Hot Button Archive for July, 1998

Views of News

A reader, Brian G., wrote in earlier this week to “demand” (his word) that I write about Sony’s spin on Godzilla this week since I had written so much on the Armageddon spin. I wrote him back in private to explain why I felt that the Godzilla spin, which took place this week in a Daily Variety interview with Sony execs led by John Calley, was not the same beast as Disney’s spin on Armageddon. Why? Because Disney actively spun the Armageddon story, while Sony was asked and answered a question as part of a much larger interview with completely different issues to spin (whether Calley will soon leave Sony and resetting the media position on the studio aprés Godzilla). Also, I believe that Sony spun toward what they really believe. Devlin and Emmerich are still, indeed, valued parts of the Sony family, and there may well be a Godzilla sequel (albeit at a much smaller price tag for the production and the hype and with Devlin and Emmerich as executive producers, not the main team.)
What really inspired me to write about this today was another story in Variety. This one is about Samuel L. Jackson dissing the Academy Awards, as he feels that the institution has dissed black movie talent. Now, I am sure that Jackson will stand by everything that he said in the article. That’s not the point. The feature was titled “Actor Samuel L. Jackson picks bone with Oscars” when, in fact, Jackson was out selling The Negotiator. In that context, a reporter asked him a question, and Jackson answered honestly. But readers would likely get the idea that Jackson was on some sort of campaign against the Academy. He’s not. He doesn’t like them, but he’s not on a Jesse Jackson-like crusade. We tend to use our perceived context as part of our determination about whether an interviewee is thoughtful or a loud mouth. Sony wasn’t looking to spin Godzilla, but was certainly willing to do so. Jackson wasn’t looking to talk Academy racism, but didn’t shy away from it either. How can we blame them for answering when we asked the questions?
BOND BUZZ: Speaking of Sony spin, they lost the first major skirmish in the war to turn James Bond into a two-studio schizophrenic. U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie said he was “99.9 percent” sure that he’d be putting the reins on Sony even developing a script for a possible Bond movie until a December trial resolves the issue once and for all. This is Sony’s second failed (so far) attempt to acquire Bond, having attempted to woo Barbara Broccoli from MGM a little over a year ago. Of course, leave it to a lawyer (Art-Buchwald-hero-turned-blowhard Pierce O’Donnell) to take a victory and turn it into absurdist hyperbole, claiming that the ruling created “one of the darkest days in the history of Sony Studios.” Didn’t this guy see Striptease?
WHEN YOUNG MEN’S FANCIES TURN TO SPRINGER: That Jerry Springer movie is moving full-steam ahead. After blonde bombshell Jamie Pressly made her big debut as the often-naked, white-trash title character of Poison Ivy III (and after a small role as the busty blonde of the trio of wags who complimented, then dissed Jennifer Love Hewitt in Can’t Hardly Wait) she just signed up to play a lead in the too-hot-for-video movie (now known as Springers) as a trailer-park queen who claims she’s having an affair with her stepfather in order to win syndicated airtime. So, what do you want to bet that she’ll add the “naked” element to her work in this film, too? And the Playboy spread (so to speak) can’t be far behind. Hollywood. Even when you win, you lose.
KISS AWAY YOUR YOUTH: In other trashy news, New Line Cinema has signed Kiss to appear as itself in the must-be-renamed Detroit Rock City. It’s a story set in 1978 about some guys who go on a quest to meet their favorite band. One problem. I saw Paul Stanley the other day; I run into Gene Simmons now and again. And I can tell you, it may be 1978 in the movie, and they may be wearing a lot of make-up already, but making them look like twentysomethings is going to require more CG work than Spawn did.
CHAT: Friday is my Yahoo! chat day around these parts. Actually, it’s called Movie Chat. It starts at 2:00 p.m. PT/5:00 p.m. ET. And I’ll give you a hint: Show up a little early and start sending questions. As the hour progresses, it gets harder and harder to get a question into me.
READER OF THE DAY: From Ann Minnix: “Last week you asked what women thought of the movie Saving Private Ryan. It is one of the best movies ever made. I saw this film with a theater full of people (all ages and genders), and we all clapped when it was over. I haven’t spoken to one person (male or female) who didn’t love it. This is a film about humanity (and inhumanity) and all who see it will benefit. As far as I can see, any criticisms made about the film are not looked at as carefully as needed. Spielberg spent time framing, writing and editing every shot to make points relevant to his view and it must have worked, because the nearly three-hour film seemed like minutes. Saving Private Ryan was a great movie experience.

Ranting and Raving

I thought I would take a look back at last year this week. Have things really changed, or are we all just always searching the figurative tea leaves for change? Perhaps it’s a little of both. The broad strokes certainly do change. Last year, audiences were sucked into The Lost World and Batman & Robin before the buzz could snap back and destroy them. Not quite that kind of luck this year, though the room seemed to be getting hipper as last summer proceeded with the $229 million domestic gross for Jurassic 2 more than doubling that of B&R: The Lost Franchise, which opened a month later. Likewise, studios seem to have been emboldened by the surprisingly leggy Contact last year, releasing more traditionally “fall” films in the middle of summer. That didn’t work this year, as Out of Sight, A Perfect Murder and Bulworth all bit the dust. Perhaps the analogy for the success of Contact is The Truman Show, though that film had a lot more hype than Contact going in and featured Jim Carrey to boot.
The Top 10 box office results for the fourth weekend of July 1997 are remarkably similar to this year’s numbers. There are six films that have passed $100 million or are likely to pass that number. (There could be a seventh this year, if Zorro and There’s Something About Mary both make it.) The top film is more than $30 million both years with big names in tow. Last year, Harrison Ford (in AFO). This year, Tom Hanks. And Ryan now seems to have a legit shot at matching AFO’s $173 million domestic take and to beat its $313 million worldwide take. (Though I felt going into last weekend that $100 million for SPR would be strong. We’ll see. The worldwide target may be more likely than the domestic one.) The losers that made the Top 10 were two comedies (one teen, one adult in Good Burger and Nothing To Lose) and an action film (Operation Condor). This year, it’s a comedy (MAFIA!) and two action films (one teen and one pre-teen in Disturbing Behavior and Small Soldiers).
Both Armageddon and Men in Black had their fourth weekends in July’s fourth week. MIB would be $50 million ahead at this juncture and would end up about $75 million ahead in the end. Godzilla and The Lost World were both way out of the Top 10 by this point, though JP2 was $90 million ahead. George of the Jungle was 1997’s There’s Something About Mary: both surprise comedies within shouting distance of $13 million in each of their second weeks. And George was the low-dropper of that weekend, too. There is a somewhat strained analogy to be made between My Best Friend’s Wedding and Dr. Dolittle: each was the hit comedy of the summer as well as being one of the three most profitable films of their respective summers. With one less week under its belt(using this date as a marker), Dolittle is almost $15 million ahead already, but one is purely a family comedy and the other is a screwball farce — an interesting match anyway. The big differences are that last year’s Lethal Weapon 4, the big-budget bust Speed 2, exploded in dock. This year’s Face/Off, The Mask of Zorro, isn’t doing quite as well as last year’s youthful action smash. But the slots are filled.
You should be getting some sense of the big picture about now. Lots of things change every year. People develop, produce and market their films individually and take each film very seriously. It’s all so personal. But in the end, only a few films avoid becoming part of the blur of Hollywood. You win some, you lose some, but in the end, the song remains the same. I’m just here to point out those tiny variations.
WEEKLY CHAT: Once again, my weekly chat on Yahoo! Chat will be this Friday at 2:00 p.m. PT/5:00 p.m.ET/10:00 p.m. GMT. This week, I’m in Chicago, but we’ll still just be talking movies. Next week, my first chat guest, Natasha Gregson Wagner.
READERS OF THE DAY: First, a reader named Mark sent me a link to what has to be seen as a remarkable dual review of Saving Private Ryan and Small Soldiers by Jonathan Rosenblum of the Chicago Reader. He rates Soldiers as a four-star “masterpiece” and Ryan as a one-star disaster, having a “redeeming facet.” And if you want to know just what kind of self-indulgent poseur sees movies this way, check out his Top 10 list for 1997. Only one studio film on the list (As Good As It Gets), and only two that more than a handful of you have probably seen (though you should have seen the documentaries that share one of the spots). This guy is a truly retro throwback to the bad old days of 1970s auteurist crap reviewing. Not that today’s crass commercialism is much better, but at least it’s not as smug.
Next, one of the many Saving Private Ryan letters that will serve as consensus for today. From Steve: “I personally enjoyed Spielberg’s rather graphic tale of one private’s ticket home. I can’t understand how so many reviewers (at least the one’s you mentioned) could only see this movie as a Spielberg movie and not just a very well-done war movie. I do have to say, Spielberg did have one of his usual tricks up his sleeve, though. When Hanks and his squad ‘come together’ [edited for spoiler]; this is vintage Spielberg. The whole, ‘The only way we can do this is together’ schtick seems to be a running theme in his movies. But I digress. The fact is, this movie is extremely compelling. If Ella Taylor had any real sense of emotion herself, how could she not be moved by the images that Spielberg throws at us? Spielberg has always been one to tell a story as much with pictures as with words and anyone who sees the storming of the beach in the first 20 minutes cannot help but feel the futility of war and the needless death that it craves. This movie has disturbed me in a way that causes me to think about what goes on around me. That is the point of movies: To reach us and somehow become more than just a series of pictures and words. Isn’t that why we love them?”
Finally, a very different and rare take from Michael of Orlando, Fla.: “Yes Private Ryan is well done, acted and so on, but it is also a nearly three-hour bore! Please don’t compare this war crap to Titanic. I found this to be typical of the old John Wayne-type war films of long ago and found nothing new, except the extreme gore at the start of the film. Ryan surely will not have the legs of Titanic and will not win best picture next year. This summer, it seems that any huge ad budget will push a film to huge box-office totals for the opening week, but do any of these summer films have the legs of Titanic, which is still in theaters in week No. 32!? I agree, Armageddon was horrible — no real disaster scenes, just stupid macho talk. The reason these films do well is because people who go to movies are easily pleased. Don’t forget there are millions of trailer parks in the United States!”

