A trail of hits and misses

MEMO TO:Tony Scott

FROM: Peter Bart

You must be feeling a bit like a dartboard these days, Tony, reading the ferocious reviews of your latest film, “The Fan.” Of the 35 critics whose opinions are sampled each week in Variety‘s Crix’ Picks section, only seven could muster kind words for the film; worse yet, audiences are not exactly lining up outside theaters.

Of course, you’ve been there before, Tony — many times. In your 15-year career, you’ve repeatedly ricocheted back and forth between hits and flops, getting pilloried, then praised. Indeed, your career has come to epitomize the erratic paths being plied by a whole school of contemporary filmmakers who seem to bounce between extremes of success and failure. Never before have directors commanded such big bucks and delivered such an unpredictable parade of product.

Now, you’re a thoughtful man, Tony, and also a very independent one. To assure your future autonomy you and your brother, Ridley, have founded a company to help finance your films, plunked down $19 million to buy Shepperton Studios, and also invested in an English rival to George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic.

Which brings us to an interesting anomaly: If autonomy is that important to you, why is it that all four of your most successful movies were made not only under studio auspices but also in concert with one of Hollywood’s most hands-on production teams, Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson? That association yielded films grossing almost $900 million worldwide — movies like “Top Gun” and “Crimson Tide.” Away from that protective cocoon, Tony, you proceeded to make movies like “The Hunger,” “True Romance,” “Revenge” and, of course, your latest bete noir, “The Fan.”

Given this record, I wonder if you’ve reflected on the whys and wherefores. Why are so many present-day directors registering such inconsistent performances?

Now I already hear you protesting that these are fatuous questions, that directors are artists who have always been entitled to their successes and failures.

Well, yes and no. Examine the filmographies of some of the more prominent craftsmen who labored during the heyday of the studio system, and you find some rather remarkable batting averages. Howard Hawks from the late ’30s to the early ’50s managed to deliver 11 hits in a row, including “Sergeant York” and “Red River,” according to his biographer, Variety chief film critic Todd McCarthy. Others of that era, like William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock, also seemed models of consistency.

The difference was that these directors were nurtured by the studios. Today’s filmmakers operate in a far more chaotic environment, wherein it’s often the top stars and their coteries who determine which movies get made.

I can also hear you railing about costs, Tony, and with some justification. When the budgets of big commercial pictures spiral off in the direction of $100 million, a certain craziness seems to infiltrate the process.

There’s simply too much at stake to take artistic risks, and there are also too many voices in the mix. As a result, some of these megapix develop a built-in self-destruct mechanism.

From what I hear about “The Fan,” Tony, you were determined to ignore this cacophony. Your producers and studio executives say they tried to warn you about some of the excesses, but you turned a deaf ear. You were even warned about the weird mistakes and incongruities of your baseball footage, but you chose not to listen.

Now I guess that’s why directors receive the big bucks, Tony, but in the case of this film it apparently worked against you. In the end, “The Fan” was more than disappointing — to many it was downright depressing.

I gather your next film, Tony, is entitled “Where the Money Is”– apt title for your present dilemma. You and your brother have proved astonishingly adept at turning up the big money, both for yourselves, through features and commercials, and for the studio.

Not long ago you told a reporter for Variety that “darkness was always something that intrigued me.” You added that Don Simpson, himself the Prince of Darkness, had admonished you that “there’s a life outside darkness. There’s life in redemption.”

Well, it’s your call now, Tony: darkness or redemption. Good luck with that one.

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