At studios, small pix can spell big dilemmas

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I found myself at the airport in Venice chatting with a very smart, and utterly depressed, young filmmaker named Steven Zaillian. Zaillian had just directed his first feature for Paramount, a low-budget effort called “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” Studio execs had told him they loved his film, and would support it regally. The only problem was that their ad campaign was as fuzzy as the title, and the picture landed in theaters with a thud.

“Maybe I should just shut up and dine out on my reviews,” said Zaillian, who, having also written the script to “Schindler’s List,” had some nice things to dine out on that year.

The encounter with Zaillian stuck in my mind as a sort of metaphor for the experience of trying to make a “small film” at a major studio. More and more, the “majors” insist they want and need “special” projects to balance their production schedules. Talk to a typical studio chief and you elicit a torrent of expletives about spiraling prices of top stars; the “small” picture represents a key stratagem in countering this trend, they insist.

In the case of one major, for example, half its 22 releases will cost $ 15 million apiece or less this year.

But a look at the overall performance of modestly budgeted pictures in Hollywood reveals less than thrilling results. Of the 10 pictures that broke the $ 100 million barrier in 1994, only “The Santa Clause” and “The Mask” were not what the studios would call conventional “big” pictures (and Jim Carrey seems to be breaking all the rules).

THE ONLY BREAKTHROUGH “small” picture, “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” was very small and very British.

Indeed, this week we asked several of our reporters to check with studio chiefs and filmmakers around town to find out what’s gone wrong. Why is it that, while the studios fret and fulminate about the megapix that they marshal for the peak summer and Christmas seasons, they seem confused about the “in between” movies — how to pick them, how to produce them and how to market them.

Consider the comments of two filmmakers, each of whom has just worked on a small picture for a big studio.

Says one: “I’m finding myself in a world of totally mixed signals. The studio says it wants to make films for under $ 20 million. But every time I give them a script they like, their response is, ‘This is too good to waste — let’s give it to Mel Gibson.’ ”

Says the second: “I’m shooting the cheapest picture my studio made all year, and they make me feel like I’m making ‘Waterworld.’ Forget about the nickel-and-diming — even while we were making the deal, one lawyer at the studio told us, there’s no point making pictures like this — our executive time is too valuable.”

If these filmmakers find themselves whipsawed, the mixed signals they receive are a reflection of the ambivalence with which the studios regard low-end product. With all the noise about superstar salaries — Savoy’s $ 20 million deal with Sly Stallone was the capper — studios still prefer to wrap themselves in the security blanket of a superstar vehicle. As one CAA agent puts it, “No one laughs at you if your Stallone picture tanks, but if you make a film with unknowns that doesn’t even open, people look at you like you’ve lost your mind.”

THE 1994 B.O. RESULTS only compound these contradictions. For while most of the top-performing films were star vehicles, some very expensive pictures starring Kevin Costner, Julia Roberts, Warren Beatty and Nick Nolte performed poorly. And Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Junior” has just squeaked past the $ 30 million mark.

All of which reminds studio chieftains of a grim reality: Namely, that while little pictures pose little risks, big pictures still pose big ones.

If you ask people who are involved in creating the small pictures what they would like to change, here are the most frequently heard comments:

The studios are over-supervising these projects. As one company production chief admits, “We have so little control over our big pictures that we all tend to become obsessive about every dollar spent and every casting decision in the small ones.” The upshot: Filmmakers making small studio pictures are being smothered by the studio hierarchies.

There should be special “hit teams” to lead the marketing effort. Says one prominent producer: “Studio marketing departments won’t start work on a small picture until they see it, and then it’s too late. And they always start with the expectation of failure. ‘This will be an uphill battle,’ they tell you. Why?”

Studio executives try too hard to find the magic gimmick or the “unique concept” for their small pictures. The result is projects like “Cabin Boy.” No one was searching for “high concepts” 20 years ago when the small film reigned supreme. In that era, projects like “Midnight Cowboy,””Easy Rider” and “American Graffiti” popped out of the woodwork — they represented the sort of movies that in ’60s parlance were “far out, man.”

And perhaps that’s exactly what’s needed now — a willingness to depart from the high concepts and to venture forth with some filmmakers who are a little, well, “far out, man.”

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