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Gary Dretzka
Leonard Klady
David Poland
Ray Pride
Patricia Vidal

 



 

 

 

 








July 23, 2003

 


An Offer You Can’t Refuse
(‘Cause No One’s Making It)

“What’s happened to the American film industry?”

Well, isn’t that the $64 billion question. The interesting twist on the query was that it wasn’t a j’accuse. Last week, on a swing through Los Angeles to promote Dirty Pretty Things, director Stephen Frears blurted it out. It was said mostly with curiosity by someone who’s visited, even partaken, in the very thing that appears to have undergone some drastic change in a short span between his close encounters.

Frears had been set to direct an American movie up until about two weeks ago. Titled Monkeyface, it’s a tale of confidence artists with a racetrack setting and was to star Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The director said that “actor’s greed” was the principle reason for his departure. But, scratching a little deeper, one got the distinct sense that the terse explanation was emblematic of more far reaching problems he observed while preparing to make the movie.

“They wanted us to film in South Africa,” he said with incredulity. The script itself invokes Miami but Frears wasn’t committed to a specific venue other than someplace in the American South with a racecourse.

“It’s kind of ridiculous,” he added. “Here you have this incredible resource of trained, accomplished talent and to save a few dollars, you’d actually trek half way around the world and try to simulate the U.S. with people that have considerably less experience and resources. It must be simply awful for all those craftsmen and technicians that are losing work. It’s a terrible, misguided thing to be doing.”

He says all this and underlines his comments as observations from someone who knows no more than a thimbleful about American society. Yes, he’s done such films as The Grifters, High Fidelity and the quintessence of Americana, the western Hi-Lo Country. Frears calls his U.S. movies “adventures” and stresses that they are rooted more in genre than a keen sense of the society from where they spring. A grin creeps across his face recalling High Fidelity, derived from a Nick Hornby novel set in suburban London but transplanted to Chicago on screen. He admits that he was skeptical about the geographic change but that the script ultimately won over any resistance.

Actually, apart from Hero - a Capraesque yarn starring Dustin Hoffman -  Frears has sidestepped the tricky terrain of movie stars. However, with Monkeyface he was in the thick of it and as the demands of marquee names escalated he arrived at the grim conclusion that the money going to high profile talent was eating into physical production costs to an impossible degree.

“It doesn’t make sense. It stifles creativity and that’s going to show on the screen. How did this happen? Why isn’t someone doing something about putting things back into balance?”

The questions and observations shoot out like a staccato of bullets that need not hit a target. Frears isn’t someone tied to Hollywood studio films, so there’s an honesty and candor to what he has to say, even a smidgen of innocence. He simply sees a series of problems that need to be addressed and is trying to figure out how the industry arrived at this point and why those in charge don’t appear to be responding to what ought to be viewed as dilemmas.

Tom Pollock, former head of Universal Pictures, once observed that the industry only responds to crisis. While studios have evolved away from a traditional role as the incubator of movie ideas to that of a bank, it hasn’t retarded the flow of releases. Sony, an extreme example, has about half its slate determined by Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios. It’s remaining “slack” is largely made up of packaged deals from talent agencies, remakes and franchise titles and that to some degree is the situation at every one of the majors in town.

It is a bleak time for originality. The spec script market has virtually dried up according to screenwriters and agents and unless one has a sizeable bank account and is willing to work on deferrals, the novel stories are gathering dust in drawers. All American films of substance, regardless of size, have become tales of struggle.

The current production landscape is riddled with films budgeted at $100 million with added marketing budgets of $40 million or $50 million. The prospect of generating more than $150 million back to the studios is slowed because many of these event movies could only be made because the studios were willing to give the talent a significant percentage of the revenue stream -  often 30% to 35%. And this occurs even when acting fees of $20 million and directing salaries of $5 million eat up more than half the production’s costs.

The performer’s greed Frears made mention of didn’t just spring up. Back when Lew Wasserman (more on him shortly) represented industry players, he established the basics for profit participation. In the 1950s, his client James Stewart worked for scale in exchange for a percentage of profits. At the time, profits were defined as two-and-a-half times the cost of the negative. So a $2 million picture started to pay back talent after revenues exceeded $5 million.