In Ailing Technicolor

I’m sure that you’ve all read about the missing prints of Saving Private Ryan at over 100 theaters around the U.S. last Friday. Well, the blame has fallen at Technicolor’s door, and things over there are looking more than a little hairy. The film processing company’s last tangle with DreamWorks involved mishandled trailers for Antz. Having seen this screwy trailer, I can tell you exactly where they blew that one. They had the original trailer of the Woody Allen-voiced “Z” talking to his therapist with the soundtrack that would end up correctly attached to the newer, action-filled trailer. It was surreal. (By the way, just got a new trailer from DreamWorks that includes more on characters voiced by Stallone, Hackman and Glover. Terrific.) Then, there was the Gone with the Wind debacle that had audiences complaining about blurry sections of the frame, screwy color and other unintended faults in the “new and improved” version of the classic. And now, the Ryan deliveries. Looks like Technicolor’s efforts to move back in front of the technological wave will leave them submerged for the next while.
IN & OUT: Hollywood mogul-guy Robert Evans annulled his marriage to Hollywood fabulous-babe Catherine Oxenberg after a 12-day marriage. Evans, who was recovering from a stroke before marrying Oxenberg, a mere 32 years Evans’ junior, blamed the split on his work obligations. His work? Well, there was a day when Evans ran Paramount, pushing out such films as The Godfather. He segued into producing and knocked out films like Marathon Man, Chinatown and Urban Cowboy. But that was a while ago. Evans’ films of the ’90s are The Two Jakes, Sliver, Jade, The Phantom and The Saint. Films which all but destroyed Jack Nicholson, Sharon Stone, Linda Fiorentino, Billy Zane and Val Kilmer, all at the heights of their careers. In other words, give us all a break and go back to trying to boff the 36-year old.
IN OTHER DIVORCE NEWS: Good feature in Variety about the trouble with Rupert and Anna Murdoch‘s mega-divorce. With California community property laws getting in the way of Rupert’s efforts to keep up with Michael Eisner, he could go the A Perfect Murder route. It would be a great story. But before Murdoch gets Viggo Mortenson to kill his estranged wife (and don’t you think Viggo would rather do that then appear in a movie as poorly received as A Perfect Murder again?), he had better purchase the underlying murder plot rights to the film from Warner Bros. He could get sued. (Word on the grapevine is that Saddam Hussein is currently negotiating with the financially strapped MGM for rights to certain Bond villians’ attempts to take over the world.)
DEJA FOX: Twentieth Century Fox has Star Wars next Memorial Day but now they’ll also make way for Leo. The studio just forked up big bucks for Leo’s next picture, the Danny Boyle-directed The Beach. Not only does this bring DiCaprio back to the senior studio partner on Titanic, but it reunites Boyle with the company that ate dirt with his A Life Less Ordinary just last year. Another happy Hollywood marriage that is all about the art. The art is the bottom line.
CASTING CHRISTINA: Christina Ricci is returning to the loving hands of Tim Burton for Sleepy Hollow opposite Johnny Depp, who may be perfect (as one of the most pasty-skinned of all bog screen swarthy guys) casting for the role of Ichabod Crane. After taking on the tough roles of slut/vixen/bitch in Buffalo 66 and The Opposite of Sex, Ricci gets to go back to studio work as an adult. And Burton gets to fetishize the now very grown-up Ms. Ricci in corsets and heels. It already smells like a whacked-out classic.
VIDEO FORECASTING: Sony has announced that Godzilla will hit the video racks on November 3. My bet would be that Armageddon will follow it to Blockbuster about a week later, still ready for the Christmas buying season. No doubt you will find Dr. Dolittle, Zorro, Lethal Weapon 4 and Mulan there, too. So, the “blockbusters” of Summer ’98 will likely be in your home before Thanksgiving. And I’ll bet right now that Saving Private Ryan will be re-released into theaters — and only theaters — right about the same time. Handling with care. Could it be the latest trend?
READERS OF THE DAY: From Rich B: “I’m reading some criticism of the framing sequence Spielberg uses in Saving Private Ryan. I was skeptical myself, but I think the device is essential. Spielberg’s intent isn’t just to tell a story, but to pay tribute to the veterans, and the framing sequence focuses that message and makes the audience think about the sacrifices that were made. I don’t see how it takes anything at all away from the rest of the film, and I’m a little puzzled at this criticism.”
Also, from Larry Freeman: “I am disturbed by those who make light of the graveyard sequence in this very great movie. I am a Vietnam veteran who has visited the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial in Washington D.C., and my wife’s father participated as an infantryman in the landing on Omaha Beach. It is important that people understand the need for so many veterans to make the pilgrimage to where their buddies are remembered, or are buried, and the grief that jolts each of us when we connect with our memories in that way. We survivors do feel the burden of having lived while those close to us were taken. The graveyard scene was absolutely important as recognition of the closure each veteran must face. And the scene is real with respect to the grief of the old soldier and of what he feels he owes to those he left behind.” Correction: Yesterday’s TWO BAD MOVIES EQUAL should have read simply TWO MOVIES EQUAL. My mistake in not correcting my template as I usually do when I butcher good movies. Sorry.

Weekend Wrap-Up

Well, obviously Private Ryan didn’t need to be saved. With a $30.1 million opening weekend, Saving Private Ryan did better than most anyone would have guessed, though it’s not clear whether the controversy over the super-realistic violence in the film was something DreamWorks overcame or if it turned out to be just the hook they needed to make their film a mega-hit. (No, even if the latter is true, I don’t believe that DreamWorks “used” death and destruction as a marketing draw intentionally. Whatever I feel about the premiere faux pas (THB 07/23), I still believe strongly in the unique honor of DreamWorks and their marketing staff.) Either way, it’s an important film that deserves a large audience. If it drops 20 percent or less next weekend, it automatically becomes the front-runner for high-grosser of the summer. Less fortunate was The Mask of Zorro, which suffered a 39 percent fall in week two of its ride, taking second place with just $13.7 million. It passed $50 million, but Sony can’t be happy. They pushed the film from winter to spring to summer and now, with 20/20 hindsight, it looks like the spring would have been kinder to a film that would have been the only really good populist film other than Titanic. (Oh, for the wide open spaces that Godzilla squandered for them.) Speaking of populist films, Lethal Weapon 4 continues to stay relatively strong despite its self-destructive nature. The film dropped 39 percent in week three with a $13.2 million take, but should pass the $100 million mark domestically before next weekend begins.
The co-story of the weekend is the 7 percent drop of the fourth place film, There’s Something About Mary. I don’t believe there’s been anywhere near such a small drop since Titanic. What does it mean? Yes, everyone. WE HAVE LEGS! We haven’t seen legs since Titanic and they are, indeed, a lovely sight. Some of you who have written are clearly not fans of this film. Vulgar has been amongst the kinder accusations. But this is a funny movie and an original one in its way, so I will continue to support it and applaud its success. Armageddon closed in on $150 million this weekend, dropping just 34 percent to fifth place, adding another $10.9 million to its coffers. I wish I knew who was still going to see this film in these numbers. (Feel free to write. My interest is sincere.)
The second five leads off with Disturbing Behavior, whose behavior as a box office draw will disturb MGM more than anyone else. I don’t wanna wait for Katie Holmes to get back to “Dawson’s Creek.” (Next week, fellow Dawsonette Michelle Williams turns up in a worthless role in the often worthy Halloween: H20. Jamie Lee Curtis pushes the kids aside and takes full command of that bloody romp.) Oh yeah, Disturbing Behavior. Seven million. Not disturbing, Dr. Dolittle continues to astonish, falling just 27 percent to add another $6.9 million to the $110 million it entered the weekend with. (Finally caught the movie. I don’t get the draw. Not a terrible movie, but a $130 million “not terrible” movie?) In eighth, it was MAFIA! — $6.4 million couldn’t be considered a killing. In fact, if a Vegas casino had that kind of take, the real mafia would have someone whacked for skimming the take. (Watch out for Joe Roth if he pulls you close and says, “You broke my heart.”) Small Soldiers got smaller with a 40 percent drop to $5.2 million. Will it be fair to call this likely $55 million domestic grosser a miss? It will depend completely on the foreign numbers. And Mulan makes what is likely to be its last Top 10 appearance with a 31 percent fall to $3.4 million.
THE BAD: Well, our very own Andy Jones breaks one of my cardinal rules for reviews. He gives away info that keeps us from enjoying every moment in Saving Private Ryan as a surprise. However, he doesn’t indulge in what I would say, in this case, has become almost standard amongst “serious” critics: critiquing Spielberg for his previous work and not simply for the film he made. It’s kind of like, “This film was a singular accomplishment, but…” The “but” is schmaltz. Everyone seems compelled to bring it up. Some suggest it even ruins the picture. I say, “Bull.” There were absolutely two or three emotionally manipulative moments in this film, but Spielberg mostly retired his bag of “gotcha” tricks. Separated from his name, there isn’t a whole lot here that screams, “Spielberg!” What it screams is experience and genius. No, I’m not saying it’s perfect. But it is certainly the best film this year (or last — sorry, Titanic) and I say the schmaltz naysayers are just covering their asses by not liking a Spielberg film too much to be “cool.” Amongst the offenders is Ella Taylor, whose review begins, “If Steven Spielberg‘s emotional intelligence matched his visual genius, his harrowing, passionately felt and honorably flawed new film might qualify for one of the greatest American movies ever made about World War II.” Amy Taubin‘s analysis really tears in, beginning with: “A high-minded horror film, Saving Private Ryan begins, like Jaws, with blood and severed limbs in the water and ends like Jurassic Park, with frail humans locked in combat to the death with armored monsters (the monsters being German tanks).”
THE GOOD: In my opinion, Peter Rainer, who I often disagree with violently, got the story right in his review. He watched the movie and not Spielberg. I’ll also be putting together some of your comments for publication in the hot button later this week.
THE ZORRO: A couple things here. First, I have to cough up credit to Executive Producer Steven Spielberg for spinning out this remarkable story of his “discovery” of Catherine Zeta-Jones. I am as taken as anyone with Ms. Zeta-Jones, so you can imagine the sound of my jaw hitting the ground when I saw her flash across the screen in The Phantom. I’m sure that her presence in the film was remembered by many of you, but I have managed to erase almost the entire painful moviegoing experience from my brain through extensive shock therapy. But it all came screaming back as CZJ told the oh-so-butch Billy Zane, “Those are like warheads. If we hit anything, we’re fish food.” What a line! And what a merchandising tie-in Zorro has with Head & Shoulders! I understood the Mustang hook, but a guy in pre-anti-bacterial Mexico who wears a mask and a black hankie on his head selling Head & Shoulders? Like CZJ takes care of her magnificent mane with dandruff shampoo. Come on!
TWO BAD MOVIES EQUAL: The Parent Trap + Saving Private Ryan = The Private Ryan Trap. This is the story of two Matt Damons. One is a young, up-and-coming actor who got hired to do a Steven Spielberg movie with a cast of other little-known actors. The other one who hit lots of magazine covers due to Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Rainmaker, and then hits every other magazine cover (and some of the earlier ones again) after starring in Good Will Hunting and taking home an Academy Award. (He’s seen the sights only a hot young actor can see under star actresses’ tights.) As a result, Tom Hanks and his crew go out looking for a character whom they can’t identify on sight and we can. And a great moment is lost. (What a wild duet!)
JUST WONDERING: I’ve seen SPR twice. I liked it better the second time. A reader, Erin, also has seen the film twice. The second time disappointed her after she loved it the first time (She even sent a link to a RealAudio file of Tom Shales ripping the film, for what else, false emotion.) Anyone else seen it twice? How was it the second time around?
BAD AD WATCH: Warner Bros. has switched from Bobbie Wygant‘s bizarre (if not psychotic) “The Best Lethal Weapon Ever” to Janet Maslin’s “A flamboyant tongue-in-cheek adventure.” What they don’t tell you is that the review was lukewarm. Mostly, Maslin’s review exhibits a kindness that seems to be based on weariness caused by Armageddon and Godzilla, summing up LW4 as “one of the nicer blow-’em-ups around.” In my book, that’s damning with faint praise. The quote that the studio pulled follows, “Lethal Weapon 4 is still a film whose idea of high drama is watching a car get pushed in front of an oncoming train.” But a New York Times “rave” is still a New York Times rave.
READER OF THE DAY: From Michaela: “Saving Private Ryan ‘too harsh’ for women? I’m pretty sure most of us can take it, as long as we’ve got some ‘big strong man’ to lead us out of the theater. God save us all from those who think we need protection from reality (or even fiction based on reality).”

