In the end, bad press may not sink ‘Waterworld’

The unveiling of “WATERWORLD” this week marks the culmination of Hollywood’s ritualistic blockbuster binge, so perhaps it’s time to set forth some tentative conclusions about the annual rites of summer. First, the massive media assault, week after week, to launch each new blockbuster seems not only to have exhausted the audience, but also to drastically limit the shelf life of each prospective megahit. The merchandising and media blitz has reached such deafening proportions that what little there is of an audience attention span has been hopelessly shattered. All of which raises the following question: Can blockbusters really be lined up on an assembly line, like bottles of Coke, or is that effort in itself a prescription for self-destruction? Given this weekly assault on the senses, will the window of opportunity for eclectic summer sleepers — projects like “Kids,” “Clueless” and “Babe”– ultimately shut down completely? Not surprisingly, most of the so-called “niche pictures” scheduled for summer release ran for cover early in the season, thus cluttering the fall release schedule. It would be unfortunate if the relentless pressures of mass marketing were to prevent mall-surfers from opting for occasional relief from the drumbeat of megabudget action fare. Faced with the blockbuster glut, studios must now ponder anew how much money they really can afford to risk on summer pics. It’s not just a question of economics: When budgets spiral into the fiscal stratosphere, something odd seems to happen to the filmmakers involved, as “Waterworld” will attest. “Waterworld” is no “Heaven’s Gate,” but there is something weirdly dark and obsessive about this waterlogged “Road Warrior,” as though Kevin Costner and his colleagues were locked in Fort Knox for too long and couldn’t get out. Any movie in which the protagonist within the first five minutes drinks his own piss and tries to peddle a jugful of gravel is, by definition, beyond idiosyncratic.

TO BE SURE, “WATERWORLD” is a financial anomaly as well as an artistic one and, as such, has become a hot button for all that’s right and wrong about assembly-line blockbusters. At $ 175 million, it is the most expensive picture ever made — except for the fact that the budget seems to have disappeared amid a blitzkrieg of accounting machinations. By the time Seagram completed its deal to buy 80% of MCA from Matsushita, Seagram had ended up with only about $ 12 million of the “Waterworld” costs, plus prints and advertising. Not since the days when Gulf & Western owned Paramount and sold off its turkeys to dummy corporations, thus magically erasing them from the books, has Hollywood witnessed such inspired surgery. Which brings us to the final conclusion about the summer: If MCA can cry all the way to the bank, then surely so can Hugh Grant. In a sense, it’s a shame Grant didn’t co-star with Costner in “Waterworld,” because that could have marked the convergence of the two most overwritten, overblown show business stories of the summer. Hugh’s hubris may have fueled the worst jokes since gerbils went out of style, but “Nine Months” is not exactly hurting at the box office. The lesson: A negative press can help sell movies, and so can ill-fated visitations to Sunset Boulevard.

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