ASPEN, Colo. — Just how different is it to make movies in the 1990s vs., say, the 1970s? The question made for lively debate here Friday afternoon during a U.S. Comedy Arts Festival seminar entitled “From the ’70s to the ’90s: Sex, Drugs & Filmmaking.”
Daily Variety vice president and editor-in-chief Peter Bart opened the session by asking Brillstein-Grey chief Bernie Brillstein how he might pitch the films “Chinatown” and “Taxi Driver” to the studios were they available today rather than in the ’70s.
“I would probably pitch it this way: We could merchandise the name ‘Chinatown’ and do a group of restaurants,” Brillstein said, “and then make it into a Chinatown theme ride.”
And, Bart asked, for “Taxi Driver?”
“We’d have signs on the side of all the cabs in the world — ‘See ‘Taxi Driver!’ ”
Panelist Robert Evans, who was head of Paramount at the time he produced the Oscar-winning “Chinatown,” admitted that were someone to pitch him that film today, he’d throw them out of his office.
“Because no one would understand it,” Evans replied. “I’d give it to a committee of 20 people, and they would say, ‘What is this all about? We don’t understand it. And how are we going sell it?’ And they’d tell me, ‘Forget it.’ ” Even back then, Evans said, the distrib people at Paramount didn’t want to release it.
And what about going the other direction in time?
Brillstein and producers Julia Phillips and Polly Platt all agreed that were this 1969, the smash 1998 comedy “There’s Something About Mary”– with its ejaculate hair gel — would never even have gotten pitched.
Bobby Farrelly, who along with brother Peter made “Mary,” agreed.
“‘Midnight Cowboy’ was rated X when it came out, right? And if you look at it now, it’s probably a lot tamer than what we did. I don’t think that we could have done sperm jokes until this year.”
Bart pointed out that the economics of the film business make less sense in the ’90s than they did in the ’70s, what with the explosion in marketing budgets bred by multinational corporate ownership.
Former Sony Pictures chief Peter Guber pointed out that, between production and marketing costs, the average major studio release requires a $100 million investment.
“So you’re talking about a highly risky enterprise,” Guber said, “Running a studio in he ’60s, the only thing you depended on was the movies. They had to come out in the black or you’re out of the business.
“In the ’90s … the only thing that can screw up your company is the movies. So you’re trying to figure out every way not to make them.”
Some things have not changed, according to Phillips. “They’re making the same mistake that they have always made, which is they are doing last year’s material with big stars who are asking stupid salaries.”
The creative end of the industry also stands endangered in an environment in which independent studios are being swallowed up by the majors. And there remains the question of just who nurtures the talent today — the managers or the agents.
Also on the panel were William Morris Agency prexy Arnold Rifkin and former Universal prez Thom Mount.