Life and career
Tanen was born to a Jewish family in Los Angeles and served in the United States Air Force after graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles. Following his military service, he got a job in 1954 in the MCA mailroom. He became an agent there in the late 1950s and in the early 1960s he was packaging TV shows for MCA/Universal after MCA acquired Universal Pictures. He helped form the Uni Records label at MCA in 1967. Artists recording on the Uni label included Neil Diamond, Elton John, Olivia Newton-John and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. Uni Records later merged with Decca Records to become MCA Records.
In 1970, Tanen became vice president of production at Universal Pictures, after serving as production supervisor on the 1971 Miloš Forman film Taking Off. He was named president of Universal's film division in 1976. His projects at Universal included a wide-ranging variety of box office and critical success, including the 1973 film American Graffiti, Jaws (1975), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978), Melvin and Howard (1980) and Missing (1982). His 1980 films set an industry box office theatrical rentals record of $290 million, with releases including Coal Miner's Daughter, The Blues Brothers and Smokey and the Bandit II, and the record was surpassed in 1982 with the release of E.T. the Extra-terrestrial taking the rentals to over $400 million. He resigned from Universal in December 1982.
In a 1978 article in The New York Times, Tanen described how some of the biggest box office grossing films take on a life of their own, describing the success of the film Animal House was a surprise, acknowledging that "All we did was make a picture about college fraternity life in the 1960s".
He had left Universal saying he wanted to leave "the Hollywood game" and established Channel Productions, but was still based in Universal City and Universal had first choice on his productions. He produced the 1984 film Sixteen Candles and a pair of 1985 releases, The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire.
Following Michael Eisner's departure from Paramount Pictures, Tanen joined Paramount in October 1984 as president of the studio's motion picture division under Frank Mancuso Sr.. In his time at Paramount, the studio produced box office successes including the 1986 films "Crocodile" Dundee and Top Gun, and the 1987 releases Fatal Attraction and Beverly Hills Cop II, leading Paramount to post the top revenues among all studios in both 1986 and 1987. The studio's films in 1986 drew receipts of $600 million, more than twice its nearest competitor and setting an industry record at the time. Other films produced by Paramount during his time there include Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Children of a Lesser God (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), The Accused (1988) and Ghost (1990). Tanen resigned in November 1988, with the responsibilities included in his position split between Sid Ganis and Barry London.
The character Biff Tannen in the Back to the Future films was named after Tanen. Writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis had met with Tanen during a script meeting for I Wanna Hold Your Hand where Tanen had reacted in aggressive fashion to their writing, accusing them of attempting to produce an anti-semitic film.
- Jewison, Norman (September 1, 2005). This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me: An Autobiography. Thomas Dunne Books. pp. 190. ISBN 9780312328689.
- Tusher, Will (October 9, 1984). "Tanen Par Pic Group President". Daily Variety. p. 1.
- Grimes, William. "Ned Tanen, Movie Executive With a Taste for Youth Films, Dies at 77", The New York Times, January 8, 2009. Accessed January 8, 2009.
- "Top-Level Changes At Universal". Daily Variety. December 28, 1982. p. 1.
- Bates, william. "Hollywood in The Era of the 'Super-Grosser'", The New York Times, December 24, 1978. Accessed January 10, 2009.
- Harmetz, Aljean. "President of the Film Group At Paramount Steps Down", The New York Times, November 22, 1988. Accessed January 9, 2009.
- Freer, Ian. "The making of Back to the Future", Empire (magazine), January 2003.
- "Q&A with Director Robert Zemeckis & Producer Bob Gale","Back to the Future DVD -, Bonus Materials