Warning to readers: What you are about to read may be considered politically incorrect.
Having issued that caveat, I’ve been adding up some production figures this week and, as a result, would like to direct the following question to the Hollywood production community: Why are you guys allowing European producers to take over the Hollywood production scene?
The way I figure it, three producers alone — Mario Kassar, Arnon Milchan and Andy Vajna — are in the process of turning out between $ 500 million and $ 600 million worth of product. Meanwhile, many Hollywood-bred producers are moping around, begging for a start date.
Now let me make it clear that I have nothing against European producers. In traveling across Europe a month ago, however, one recurring theme was constantly drummed into me by European filmmakers: Hollywood rules the world, they complained. There’s no room for Euro product or Euro filmmakers.
Well, Hollywood may rule the world, but it’s Europeans in Hollywood who seem to have most of the action. The reason is that the most aggressive and entrepreneurial of Europe’s producers have focused their energy on Hollywood.
This invasion is nothing new, to be sure, but the results are distinctly different. A few years ago, European operators like Dino di Laurentiis, Giancarlo Parretti and Eduard Sarlui were falling on their faces. They misjudged American tastes and were inept in dealing with the Hollywood talent community. Ultimately Sarlui’s companies, Epic Prods. and Trans World Entertainment, disappeared amid a flurry of litigation from his banker, Credit Lyonnais, and Dino returned to Italy.
Well, times have changed. Hungarian-born Vajna is now a prime supplier of high-end product for Disney, and he’s currently involved in four major projects with a total tab of $ 160 million. Milchan already has made six pictures for Warners this year and has six more in his active pipeline. And Kassar’s reborn Carolco is about to announce a slate of megapix, many of which will rival “The Terminator” in cost and body count.
These three wheeler-dealers have several traits in common. They pay top dollar for talent and material. They report to no one. And they are superb at using their knowledge of the international market to their own advantage.
Indeed, it could be argued that their ascendancy is the ultimate symbol of the global marketplace. A generation ago, the U.S. accounted for as much as 80% of the box office of a typical Hollywood film. Today the foreign market may account for as much as 60% of the action or more.
That shift represents a golden opportunity for producers with a world view and the bucks to exploit it, and that’s where Vajna, Milchan and Kassar fit in. Their projects are designed for the international audience. And their deals are tailored so that they can reap huge profits from foreign earnings.
In short, they have positioned themselves not only to make more pictures, but also to make more money.
The most soft-spoken of the three is Vajna, a onetime wig-maker in Hong Kong who bowed out of his Carolco partnership with a fat chunk of money somewhere north of $ 80 million. His U.S. distributor, Buena Vista, sees Vajna in much the same way as MGM/UA looks upon Kassar: He’s the man who makes expensive talent deals and also expensive pictures.
“Jeffrey Katzenberg (the Disney chairman) can say he’d never pay Bruce Willis $ 15 million to make ‘Die Hard 3,’ but when he hears Andy made the deal he can simply shrug and say, ‘That’s Andy,’ ” says one senior agent. Vajna’s new company, Cinergi, got off to a discomfiting start with “Medicine Man,” an expensive disappointment starring Sean Connery. But he now has two films in post-production: “Tombstone,” starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, and “The Color of Night,” helmed by seldom-seen cult director Richard Rush, who has not made a film in 13 years. Before the cameras for Vajna is a Penny Marshall film, “Renaissance Man,” starring Danny DeVito, while a Sylvester Stallone project, “Judge Dredd,” is in pre-production.
All these films will be released in the U.S. by Disney, with Vajna masterminding overseas pre-sales. Vajna also foots the bill for development, and he’s just expanded the staff.
The Vajna style is both idiosyncratic and European. His office is at least twice as large as Lew Wasserman’s. The ultra-modern glass-and-steel desk, which he purchased from Sly Stallone, is as big as a Rolls, and probably as expensive. Vajna’s friends describe him as intelligent, extremely generous and rather shy. While a shrewd businessman, Vajna nonetheless is genuinely intrigued by the artistic side of the business — at one time he considered becoming a cinematographer.
The biggest advantage held by Vajna, Kassar and Milchan is simply that they are their own bosses — they don’t need the approval of a financial partner or a board of directors. And they reward themselves accordingly. No one knows what sort of salaries they pay themselves, but their compensation level is akin to that of corporate CEOs rather than producers. Kassar’s new contract at Carolco, for example, is said to provide a base salary of $ 2 million a year plus yearly raises of $ 250,000 and bonuses on specific pictures (a deferred bonus on “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” of $ 500,000, for example). In addition, Kassar receives 1% of the gross until break-even and 3% thereafter on each project, plus a $ 1 million advance on each film against his producer’s fee.
Profligate spending was one reason that Carolco imploded in its first incarnation, and Kassar has promised his European and Japanese partners he will be more prudent the second time around. His backers, on the other hand, have made it clear they’re depending on him for a steady flow of high-end product to amortize their investment.
Kassar’s modus operandi is as distinctive as that of his ex-partner, Vajna. What other producer would sit around his huge Holmby Hills home and talk about a remake of “Lolita” to be directed by Adrian Lyne, or a biopic about the Marquis de Sade, while his 5-year-old daughter Natasha scurries about demanding more play time?
Kassar’s projects can only be described as Kassar-ish: “Crusade” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Cutthroat Island,” being prepared by Renny Harlin, or “Showgirls,” a script by Joe Eszterhas that Kassar describes as the definitive film about Las Vegas lap-dancing, whatever that may be. Then there’s the ultimate megapic — James Cameron’s “Spider Man,” whose budget may approach the national debt.
Israeli-born but Euro-bred, Milchan is perhaps the most hyperactive of the trio. New Regency, Milchan’s company, has six pictures in the can, including two Oliver Stone projects, with another six films to start by June 1 — a$ 300 million bundle in terms of negative cost.
Unlike the others, Milchan leans heavily on a well-respected Hollywood exec, Steve Reuther, president of New Regency, and together they have rung up some significant successes, including “Under Siege,””Free Willy” and “Sommersby.”
Again, New Regency depends on certain key talent relationships — it’s making back-to-back films with Whoopi Goldberg, for example, and is developing projects with Richard Gere. Oliver Stone has remained within the Milchan fold for several reasons: Milchan has insulated him from studio bureaucracy, and he’s projected Stone into the ranks of the three or four highest-paid directors in the world — some sources suggest his fee is $ 7 million or more.
In view of the fact that the three Europeans are stepping up production, not cutting back, one might well ask why they don’t shift some of their activity to Europe, whence they came. If Europe feels it’s movie-starved, why shouldn’t Europeans make more films there? The answer, of course, is that while a Milchan may relish his gorgeous residence in France, he, like his colleagues, ardently believes that Hollywood is the place to make films, and to put them together.
And this, in turn, may lead to a sort of double whammy. Just as Euro filmmakers complain about Hollywood, we may find more and more Hollywood producers climbing the walls because of their Euro competitors. Milchan, Kassar and Vajna, meanwhile, will be laughing all the way to their Swiss banks.