Weekend Preview

Will Pvt. Ryan find the box office safe or soft? That is the question. My answer is that Saving Private Ryan will gross about $24 million this weekend for first place, which doesn’t make it the biggest opener of the summer by any means, but to my mind’s eye is a powerful achievement for a long (2:49), appropriately but extremely violent, male-only cast war movie. Even if it is the best work of Spielberg’s career. And I think it is. Spielberg should manage a one-two punch with The Mask of Zorro (Spielberg executive produced) holding onto all but 18 percent of its first weekend take. I know, movies holding up that well have been as rare lately as a co-star Minnie Driver hasn’t slept with, but I’m going out on a limb for a great summer movie that I hope has legs as long and attractive as Catherine Zeta-Jones. Eighteen-point-five million.
In third, Lethal Weapon 4 should hold up with a 40 percent drop to $13 million. I don’t know who is still paying for tickets to this star-powered clunker, but one can’t argue with success (the film will pass $100 million by the middle of next week), even if one wants to. The debut of Disturbing Behavior has all the marketing hallmarks of a strong opening. But so did Can’t Hardly Wait. MGM has had a depressing run trying to get fannies into seats and this should be no different. Fourth place with $11 million.
Closing out the first half of the Top 10 is There’s Something About Mary. The film took the No. 2 spot through the weekdays, right behind Zorro, on decent but not overwhelming business. Even with just a 25 percent drop, the film falls to the five spot with $10.3 million. Legs, legs, legs. Can Zorro and Mary reassert that ideal? We’ll find out this weekend.
The second 10 should be led by Armageddon, which will drop about 40 percent to $10 million (lots of round number estimates this week, huh?) as it charges past Godzilla and Deep Impact to take the top box office spot for the summer to date. Both of the other films are out of the Top 25. Look for the lightly publicized and completely star-free MAFIA! to take seventh with about $8.5 million. Dr. Dolittle should continue to do a lot as the prime contender for “Most Profitable Film of Summer 1998,” adding another $6.6 million in eighth place to close in on the $120 million mark. Small Soldiers should continue to fall (though I think audiences will find and really enjoy this film on cable) with another 40 percent drop to $5.2 million. And look for Mulan to close out the Top 10 with a 30 percent drop to $3.4 million.
THE GOOD: With his first big-budget film, The Negotiator, due next weekend, director F. Gary Gray is trying to get out of his commitment to direct The Nutty Professor II. Unlike Robert Rodriguez, who dropped out of Zorro in a snit because Amblin and Sony wouldn’t give a guy who had never made a movie for more than $12 million more than a $40 million budget to make the film, Gray is trying to get out because he isn’t comfortable with the way the project is going creatively. You hear that all the time, but this time I believe it. Why else would a young director jump ship from a big-budget virtually guaranteed commercial hit?
THE BAD: This one is from Ryan of Canada. The real bad comes at the end: “I work in a movie theater in Toronto which uses a separate ratings board from the MPAA. Instead of the PG-13 category, we have AA [Adult Accompaniment]. AA requires that anyone under 14 be accompanied by an adult [18 years]. The Mask of Zorro was rated AA — something I see as justified. But a reader letter complains that Zorro had it easy — which just isn’t true. Zorro’s head in a jar and swordplay is hardly on par with Lethal Weapon 4 (also rated AA). As for the beheading scene in Zorro, well, the audience never sees it. It’s implied, which leaves the imagery up to the individual — meaning kids who’ve never seen a head decapitated won’t have a problem with it. Unfortunately, you’d probably have a hard time finding one who hasn’t.”
THE BETTER: When you check out Saving Private Ryan, keep your eyes on the young ensemble of actors working around the Toms — Hanks and Sizemore. My bet would be that this film is one of those films we’ll see on cable 15 years from now and say, “How did Spielberg get all those guys in that movie?” (As opposed to Terrence Malick‘s The Thin Red Line, which is filled with already established names like Travolta, Nolte, Penn, Clooney, Harrelson and Cusack. Incidentally, Sizemore passed on Thin to do Ryan.) Giovanni Ribisi, Barry Pepper and especially Vin Diesel are all going to be movie stars for a long, long time. Jeremy Davies may have a hard time transitioning to adult roles, and Adam Goldberg may be terminally ethnic, but both are masterful as well. There has never been a better-casted Spielberg movie. Never.
TWO MOVIES EQUAL: Saving Private Ryan + Small Soldiers = Saving Small Soldiers. The marketing department of the fictional movie studio, ScreamWorks, needs to resurrect a quickly-fading kids movie that kids don’t seem to care about. After a grossly unsuccessful cross-promotion with McBurger Prince in which kids get real sticks of dynamite with every Crappy Meal they buy, the team comes up with the ultimate plan. They start a contest in which every movie ticket holder is entered to win a date with Marty Demon, who recently became “Hunk O’ the Year” and won an “Academy I’m Bored” for Great Bill Murray. Much to their shock, their film is immediately picked up to open both the BOP Magazine Film Fest and the International Gay Film Festival, doubling its gross within days.
JUST WONDERING: Have any of you checked out Andrew Sarris‘ work for The New York Observer? It’s available at select newsstands outside of New York and on the Net on AOL only (keyword: nyobserver). Sorry if that’s a kind of tease for those of you who don’t have AOL access, but Sarris is one of the few critics working today who is really worth reading, whether he’s talking Ryan or Mary or Zorro. Check it out, and send me some feedback.
BAD AD WATCH: Joel Siegel has been such a blurb-o-matic for so long that the sight of his name draws gales of laughter at the only-for-a-
pull-quote phrasemaking of the wannabe Gene Shalit (talk about low aspirations). But we both liked There’s Something About Mary. OK. But let’s deconstruct this bizarre pull-quote. “Bring your chiropractor if you can because you’re going to hurt yourself laughing.” First I think, “If you can…” What a bizarre notion. The idea that Siegel takes his words so literally that he would concern himself with your access to chiropractic services. Then the idea that his comment is a compliment strikes me odd. Wouldn’t “bring your urologist if you can because you’ll wet yourself,” really turn some heads? Maybe you could take a proctologist. Or a gastroenterologist. How about, “bring your priest if you can because you’re going to have to confess after laughing at masturbation, lust and cripples for two hours!?”
READER OF THE DAY: From Brandon G: “There’s Something About Mary‘s opening weekend potential wasn’t stunted by its R-rating, but rather by its being a comedy without one bankable star. Comedies, unless they star Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy, traditionally do not have huge openings. I would say $13 million is an excellent take. Mary is the first and probably best of a string of comedies (MAFIA!, BASEketball and Wrongfully Accused) and will benefit greatly from this. Mary’s got legs and should reach $60 million at least. (I predicted $11.6 million for its opening.) Another thing concerning Mary: did you notice that every Farrelly brothers movie features a cross-country road trip? Someone could write a dissertation on this for a cinema class. Viva Auteur Theory!

News By The Numbers

10. STOP HIM BEFORE HE DIRECTS AGAIN: Daily Variety reported Brian Levant‘s threat to bring the same directorial acumen he brought to the live action version of The Flintstones and the writing genius he exhibited in last year’s big screen version of Leave it to Beaver to an updated feature version of “The Munsters.” See, the guy is a comedy God. Here’s a hilarious tidbit (reported by Variety‘s Michael Fleming) about Levant’s pitch: “We met (U production execs) Eric Hughes and Stacey Snider with the original ‘Munster Koach,’ this hearse that was transformed into a drag racer.” Are your ribs hurting yet? Here is Levant’s “It’s Movie Hit A mixed with Movie Hit B” analysis: “The Munsters are driven from Transylvania and arrive in America and become an immigrant success story. Essentially, it’s Avalon with Frankenstein.” OUCH! I can’t breathe! I bet you’re wondering why anyone needs a major motion picture version of “The Munsters.” You see, “The dragon under the stairs was smoke and two red lights for eyes! We can have a proper dragon, battling ghosts, all that stuff.” That Levant! He has an answer for everything!
9. IS FOX A POX?: Fox Top Dog (his official title) Peter Roth was upset when he was confronted last weekend with There’s Something About Mary as yet another example of the studio’s willingness to get a laugh at any cost to taste. Chernin, holding back tears, said, “I cannot tell you how much I take those comments to heart.” Just after that, he announced Fox’s movie slate for next summer, which includes the animated Poo Poo: Escape From Flatulence, the Eddie Murphy starrer Just Glad To See You and the sequel from the Farrelly Brothers, There’s Something About Excrement.
8. COURTING IRRELEVANCE: Even though the judge allowed Alec Baldwin‘s attorneys to call photographer Alan Zanger a “stalkarazzi,” Baldwin was found responsible for his choice to punch out Zanger in 1995 when Zanger attempted to take film of Baldwin’s new progeny which was just fresh from Kim Basinger’s oven. Good. Three cheers for responsibility. Of course, the jury found Zanger 25 percent responsible for the attack and ended up awarding him only $4,500. Good. Three cheers for not indulging consideration-free idiots. And just so you know, is working on getting you the first look at Zanger’s new video, Baby Baldwin: From Conception To Birth, which will try to beat out Pam and Tommy Lee‘s X-rated home movie. I hear Baldwin actually prepares a full Thanksgiving dinner with his penis, a stunt that puts Tommy’s boat driving to shame. And this just in from Turner Legal. It’s just a joke, Alec. No! Please don’t punch me!
7. ANDRE, WE HARDLY KNEW YA: Emmys! This column don’t need no stinkin’ Emmys! But I am happy that “Homicide”‘s Andre Braugher is getting a nod as best actor (for his awe-inspiring work as Frank Pembleton) as he segues into a movie career. Too bad those fools don’t have the insight to nominate and vote for “Homicide” as best show. As much as I like “Law & Order” and the David Kelley shows, there is no other TV show today that is at the quality level of great feature film drama. Except “Homocide.” Ironically, Braugher, who is leaving the show to explore features and to give his acress wife, Ami Brabson, a chance to get out of Baltimore and back to her work (gotta love this guy), just signed for a TNT movie called Passing Glory, to be directed by Hoop Dreams director Steve James. TNT may be “the best movie studio on television,” but we are still on television.
6. TWO FOR THE GENETICS OF ONE: Jodie Foster had a baby boy last Monday. It’s only been eight months since Thanksgiving 1997, so I guess I’ll have to abandon my turkey baster parental theory. And I’ll take this opportunity to applaud Ms. Foster’s plans to be a single parent. Some worry about a boy not having a male influence, but I’m pretty sure Jodie has that covered.
5. BYE JOE: Joseph Maher died this week. He was 64. Like the great and now late J.T. Walsh, Maher was a guy whom you would immediately recognize. Perhaps he was best known as the Brit-accented bishop in Sister Act or as the butler in Heaven Can Wait or from TV, as a regular on Jamie Lee Curtis’ “Anything But Love.” He was also a very accomplished stage actor. I used to see him at my neighborhood grocery store all the time. Nice guy. But it was the work that will stay with me. And ultimately, he went with real style, cremated and sent to his family in Ireland. Ashes to ashes.
4. MAD MONEY: Madonna didn’t like the way things were going with 50 Violins, so she walked despite spending months learning the violin. Madonna can claim she’s ready to be a movie star all she wants, but she still hasn’t made anything but headlines and a baby since her Evita performance left audiences lukewarm. She seems to be part of a generally disliked three-headed blonde Hollywood wannabe (with Courtney Love and Tina Brown) that can get more attention than almost any movie star but couldn’t make an impact on the movie industry except from the periphery.
3. OVER THERE: The foreign box office should and will become more of the daily perspective of industry watchers everywhere. Last weekend, Armageddon broke German records a week after Godzilla beat all Japanese attendance records in its opening week. Between the two, they grabbed $34 million overseas. Meanwhile, Deep Impact is already more than $150 million foreign and even City of Angels took in more than $34 million so far. It is a small freaking world after all.
2. FIGHTING OVER PRIVATE RYAN: The Saving Private Ryan premiere was marred (if you covet publicity) by the no-show of “Entertainment Tonight” which was caused because they didn’t get the No. 1 camera position for the event. A friend tells me that this wasn’t the first run-in between E.T. and DreamWorks’ Terry Press. Apparently, E.T. wanted an exclusive on the premiere of the trailer as well and didn’t get it since Press wanted to be fair and spread the wealth. E.T., of course, ran it anyway. DreamWorks probably played the premiere issue wrong, but as I keep saying, this studio seems ready to break all the rules at a time when the rules need breaking in a big way. Bravo DreamWorks.
1. JUST FOR KIDS WHO KILL KIDS: In another thrilling story from DreamWorks, Burger Kings in Springfield, Ore. won’t be giving away Small Soldiers toys with every Kids Club meal. Turns out that one of the soldiers, Kip Killigan (subtle name, huh?) looks like Kip Kinkel, one of those kids who shot up his high school recently. How will this affect the Saving Private Ryan landmines that are scheduled to appear in Kids Clubs meals (set off by opening your chicken fingers) soon? Don’t know. But remember that old McDonald’s commercial about getting your food and some change? Now you can get your food and some fingers. And they won’t taste like chicken.
READER OF THE DAY: From Russell D: “I do agree with you about Zorro, Mary, and Out of Sight, in respect that they are the best the summer has yet to offer. And I find it offensive when people refer to Jennifer Lopez as Selena. Where has he (a reader in THB 7/22) been not to know who she is. Everybody knows Jennifer Lopez. That mother f—er should give respect when respect is due. Too bad he did not like the movie. There is more to Jennifer Lopez than Selena. She is a goddamn goddess and he is probably mad that she is with George Clooney, and he missed out.
“I also want to comment about the How Stella Got Her Groove Back trailer. I read the book, and from what I am picking up from the trailer, the creators seemed to have dumbed the story down and filled it with stereotypes. First, in the book she goes to Jamaica by herself with no adult companions. Second, they augment her small extended family to a huge black family, which seems to be a Hollywood standard now (i.e. The Color Purple, Soul Food, etc.). And finally, her love interest was light-skinned and tall, this guy in the movie is a Puff Daddy look alike. I know that it has been done before, where they dumb down the story of the novel to draw an audience, but this is insulting.
“It seems like the book and movie are only going to share the title and the plot and disregard what the author was aiming at, which, in my opinion, was character development and make it, in their opinion, crowd pleasing. What really is interesting is that a lot of black people are behind the scenes on this film, like the author herself. Nevertheless, they are doing what the studios have been doing for years, and then turn around and say that the studios have never presented blacks properly on the screen. I am black, and I have seen dozens of movies that reflect that kind of individual I am and the family I grew up around. Unfortunately, it has not been done by a black filmmaker dealing with black issues.”

