology, if I recall right.

John Davis (29:51):

It was too complicated. Yeah, they didn't get it. Yeah. Yeah. It was just so complicated. And we're trying to bring all the strands of the movie together, make it make sense. And it was too complicated. And we played with it a bunch, and it came down to make it simple, stupid. How do we come up with the most simple mythology? How do we uncomplicate it? How do we make it make sense? And then ultimately be satisfying, right? Dwayne died at the end of one of the endings we had. He can't die, they don't want him to die. I remember that. Even though he was going off to another world in a better place.

Kevin Goetz (30:26):

I remember that. Yeah.

John Davis (30:27):

And by the way, there goes your frigging sequel, right? So you don't want to do that. We're making a sequel to the movie now. And we tested a number of times and we got the mythology right. We got the ending. Right. And that movie went from a movie that was testing fine to a movie that was testing great.

Kevin Goetz (30:43):

Wow. I remember that actually. How do you pitch a movie to an executive, to a studio to get them to say yes? You obviously have done it over a hundred times. So there has to be a recipe that listeners will love to hear. <laugh>. I know many of them who are filmmakers.

John Davis (31:02):

Well, there are certain presidents of studios around town who I love. You can really in a shorthanded way, pick up a phone and sell it in two minutes on a phone. And so one of them is Sanford Panitch. He’s at Sony, he's the greatest, has tremendous enthusiasm.

Kevin Goetz (31:18):

And by the way, so frigging smart, and he's not going to go with the flow. He's going to follow his own stomach brain. I love that man.

John Davis (31:28):

Yes. Peter Kramer over at Universal.

Kevin Goetz (31:32):

Terrific executive.

John Davis (31:33):

He's a tough sell, but if he gets it, he's got it. Like boom. Mm-hmm.

Kevin Goetz (31:37):

<affirmative>. Mm-hmm <affirmative>.

John Davis (31:38):

You know, there are certain people, you know, there's an executive I work with at Amazon, Amber Raspberry, who's great at it. Ted, I could always pitch a movie to Ted Sarandos. Right, right, right. In the early days, he had no executives around him. I remember on Dolomite, Ted kept saying to me, I want an Eddie Murphy movie. Can you find me an Eddie Murphy movie? He was my next-door neighbor. Greatest thing that ever happened to me. I could walk into his living room <laugh> and say, Ted, I'm here. I want to sell you a movie <laugh>. And most of the time, I could sell him a movie. And so I said to him, I want to do this movie called Dolomite with Eddie Murphy. And he goes, okay. I said, can I come to the office with Eddie and pitch it? I go to his office, I bring the writers with me, Karen Alexander, great, brilliant writers.

John Davis (32:22):

They've been working on the pitch for two months. They're so nervous. I go with Eddie, I sit down with Ted. At that point in time, it was Ted and a lawyer that was the film group. And I just said, Eddie, go in in character. And Eddie went in as Dolomite, did Dolomite. The writers never got a chance to pitch. Ted was laughing. He said, let's just go make a movie. The writers come to me right in the middle of the meeting and go, we haven't gotten the pitch. I said, don't worry about it, just write it. And that was just a marvelous experience. And it went from Eddie's performance in Ted's office to a movie so damn quickly. And it's a movie I love. It's a movie that Eddie loves, and I'm so happy we made it.

Kevin Goetz (33:03):

You know, I love that movie you did, Joy, by the way.

John Davis (33:06):

Oh my God. Joy was so much fun. It was so interesting.

Kevin Goetz (33:09):

That went through a big process, didn't it, in terms of testing and changing and calibrating is probably a good word for that?

John Davis (33:17):

Yeah, we tested it a lot. We still made a mistake with all the testing because at the end of the day, when you have a director of the stature of David O. Russell, at the end of the day probably you're going to cede to his instincts and we should have stopped the movie when she became successful and walked out into the sun with those sunglasses. And we shouldn't have done the postscript because the postscript made her unlikable. The postscript basically made it feel like she got all the success, and then she just became grumpy. And that was a mistake. And I kind of felt it through the screening process and I felt that movie would've been better if we stopped earlier. But look, it helped us cut the movie a lot because there were a lot of ways we could go with the movie. There were a lot of different ways we could tell the story, and it was an interesting process.

