Midnight in the garden of Billy and Lorenzo

MEMO TO: Lorenzo and Billy

SUBJECT: Streaks

THIS COLUMN HAS BEEN accused from time to time of frivolously dispensing advice to those who neither want it nor need it. Having scrutinized the box office results of your recent releases at Warner Bros., gentlemen, I have decided to change my ways. On the one hand, it’s clear you need advice. On the other, I have absolutely no idea what to tell you.

When I first learned 18 months ago that Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Billy Gerber would share the post of production chief at Warners, this sounded like a superb idea. You’re smart guys. You’ve worked hard in moving up the long Warners ladder. You certainly know how to “talk the talk.” Besides, when’s the last time that a downright operatic name like Lorenzo di Bonaventura adorned a studio parking lot?

But now look what’s happened. Under your stewardship, Warners has pursued basically the same business model that has held it in good stead for the 14 years of the Daly-Semel epoch. Yet suddenly the results are starkly different.

And guess who’s catching the blame: Two guys named Lorenzo and Billy.

To be sure, Bob Daly and Terry Semel keep saying all the right things in public. Billy and Lorenzo are getting the hang of their jobs, they say. There’ll be no changes in management.

Behind this supportive facade, however, the rumor mill is rumbling. You’ve heard the gossip, guys: executives being interviewed for your post, offers being made.

None of this is helpful to a studio regime — especially when the movies keep tanking and when the studio’s market share is dipping to 11.5%, less than half that of Sony.

WHICH TAKES US back to your release schedule. The seers around town have fixated on “Mad City,” which they say could lose more than $40 million. How could a movie starring John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman and directed by a world-class filmmaker like Costa-Gavras register an opening-weekend gross that’s lower than the fourth week of “I Know What You Did Last Summer”?

Again, it’s a Warners’ formula movie: big stars, big budget. The “Mad City” debacle wouldn’t stand out were it not for the earlier disappointments. “Conspiracy Theory,” “The Devil’s Advocate” and “Contact” were all big, glossy Warners-type movies. Yet none became the “breakout movie” that the studio wanted and needed.

Instead, they repeated the downbeat scenario of summer, when “Batman & Robin” and “Fathers’ Day” led a parade of product that hit the market place with a dull thud.

And now, the final indignity: “Old dependable” himself, Clint Eastwood, seems to have let you down.

It must have seemed like great news, guys, when Clint decided to direct the biggest bestseller of the decade, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” That is, until it became clear that he intended to shoot the entire book, almost page by page. The result is a 155-minute opus that suffers from what Variety’s astute critic, Todd McCarthy, calls “egregious overlength.” The same might be said for Warners’ final release of the year, Kevin Costner’s “The Postman,” which also comes in at that same length.

WHEN YOU ADD all this together, it goes beyond bad luck. We’re talking bad karma here. And the second-guessing has reached deafening proportions.

“The studio has simply abdicated responsibility for its movies,” one distinguished filmmaker told me huffily. “They just make the deals and turn away.”

Well, not really. I can hear both of you, Billy and Lorenzo, reminding him that Clint has final cut. So do many other directors at Warners.

I can visualize the meeting where you would inform Clint that his movie was dragging. “Cut a half hour, Mr. Eastwood — the scenes will really flow.”

And there’s old Clint, with his icy smile, replying, “Make my day, try touching a single frame.”

So what’s the answer, guys? Do you try to radically change a formula that’s been working for 14 years? I’m sure you’re asking yourselves that question. Would Warners, under its existing philosophy, have made “Men in Black”? Or “Forrest Gump”? Would it have made any of the “little movies” that have been stirring the pot lately, such as “The Full Monty” or “Bean” or even “I Know What You Did Last Summer”?

Warners did release the superb Oscar contender, “L.A. Confidential,” but New Regency, which funded the film, has now moved to Fox.

A decade ago, when the Warners machine started sputtering a bit, Daly and Semel themselves got impatient and decided to do some renovation of their extended family. They dropped a few producer deals and started signing actor-filmmakers like Eastwood, Costner and Mel Gibson. Along came some hit movies. What they did was essentially pursue the same formula, but embellish it with fresh faces.

I’M SURE YOU’RE THINKING about that sort of foray now, Billy and Lorenzo. You’re doubtless reviewing a lot of ideas. And you’re also saying to yourselves, “This luck can’t continue. There’s got to be a surprise in the Christmas stocking.”

All of which brings me back to my basic message: Namely, I don’t have the slightest idea what to tell you. I can’t give you advice. Only empathy.

For solace over the holidays, I recommend you run one of those wonderful old World War II submarine movies. There’s always a scene where the damaged sub is sinking rapidly, the enemy ships are hovering overhead and the captain says to the crew, “We’ve hit bottom now. The worst is over.”

Run those movies, guys, and tell yourselves, “We’re not alone.”

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