Saving private Premieres

Frankly, I hate to be writing this story. I like the publicity department at DreamWorks; I am deeply enamored of the company’s unique way of separating quality filmmaking from the pure hype that has become so much a part of getting an audience, and I look forward to working with them in the future. But they screwed up this time. First, Newsweek backdoored them by releasing their Saving Private Ryan cover story two weeks ahead of time, which is kind of a pun because the problem with the timing was that it precluded a Time magazine cover story. One can’t really blame DreamWorks for that, though you don’t often see magazines risking the wrath of the more-established studios.
Then, Tuesday night, the Saving Private Ryan premiere hit the beach without “Entertainment Tonight.” Why? Because DreamWorks had given the “No. 1” camera spot to “Access Hollywood,” presumably in a deal that came along with special “Access Hollywood” coverage of the event. Or, perhaps someone was unhappy with E.T. and wanted to put them in their place. Regardless of why, this had to be a conscious choice by Terry Press and Co. made long before the event took place.
I’m sure it never occurred to the studio that E.T. would actually skip the event in a fit of pique. Especially since it’s a Paramount movie. And also because TV viewers would have no way of knowing who had the “No. 1” spot and who got the No. 2. But skip it, E.T. did (“respect must be paid”) and DreamWorks (who really doesn’t need any more hype for this sure-bet double-digit Oscar-nominee film) lost a day of free promo from the highest rated of the entertainment “news” shows.
NEW LOSS: I feel that I should disclose that did not boycott the premiere. We weren’t invited because DreamWorks made an exclusive deal with a competing Internet site. The truth is that the other site would have covered the event in the exact same way had they not had an exclusive (though I am sure they claimed otherwise, and I’m sure we will do the same when we try to get an exclusive from DreamWorks or another studio in the future). We on the Net, like the TV shows, will go after whatever story (or premiere) will get us the most viewers. The old image of the Internet as a free-for-all that rewarded content over corporation has begun to devolve into being just another form of media.
Fortunately for me, is here, because The Hot Button would be subject to daily censoring at any of the other major entertainment websites. Here, they let me tell the truth. At least, the truth as I see it. (And for the record, even as a member of the Time Warner family, has some very idealistic folks at TNT to thank for our ongoing existence, not the corporate superstructure. I know that it’s very hard for Netizens to see us as an underdog site given that we are a product of the biggest cable network in the world, but that’s what we are. And we try harder.)
SPRING FORWARD, MOVE BACK: Try to come up with the worst idea for a feature film ever. Then go lower. The Jerry Springer Movie is for real. It’s happening. They have a multi-million dollar play-or-pay deal with Spinger, and now they’ve hired a director. This reminds me of The Gong Show Movie, which ended up as a maudlin and stupid effort indeed. Also, none too successful, though it did give a feature credit to Jaye P. Morgan and Gary Mule Deer. The video may end up selling, depending on how ugly this movie gets, but as a feature, I think we should all take the Donnie Brasco position. Fugeddaboudit.
SUPERSTAR ANONYMOUS: Another interesting film idea is Detox, which Sylvester Stallone just signed up for as picture two of his three-picture deal at Universal. It’s a story about a cop who lands in 12-step (For violence-based trauma. Heaven forbid Stallone play drunk and not be able to stop slurring after recovery). and ends up seeing his fellow aspirants-to-mental-health dying in not-so anonymous ways. I’m guessing they die in ways related to the 12 steps. That way, when they hit a marketing glitch, they can change the title to Twelve and add some sepia-tone and scary music to the trailer. It’s Stallone’s first film since CopLand, so just like Arnold Schwarzennegger, one of the world’s “most bankable actors” will end up with a two-year hiatus between films. Who was it that said, “The times, they are a changing,” Bob or Jakob Dylan?
SPIN WATCH: In a lovely piece of spin, Variety is now towing Universal’s line that Stallone only got $17.5 million for the first (Daylight) of his commitment to three. Unfortunately, this is after Stallone’s $20 million per film in the multi-picture deal, which was one of the first things his former agent Ron Meyer did after becoming a top honcho at the U, has become the longest-talked-about salary figure in the last three years. The question here is who is spinning and why. Do “they” think the $2.5 million differential will make people feel that Universal has become a more responsible company? Or is someone putting Sly in his place?
READERS OF THE DAY: From Rich B.: “I want to see BASEketball simply because the previews are hilarious, and if they can approach that for an hour-and-a-half, it should be great. On the other hand, the preview for MAFIA! doesn’t impress me at all, and if I hear that little girl screech ‘Run, florist, run’ one more time I might do something disturbingly violent — but not in a cartoonish ZAZ way.”
From Randal N.: “MAFIA! will win hands down!! MAFIA!”

Readers Rant and Rave

COLUMNIST OF THE DAY: I tried to get riled up about something for today, but it was no use. I’m too happy with the industry this week. Zorro, Mary and Pvt. Ryan have entertained and me and given me hope despite soft box office numbers. Besides, I’ve got to save up my bile for the first episode of my Yahoo! Chat, which starts this Friday at 5:00 p.m. ET/2:00 p.m. PT at In the meantime, there are some readers who have opinions that are, shall we say, a little controversial. First, a tongue-in-cheek defense of CG showdowns. Then, I found the few people who have something bad to say about The Mask of Zorro, There’s Something About Mary and my (and the vast majority of your) beloved Out of Sight. Finally, a take on Saving Private Ryan‘s rating. The following are not necessarily (or often, remotely) the opinion of this columnist, or most of you. But that’s why you’ll enjoy reading them, right?
From Jason: “Dave, How can you be sick of weekly CG showdowns? Come on!!!! That is practically the best show of the summer. These companies spend millions and millions of dollars on movies, marked the you-know-what out of them, and then send them into an instant death. How can you not love all the big execs saying how happy they are with a lower than expected opening on Monday? They know exactly what they are getting into, yet week after week, year after year, they never quit. They all think their movie will do Titanic business, yet what they do not realize is that when Titanic was doing amazing business every week, there were NO OTHER FILMS WORTHY OF BEATING IT!!! It played clear through January and February, which are graveyards, and the modest films in March came close but never beat it. I personally love it when a huge budget movie bombs. I do not know why, but it is just really, really funny to me.”
From Dale M.R.: “OK. There IS Something About Mary. It stinks. The comedy is based on the single concept of schadenfreude — literally, the joy we take from the pain of others. Nothing wrong with that; it is as old as laughter. It’s why Wile E. Coyote is hilarious when he eats yet another Acme explosive device and winds up in a hole on the canyon floor. The problem here is that the Farrelly Bros. rest this movie on the slender shoulders of Ben Stiller who is subjected to an endless excess of misfortunes, humiliations and outrages. Stiller is neither much of an actor nor enjoyable to watch. His hapless geek-of-a-character fails the jokes from the get-go. We don’t care what happens to this jerk, and without the sympathy of the audience, schadenfreude is all pain and no joy. Unless you find sadism attractive. Matt Dillon makes a believable creep but, to be as charitable as possible, he is not an actor blessed with a comedic touch. Chris Elliott is both unbelievable and unfunny. On the other hand, or ear in this movie, Cameron Diaz is all she is cracked up to be. She is the one lotus rising out of this odoriferous sewer of a movie. Otherwise reasonable critics, to their eternal shame, make this dreck out to be in a league with such low-class, sophomoric and wonderful gross-me-out-with-a-spoon movies like Animal House or Airplane or even Naked Gun. There’s Something About Mary is as funny as the humor impaired Bobby and Peter Farrelly‘s other misguided movies. Pathetic.”
From GWHunting: “In my newspaper yesterday, they had the box office report, and it was saying how despite Zorro’s reviews, the best since The Truman Show, it didn’t do terribly well. The best reviews since The Truman Show?! Give me a break. I guess we forgot about Out of Sight, There’s Something About Mary, Buffalo 66, The Opposite of Sex and more. The day I waste seven more bucks on that piece of s–t will be the day I hang myself off of a ledge.”
From (a different) David: “I saw Out of Sight with a bunch of people, and no one liked it. As we were walking out of the theater, it seemed like the audience kept muttering the same thing: ‘That movie sucked, but since it got such great reviews, it must just be me.’ I heard that about 20 times. I think that’s why it’s done poorly at the box office. If it’s as great as you say, then it would have at least SOME legs to it. But it just died. The problem for me was that after each forward scene, there was a flashback scene and usually that flashback scene was really irrelevant to the story. Since the narrative was done so poorly, that left the movie to be what it really was: a character study. Which is perfectly fine except none of the characters seemed real or all that interesting. (Except for Steve Zahn’s character.) Let me give you a prime example of what irked me the most. Right at the start when Selena (sorry, I don’t know her real name) is kidnapped in the trunk by George Clooney, she (or he) says something to the effect, ‘The idea that a woman would instantly fall in love with her captor is what made me not believe Three Days of the Condor.’ Then, instantly she is in love with him. It’s a shorthand for the writer (or director) saying, ‘I can’t think of a way to show them falling in love, so instead I’ll make a cute reference to another movie that did the same thing (and better) and you’ll just have to accept it.’ So, instead of being original or creative, they basically cop out. But in a cultural-reference Tarantino way that’s supposed to suggest they really ARE clever. (Which they weren’t.) In addition, the director kept, for lack of a better phrase, showing off. The supposedly brilliant sex scene with Jennifer Lopez (Hey! I remembered her name!) and George Clooney was a showcase of his editing and directing talents. However, it COMPLETELY (for about the 10th time during the film) completely took me out of the story. I kept saying, ‘Well, at least we know Soderbergh can EDIT! It’s a good music video but its dull as all hell.’
“Most importantly, the movie was deadly dull. The best example: When I saw it the night it came out in a packed theater, people around me were actually snoring! Sleeping in the theater! The theater was completely quiet (except for the people talking amongst themselves about how boring it was.) Then, near the end, you have a moment that was funny. It was unexpected. It was interesting. It made sense. The audience enjoyed it. Unfortunately, it was virtually the only moment like that in the entire movie. But, it was the exception that proved the rule — that the filmmakers were capable of making something entertaining, and the film itself could have been good. To me, it just seemed warmed-over Tarantino. It also left me emotionally cold. Have you noticed that that is indeed Soderbergh’s directorial style though? Unfortunately, he chooses material where this style just isn’t suited for, like Out of Sight, for example, which to me seems like it should have been a more passionate, intense movie.”
From Ryan: “Dave, Why are people complaining about a rating for Saving Private Ryan? Since when has violence been considered too graphic? The Mask of Zorro contained a head floating in a jar, a decapitation, people living in squalor, and various impalements, shootings and stabbings. Yet this film only warranted a PG-13. Had Antonio Banderas been naked — if only for a brief second, or Catherine Zeta-Jones and he had a roll in the hay — it would have been R-rated for sure. [David note: Hard to argue that Spielberg gets the benefit of the doubt in one film and not the other.] So why pick on Saving Private Ryan? Because it’s based on a war that really happened? World War II was not all about the romanticized world we often perceive it to be. It was a real war, and people lived and died heroically, tragically and violently. To slap it with a harsh rating does nothing. We all know what perception the NC-17 rating has. It’s unfortunate (again, sex is BAD, bloody death, OK), but it will only keep people away. And that is a crime. It’s too important to restrict its viewing. This film represents a part of our history that too many people no longer give any thought to. It’s a period that changed a generation and a world forever, and like the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. or a Civil War battlefield, people should see it to remember; see it so they never forget. To quibble about a rating lessens the importance of what the film is about and lessens the meaning of what people like my grandparents fought for. And to show the film to anyone under the age of high school forces a subject matter that they cannot fully understand. It’s a film, folks. No one is putting a gun to your head and marching you to the theater. If the violence offends you, stay home. And for God’s sake, leave the little ones at home.”

