It’s time to put substance and style into action

MEMO TO: Jeff Berg and Jim Wiatt, ICM

FROM: Peter Bart

WITH THE WARS BETWEEN the talent agencies picking up in intensity, you’ve convincingly demonstrated that you’re combat-ready. Indeed, as the agency business more and more takes on the tone of an action movie, perhaps it’s no coincidence that ICM has effectively cornered the market on action stars. With the defection this week of Sylvester Stallone from CAA to ICM, your agency now represents Sly, Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, among others. I’m beginning to see why you identify with these warriors, and they with you.

The only problem, however, is that ICM’s agent-warriors seem to carry almost more clout than the stars they represent, judging from recent box office results. Both Stallone and Seagal, in particular, have taken their lumps lately; in fact, the action genre as a whole, once considered the mainstay of the international market, seems to be in trouble. Twenty years ago, half of the 50 top-grossing movies were of the action genre, while today’s action movies dominate the lists of the biggest losers — expensive losers, at that. Look no further than two of Stallone’s latest –“Judge Dredd” and “Assassins.”

If you plan to turn your action oligopoly to good advantage, and prevent the studios from self-destructing in the process, perhaps it’s time to consider some drastic remedies.

NOW I WOULDN’T represent myself as the oracle of action, but, in talking to some veteran practitioners of this dying trade, I’ve come up with a few recommendations you might put before your hyperkinetic roster of action stars:

1) The classic action films used to be about character, not explosions. Hits such as “The Magnificent Seven” or “The Great Escape” were essentially character pieces that meticulously built to a suspenseful climax. Look at “Fair Game” and you see what the genre has been reduced to — a series of detonations in search of a plot.

2) When the studios put together their great action films, they would entrust them to their best filmmakers, not their neophytes. John Sturges directed some classic action films, and does anyone out there remember a fellow named Cecil B. DeMille? By contrast, projects such as “Fair Game” and “Judge Dredd” were directed by newcomers, as though the producers felt the genre was no longer deserving of seasoned hands.

3) The obsession with the international market has done more to subvert the action genre than any other influence. It’s true that “Die Hard With a Vengeance” managed to grind out $ 250 million overseas, but look at the subject matter of films that are scoring big around the world today and you find more and more surprises — movies such as “The Bridges of Madison County” and “A Perfect World” and comedies such as “Casper” and “Dumb and Dumber,” which, according to conventional wisdom, aren’t supposed to “travel.” The assumption that the international audience doesn’t give a damn about plot or empathetic characters may prove the biggest threat to Hollywood since the invention of television.

4) Action can’t exist in a vacuum. Classic action set pieces usually took place within a broader framework — witness the action scenes in “Star Wars” or “From Here to Eternity” or “Ben-Hur” or, more recently, “The Fugitive.” On the other hand, “Fair Game,” a textbook on how not to make action films, sends Billy Baldwin and Cindy Crawford (she plays a lawyer, no less) racing from explosion to explosion without conveying to the audience who’s doing what to whom. It’s not action, it’s nihilism.

5) The size of the gross does not increase in direct proportion to the size of the body count. There are signs around the world that audiences are pulling away from mindless violence — there’s enough of that in everyday life. Only four people died in “High Noon” and you had to wait till the end to see it happen, but audiences could never forget that movie.

6) Instead of mass destruction, how about trying a little style — or is that now a dirty word in the action business? Take a look at the new James Bond movie, “Goldeneye”: Director Martin Campbell and co-writer Bruce Feirstein actually introduce the unthinkable — elegant settings, self-referential wit, sophisticated mind games. And it works.

7) Since I keep coming back to “Fair Game,” how about one last measure: Why not strip away the license from those who have vulgarized the craft? Joel Silver, for example — the man who gave us “Assassins,” “Fair Game,” “Demolition Man,” “Predator” and “The Last Boy Scout.” Silver’s been dining out on “Lethal Weapon” for a long time now, but the bottom line is that his movies have become bogus and gross. Silver should still be allowed to blow away a few of his assistants each year, but keep him off a movie set.

SO, YOU SEE, JEFF AND JIM, you have your work cut out for you. You have a great franchise over at ICM, and no doubt you will further embellish it. Along the way, however, you have also taken on a bigger obligation: The movie business is in a bit of a mess these days, and the decline of the action picture is one big reason.

Just asking for bigger paychecks is not the answer. Indeed, as the CEO of one company points out, the burgeoning above-the-line fees already are “cheating the audience out of production values.” The time is at hand when the major agencies need to add some constructive ideas to the mix.

Congratulations, guys. Now it’s time to get down to work.

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