Offer You Can’t Refuse
(‘Cause No One’s Making It)
happened to the American film industry?”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
about Harvey,” Frears chimed in.
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.
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
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.
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