DISCLAIMER: Sorry all. Column’s a little lightweight today. Must be the full moon last night. Oh, there wasn’t a full moon last night? Damn. Maybe I should blame my mother. Nah, she’s already taking the rap for global warming. Don’t want to overload her. I’ll take the heat and promise to push the envelope the rest of the week. And read on. Maybe I’m being a little too harsh on myself. (Why should I be the only one to escape my wrath?)
PITT PUFFS FROM PIPE: Is anyone else’s favorite Brad Pitt performance his turn as the pothead roommate in the Tony Scott-directed/Tarantino-written/Elmore Leonard (and every other pulp fiction writer dead or alive)-ripoff classic, True Romance? Well, maybe it’s Brad’s too. Or maybe he caught Sean Penn in The Falcon and the Snowman on cable last week. Whatever the reason, Pitt is all-but-attached to Smuggler’s Moon, the true story of two brothers who appeared to be wealthy documentarians (that should have given them away right there), but were really pot smugglers. Pitt’s interest inspired New Line to cough up more than a million bucks to the brothers who will be receiving their big, legal check (shhh, the IRS may be listening) just eight months after getting out of Lompoc Prison.
FRANCIS, THE TALKING STUDIO CHIEF: What would you do if you won $80 million in a lawsuit against Warner Bros.? Well, if you were Francis Ford Coppola, you’d resurrect Zoetrope Studios, the on again-off again mini-mini-major that Francis has been breathing and sucking life from in alternate five-year spans for more than two decades now. Coppola is planning on knocking out four to six movies a year under the banner, splitting foreign and domestic rights in order to finance the work on smaller ($2 – $5 million) pictures while taking the big projects through the studio sludge. As for his own directing work, he’ll be doing another epic and another musical, plots undivulged at this time. With Spielberg in World War II, Soderburgh in the ’70s and Coppola being financed by Warner Bros., albeit unwillingly, to go back to his future, the cry for the great gritty filmmaking of the past may finally be coming into its own.
WHY GRANDMA, WHAT BIG CHEEKS YOU HAVE!: Last Friday, I joked about There’s Something About Madeline, directed by Roman Polanski. But Pippi Longstocking creator Astrid Lindgren probably wouldn’t think my joke was too funny. Interview magazine has apparently spoofed Pippi in a series of “erotically charged photos” (that’s according to Variety). I guess she won’t be signing off on the Larry Clark/Harmony Korine version, Pippi Does Manhattan, with Chloé Sevigny as the sassy redhead.
PEOPLE, PEOPLE WHO NEED FACTCHECKERS: People magazine, the bastion of insightful reporting, reported rumors last week that Tom Hanks was buying a Malibu house for the Clintons to retire to when they leave the Oval Office. It’s that old real estate saw, “location, location, location,” as the First Family indulges in proximity to Jodie Foster, Demi Moore and Charlie Sheen. The family that plays together, stays together. Of course, the whole thing is untrue, as Tom Hanks debunked the report. Next week, People will be running the story of Bobby Brown doing rehab in the Lincoln Bedroom.
FARRELLY THEY ROLL ALONG: For guys who are so original in their vision, The Brothers Farrelly sure like to piggyback off other people’s ideas. Looks like they’ll stay at Fox for their next project, a space comedy called The Space Man, based on a pitch by David Dorfman. There’s Something About Mary also started as someone else’s script (Ed Dector’s and John Strauss’) before the boys got their gooey hands on it. Ironically, the one project they don’t seem to be clamoring to make is the film of brother Pete’s best-selling novel, The Comedy Writer.
HERE’S ZORRO IN YOUR EYE: Antonio Banderas has made life safe for himself in New York. No, not because muggers will be afraid of him now that he’s Zorro. But because he has decided to pass on the role of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. A good choice for Antonio considering that for a great cup of joe in New York City, you have to go to a Greek diner. Considering the Greeks really hate the Turkish and didn’t want to see Ataturk made into a hero. And considering that urine and spit do nothing for the flavor of coffee.
CHATTING: This Friday, my weekly chat premieres on Yahoo! Come on by — 5:00 p.m. ET/ 2:00 p.m. PT.
EYEBALLS: About half the people who won eyeballs in the The Beyond contest haven’t sent addresses. So, eyeballs will be sent to everyone who did cough up their location today. The rest of you will just have to go third eye blind.
READER OF THE DAY: AJ wrote: “Damn! That was a FUNNY movie. I haven’t laughed that hard during a movie in a long while. Thank God the Farrelly Bros. have the gonads to do what they wanna do! I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a funnier moment in a movie, or sicker one for that matter, than when Stiller opens the door for Diaz with [joke censored for your comedy protection]! By the way, next week I’ll see Saving Private Ryan AND Mafia!. That’s almost as weird as watching ‘Jeopardy’ and ‘Wheel of Fortune’ in the same hour.”

The Weekend Wrap-Up

The results of this weekend’s box office race offers one Hollywood truism and one big question mark. The truism is that R-rated films will do less business than PG-13 films. There’s Something About Mary would appear to have had more positive buzz than any film except The Truman Show this summer, but it only managed a soft $13 million for fourth place in its debut weekend. Everybody likes to claim under-17s have no trouble getting into R-rated films, but history tells us otherwise. And now Mary is telling us again. Then there is The Mask of Zorro, which seems to have the right stuff to make audiences remember why they loved movies before CG, but opened with only $22.7 million. First place, but not encouraging. Which brings us to the question mark — can summer films win with long legs anymore? Keep in mind that last summer there was not a single film that did $10 million or better in its fifth week. Not The Lost World, not Men in Black and not Air Force One. In fact, Hercules had the best week five with $8.34 million. If Zorro doesn’t drop a bit for the first four weeks and falls to $10 million in week five, it would still be hard pressed to hit the $150 million mark. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed, hoping that a Titanic-like break in “the rules” will occur, but it doesn’t hearten me that Out of Sight dropped out of the Top 10 in just week four.
In the second spot, Lethal Weapon 4 dropped only 38 percent to $21.2 million, which would have to be considered a major victory with such a weak installment of the previously-terrific series. Armageddon dropped 32 percent to $16 million. I’m bored with this saga, so I’m laying off for today. Though I find it extremely bizarre that I am getting mail from people who think Godzilla is one of the worst disasters in movie history and that Armageddon, which should gross $20-$30 million more domestically and cost roughly the same, is a hit. Spin wins. Dr. Dolittle passed the $100 million mark in fifth place with $8.8 million, dropping just 32 percent in week four. In sixth is Small Soldiers, which didn’t die, but may just fade away, dropping 41 percent for a $8.3 million take and the unfortunate likelihood that the film will not make it past $50 million domestically. Mulan also became a member of the $100 million club, dropping into seventh with $4.7 million (a 33 percent drop). Madeline zoomed past the $15 million mark with a Top 10-low 30 percent drop-off from last week’s pathetic opening. This film could make $25 million! It could happen! (I mock, but $25 million would be really great for a film that opened so weakly.) The Truman Show passed the $120 million mark with another $2.2 million in a 39 percent drop for ninth place. And in the 10 Spot, there are two films (so I guess it’s the Top 11 this week), with Six Days, Seven Nights and The X-Files going mano-a-alieno with an estimated $2 million apiece. Which studio will win this battle, Fox or Disney? No comment.
THE GOOD: Andrew Sarris, one of the truly historic film critics out there, is back in the saddle at the New York Observer. You can go to their site, but it won’t do you any good unless you are an AOL subscriber. Check him out if you can. Also, from the NY Observer, Rex Reed hated Out of Sight, so now I am completely sure it’s a great film.
THE BAD: I guess it’s going to be me. After ragging on Disney for spinning, they had a real accomplishment with Armageddon, breaking the German record for the best four-day opening ever with about $8.9 million. That compares to $4.8 million for Deep Impact in its first seven days. And Godzilla hasn’t stomped ashore yet. For a little perspective, Titanic (which I believe holds the three-day record) is still in the top film of the year there and still ranks in the Top 10 there after grabbing more than $125 million.
THE UGLY: Nothing really that horrible comes to mind. Guess I’m getting soft.
THE CHAT: This Friday, my weekly Yahoo! Chat premieres at 5 p.m. EDT/2 p.m. PDT. It’s your chance to voice your opinions, ask all your questions and get some quick answers. And there may even be a special surprise guest. (It won’t be a surprise to you. You’re a Hot Button reader.) Mark your calendars.
TWO MOVIES EQUAL: There’s Something About Mary + The Mask of Zorro = There’s Something About Zorro. Leonardo DiCaprio may commit to the Farrelly Brothers’ romantic comedy about an awkward young man who tracks his best friend from high school down to Mexico and realizes black leather and swordplay get him really hot. DiCaprio will reportedly get $50 million for playing another awkward teen and $787,000 for every kiss involving another man’s tongue. Keep an eye out for a running gag about Zorro’s cat who always seems to be in the wrong place when he pulls out the whip, and the film’s “money shot,” in which Zorro gets stuck to the saddle, literally.
JUST WONDERING: Why do critics feel the need to give away the jokes in a movie like There’s Something About Mary? I think Paul Cullum‘s review of the film in New Times is one of the best written reviews of the film that I’ve read, but I won’t be offering a link (write me if you really want it) because he gives away the big jokes, one of them in a parenthetical comment about one character’s resemblance to Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. I mean, a complete throwaway! Really pisses me off.
BAD AD WATCH: While Saving Private Ryan is still happily going along (this weekend in a three-page spread) without pull-quotes and Mafia! is making up pull-quotes (“I laughed so hard my gums bled,” N.Y. Syndicate) the Bad Ad of this week goes to the indie film I Went Down, which is essentially a criminal/road trip/buddy movie, but features a woman in a very short shirt and a skin-tight top. Yes, she is in the movie. No, she’s not a lead, and she certainly has nothing to do with the title. (There’s Something About Mary is first runner up, as Fox uses pull-quotes that hint at some of the most shocking surprise gags ever put on film. If there is a hell for critics — that would be redundant — those giving away jokes in their reviews should be sent there post haste.)
READER OF THE DAY: Got lots of happy mail about Zorro. (And one negative letter about Out of Sight from Dr. J., though it’s still only one compared to the tons of mail I’ve gotten thanking me for pushing them to the theater.) Plenty of well-written letters, but Krillian hit a point that I found most compelling. So even though I hate to give any one reader page space so often, he gets to be ROTD: “Saw Zorro opening night. I feel almost sheepish for defending Armageddon now. [David note: That’s not the point I found so compelling.] Zorro has brought back what used to be truly enjoyable about summer movies — STUNTMEN!!! [That’s the one.] Zorro only had a couple of explosions, but it had swashbuckling, choreography, stuntmen flying and falling, swordfights galore, and even a very cool horse-stunt scene (my family owns five horses; we were tickled). The day after, there are parts of the plot that are fading on me, but at the time I was watching it, I was marveling at what a perfect popcorn movie Zorro is. And for once the villain wasn’t totally flamboyant. He was a normal politician who just used killing people as one of his means to an end.”

