The State of the Movies

Hollywood 1996: Things are changing, and it's all the same.

But for all the talk of concepts and teams, it's the stars that get movies made. "If you get a bankable actor to say yes to something, it'll get made," says Suzanne Zizzi, the former director of development at Alphaville Productions. "Take Dumb and Dumber, for example. That script had been kicking around Hollywood for a while. And every once in a while there was some new interest in getting it made, but there was that crucial ingredient missing. Then Jim Carrey comes along, makes a movie called Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and all of a sudden he's a huge star and he's perfect to make Dumb and Dumber." Production companies were scrambling to find projects that suited Carrey, says Zizzi; Dumb and Dumber won out mostly because it was ready to shoot immediately and could therefore capitalize on Carrey's popularity. For all the talk of "liberal" Hollywood, it's actually one of the most conservative businesses around.

And as Hollywood plays it safer and safer, producers are turning to television for "hot" actors with perceived followings. Take the In Living Color and Saturday Night Live vehicles that have popped up in the past few years. Zizzi is the first to admit many of these films are "pretty lousy," even though Alphaville was responsible for the rap music parody CB-4. "Why do these movies get made?" she says. "What it comes down to is that the studio thinks they've got a marketable talent--they can make the movies pretty cheaply and turn a profit." With busy television shooting schedules to contend with, timing, not content, takes precedence. As for CB-4, "It went into production because Chris Rock was needed back at SNL. [The producers] said 'If we're going to make this movie, we need to make it now.' It turned a modest profit, but it could have been a really big hit if the script had been stronger."

Another factor that colors studio judgment about which films get made when is the opportunity for additional, non-box office income: toy licensing, fast-food restaurant tie-ins, and television and video spinoffs. Though action films often benefit from these cross-promotions, it's animated features that really rake in the cash. According to Katie Chin, who served as vice president and senior vice president of licensing and promotions for 20th Century Fox and Disney, the huge success of animated features has created a highly competitive business, with virtually every studio creating its own animated and/or family entertainment division--precisely because of the money to be made outside of the box office grosses. "We'd actually start pitching sometimes up to two years in advance of a release," she says, "partly because the QSRs [quick-service restaurants] had such long lead times and because [the market's] so competitive. Studios will expect their promotions department to get one major QSR on board and one to three consumer brand products, like a Hi-C or a cereal," which translates into tens of millions of dollars in additional income per picture.

Other unreported income comes from television pre-buys. Films that will likely have large television audiences will actually have a network representative on set to oversee "TV takes." In an action film, for example, one of these takes would be to reduce the amount of blood during a stunt, or clean up a particularly foul-mouthed scene. Robocop, for example, had a lot of bloody scenes. Additional, almost identical, takes were necessary to reduce the amount of blood, since networks have policies about that sort of thing. Diner, by contrast, needed TV takes to clean up the language for national broadcast. This is just another example of the income-generating deals that add tens of millions of dollars to the studio coffers before the first print is struck.

All of this is to say that additional ways of generating income can actually have an effect on which films a studio puts on the front burner and which ones it lets languish in development.

Then comes the day that films actually go into production. And here is where the colossal fuck-ups take place. Waterworld was a textbook case in how not to make a movie. Shooting in Hawaii, the producers began by ignoring crucial input from locals. They built their entire island set on the exposed side of the island, resulting in millions of dollars in storm damages and lost production time. Then they neglected to plan for and build bathrooms on the island set. Actors and crew members had to be ferried back to shore or a nearby boat to go to the bathroom.

Sadly, scenarios like this are far from uncommon. If anything, they're the norm. The fact of the matter is that the possibility of losing financing once it's given often makes filmmakers within the studio system rush into production. And once in production, the decision to "save" money by not hiring experts or cutting corners almost always ends up being a false economy. The strange thing is that Hollywood knows this. There's a oft-quoted maxim that you save money in the long run by spending more time in preproduction. But this is actually the most ignored rule of thumb in the industry. Because, as everyone involved in the industry knows, at the end of the day good or bad doesn't matter: It's in marketing--not content--that Hollywood's faith and hope reside.

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