A Sit Down with Legendary Hollywood Producer Ralph Winter

Even if you haven’t heard of Ralph Winter, you’ve heard of the movies he’s produced. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Fantastic Four. X-Men, for goodness sake. Ralph Winter is a veteran of the film industry, and now he’s at a point in his career when he’s reinventing himself yet again. That’s what we came away with after talking with Ralph: No matter how successful your career may seem, if you’re working in the creative field, you never really “arrive.” You have to stay hungry. You have to work for that next project.

Here’s Ralph.

I’m a UC Berkeley history major. I graduated and then got a job while my wife was still in school so we could switch places when she got out. I got a job at The Broadway department stores out here in California, and just inadvertently I was placed in the training department making training videos for new employees. I’d done some drama stuff in school and in church, but I hadn’t really studied filmmaking or any of that. I thought it was fun, though, and there were all of these new tools coming out.

Over a three-year period, I ended up making about 50 short movies for employees — nothing fancy, just four, five minutes. Really just industrial videos: how to greet customers, how to sell, how to take inventory, how to prevent theft in a department store, which was a big deal for them. I won some national awards, and I was like “Well, this is cool.” It was fun telling stories; and certainly as a history major, storytelling and analyzing stories was part of my educational background.

WELD: What kinds of tools were you using back then? Was it VHS or something?

It was three-quarter inch. At that time a consumer-level camera for … oh my gosh, my memory. I can remember the model number: the DXC1200. It was $5,000 for a pretty bulky video camera. I built an editing system and a little sound stage. It was pretty basic three-quarter-inch video technology and editing. I got to do everything and really started learning.

I quickly realized, though, that some of the stuff I was doing was a little unorthodox and I had no future in the retail business. Somebody there had an opportunity with a post-production job at Paramount pictures, so I interviewed and got a job at Paramount in post-production.

Wow. That’s a pretty big switch.

Yeah. I was coordinating TV shows. I knew nothing about film. I memorized the Eastman Kodak stock chart to get through personnel. They didn’t know I had memorized it. They thought I knew what I was talking about. They wanted somebody who knew video because they were going to take all of their film shows over to video.

Turns out that when I got the job and tried to implement that, the studio had forgotten to talk to the writers, producers, and directors. They didn’t want to change from film. So I learned film. I spent about three years at Paramount during a really golden age. It was Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, The Bad News Bears, Taxi — there were 12 different television shows on the air, network shows.

I met everybody and was working my tail off. Lots of pilots and miniseries. Plus, I was helping out a bit on the feature side, and every year Paramount was cranking out these iconic movies:Urban Cowboy, Top Gun. I was very fortunate. I was in the right place at the right time.

I did that job for about three years, and then I made friends with one of the producers on Star Trek and helped them get through The Wrath of Khan, which turned out to be very successful. They offered me a job, so I left the studio and then got the studio to rehire me as an independent. I worked on the next four Star Trek movies with the original cast.

 Ralph (far left) on the set of Star Trek 6, The Undiscovered Country.

Ralph (far left) on the set of Star Trek 6, The Undiscovered Country.

The Wrath of Khan is so awesome.

It was fun. It was a very fun movie. All shot on a sound stage. Ricardo Montalbán was not wearing a fake chest. That was his real chest. He was a dancer. He was in shape. We had a lot of fun, and we shot a great movie.

Okay, so your career path sounds pretty unconventional. Was there a moment when you were like, “I know I want to be a film producer”? Or were you just taking the next thing that came along every time?

I was young, married, and my wife didn’t take a job because we ended up having kids instead. That was sort of unplanned. At that age you’re sort of trying to figure out, How do I just keep it going? Do I buy a house? Do I buy a car? Will there be another job? Is there life after Star Trek? Once you move outside a normal 52-weeks-a-year job, you have to look at the world a little differently. You can’t spend whatever comes in because this week might be good, but you might work only 30 weeks out of the year. It was a large adjustment trying to figure out that stuff. I really wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make a go of it in the movie business.

It took a while to realize that this is the business. It’s going to be per project. It’s not going to be a guaranteed job with a pension. You’ve got to do your own thing. It took a while for that adjustment to happen in my mind and in my wife’s mind. Once it does, then you’re sort of freed up to say, “Okay. We’ll just reset our expectations.”

You try to stash away some savings. Sometimes that stash grows big, and sometimes that stash grows to zero. That’s kind of okay. I never jumped into this to get rich. I wanted to tell stories and have fun and make a living. It’s constantly up and down. It’s constantly wondering,What’s the next job? I think that’s the way the economy and the world’s going, and I don’t think there’s any going back.

 Ralph (left) on the set of Star Trek 4 in San Francisco.

