H’wood Tries To Think Small

The new corporate mantra among studio executives these days is that austerity begins at home. Studios are looking for ways to fight soaring costs on film sets while indies are realizing big profits from such low-cost films as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (made on a $5 million budget) and “Pulp Fiction” ($9 million).

The march is on by companies such as Sony, Paramount, Universal and Fox to make films costing less than $20 million.

“I would honestly say it’s our favorite budget range to be in,” says Columbia production prexy Lisa Henson.

The problem is, major studios have a poor track record when it comes to making and marketing inexpensive films.

Producers will tell you it’s tough to bring a low-budget film through the corporate structure unscathed. Studio marketing departments are not geared to create small, niche-oriented campaigns, and the big-budget production system is not compatible with cutting corners. And more often than not, when a really good cheap movie comes their way, studio brass tend to attach big directors and stars, whose salaries can double or triple a budget.

“Studios just don’t know how to do movies inexpensively,” laments one producer. “They’re much more comfortable doing things in a big way, because then the picture is perceived as an event. You try to cut corners and they get panicky.”

One reason is that a number of studio attempts to make inexpensive films have not paid off.

Fox tried to do the low-budget dance with such comedies as “P.C. U.” (less than $10 million) and “Airheads” (less than $15 million) but the pix flopped, bringing in, respectively, $4.3 million and $5.3 million at the box office. On Universal’s modest list last year are such movies as “Reality Bites,” “Crooklyn” and “Radioland Murders” (the latter produced by Lucasfilm and distributed by U); each was brought in for less than $20 million. Of the trio, only “Reality Bites” was a modest success, with box office of $20.9 million.

‘Pat’ went splat

Disney, the recent leader in low-budget efforts, also had flat results for the kid pic “Camp Nowhere” and such dumb comedies as “Cabin Boy” and the virtually unreleasable “It’s Pat,” despite their modest costs.

Paramount’s venture into Americana with “Lassie” barked up the wrong commercial tree. The same is true at Warner Bros., which gambled with the modestly budgeted “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” and “With Honors” – and lost.

Part of the problem emanates from marketing departments that are more geared to putting out broad-based, commercial films for mass markets that cross all lines of ethnicity. It’s difficult to retool for smaller, less expansive films.

“It seems that the smaller budgeted films get caught in the cracks in the marketing departments,” says one agent whose clients have worked with big and small budgeted films.

“Take ‘The Thing Called Love’ – that movie was River Phoenix’s last film, it had Sandra Bullock and Samantha Mathis in it and it wasn’t a bad film. Paramount is great at marketing the bigger budgeted films, but they – and they aren’t the only studio – have a problem marketing these smaller films.”

Good intentions

A top marketing executive agrees, saying the studio machine is not set up to handle smaller pictures. “The intention might be good and valid but the machine is really geared to handle very mainstream product with appeal that hits every age group, major and minor markets, and cuts across all ethnicities.”

Still, Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing contends that the studio will continue to mix the smaller budgeted fare in its offerings. “We’re looking for a balance of pictures, and it depends on the material and the elements attached to figure out how much it costs. Our next four pictures are smaller budgeted films,” she says.

Lansing would not discuss budgets. Others pegged Par’s “The Brady Bunch” at around $10 million, “Losing Isaiah” at about $16 million, “Stuart Smalley” at around $12 million and about $15 million for “Fat Chance.”

The irony is that while executives are pushing for lower budgets, they’re clearly not comfortable with them. They may not like to hear that a film’s budget is skyrocketing, but they get awfully anxious when asked to greenlight a $12 million picture with no stars and nary a high concept.

Big budget seems safer

“The reason that the big-budget, star-driven films are often easier to get off the ground is because the studios feel safer – even though that feeling may not always be entirely justified,” says producer Larry Mark, whose films include “Working Girl” and “The Adventures of Huck Finn.”

One can salute Disney and Columbia for supporting ‘The Inkwell” and “I Like It Like That,” both pix by young black filmmakers. But their respective grosses of $8.8 million and $1.8 million are not much incentive to continue their efforts.

“The obstacle is, how do you convince a roomful of studio executives that the $12 million movie is going to be commercial enough to get the $12 million back?” says one former studio executive. “That’s why you don’t see studios doing the more dramatic smaller movies. If you’re going to do low-budget, it’s much easier to offer them a high-concept comedy that will get its money back from the teen market.”

Some still try

Still, some studio execs say they’re committed to the low-budget diet, at least for the time being.

Universal’s first five releases for ’95 are budgeted at less than $20 million: “Tales From the Crypt Presents Demon Knight,” “Billy Madison,” “The Hunted,” “Major Payne” and “The Cure.”

Sony, troubled by its recent $2.7 billion writeoff, is also looking for ways to cut back. Its Columbia Pictures unit will start production on seven movies between now and April 1, three of which are budgeted at less than $20 million.

Columbia’s Lisa Henson also points to such recent films as “Little Women,” “Bad Boys,” “Immortal Beloved” and “Higher Learning” as examples of the films that were done for $20 million or less.

Disney – at one time notorious for its efforts to cut corners on film budgets under the reign of Jeffrey Katzenberg – is now making a conscious effort to change the assembly-line mentality under new studio chief Joe Roth.

Roth has made it clear that, while the studio will continue to do its share of economical films, he wants to set up a number of high-profile, high-priced tentpole projects. When it comes to lower-budgeted films, the studio has a deal with Merchant Ivory, among other small-budget indies – and of course it owns Miramax.

Warner Bros., meanwhile, isn’t so quick to adopt the low-budget philosophy. It believes that big-budget, star-driven pictures are where the money is to be made. Studio sources say the machinery simply isn’t in place for WB to make little films alongside big ones. Furthermore, the appetite from studio honchos for low-budget movies just isn’t there.

The WB logic goes that two or three low-budget failures can wipe out profit from one successful one.

Perhaps the largest purveyor of modest-budget fare on the WB lot last year was Morgan Creek Prods., which produced “Chasers,” “Trial By Jury” and “Silent Fall,” among others. While none of those films grossed more than $7 million, Morgan Creek hit the jackpot with another budget-lite pic – “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”

“Ace” starred the then-unknown Jim Carrey and football star Dan Marino and was made on a relative shoestring of about $17 million. The pic went on to gross $72.2 million domestically.

Anita M. Busch, Dan Cox, Jay Greene, Len Klady and Beth Laski contributed to this report.

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