Kevin Goetz (34:06):

Is there a movie that you've walked away from or went on set and said, why am I doing this?

John Davis (34:12):

One of my favorite stories is I'm sitting with Sidney Pollack, who I so loved and admired, and we're at the premiere of The Firm in New York, and the movie's over, and he turns to me and says, it's too long, <laugh>. And I said, Sydney.

Kevin Goetz:

Oh gosh.

John Davis:

I said, the movie opens in three days. I think we're done

Kevin Goetz (34:31):

<laugh>. I joke all the time and say the movie opened six weeks ago. We're doing a test next week. There's times when literally they cannot let that baby go out into the world or go to college, you know?

John Davis (34:44):

Right. Oh my Lord. Um, yeah, but it's really, really funny.

Kevin Goetz (34:48):

John, are there any projects that you just could not get made over all the years that you have been in this business?

John Davis (34:55):

You know, there are certain ones that I just hung in there, and even though it took 20 or 25 years, I got them done. Man from U.N.C.L.E., TV series as a kid that I loved. I got the rights, you know, I set it up at TNT or Turner when they were making movies and moved to Warner Brothers. I went through multiple directors. I just really wanted to make that movie as part of my childhood.

Kevin Goetz (35:21):

Can you make Girl from U.N.C.L.E. because Stephanie Powers is one of my best friends and I know she’d love to do Girl from U.N.C.L.E.?

John Davis (35:29):

I wonder if we could. Yeah, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was fun too. Look, scripts, movies, ideas I've always loved is Tricksters in the Madhouse, it's the Harlem Globetrotters. It's 1947. Greatest upset in the history of sports, maybe. Is it a book? Well, there's books on it and somebody did a documentary on it and there's footage. But really, what it is, it's about the integration of the NBA, this new forming league in 1947. It's about these five guys that were so good that they would blow anybody else off a court, but nobody knew how good they were, and all of the clowning around and all that stuff happened cause they had to make the games entertaining because it was boring to watch 'em just blow everybody else out.

Kevin Goetz (36:13):

How could they not over these years not make that movie.

John Davis (36:15):

I've got a great script. Sometimes you just gotta hang in there. And Murray, who was the great sports columnist for the LA Times said these were the five greatest guys ever on a court together. It was a great, great, great team. And they played the Minnesota Lakers, at the time greatest team ever. George Mikan, a giant of a guy, giant, so big. Nobody could really stop him, defend him, do anything. And they were supposed to get blown out of this game. And it was after the NBA season, and they got to play them. And it was one of those games that went back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. Finally, they're behind by like one point with seven seconds left to go. Oh, and this guy Nate Sweetwater Clifton, the first black player to make it into the NBA to break that color line, has his half-court shot. He was good with a half-court shot and he shoots that half-court shot and boom, they win. And you had this audience.

Kevin Goetz (37:18):

I have goosebumps.

John Davis (37:19):

They thought there was going to be a riot in the stadium, and it was so tense in whatever and they all cheered. The crowd came together, this hostile crowd actually came together because they were all celebrating great basketball and a great game. And Mikan and then at the end of the game walked up to Nate Sweetwater Clifton, shook his hand, and said you are a great player, And you know the rest is history.

Kevin Goetz (37:44):

Oh, you are a great negotiator and that is known throughout the business and you've worked long and hard to close many deals. How do you stick with it and not give up? I only ask that on the tail of the story you just said. It would seem like you not only, you're a great negotiator, but you're a great pitcher. So you pitch this idea. Tell me about your skills as a negotiator. Is there a secret thing you can share with us about what makes a good negotiation?

John Davis (38:14):

I think it's simple. There's two things I tell my kids all the time and I really believe it. And the first one is never get frustrated and quit. Get frustrated and upset and then get up the next morning and hit it hard again. Because I think that will distinguish you from a large number of people. That's your leg up in this world, being able to do that. The other thing I teach them is if the front door is locked, figure out how to go in through the side door. There's always a way in, you just can't actually get frustrated. You have to actually figure a new pathway in. I've worked on certain right streams for two years, two and a half years. Wow. But if you never give up, there's never been a deal I couldn't get done. I'm working on one right now that I've been on for two years, two years and a quarter.