That seemed like an equitable deal. The actor took part of the risk, lowering his fee on the belief - rationale or otherwise - that his film would be a hit and reap rich rewards down the line and that point further down the road was clearly defined. It was also a lot cleaner because those revenue streams were limited to theatrical exposure and moneys to be earned from the nascent medium of television. With the passage of time, other revenue generators evolved and a new definition of profits was invented by Eli Horowitz dubbed the rolling break that, artfully administered, meant talent might not see money even after a film had grossed 10 times its cost. Adjustments of a sort were made with some receiving profits on gross and others based on net break even points. Even then, monies were often doled out sparingly and the absence of a perceived fair count became the breeding ground for hefty up front fees.

The contemporary irony is that the man who got the snowball rolling was the last mogul who had the clout, tenacity and acumen to forge a new deal and bring down the basic costs of movie making. Though it clearly flies in the face of anti-trust laws, Wasserman would discreetly bring together the heads of Hollywood’s motion picture studios to discuss what ailed the industry and address how things might be changed. In that way, no outside force was able to play one studio against another for very long.

However, there was also a dark side to Wasserman that kept his names off the rolls for canonization. At a screening of One From the Heart at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last week, filmmaker Francis Coppola was unequivocal that the Universal Mogul was the principle industry force behind the demise of Zoetrope Studios. He said that Wasserman viewed a new studio in the heart of Hollywood run by filmmakers rather than businessman as a threat to the very fabric of the industry. That dicta was sent down to everyone that mattered.

Without question, the structure, concerns and activities of studios have changed radically since Wasserman was eased out of the picture but the need for an industry Godfather has not. Much in the way that pundits are currently speculating on a successor for Jack Valenti, the heir to the Wasserman stewardship was bruited about Hollywood a decade ago. Those who might have handled the rigors and politics well such as Bob Daley at Warner Bros. didn’t want the burden. Conversely, someone who was rabid for power like Jeff Katzenberg was unacceptable to the group.

“What about Harvey,” Frears chimed in.

Obviously Frears has made some sort of peace with Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. Their history has involved some brutal head banging but his current film is being accorded the Full Miramax. And Weinstein brings some considerable assets to the table. Chiefly, unlike the majority of his brethren at studios with reel real estate, Weinstein rolls up his sleeves and puts his fingerprints on everything he touches. It’s often messy, but things get done. He would like nothing better than a seat at the table but it’s like a very exclusive country club where Harvey can play 18 holes when he’s accompanied by a member but will never get past the review committee for a permanent seat. It doesn’t matter how many Oscar nominations and statuettes his movies receive, he’s a rough-hewn New Yorker who’s tolerated more than accepted because he has a positive balance sheet.

Meanwhile, back at the multiplex, that foolproof diet of sequels, remakes and adaptations that industry geniuses ordered up for the summer hasn’t lived up to expectations. Box office is down 2%, admissions have slacked off 6% and the cost to produce and market all those terrible 2s and 3s has risen close to 20%. You don’t require an actuary table to figure out that profit margins are shrinking … and if they’re not, someone is being wasted in the movie industry when he ought to be tackling the national debt.

Oh, there’s little doubt that Friday’s bow of Seabiscuit will be held up as a biblical metaphor for the industry. You know, the one about if I find one good man in Sodom will you spare the city Lord? Well, this summer’s sole adult movie from the majors is Seabiscuit and as intelligent, charming and emotionally charged as the film is in its own right, I cannot square that Hollywood deems it a fair balance to present the story of a legendary racehorse for the plus 25s and 43 popcorn entertainments of varying degrees of skill and entertainment. Someone is not being served.

There is a situation in the area of movie content that’s not fully appreciated. When you control 80% of theater screens both at home and abroad, it is possible to dictate a lot of what the public will tolerate. Access is a powerful tool and, in this instance, is doing a lot to slow down that crisis situation Tom Pollock mentioned. And to answer your question briefly Stephen, it lost its soul and everyone was too busy making his deal to notice.

 

- by Leonard Klady



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