The lost art of big-budget braggadocio

THE MOVIE STUDIOS HAVE BECOME increasingly defensive about their spending habits these days. The Los Angeles Times ran a story suggesting that Universal is about to start a $ 100 million film called “Waterworld,” and the studio responded with a flurry of angry denials. The tabloids in New York reported that Disney spent $ 15 million to mount the theater version of “Beauty and the Beast, ” and Disney spokesmen were frothing at the mouth. The show cost under $ 12 million, they insisted.

A similar contretemps surrounds the next Arnold Schwarzenegger project, “True Lies,” which James Cameron is shooting at Fox — possibly a $ 120 million picture, says the press. Not so, says Fox. And a gaggle of other high-end projects may soon lurch into the $ 100 million class, including Cinergi’s “Judge Dredd” and Carolco’s “Crusades” or “Cutthroat Island.”

Now, I am the last person to give advice about public relations, but, in view of all this, I have a very simple, possibly simple-minded suggestion for the studios: Stop apologizing and start boasting. After all, the showmen of old — the DeMilles and Selznicks and Goldwyns — were proud of the fact that they lavished money on their gaudy productions. Mike Todd celebrated the overages on “Around the World in 80 Days.” Impresarios like Joe Levine wallowed in hyperbole when describing the cost of “A Bridge Too Far,” just as Dino DeLaurentiis relished the indulgence of “King Kong.” When MGM was in its heyday, its mavens claimed to have under contract “more stars than there are in heaven”– not “more stars willing to defer their salaries than there are in heaven.”

In short, why is everybody suddenly so apologetic about excess? Hollywood was built on excess. And with even once-Spartan Disney now switching to more big-ticket product, Hollywood clearly is committed to spending the Mighty Megabuck. Universal’s Tom Pollock was understandably angered by the L.A. Times story on “Waterworld”–“People like to bad-mouth other people’s movies even before they are started,” he fumed, insisting “Waterworld’s” budget was a mere $ 71 million.

WELL, TOM, YOU’RE A VERY intelligent man, but in this case what you should have said was, “Look, guys, ‘Waterworld’ is an action picture starring Kevin Costner, the hottest action star in the world, and the picture will actually cost $ 150 million and the special effects will positively blow the audience away.”

Remember, you’re talking from a position of strength, Tom. Universal’s two Spielberg pictures this year together grossed over $ 1.1 billion — and they weren’t exactly cheapies!

Then why are the studios so defensive? Ask the studio PR men and they’ll recite a litany of explanations. There’s the problem of the critics, they point out. Critics these days review the budgets of films, not the films themselves.

That may very well be true, but, once again, the studios only encourage this tendency by exhibiting corporate embarrassment. If the studios started boasting about their exotic special effects, the critics would have to find something else to complain about. Besides, since when do critics influence the fortunes of an action movie?

THEN THERE’S THE PROBLEM of the analysts, the PR men say. These denizens of Wall Street increasingly point the finger at runaway costs. Even the L.A. Times quoted a financial type named Don Rudkin as saying, “I wouldn’t go forward with such a huge budget (on ‘Waterworld’) — it’s a crapshoot to begin with.” Well, Mr. Rudkin, whoever you are, I’ve got news for you — any movie is a crapshoot, and the last Neil Simon movie, a nice, “safe,” modestly budgeted “Lost in Yonkers,” lost almost $ 20 million — the entire budget of the movie. Maybe Kevin Costner is a better bet.

The reality of the film business today is that its risks are high and its margins are lean. Ask any CEO of a communications conglomerate and he’ll tell you that moviemaking per se is no longer looked upon as a glowing profit center — rather, it’s a cog in a complex global entertainment machine. Movies per se may not produce big profits, but they do produce characters for theme parks, gimmicks for videogames, hot songs for CDs and so forth.

More than ever, movies are about ideas and styles. They’re about innovation. Innovation is a high-ticket item. And it’s nothing to apologize about.

Having said all this, I’d like to remind everyone that a marvelous little movie called “Four Weddings and a Funeral” cost about $ 5 million. I thought that was pretty damned innovative, too.

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