Better recipe: pinch of ‘Seven,’ dash of Hanks

THE PEOPLE CALLING THE SHOTS at the major studios are a grouchy lot these days, but the reason for their malaise goes well beyond the feeble weekend box office figures. Indeed, some harsh economic realities keep getting in their way. To wit: More and more expensive movies are out there fighting for space in what is essentially a static, non-expanding marketplace. Industry leaders were reminded at ShowEast last week that moviegoers are not greeting the flood of new product by shouting, “Yippee! More choices!” Instead, exhibitors sense a sort of great global yawn. There’s no denying that something has gone wrong, especially after a month like October, when such pricey projects as “Jade,””The Scarlet Letter,””Strange Days” and “Assassins” all hit the market with a resounding thud. All of a sudden, a modest thriller like “Seven” begins to look like “Jurassic Park” as it hovers week after week atop the box office charts. Rubbing salt into the wound is a new Yankelovich opinion survey released at ShowEast, which indicates that 43% of filmgoers interviewed say they would attend more films all year round if a “better selection” of movies were available. No one knows precisely what “better selection” means. Over the past weeks, however, I’ve talked with a number of studio production chiefs about these issues and have come away with the following observations: First, everyone agrees that the movie industry is at a crossroads. However, the new strategies being shaped to deal with these problems cleave off in opposite directions a fact that is either a sign of competitive health or of deep neurosis.

BASICALLY, THE VARIOUS STUDIO STRATAGEMS reflect three schools of thought: The first school maintains that Hollywood should focus on what it does best superstar vehicles. Sure, superstar salaries may sail off into the $ 15 million to $ 20 million stratosphere, but superstars sell tickets around the world. And overseas is where the market is showing its true strength. The conclusion: Forget about all those middle-range projects and focus on potential blockbusters , irrespective of cost. The studios are drastically understating the actual costs of their films anyway. The second school of thought maintains that all this is a recipe for financial suicide and that the only realistic strategy is to focus on “edgy” pictures costing under $ 20 million. Let the story be the star, says this school pay the writers and filmmakers, not the superstars. According to the third school, both of these formulas are unrealistic. The only rational recipe for survival lies in the mid-range projects in the $ 20 million to $ 40 million category that still have star power but also adhere to economic reality. To be sure, each school of thought can point to a “model” that proves its case, just as dissenters can cite examples that disprove it. Certainly, “Apollo 13” represents the prototypical superstar Hollywood movie one that should register at least $ 350 million worldwide. Even an oddity like “A Perfect World” showed the strength of the Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner brand names, grossing only $ 32 million in the U.S. but $ 108 million abroad. If superstars were the magic answer, of course, how do you account for “Judge Dredd”? And why didn’t “Assassins” or “The Scarlet Letter” find an audience on their opening weekends? The edgy school loves to point to the success of “Pulp Fiction,” but skeptics would ask, whatever happened to a fine film like Steven Soderbergh’s “The Underneath”? Or to a Sundance favorite like “New Jersey Drive”? Both disappeared without a trace despite critical approval. The mid-range advocates hold up “The Net” and, of course, “Seven” as proof of their success formula. Indeed, both pictures cost in the low $ 20 million range and will turn a smart profit. The mind boggles, however, over all the examples of mid-range pictures that got lost in the shuffle whatever happened to the well-reviewed “Devil in a Blue Dress,” starring Denzel Washington, for example?

THE BOTTOM LINE, OF COURSE, is that it’s essentially impossible to devise an economic model to solve the problems of the film business. Distressing as it may seem, the answers lie in such vagaries as better stories, compassionate characters and shrewder marketing issues that business minds find annoyingly imprecise. Clearly, the present studio bureaucracies, with their fervid phalanxes of development executives and script-note providers, are not coming up with the answers either. There are two clues to the puzzle that may be worth noting, however. The three movies that have generated the best “buzz” of late “Seven,””Copycat” and “Get Shorty” represent the vision of filmmakers who are not as yet mainstays of the Hollywood A list. Second, the two companies that have had especially good fortune in the marketplace of late

Miramax and New Line are those with the leanest decision-making machinery. Clearly, the audience out there is sending signals that it wants something more from Hollywood than warmed-over action pictures. Even the august New York Times, in an unprecedented editorial assault on Hollywood Friday, facetiously proposed “a national referendum that might terminate the persistent recycling of Sylvester Stallone in ever more mindlessly violent vehicles.” Whether the studios can generate not just “more” product, but also that “better selection” that the Yankelovich survey was talking about, is the question of the moment.

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