MEMO TO: Alan Horn, Rob Reiner and the other Castle Rockers
FROM: Peter Bart
Although you folks have had a bumpy ride these last couple of years, you’re still the envy of the town. The reason: It looks as if you will actually have the opportunity to reinvent yourselves. In so doing, you will be fulfilling everyone’s secret desire. “If only I could tear it all up and start over,” is the expression one hears so often around town. Well, Castle Rock will effectively be doing just that.
Which brings up the really interesting question: What will you do differently next time?
I can hear some readers saying, “Who cares?” Well, here’s one reason to care: No company was ever started with loftier ideals and ambitions, and few experienced such remarkable early success. What could provide a more felicitous debut than to pop out movies like “A Few Good Men,” “City Slickers” or “When Harry Met Sally”? Apart from the fact that they generated more than $ 360 million in domestic grosses, they were also terrific movies.
Then, to launch your TV wing, all you did was to create a little show called “Seinfeld.” Little wonder that you were heralded as the golden boys, men of ideas who also understood the marketplace.
And then it all started to go sour. Your new movies started landing with a dull thud. Your new proprietor, Ted Turner, announced he would write off about $ 60 million this year, blaming it all on Castle Rock.
Turner soon got an even better idea: Castle Rock was officially put up for sale, and both Sony and Universal expressed keen interest.
Although nothing has as yet been finalized, the omens are good that your company will soon find a new home and a new backer.
Inevitably, filmmakers and dealmakers who’ve done business with you over the past decade have been speculating about the reinvention of Castle Rock. Indeed, since it’s become a favorite topic in Hollywood, I decided to collate their random observations and offer them to you in the form of unsolicited advice.
For better or worse, here is what the town’s players would urge you to think about as you start assembling Castle Rock The Sequel.
- Stop talking about the lofty ideals you wish to achieve with your films. “It was a refreshing act 10 years ago,” comments one writer who has worked on Castle Rock projects, “but it’s getting old.” No company making movies like “Striptease” or “City Slickers II” should carry on about spurning crass commercialism.
- Hire someone who likes to argue. Several people who’ve worked at Castle Rock have been exasperated by your aggressive collegiality. “Good ideas come out of confrontation,” says one prominent filmmaker. “These guys at Castle Rock want to sell you on how nice they are and how they agree on everything. There are no sparks flying.”
- Pay more attention to marketing. Your constituents, gentlemen, seem to feel that you think of yourselves as filmmakers, not film marketers, which accounts for the disappointing “sell” on such films as “The American President” or “City Hall.” Further, how about coming up with tenable titles? Only Castle Rock would release a film titled “The Shawshank Redemption,” then express astonishment over the lack of word-of-mouth: How can you recommend a movie that we can’t pronounce?
- Start admitting you are suits by wearing them. Again, it was a nice phase a decade ago to amble around your offices in T-shirts and jeans, butyou’re trying to operate a big business, guys get real. As one screenwriter puts it, “They talk like suits and they look like suits, why don’t they wear suits?”
Now you may not be happy with these suggestions, but consider the following: At about the time you started Castle Rock, several like-minded “indies” also opened up shop. While Imagine, Interscope, Morgan Creek and the others have had uneven records, a couple are doing better than you. One reason: They were not afraid to change their scenarios.
Interscope started as a development company, then realized it needed to become a more active player. It’s now the key U.S. unit of Polygram. Imagine’s first focus was on TV, then it decided to shed much of its overhead and concentrate on movies. Morgan Creek was designed to make cheapies, then realized with “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” that higher budgets also could bring higher returns.
As Alan Horn once told me, “We’ve all run the gauntlet together. It’s been tougher than any of us thought.”
Perhaps that’s the clue: Why not start a whole new gauntlet? Take Sony, for example. As the events of the past week clearly illuminated, they can’t seem to get their act together in terms of coming up with a new management.
Hence, instead of Sony annexing Castle Rock, perhaps Castle Rock’s management would do better to annex Sony. That way, Sony would get some intelligent grown-ups to run its operation and everyone would end up ahead of the game.
Mind you, the same advice would still apply.