John Davis (39:02):

Hopefully, I can get it done. I got the rights, I've got it set up. There's another studio that thinks they have a piece of the rights. Two studios can't seem to agree, but I want to make it, and I'm not going to give up, and I hope eventually I'll get it done. But you just gotta hang in there and just gotta never give up. And when you never give up, people you're working on the other side of somehow come to like want you to get it because you haven't given up because you've tried so long. There's an emotional part of them basically says this guy never stops, hasn't stopped, really wants this. And you can start to break the ice a little bit.

Kevin Goetz (39:39):

I'm sure your Harvard Business education didn't hurt the fact that you got some skills from those years as well.

John Davis (39:46):

The greatest thing I learned at Harvard Business School, and again, I've shared it with my kids, I've shared it with people I work with. Greatest thing I learned there was the feedback sandwich. Tell 'em something nice. Tell 'em what you want to tell 'em. It really works.

Kevin Goetz (40:03):

Ooh, I like that. Ooh, I like that. You've had some massive hits, John. I mean, but you've also had a few pretty big misses. What have you learned from those? Because I know there's an answer here.

John Davis (40:16):

That you never know how a movie's going to turn out, and failure can never scare you. You just, right after some of my biggest failures, I've had my biggest hits. In the food business or in the movie business or in the TV business, you just have to have the courage to keep going and you do learn things. What did I do wrong in that movie? What did I miss? How come that didn't come out the way I wanted it to come out? You can't control every single element of an enterprise that involves actors, directors, studios, writers, a crew of 120 people. You can't control all those things. But what you can do is you can put them together the best you can and hope the alchemy of all of that works.

Kevin Goetz (41:04):

I had three deals go south during Covid, three investments that went south. And my philosophy was when I told a friend about this, and they said, aren't you devastated? I said no. And the reason is, is I say because I win so many more than I lose.

John Davis (41:23):

Here's the way I look at it. If you're not failing, you're not taking enough risk. And if you're not taking enough risk, you're not maximizing the potential of what you want to do. I remember with Wetzel's Pretzels, putting that company together, and we had our bumps and bruises and it was my two good friends who continue to work with me and these food companies. It was Bill Phelps and Rick Wetzel, and we had our hard times then we pulled it out, you know, you always go bankrupt and then you bring it back together. And they said to me, and it was really, really smart. When we ran outta mistakes to make, we started becoming successful.

Kevin Goetz (42:01):

Oh my lord. Great advice. Waterworld was a movie that you were involved with. I remember that man. The buzz, the haters, the skeptics, the cynics. Everyone was coming out crapping on that movie. It was a really challenged picture. I actually thought it was pretty good, to be honest with you. But tell me about what was that experience like for you?

John Davis (42:22):

Well, I'm going to tell you two things. First is, I like the movie. The movie ended up making money.

Kevin Goetz (42:28):

Did it end up making money? Because the rumor was it hadn't, but that was hearsay.

John Davis (42:33):

It did. It ended up making money in the end of the day. It took a few years or a number of years to get there. Ended up making money. It is one of the biggest attractions at Universal Studios and I am making it as a streaming series for Peacock.

Kevin Goetz (42:49):


John Davis (42:49):

And people love that. And I love it. It was a spec script over Christmas that this young writer gave to me, and you can never sell a movie over Christmas because nobody's around to buy it. But I got somebody to buy it, and it ended up moving to Universal, and Kevin Costner got involved, and it became a much, much bigger movie. I had a way of making it for a price. Once Kevin Costner and everybody got involved, you know, it became a whole different kind of thing where they ended up building the set far out on the ocean from Hawaii, and it got knocked out by a storm. It was not to me the best way to plan and do the movie, but I was a young producer, and I got overruled. I was going to build a rotating set on a peninsula where you could turn the entire set and so you could drive there. And so it wasn't on water. Clever. It's what I'm going to end up doing with the series. But I gotta say that movie was really ahead of its time, and it was about something, it’s a real awareness of the global warming phenomena and the dangers of that.

Kevin Goetz (43:59):

Yeah, it is very, very true.

John Davis (44:01):

It really holds up. Some movies are better when you see them 20 years later than when you see them at the time. It holds up. It's a good movie.