News By The Numbers

10. THAT’S A CIGAR IN MY POCKET: Here’s a little ditty about Jack and Fidel, two guys who smoke cigars and like to chase girls like hell. (Apologies to John Cougar Mellancamp.) Nicholson hit the beaches of Cuba last week and hung out with Castro. After the meeting, Nicholson said he hoped Clinton would mend America’s relationship with Cuba. Nothing came of it as the week progressed, and Nicholson was last seen trying to smash the bulletproof window of the presidential limo with a two iron.
9. I’M JUST GLAD TO SEE YOU: Milton Berle had a big birthday party celebrating his 90th birthday last Sunday. And in deference to the size of his legendary manhood, there was a party on Monday for the part of him that crosses the International Date Line wherever he stands.
8. THE WIZARD OF P.C.: With New Line scoring with the latest re-release of Gone with the Wind (about $3 million so far) and Warner Bros. planning the release of more classics into theaters, the WB announced plans to re-release The Wizard of Oz theatrically this Christmas. Look out for protests over “flying monkeys,” the horrible stereotyping of WASPs as represented by the Tin Man, disrespect for the mentally ill as represented by the Scarecrow and Armageddon fans who claim Michael Bay does have a heart. Middle-aged women trying to pass as teens will not be heard from.
7. TRUE ROMANCE: Quentin Tarantino was in court on Monday, pleading “not guilty” to assault on a woman at a Manhattan restaurant in a scuffle, apparently started by Quentin’s perceived verbal disrespect for blacks. If found guilty, Tarantino could spend some time in jail, where he might find out just how effective his classic catch-phrase “Do I look like a (woman) to you? Do you want to (make sweet love to) me?” is. Here’s a hint, QT: You usually give that dialogue to a guy with a big gun who is taunting someone else. This time, the guy will have the big gun and his answer is as likely as not to be, “Yes.”
6. AT LEAST HE DIDN’T BITE HIS EAR OFF: Alec Baldwin (6′, 200 lbs.) was in court all week defending himself against the allegation that he broke the nose of paparazzi/cameraman Alan Zanger (5’7″, 160 lbs.) without reasonable provocation, when he confronted Zanger, who was shooting footage of Baldwin and wife Kim Basinger’s arrival home with their first-born child. Baldwin’s attorneys got permission to use the term “stalkarazzi” when describing Zanger, and Zanger was given the right to bleed freely. Actually, I feel for Baldwin. Being a star shouldn’t mean that you have no privacy. I mean, look at the terror that Madonna went through when she ended up on the cover of magazines with the first pictures of her new daughter just as she had to deal with the pressure of releasing a new album. The horror. The high-paying horror.
5. ARMAGEDDON SPIN WATCH: After two weeks-plus of fun, fun, fun, it would appear that Disney has succeeded in turning the Armageddon tide of public opinion. There are still a lot of people who will rip Armageddon and make gagging noises when it is mentioned. But the film looks to come up right behind Godzilla’s gross after this weekend, and if Disney has fudged the numbers in order to get there, it won’t really matter as it passes El Lizardo next week. As I’ve written before, this is all about image. I would guess that general public opinion now is that Armageddon is not the disaster Godzilla was. In truth, neither is a disaster. Just failures of perspective.
Both studios invested a larger-than-usual percentage of their annual operating expenditures to make and market these films, and they will get only a minimal return on those investments. But neither film will lose money. Had they made four or five normal budget pictures for that money, they may have had one major hit that alone made more profit for the studios than the big gun films. In any case, the Disney spin seems to be over. Next week, when Saving Private Ryan opens, anyone who loved Armageddon as some sort of patriotic film will be snapped back to reality by a real patriotic film. And the world will go on. Until a real asteroid shows up.
4. GOJIRA GOES JAPANESE: Like so much of the buzz around Godzilla, you never know which report to believe. But there is no conflict over the fact that Godzilla drew a record 500,000 people in Japan last weekend and sent thousands home disappointed. Because they couldn’t see the movie. Did you think I meant… no. Couldn’t see the movie. Estimates of the total estimated take in Japan is between $40 million and $100 million, though $40 million seems more reasonable given the fact that last weekend’s record meant a gross of about $9 million.
3. PLOT POINTS: A company did a survey that told them moviegoers care about plot more than movie stars. Can I get a “duh!” from the choir?! Again, as always, it’s a matter of perspective. Movie stars are paid in direct proportion to their perceived ability to “open” a movie. Not to choose good scripts, but to get butts in seats the first weekend. They are the centerpiece of the marketing campaign. And there is still good reason for that. If you want, as a studio, to have a movie open with more than $20 million, you had better have a major star in your movie. Nowadays, that star can be effects. It can even be Steven Spielberg’s name over the title. But you have to have more than a great story.
Now, you can be the biggest hit of the year without the major star (Leonardo DiCaprio became that star in Titanic), but that’s a matter of making the right movies. And when a studio greenlights a movie, they can only hope all the pieces will come together, even if they have good raw material, a solid director and good actors to start with. In other words, there’s a lot of luck involved. Movie stars are a tangible marketing commodity. You can track their success with about 75 percent certainty. Not that studios don’t rely on non-stars to have star-like effects at the box office and fall on their faces. As I said, there are only a few true openers. But the system will continue as long as Harrison Ford can open iffy movies like Six Days, Seven Nights, and Mel Gibson can tap dance his way through Lethal Weapon 4 and still charm dark rooms filled with popcorn-buying people.
2. COME TOGETHER: Studios continue to contract and expand at the same time. Sony is in the process of shutting down Tri-Star and consolidating all operations under the older, more venerable Columbia banner. Now Disney is pulling their film operations closer together under Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group. The basic idea is to stop having divisions within the same company competing for material and more importantly expending massive dollars for development of so much material that will never be made. Disney will actually keep all three banners (Disney, Touchstone and Hollywood), but they will become individualized brands under which to release the 15 or 20 films a year the company will produce.
David Vogel, who will head the company under Joe Roth and Dick Cook, has already hinted that Hollywood Pictures may become a genre label, much like Miramax has their Dimension banner. The other upshot here is that many scripts will be officially put into turnaround, which will disappoint a lot of hopeful writers and introduce a mini-glut of “previously attached” screenplays into the market. In other words, you might want to wait a few months before trying to break into Hollywood. The agencies will have their hands full trying to get these unproduced projects set up to sit unproduced at other studios for another few years.
1. COLOR MY WORLD: Sounds like the industry has finally woken up and smelled the Soul Food. Just as all the studios have jumped on the indie bandwagon (which makes you wonder what’s really indie anymore), it seems that there is now a groundswell for films by, about and primarily for black Americans. In the post-Blaxploitation era, it was really New Line Cinema who invested in the new generation of black filmmakers with movies like House Party. When Ted Turner bought New Line, he transformed the company into a more mainstream, bigger-budget operation, leaving room for the newly formed Fox 2000 to take up the niche market. (Miramax, in fact, hired an exec with the same idea, but didn’t end up making many movies under her tenure before becoming distracted by slasher division, Dimension.)
Now, after movies like Soul Food, Eve’s Bayou and even The Player’s Club have found audiences without the kind of P&A (Prints & Advertising) costs the average film spends. New Line, somewhat independent again, is making a strong move back into that business. Warner Bros., though still lily white, has made it’s first low-low-budget ($4 million) picture under their banner. Fox 2000 is still knocking them out. MGM has tried, at budgets too high for profit, to make serious black films. And now, Disney is joining the fray. But perhaps most intriguing of all, Robert Johnson, who broke ground in cable TV by successfully starting BET (Black Entertainment Television), is now starting a feature production arm that will make TV movies for the cable net and three low-budget features a year. The gentrification of the movie business continues, but maybe it’s turning out to be a good thing. In part. For now.
READER OF THE DAY: From Chris: “I saw Small Soldiers and thought it was really good. For a movie that is controversial, it sure is inoffensive. There is no sex and scarcely any language or vulgarity to speak of, yet Burger King throws a fit. The movie was dark and, unlike Godzilla, had a lot of action. The violence was SOOO tame, though. They almost never used guns. It was mostly fiery tennis balls and grappling hooks. I highly recommend it! Jay Mohr (my favorite comedian) was flawless. Phil Hartman was good, too. I expect it to hold over well.”