Ralph (left) on the set of Star Trek 4 in San Francisco.


Was there a moment when you went from wanting to make it to feeling like, Okay, I feel like I’m there now?

By the time I did the fourth Star Trek movie and I was the executive producer — I was in charge — I felt a little bit like I had arrived. It took a couple of movies. I’d done the fifth Star Trek movie, which was nearly a disaster. It nearly killed the franchise. But by the time The Voyage Home came out, I felt like, “Okay. If I don’t screw this up, maybe I can make my way in this business.”

That took a while.

Oh yeah. It did. It does. It’s so hard to carve your own career path. I think you’ve got to be flexible, and you’ve got to realize that it takes time. With this whole Internet startup culture today, you want to think you can buy a lottery ticket and suddenly you’re going to make it. But of course that only happens to like 25 people in the world. The rest of us — we’re the unwashed and the mere mortals. It doesn’t happen like that.

I do think that Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours — just putting in the time — that’s what counts. My three and half years at The Broadway and my three and a half years at Paramount, those years were kind of that 10,000-hour thing for me. Putting in that time shows you can outlast the competition. Half the reason why it’s hard to get into the film business is because the business roots out people who don’t really want to be there. It’s hard. It’s low-paying in the beginning, and that’s kind of by design because people who can’t survive will fall by the wayside. And it’s like, “Well, they weren’t in it for the right reason anyway.” To really excel and find a place where you’re uniquely adding value to the culture, that takes time.

Going off of the Malcolm Gladwell thing, there are the 10,000 hours, but then I know there is X amount of luck that’s got to happen. How much do you think luck plays a part?

I would call it something different than luck. I’m going to call it the right time, right place. When I was at The Broadway department stores, it just happened that the head of personnel was married to a guy who worked in post-production at Paramount. Right time, right place. Same thing with the Star Trek guy.

 Ralph (middle) having a good laugh on the set of Star Trek 4.

Ralph (middle) having a good laugh on the set of Star Trek 4.

It’s the preparation. It’s the opportunity. It’s all those kinds of words that those motivational guys talk about. Those things were in place, so I benefited from that. But the whole thing can backfire too. In the last five years it’s been harder because I’ve been working on $200 million movies, but they’ve stopped making those, or they’re making fewer of them. A whole new set of guys comes up to produce movies, and suddenly I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can’t get hired. Now I’m out scrambling and trying to put together projects, do smaller projects, reinvent myself. It’s been five, six years of doing that, and it’s taken that nest egg all the way down to zero and below. Now I just finished a $25 million movie at The Weinstein Company and Walden Media, based on a book called The Giver. That’s the new reinvention. That’s the new level. I’ve got the experience of making $200 million and $2 million movies, but now I’m sort of reinventing myself in that $25 million range.

It reminds me of that quote, I don’t know who said it, but it’s like, “Inspiration always finds you working.”

That’s right. Opportunity comes because you’re preparing. Because you’re actually working. You’re doing stuff and other people see that. That’s always been the case, right? People don’t hire people who aren’t working, and it’s harder to hire somebody who’s been out of work for a while. That becomes the downward spiral. You’ve got to do something.

Does it ever get any easier?

Well, I think you’ve always got to be hungry. It’s seems easy, but it’s not. It’s very competitive. You’ve got to figure out a way to make it work and make a living out of it, make it actually put bread on the table. That’s a hard thing to do. The good news is I think the economy is broken down in such a way that there are lots of new opportunities and new gaps that you can fill because all of the traditional stuff is being reinvented.

There is a way of doing what you want to do without working for a big firm. But you’ve got to reinvent yourself. It takes entrepreneurial sensibilities, though, and not everybody’s that way. Not everybody’s a self-promoter. Not everybody’s a salesperson. Not everybody has that drive to go do that. Not everyone has the financial training to understand what it costs to start a business and how to do it and how to promote themselves.

You’ve got to ask yourself, Where can I add value? Where’s the spot that I want to be in? It just takes time. There’s no easy way around it. The idea of going to college and coming out with a job is an old model. I just don’t think that’s the case anymore. In the creative arts, it’s a little fuzzier; we need people who add clarity to that and add structure to that. Maybe that’s the business I should get into, helping people do that.

I would hire you.

Well, I’ll have to think about that. (laughing)

So do you still like going to the movies?

I still love it. I’m the guy who settles in, snuggles up next to his wife, and says, “You know what? I love movies. I love coming to the movie theater.” I want to escape for a couple hours. I want to go on a journey. I want to go to another world. I want to see what makes other people tick. I want to learn something or be entertained by the human journey, whether it’s laughing or crying. I want to feel something — that’s why I came. Yeah, I still love going to the movies.

Doug Klembara