Kevin Goetz (44:07):

Is there a business that got away from you that you didn't buy that you wish you did or you wish you had?

John Davis (44:14):

Oh my god, there's so many scripts I was uh, about to get my hands on. They got away from me at the last minute.

Kevin Goetz (44:21):

Can you think of one in particular on the movie side and one in particular on the business side?

John Davis (44:26):

So remember the Bruce Willis movie, and I'm trying to remember the name of it, Disney ended up making the movie. It's the movie where in the end he's really dead.

Kevin Goetz (44:35):

The Sixth Sense.

John Davis (44:36):

So, I was friendly with the writer.

Kevin Goetz (44:38):

M. Night?

John Davis (44:39):

M. Night Shyamalan. He said, I'm going to give you the script, but you get it one day ahead of the rest of the town. We got the script, we read the script, it was really brilliant. We called all the people at Fox, and you gotta read this now, we gotta read this now. Tom Sherak was having his MS Night, right? And everybody was going, they said, we can't read it now. We can't read it now. We're going to have to read it in the morning. We gotta go to this thing tonight. I had a one-day jump on the town. Finally, Fox calls me the next day, it's about 12 o'clock. Okay, we've read it, let's go buy it. I said, it's too late. Disney read it this morning and already bought it.

Kevin Goetz (45:16):

Oh, I gotta imagine, I'm going to say it had to be, if not a billion dollar worldwide gross, it had to be huge. It was a great movie.

John Davis (45:25):

And I really wanted to make that movie. It made me cry that script.

Kevin Goetz (45:28):

I knew about the twist because we had tested it, but even going in knowing it, I still forgot it because it was that compelling. What about business-wise? Is there a business that it was presented to you, you were like, well, maybe, maybe. Or you just didn't do it?

John Davis (45:45):

You know, a lot of the businesses we've started from scratch, so I don't have that opportunity to say got away from me. 80% of my restaurant companies have worked. But there was one that I really loved. Baco Shop, Josef Centeno, who's a James Beard chef. He's got four great restaurants downtown. We were taking one of his products to Baco and we were going to, and we did make it a restaurant, Baco Shop, Culver City. And we, we overshot our audience. It was supposed to be a chef-driven restaurant experience but in a fast-casual, fast-casual pricing. And it was a very complicated menu and complicated and interesting tastes and spices and just, we went right over our audience.

Kevin Goetz (46:28):

Too complicated. Going back to your story about Jungle Cruise <laugh>, it was like too, it needed to be simpler.

John Davis (46:35):

Yeah, it belonged as a restaurant, as a fine dining restaurant. It was too sophisticated, you know, for a fast-casual restaurant.

Kevin Goetz (46:42):

So three movies that if you had on your tombstone, what would the three be?

John Davis (46:51):

Oh my God. Well, Dolomite, simply because having done five movies with Eddie and we're going to do a sixth here, I think it was our best work together and it was a movie that I loved. We won the Critic’s Choice Award for best movie comedy that year. We got nominated for a lot of things. So it would be Dolomite. Predator because it was the first movie I ever made, and I've done it now six or seven times, so it's the gift that keeps giving and I would say Grumpy Old Men because it was an amazing experience working with my childhood idols.

Kevin Goetz:

Wow. John Davis. We can talk for another six hours and just barely scratch the surface. It has been so great talking to you today. I find you to be inspirational and a great businessman, and I hope anybody who has an entrepreneurial bone in their body listens to this and can learn from your wonderful words today.

John Davis:

You've saved my bacon many times, my friend. Thank you.

Kevin Goetz (47:28):

You're welcome. John. To our listeners, I hope you enjoyed our interview today. For other stories like this one, please check out my book, Audienceology, at Amazon, or through my website at You can also follow me on my social media at KevinGoetz360. Until next time, I'm Kevin Goetz. And to you, our listeners, I appreciate you being part of the movie-making process. Your opinions matter.


Host: Kevin Goetz
 Guests: John Davis
 Producer:  Kari Campano
 Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, Kari Campano
 Audio Engineer & Editor: Gary Forbes
 Produced at DG Entertainment, Los Angeles


(Cont.) John Davis (Prolific Producer & Entrepreneur) on Filmmaking, the Art of Negotiation, and Perseverance