Weekend Preview

This is a primo movie weekend. Maybe the best of the summer. You’ve got the first great “movie movie” of the summer in Zorro. None of the effects of Godzilla or Armageddon, but a classic tale of good vs. evil, tons of style, the beautiful damsel (who manages to be of her time and still kick some butt) and the truest movie star performances of the summer from Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones. This could be the breakthrough hit of the summer. (Or not. Who the hell can figure that out anymore?!) Twenty-eight-million dollars and first place for starters. And watch the word-of-mouth take off.
There’s Something About Mary is the best comedy of the summer so far. And again, a serious bit of star power from Cameron Diaz. (Will Hollywood finally figure out what do with her? I don’t know. Everyone has wanted to “make her happen” since The Mask, but she’s lingering in art films and ensemble pieces. For a beautiful woman, she’s showing more comic range than any female star in decades.) Ninteen-million dollars and second place should be a good start, considering this is an R-rated film. You can still see the best drama of the summer of the year in Out of Sight (which looks to drop either to 10th place or out of the Top 10 this weekend with about $2.5 million). I now receive at least one e-mail a day thanking me for being so persistent in pushing this film. And still, not one negative letter about this movie. Of course, next weekend, with the arrival of Saving Private Ryan, the category splits between Best Comedic Drama and Best Serious Drama, so as not to snub either “must-see” film. So get your asses out to the movies, would ya?
I would expect Lethal Weapon 4 to drop by about 45 percent to third place and $18.7 million. In fourth, who else but Armageddon? Will Disney allow the film to drop by 40 percent this week? I don’t think they’ll have a choice. Fourteen-million. (And I’m being generous. The film should fall by at least 50 percent. ‘Nuff said.) Small Soldiers held up pretty well during the week, but this weekend will be the real test. Maybe parents who won’t be talked into taking the kids to see the R-rated Mary will satiate their request for edginess with the soldiers. Or maybe they’ll just go see Zorro. Or Dr. Dolittle. I expect the good doctor and the good soldiers to be neck and neck, both with about $8.4 million and in a dead heat for sixth and seventh place. The other two kids’ films should take eighth and ninth places, with Mulan finally passing the $100 million mark with another $4.2 million and Madeline staying just above the crowd with about $3.2 million. As I wrote before, 10th place could go to Out of Sight or other contenders Six Days, Seven Nights, The Truman Show or The X-Files. We’ll know Monday, right?
THE GOOD: I finally saw Lethal Weapon 4. It managed to be enjoyable despite what appeared to be a completely improvised first act, limited use of Jet Li, even more limited use of Rene Russo and the misuse of Chris Rock, who ended up doing two-minute stand-up sets until he finally scored up to his skill level going one-on-one with Pesci. OK, OK, OK. But that’s not the “good.” The film closes with credits that include photos of almost all the crew. I thought that was great. Sure it’s a conceit. Sure Joel Silver seems to be in every photo. But it really reminds an audience that all those names are real people who are of no small importance in making the big names up front able to do their jobs.
THE BAD: I also finally saw Six Days, Seven Nights, and while I was charmed by Harrison Ford and enticed by Anne Heche, I was pretty much appalled with the obvious change of tone the film made after Heche came out of the Ellen closet. The whole “uptight New Yorker” vs. “homespun tough guy” was thrown out the window as a series of worthless action pieces were thrown into the mix. This could have been a really sexy, romantic film. Instead it is fluff which is not even worthy of Ivan Reitman. And what the hell was the wonderful Danny Trejo doing as “Tough Guy No. 3?” And where was the “money shot” of the airplane pontoon flying at the screen? And…. Don’t get me started. It could have been great.
THE UGLY: What did Warner Bros. do when movie audiences couldn’t quite figure out the combination of cool style and mind-numbing loudness in The Avengers trailer? They made a quicker, simpler preview that is even more confusing and now can boast a total lack of style. And worse, it looks like it was cut with a chainsaw. I mean, these guys are professionals, but this looked hideous. And I saw it twice, for bad measure. The Avengers may be a perplexing film to the WB’s marketing department, but now those of us who finally “got” the original trailer don’t know what to expect from this movie either.
TWO MOVIES EQUAL: There’s Something About Mary + Madeline = There’s Something About Madeline. Set in Paris, this modern horror story, directed as a love story by Roman Polanski, stars Ben Stiller as the man who just can’t get enough of the Olsen twins (named Madeline and Madeline 2). Watch for the hysterical repeating punchline, “Those Americans are so uptight” and a sight gag that may be funny, but will have to be cut before the film can be legally shown in this country.
JUST WONDERING: Is it me or has David Schwimmer joined the group of “Friends” stars to have gotten breast implants?
BAD AD WATCH: After seeing Lethal Weapon 4, I would have to point to Bobbie Wygant of NBC-TV, whose pull-quote (“Lethal Weapon 4 is the best yet! More action! More laughs! More thrills!”) means that she was either looking to take the pull-quote championship from Ron Brewington or was having a brain hemorrhage when they asked her what she thought of the film. I took exception to those who claimed Harry Knowles “couldn’t” have cried at Armageddon. Who knows what a person feels when in the throes of patriotism? But I consider it a scientific fact that Lethal Weapon 4 is not the best of the series. I liked the movie OK, but I love the series and there is no way. Not on any level. Not on any objective or emotional basis can you say it’s the best. This is non-negotiable. I love Chris Rock, and Jet Li made a very impressive American debut, but Bobbie, Bobbie, Bobbie. How do you look in the paper each day?
READER OF THE DAY: Mark D. responds to Valentine, Thursday’s ROTD (THB 7/16) in a letter with the subject line, “My sunny, funny Valentine:” “What is it about movies? What is it about that medium that makes people hate one another’s choices so much? How is it that someone would disregard all other considerations and pronounce judgment on my intelligence, ethics and personal integrity if I like a movie that he does not? Why do I hear so much ranting — passionate to the point of incoherence — on what is, in the final analysis, such a trivial topic? Why, Dave, why?”
I wish I had an answer. Instead, another ROTD. From Sel: “I have been watching newspaper and TV critics to see if they catch a small, yet annoying, problem with Madeline. I have only taken occasional glimpses at the book, but I do know that this girl is, in fact, supposed to be French. So why does she have an English accent? Why does nearly the entire cast have English accents? I know, it’s a minor point, especially when you consider how difficult it is to find a kid to fit the part that can act. But why go with the English accent for everybody? Did they think we don’t know the difference? (Do all of us know the difference?) If they’re going to have them talk with the wrong accent, I suppose an Austrailian or American or Jamaican would have done just as well. After all, the French and the English have the same kind of relationship Americans have with Canadians (i.e.: they can’t stand each other). I wonder what the French think of this movie.”

Trouble In Woodyville?

Woody Allen‘s financial tribulations have been covered in this column. He is financed primarily through personal relationships now, and it has cost him the services of some of the greats with whom he has worked in the past. Woody spoke to Newsweek magazine this week (for some reason, Newsweek is not on the Web) and minimized the problems in typical Woody fashion: “We’re in a state of major emergency. The crews go without coffee or sometimes even water. We can’t afford actual technicians, so we’ve assigned people on Workfare to do all the costumes and sets. The lights and sound are worked by Mexican aliens who we house in a bunk. I don’t think we’ll be able to pay the actors for my next picture, but perhaps if we eliminate using film in the camera, we can swing it.”
WHERE’S DABNEY?: You know, I was just saying to some pals the other day, “Whatever happened to Dabney Coleman?” Well, the answer is here: He just finished the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan/Nora Ephron movie, You Have Mail and he is about to start shooting The Real Inspector Gadget as the certain-to-be-cantankerous Police Chief. Glad you’re working, Dabney. Love your bite.
BARGAIN BURLY: David Rabe‘s Hurlyburly has finally made it to the big screen, but like Lolita, it’s not coming to theaters in a blaze of glory. The drugs, sex and bile-laden film was privately financed by Storm Entertainment and, after a series of studio screenings, the film has gone to New Line’s Fine Line division for between $2 and $3 milllion. Pretty cheap for a Sean Penn/Kevin Spacey/Robin Wright Penn movie, huh? Even better, the film was made on an $8 million budget, so Fine Line is getting it for just around 25 percent of its cost. You don’t get bargains like that at Sundance.
RATING THE VOICE: New York’s Village Voice has had some terrific articles lately, and thanks to the glory of technology, you can read them. But first, a warning. Each of these stories requires a rating, a la the MPAA, because the Village Voice does not restrain itself as we gentle folks at do. First, Peter Braunstein gives us Days of Retro, a PG-13-rated (for intelligence) article that amusingly explains why we all missed the cultural significance of The Wedding Singer. Next, it’s a series of articles about the new Adrian Lyne version of Lolita. It’s rated R (for decadence) and you can click your way there. Finally, there is the very NC-17 rated Michael Musto column. I’m not just saying this. There are words in there that start with “c,” “s” and “f.” Really. On the other hand, Musto talks about Vincent Gallo in such an amusing way, you have to read it. If you are of age. So, can you e-mail me a driver’s license? Oh. I guess that won’t work. So, one more time, if you are easily offended by words, do not click here. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.

SPIN WATCH: Well, kids, I think we are getting to the end of the spin cycle. I’m sure that many of you are happy to hear it. But I still have to point out that all the “numbers were better than expected in week two” stories may have been, in no small way, another form of spin. You see, every week, movie studios call in their grosses to Exhibitor Relations on Saturday morning with Friday numbers and Sunday morning with Saturday numbers, when they also make their Sunday estimate. It is almost always the case that the difference between the Sunday estimates you read and the Monday afternoon “final” numbers are based on adjustments of the Sunday estimate. And those adjustments are almost always down, not up. This weekend, Armageddon‘s reported Friday number ($7.17 million) rose to $7.4 million on Monday. Their reported Saturday number ($8.84 million) rose to $9.49 million on Monday. And the Sunday number rose from $5.661 million to $6.661 million. No one I found could remember when this kind of jump happened last. Quite the opposite. (In fact, Armageddon reduced their estimate by about $500,000 last weekend.) And don’t write to me complaining that this requires a conspiracy. The only real check and balance on these numbers is inside the studio. And maybe here. (And for those who remember the Scream 2 debacle, that was a $6 million misstatement. This, if it is a fake, is much more subtle. And, of course, Miramax is a Disney company.) You make the call.
READER OF THE DAY: Valentine X is not nearly as restrained as I have been on this subject. But he has some well-thought out points. He also has some tough words for those of you who love Armageddon. And the media doesn’t get off lightly either. That’s why he’s the ROTD: “Dave, why don’t you just say it? Point No. 1: Peter Bart [Variety editor] does for his pallies. Point No. 2: Jerry Bruckheimer is an astute-enough politician to have made sure he IS one of those Peter-pallies, for situations like this. Point No. 3 (might as well just say it and face it): The entertainment media hated Armageddon for the most part and took GREAT — though somewhat premature — delight in its apparent stumble on opening weekend. It’s an unsatisfying, irritating, pretty-much- empty-in-all-departments movie. Michael Bay really IS the devil, in my view (he was born in ’65, only one year prior to the birth of Rosemary’s Baby in 1966).
“Alas, those Omega Man scruffs, those junk-food-diseased morons out there have kept it afloat regardless. So the media came off as (slightly, though deservedly) elitist, having (slightly) advanced its very well-taken agenda (ie: this movie is calculatingly hateful in ways we hadn’t even imagined could be manifested) by cackling with a tad too much glee after that disappointing opening weekend. Nobody misread the situation — those numbers were obviously disappointing, somewhat, to Roth, Bruckheimer, Cook, et al — but the delight certain media types took in reporting this development was not sufficiently (appropriately) concealed.”

