Cents & ‘Sensibility’

Despite average studio production costs of more than $34 million per film, some of the best studio offerings this year were made for less than $20 million.

The golden handful of 1995 pictures produced economically that returned big artistic dividends are Warner Bros.’ “A Little Princess,” UA’s “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Richard III,” Miramax’s “Restoration” and Columbia’s “Sense and Sensibility.”

While the last three are just entering distribution and “Princess” had a disappointing domestic theatrical run, none will do worse than break even. A couple might even wind up as major commercial successes.

Last week, “Sense and Sensibility” took the top honor from the National Board of Review, while the New York Film Critics Circle called “Leaving Las Vegas” the best picture of the year (see story, page 18).

Common traits

James Schamus, co-producer of “Sense,” says, “There is no formula for success” in the small-budget arena. But the films mentioned share several common features: Each was made by a creative team with a clear and practical vision of the film’s potential; most had a difficult time attracting studio interest; the filmmakers in every case applied inventive and economical means to create credible periods or locations; and all involved imaginative dealmaking – ranging from talent deferrals to complex international co-financing.

“You have a real advantage when all the key contributors have the same movie in mind,” Schamus says. “People have to understand the means and the scale of what they’re doing. It doesn’t have to be either a heroic or sacrificial exercise to make a good movie.”

Small-budget success

“Sense” cost in the neighborhood of $16 million, as did “A Little Princess.” “Restoration” originally was budgeted at $15 million but delays and additional filming added several million to its tally. “Richard III” was an $8 million venture and “Leaving Las Vegas” cost a definitive $4.8 million, according to producer Lila Cazes.

Love at first read

“I loved the script,” recalls Cazes. “I could not believe that everyone in Hollywood had turned it down. I thought this must cost $20 million, but I met (writer-director) Mike Figgis in Cannes and he said he could make it for $3.5 million. It was worth taking the chance and I said ‘yes’ within an hour.”

Cazares produced the film, a grim tale about an unrepentant alcoholic, without an American distributor or co-partner, confident it could be sold on completion for $2.5 million. But when she had footage to show the American majors, virtually no one responded with the exception of MGM/UA distribution chief Larry Gleason. Still, he couldn’t convince the company to go higher than $1.5 million.

“Not to sound pompous, but companies should have a cultural sense of responsibility,” United Artists president John Calley says. “Broad-based companies should be involved with films for more than simply financial reasons. A lot of people were dismissive of ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ because they didn’t like the subject. We turned it down when it was initially pitched, not for content but because we didn’t know how well it would turn out. It was a judgment call based on what was on the page.”

UA was more confident when it was approached to make a film version of Ian McKellan’s critically lauded 1930s-set stage version of “Richard III.” That project had been developed by First Look Pictures, which was stymied in putting together a financial package. Calley reckoned it would have a great shelf life and took over the reins.

“It was something we very much wanted to do,” said Ray Price, who was a key executive in nurturing the project at First Look. “It became an exercise in keeping hope alive. We tried to put it together in a lot of different ways to maintain interest in it. But it couldn’t be sustained to a point where money materialized.” First Look’s Ellen Little notes that the company retains a financial involvement and a genuine rooting interest in the picture.

Produced with British Screen and Mayfair, UA’s initial financial commitment was about $2 million. But after the first footage was seen, the company decided to step up with an additional $1 million. Calley said it was a discretionary decision based solely on improving the quality of the picture and a commitment to the artists’ work; there was no guarantee it would add a single dollar to its box office, just something he felt “should” be done.

Similarly, an intrinsic belief in the qualities of “Restoration” were in large part the determining factor behind increasing its budget from $12.5 million to $15 million and, finally, close to $20 million. Many observers feel the film has the visual qualities of a picture with twice the budget.

Writer-adapter Michael Hoffman said the studios had passed on the project, which is based on Rose Tremain’s novel of 17th-century England. Though Hoffman sensed the tale of personal redemption was ideally suited to an independent sensibility, the film’s physical requirements put it outside the range of most small companies. Miramax, with the deep pockets of its parent Disney, was able to sustain the vision and provide the basic financial needs to mount it properly.

“There’s a real value to limitations and restraint,” Hoffman insisted. “You find yourself solving problems by necessity and imagination, and that’s a basic theme of the picture.”

He notes that simple matte and optical effects were employed to create the film’s epic sweep and lushness. “Restoration,” shot in the summer and fall of 1994, was intended as a major holiday release last year. But the post-production period proved too tight, and a decision was made to hold the picture for a year.

Hoffman said the delay proved invaluable. It allowed him time to rethink certain elements of the film – and the opportunity to film additional sequences that heightened the scope and content of the picture. Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein said that having a picture of such quality made it easier to get Disney to extend additional money to make “Restoration” even better.

“There’s no question that the picture’s better because Harvey was persistent and confident additional money would make the picture work,” said Disney Pictures chair Joe Roth. “I had doubts, but he was unswerving – and he was right.”

Schamus characterizes the budget for “Sense and Sensibility,” which was adapted by Emma Thompson from the Jane Austen novel (Thompson also stars), as “appropriate.” “We had just enough money to make the movie,” he observes. “We didn’t have so much that people didn’t have to do their jobs, and we didn’t have too little so that they couldn’t do their job.”

Although people involved with these films invariably mention deferrals – particularly from stars and directors – as a significant factor in getting quality films made, Schamus said “Sense” was able to pay people well. Mark Johnson, producer of “A Little Princess,” notes that above-the-line costs have generally grown to the detriment of on-screen production values. His most recent film didn’t have stars, but when it went into turnaround at Disney, Warner Bros, was quick to snap it up.

“They believed in it and had coasted it out at $16 million, based on past experience with this type of film. They were confident it would work on its merits without marquee value,” Johnson said. “It was (WB production execs) Billy Gerber and Courtney Valenti who suggested Alfonso (Cuaron) to direct and encouraged me that filming on standing sets on the backlot would heighten the film’s quality more than going on location in England.”

Though a theatrical disappointment, Johnson notes that cassette sales and modest expectations overseas will put the critically lauded film into profit.

Still, the presence of such names as Meg Ryan in “Restoration,” Nicolas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas” and Annette Bening in “Richard III,” all working at considerably less than their normal fee, were significant assists for those productions.

“There’s a tacit rule in Hollywood that the more you’re paid, the more you’re supposed to be silent” about a film’s shortcomings, said a veteran producer. “Stars’ fees escalate inversely to a project’s quality. There’s such a paucity of good material that it’s little wonder that actors will work for almost nothing for a good role and a good film.”

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