Auteur as Terminator: the curse of Cameron

Memo to: James Cameron

From: Peter Bart

YOU’VE BEEN WINNING some amazing battles lately, Jim. For months you’ve wanted “Titanic” to be released Dec. 19, even though it will cost 20th Century Fox an additional $ 20 million or so in interest payments (they understandably yearned for a summer release). You won. You wanted to deliver a three-hour movie, even though your distributors preferred a tighter film. You won. Defying initial budget constraints, you will end up spending more than $ 200 million on this mother-of-all-megapics. You did it your way. The only thing I don’t understand, Jim, is this: Why are you letting Roland Emmerich direct “Godzilla”? You are Godzilla! You are the monster of moviedom, the man who can stick it to the studios, demolish careers of executives and laugh all the way to the bank. Well, not exactly laugh. People who do business with you, Jim, find you a rather dour type. Meanness seems to permeate your company. When a Variety reporter told one of your top aides that your decisions might cost Fox executives their jobs, your aide said dismissively , “Well, it’s the cost of doing business.”

I ASKED ONE STUDIO EXECUTIVE to describe a typical meeting with you, Jim. He winced, pondered a moment, then said, “Think of root canal and start from there.” Mario Kassar, who headed Carolco, where you made “Terminator II,” used to tell friends, “Cameron is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” According to Kassar, whose company went bust, you can be the epitome of reason and civility when you’re not making a movie, then transmogrify yourself into the Director from Hell when principal photography gets under way. Kassar and his Carolco associate, Peter Hoffman, understood how to deal with this dual personality. On “Terminator II,” they, and the completion bond company on hand to enforce the terms of the bank loan, were ready to take you off the picture when you wavered on making the July 3 release date. As a result of the threat, Carolco made that date. Twentieth Century Fox proved more beneficent; as a result, they missed summer. Your spinmeisters have sought to refute the horror stories from the “Titanic” set — nightmarish hours for the crew, extras having to stay in the water for 18-hour stretches, your temper tantrums over mistakes and malfunctions.

NO ONE EVER SAID nice guys finish first in the directing business. A successful director must be single-minded, stubborn and uncompromising. But not completely uncompromising. “The lesson of ‘Titanic’ is that Jim Cameron won’t work within the accepted structure of a conventional budget,” observes one studio chief. Each of your recent films has climbed to new levels of profligacy: “The Abyss” (a flop) cost $ 80 million, “Terminator II” cost $ 106 million, “True Lies” $ 135 million and, now, “Titanic,” the most expensive movie in modern Hollywood history (historians might argue that the 1966 “War and Peace” and the 1963 “Cleopatra” cost in excess of $ 300 million in today’s dollars, but we’ll leave that for the scholars to debate). Under the ownership of multinational corporations, the studios wanted to order up not just hits, but blockbusters — instant industries that could spew forth revenue streams from theme-park rides, toys and myriad other sources. That’s where you came in, Jim. With “Terminator II,” you proved that you could create movies grossing more than $ 100 million, and you did it for a maverick company called Carolco — that really rubbed salt into studio wounds. You also proved you could create monster hits without going overboard on such old-fashioned things as personal stories or emotion. That’s a big saving right there.

SO NOW WHAT WILL the studios do about you? And what will you do about the studios? What happens if they decide they can’t afford you? You’ve already tried putting together a network of foreign sales organizations; one problem was that completion guarantors start developing nervous tics at the very mention of your name. All this may prove academic, of course, if “Titanic” turns out to be another blockbuster. I can already hear the dialogue at the studio meeting: “I know Cameron’s trouble, but he makes blockbusters, and this company needs a blockbuster.” No doubt about it, Jim, you’re Godzilla. And Godzilla will walk the earth again.

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