THIS IS HELL WEEK at the Hollywood studios, and, for those who relish the rituals of self-abuse, it’s an excellent time to observe the town at its worst.
One can almost hear a sadistic tour guide pointing out the sights: Over here, folks, see the bleary sound-mixers — they haven’t slept in three weeks so they’re screaming at their producer. Over there is a burnt-out film editor making eleventh-hour snips on a $ 70 million blockbuster while his director pops aspirins and prays. Watch the distribution mavens sip Maalox while they shepherd grumpy exhibitors into hastily called screenings of films they’d expected to see weeks earlier. For a final thrill, take a look at the army mobilized to make middle-of-the-night deliveries of wet prints to edgy theater managers.
At the end of it all, any reasonable observer might ask, “Is this any way to run a business?” Everyone out here would chorus “No,” but they’ll be doing it the same way next spring.
Why the chaos? It’s all tied in with the annual ordeal of completing the big summer pictures in time to meet their preordained release dates. In theory, the process should run like clockwork. The studios have known for months exactly when “Jurassic Park,””Last Action Hero” and all the other wannabe blockbusters were scheduled to complete each stage of post-production and be delivered to theaters.
Yet each year the crises worsen: Filmmakers start falling behind; there are angry meetings as stars and star directors implore distributors to grant them more time, and studio chiefs stubbornly refuse.
Then come the threats and recriminations, and the whole machinery of the studio seems to grind to a stop.
The self-generated crises would be almost comical were it not for the toll, financial and personal. One major release has run up $ 8 million in eleventh-hour costs — frantic golden-time reshoots in order to meet its date. “It’s not just money, it’s quality,” says the director of one of the summer’s biggest pictures, who wants to remain anonymous. “In the melee to meet our dates , we’ve had no time to test our picture, no time to tweak and tighten.”
There’s the personal toll as well. “I love the challenge of a big picture, but you’re kidding yourself if you don’t admit it takes years off your life,” says Billy Weber, a top editor who, after editing several blockbusters, has just finished directing his first film. Weber worked 18-hour days, seven days a week, for five months in order to complete “Days of Thunder” in time for its June release date, but he remains convinced that the film could have been more successful had there been more post-production time.
Walk around the Sony lot these days and you hear war stories about the madcap efforts to finish “Last Action Hero” in time to show exhibitors on June 3 and for national release June 18. Will they make it? Yes and no. The exhibitors may see the final two reels in rough form with temporary music and effects. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger has been hovering around beleaguered post-production supervisors to see that his $ 70 million opus (Sony won’t confirm the true cost) comes out OK.
AND HOW’S THIS FOR A PERK? The intense post-production schedule for “Last Action Hero” has sparked Columbia to hire a masseuse for overworked producers, editors and technicians, according to unit publicist Steven Newman. Her name is Kelli Fisher, and she’s been hired to give therapeutic rubdowns to anyone involved in cobbling together the massive release.
Columbia is not alone in its ordeal. With Steven Spielberg shooting another picture abroad, Universal has had to scramble to complete “Jurassic Park,” finally showing the film to nervous exhibitors last week. Rumors of down-to-the-wire crises surrounded “Sliver” and “Coneheads” at Paramount.
Studio toppers will readily admit they get rattled by all the eleventh-hour machinations, but by and large they defend the process. “Filmmakers take as much time in post-production as you give them,” says the chief of a major studio. “You have to save money somewhere so there’s nothing wrong with squeezing the back end, even if it means reshoots on golden time.”
Some filmmakers ardently disagree. Says Martin Shafer, a partner in Castle Rock: “We resist the idea of pinning everything around a release date. On every one of our films, including hits like ‘City Slickers’ and ‘A Few Good Men,’ we needed more time to test and reshoot. Since we produce the pictures and don’t distribute them, we have the luxury of telling a distributor to move the dates back if we don’t think we’ll be ready.”
On “North,” which Rob Reiner is now shooting, Castle Rock declined to commit to a prime Christmas release date because it meant that the schedule would be squeezed.
The producer of another summer picture recently tried to push back but was turned down. “We desperately needed another week and they wouldn’t give it to us ,” he says bitterly. “The distribution guys have the muscle at the studios today , not the production guys.”
THERE’S PROBABLY SOME TRUTH to this remark. Prodded by distribution and marketing execs, studios are committing to release dates earlier than ever and are holding fast to them. Warners has already set a Memorial Day 1994 release for “Maverick,” a film set to star Mel Gibson, even though the studio only recently received a first draft and neither script polishes nor casting have started yet.
There are countless examples of films becoming runaway hits even though they missed their dates. “The Godfather” was scheduled for Christmas release, but Paramount ended up holding it until March to permit re-edits that vastly improved the film. All the Westerns now in production are gearing for summer, but arguably the best modern film of that genre, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” opened in the doldrums of September. “Indecent Proposal” will easily pass $ 100 million, but it was unveiled well before the prime summer period.
“You’re not dealing with logic, just studio panic,” says one veteran director. “They’re scared of competitors’ films. They’re scared of losing theaters. Most of all they’re scared to admit a film needs more work.”
“There’s no such thing as a bad weekend,” insists Martin Shafer. “There are only bad pictures.”