Ranting and Raving Again

I was going to use this space to day for reader responses to the question I posed last week, “What advice would you give the studio heads?” Got some good answers and editing them is fun and interesting enough that it’s like having a day off. But I changed my mind.
I am compelled to apologize for my self-indulgence before I even start. But, I have decided to respond to an issue that seems to sit forever on the stove like a pot of old coffee, staying warm, but growing thick with sludge at its bottom. The issue is anger. Hatred. Rage. I’ve been getting more mail than usual lately accusing me of those feelings. The e-mails have been well-written, well-thought-out and well-off-the-mark of how I really feel. I respond to each of these e-mails individually, as I do all my negative e-mail. It is only a tiny percentage of the mail get, so it is easily handled. But, in all honesty, it sticks with me longer than the fan mail.
I worry a lot about my objectivity. I am very aware of subjects that seem to drag on forever and start to look like a vendetta instead of reporting. And I understand that I have to earn the privilege to have you click on my bookmark six days a week. But I’m also aware that everyone is going to disagree with me sometimes and, when I take a hard look at a subject that is near and dear to the hearts of some, I will draw venom. That’s fine.
But what actually worries me is when I am accused of letting my personal feelings get in the way of my analysis. Whether the issue is Titanic, Harry Knowles, Godzilla or Armageddon, the news keeps on coming, whether I like it or not. I do not create these stories. I just analyze them. That’s my job. I spent months on Titanic, through every high and low. The fact that I didn’t love the first 90 minutes of the movie didn’t keep me from saying how great the last hour was and that people should see it on a big screen. Nor did I flinch from reported box office anomalies. And I sure as hell didn’t put the words “I’m king of the world” into Jim Cameron‘s mouth on Oscar night.
I don’t hate Harry Knowles, but I have real questions about some of his choices, and I won’t give him a free pass because he’s not from the big city. (Just call me Sgt. Carter.) It’s that simple. He’s been a freshman long enough. Time to declare a major.
I felt Godzilla was attacked a lot more aggressively than it deserved to be attacked, but I also printed negative comments aplenty, including the infamous Krillian’s List.
And now, Armageddon is the story because there’s no real reason to think it will do much better than the much-hated Godzilla, yet Disney is spinning the media harder than I’ve seen in a long, long time. If they stop spinning, I will happily stop writing about the movie. But every day, I seem to wake up to another set of bizarre excuses. And I’ve got to tell you, there was very little of this spin from Sony or Devlin/Emmerich after Godzilla hit the fan. If Jerry Bruckheimer would just stop blaming the critics and the media in a new way each day, there would be no stories for me to write. But not to write about it as it continues would be to be spun myself. No can do. Sorry.
Ironically, Ryan, the Reader of the Day just below, a regular who always has something interesting to add to the column, falls into the same trap I’m talking about, albeit in a subtle way. He writes with disdain about the media types who thought Godzilla was the film to beat, didn’t think audiences would flock to The Truman Show and thought Titanic would lose money. Well Ryan, it’s not always just a bunch of stupid, ill-tempered movie-haters trying to ruin it for you all. Sony was chasing the same kind of opening that shocked everyone the year before when the stiff that was The Lost World had a hype-based $90 million-plus opening. This year, the public got wise, and the rules were forever changed. The Truman Show was a risk, but it was a good risk given the Weir pedigree, and to say that the media didn’t support the hell out of the film once they saw it would be unfair. And Titanic was a completely unpredictable phenomenon. As I’ve written before, had the film opened in the summer, it would have likely petered out with about $200 million domestic, a far cry from the record-breaking run that was helped greatly by a generally crappy line-up of winter and spring films this year.
OK. Wait. Now, how many of you are thinking, “Damn, he hates that movie! He won’t let it go!” My point exactly. My analysis is based on the market, not on the movie. Two-hundred-million dollars in a much more competitive summer market is not an insult. My $120 million prediction for The Truman Show wasn’t an insult. Nor was my $110 million prediction for The X-Files (to which it will not get close.) Frankly, most of my weekly estimates are high, not low. Including Armageddon. I was absolutely shocked by the soft opening weekend. That wasn’t affected by whether I liked the movie or not. That was a perceived failure of marketing based on the same 1997 rules that made Godzilla‘s even-bigger opening seem like a failure.
OK, I’m done. Sorry to drag you through my angst. The truth is, the site is more popular than ever, you all are great to write for and your participation brings me joy every day. Working in mass media, I suppose I should toughen my shell and just work through the little adversity I am faced with in my e-mailbox. But sometimes, I just want to pull each of you close and whisper in your ear, in the words of Michael Corleone (really Puzo and Coppola), “It’s not personal. It’s only business.”
READER OF THE DAY: Ryan wrote: “Perhaps you’ve noticed that I am no fan of the media. However, I will spare you my usual ranting and raving and just hit upon one story in particular that caught my eye today. It perfectly illustrates the self-important, ‘we know better’ attitude pushed by critics, analysts and reporters. In the New York Post (I know, I should know better than to take anything in the Post seriously, but I digress) they had a big article all about Leo’s new film. One of the basic points in the article was about the excessive drug use in The Beach that could be exploited and graphically depicted by Danny Boyle and company onscreen, and how Leo’s fans would not want to see it. This brings up two issues. Did any of these people actually read the book? It’s an insult to Alex Garland to claim that his novel is about drug use. The Beach is no more about getting stoned than Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road was about it. Yes, the characters indulge in it. Is that what they’re all about? No. In fact, Leo’s reported character is more addicted to nicotine; and the hallucinations and illusions he suffers throughout the book are NOT drug-induced. Anyone who has read this acclaimed novel about Gen-X experience would know that.
“Second point — why is everyone so concerned about Leo alienating his fans? Is it not his career? So, The Beach is much more appealing to males than it would be to females. Seems to me that this could only be beneficial to Leo. And anyway, he’s not in the business to please fans. He has said on several occasions that he is not interested in being a movie star. He just is one in spite of himself. He would rather be an actor, and The Beach is the perfect role to remind everyone of how much acting talent he has. Maybe they’ve all forgotten that before Titanic he was not a ‘heartthrob,’ he was an indie-favorite. Of course, all these analysts, critics and journalists were also the same ones that said Godzilla would be THE film to beat this summer, nobody would pay to see Jim Carrey in a dramatic role, and Titanic would never ever make its money back.
“The film media — critics, analysts, and journalists need to remember their place in the movie power hierarchy. They are only a mere fourth. Third is the talent — actors, producers, directors, writers, musicians, cinematographers, etc. Second is the product itself — the art, the film — how it all finally comes together. First is always the audience. Without us, the rest of them wouldn’t exist. So maybe instead of speculating or out-right telling us what we think, perhaps they should take the time to look at we actually think. Like you do, Dave.”

News on the BEach

A passionate reader, Ms. Sheila H of Houston, Texas, wrote in to give me som
Bolde info on the novel, The Beach, including the fact that it is not, as I miswrote, about war. Sorry about that. Here, in her words, is what it is about. “The Beach is a superb book about a backpacking subculture of drifting Gen-Xers in search of paradise or, at least, a paradise not yet discovered and overrun by tourists. It is set in Thailand, and the central character is given a map to ‘paradise’ by a mysterious stranger who commits suicide. It could be described as a cross between Lord of the Flies and something out of Joseph Conrad. The main character is a guy obsessed by video games, nicotine and movies about Vietnam, and he bites off a whole lot more than he can chew. Anyway, it’s well worth reading whether it gets made into a film (it could be a great one, IMO) or not. And could be the perfect director for this. It’s also a hell of a better fit for Leonardo DiCaprio than American Psycho.” Thanks, Sheila.
40 ACRES & A GATE: Funny, I can’t tell whether that title is a racist thing or just an appropriate reference. I guess you’ll let me know. Anyway, BET founder Robert Johnson is in the process of starting the first black-owned movie studio ever. The studio will make black-themed films for TV and the big screen. As New Line and Fox 2000 have proven, this can be a very lucrative business, and there is a lot of talent just waiting for an opportunity. Johnson’s initial capital investment will be $100 million, in stark contrast to the $1 billlion or so invested in DreamWorks so far. But Johnson is looking to start with three low-budget films a year and 10 TV movies, so the investment in that amount of product, before distribution, is probably less than $60 million total. That’s less than the budgets on most of the DreamWorks products to date (Paulie and Mouse Hunt were cheaper).
ARMAGEDDON SPIN WATCH: America is doing great at the foreign box office, but I have to wonder why Variety gave Armageddon the headline in Monday’s story. As I read the article about Armageddon‘s record opening in South Korea, I realized it’s the same story I read last week. But the story was dominated by Deep Impact‘s No. 1 position with $9 million in 18 territories and reaching a cumulative international gross of $137 million so far. And Dr. Dolittle was clearly the No. 2 story, opening in Australia (a much bigger market than South Korea) with the second biggest opening there ever (beating ID4) with $3.9 million. And Mulan and Six Days, Seven Nights are kicking butt, too. I’m not suggesting that Armageddon be buried, but it seems to be getting excessive coverage for opening magnificently in one territory.
GODZILLA TOKYO WATCH: Can’t accuse Variety of burying Godzilla. El Lizardo set an all-time attendance record in Japan as 500,000 people saw the new and abused version of the Japanese icon. The film had the advantage of also having more screens than any other film in Japanese history, but it beat out the previous record-holder, The Lost World, by about 150,000 audience members. Of course, that’s a lot fewer people than who saw the film here in America on its opening weekend, but Japanese box office analysts expect the film to top $100 million in Japan alone. But will that help Sony? Toho holds the distribution rights to Japan as part of the deal for remake rights. Will Sony see any of the money? Probably. If not, $100 million could be the highest licensing fee ever.
MORE ON HALLOWEEN: H20: Saw the movie with a recruited crowd and a bunch of journalists Saturday night. I don’t think Miramax meant to do it, but they even got a drunk guy in there who was yelling at the screen at the wrong times. Just like real moviegoing. The film, which stars Jamie Lee Curtis and completely disregards any Halloween sequel since No. 2, has one of the best horror flick third acts ever. Almost no dialogue. Action is king. Then there are the first two acts. Kevin Williamson‘s name is all over this project, but whatever contributions he made are either negligible or worthless. There’s no thrill to Michelle Williams from “Dawson’s Creek.” (I don’t want to wait for our death to be over.) This new kid, Josh Harnett is as beautiful as he is wooden. And it’s a treat to see Asam Haan-Byrd all grown up. But the teen angle that was so fun in the original film is just filler here. On the other hand, Janet Leigh is used particularly well, especially if you are a film geek. Director Steve Miner does an OK job, but one really wishes Carpenter had been on board. He’s just better. But this is Jamie Lee Curtis‘ movie and no one else’s, and she delivers big time. I think Miramax may have overestimated the film by moving it to August. It isn’t the next Scream. Nothing new here. But old, for lack of a better word, is good. Old works.
STAR WARS PREQUEL EXCLUSIVE: This exclusive glimpse at page one of the Star Wars script comes care of Vishal Sharma. Click here and don’t worry. No spoilers here.
READER OF THE DAY: From Jamie T: “I enjoyed your article on scenes cut from The Truman Show. When I saw the movie, I felt that there were two scenes missing — scenes you didn’t mention in your article. 1. I read a newspaper review of the movie that mentioned Truman’s wife was paid $10,000 each time they had sex. I expected to ‘learn’ this in the movie when Christof is interviewed, but it wasn’t there. Did I miss it? 2. Toward the end of the movie Truman is introduced to a new co-worker. He seems attracted to her, yet the next scene has him ‘escaping’ from his basement. Was there a relationship between them? Do you know if other scenes were cut which explain my confusion?”

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon