Turnaround paving roads to success

Studios cashing in on others' losses

At a time when even fleet-footed indies are amassing large development slates, almost every film that gets made seems to be in turnaround from somewhere else.

The weird thing is an increasing number of these pics are turning out to be roaring successes.

For example, romantic comedy “Runaway Bride,” which opened last weekend with $34 million, was ditched repeatedly at the altar by putative financiers over the course of 10 years. It ultimately took four companies — Paramount, Disney, Lakeshore and Interscope — to get it made.

“Bride’s” tedious journey to production is not unusual. A generation ago, it took only months between development and the start of lensing; turnarounds were rare. In contrast, the grinding complexity and sheer inertia of today’s Hollywood can hold a project up for years.

The twist is that a new set of industry scavengers seem to have realized that abandoned or stalled pics present an opportunity to cash in. It might be worth carrying the millions of dollars in development costs to buy one — and actually make it.

Several factors are causing this surge in activity:

  • Disenchantment among producers at the slow pace of studio development, which frequently sidetracks projects that are primed for start dates.

  • The increase in co-financing, encouraging studios to raid each other’s larders for material.

  • Sudden intervention by third parties, such as foreign sales companies, to board neglected projects and get them going.

Miramax and New Line have employed this turnaround tactic most successfully, with titles including “Pulp Fiction” and “Rush Hour.”

Not only have they struck box office gold in the past with other studios’ castoffs, but their slates now contain many titles that were developed elsewhere.

Even independent producing and financing entities, such as Spyglass Entertainment and Village Roadshow, are breathing new life into beached pics. Village Roadshow was the key to getting Warner Bros.’ long-gestating “The Matrix” off the ground. Spyglass is backing Edward Norton’s directorial debut, “Keeping the Faith,” in turnaround from Sony Pictures.

“Every morning I tell my staff to find out what has been put into turnaround,” said Spyglass co-chairman Roger Birnbaum, one of the producers of “Rush Hour.” “Just because people don’t like something, it doesn’t mean that it’s bad.”

Fans of the raiding process have been quick to note that many of the top grossers of all time were passed on by several studios, including “Star Wars,” “E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Forrest Gump” and “Home Alone.”

Of these, Hollywood vets most frequently cite the case of “Home Alone.” Joe Roth, then chairman of 20th Century Fox, and Birnbaum, his prexy of production, decided to back the pic after Warner Bros. had passed. (This was the last time, at least for several years, that Warners put anything into turnaround, and its development slate grew to monstrous proportions as a result.)

While the majors are generally more suspicious of projects in turnaround than the indies, Fox is the exception. Aside from “Star Wars” and “Home Alone,” its pickups from rivals include the hits “Speed” and “There’s Something About Mary.”

Nobody’s perfect. Fox itself fell victim to the disease in 1995, when it backed out of “The English Patient” during pre-production due to disagreements over casting. The $35 million pic was rescued by Miramax and went on to win nine Oscars and gross $230 million worldwide.

“Patient” and other sleepers have made Miramax the turnaround cheerleader. With the exception of the “Scream” franchise, all of Miramax’s titles that have grossed more than $100 million domestically have come out of turnaround, including “Pulp Fiction,” “Good Will Hunting” and “Shakespeare in Love.”

No let-up in the chase

“We have to be as aggressive (at pursuing opportunities) as everyone else,” Miramax co-president of production Meryl Poster said. “Nothing will ever come to you. You have to stay at the top of your game.”

Company co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein have developed a keen eye for provocative material that works for them — if not for more conservative studios — as evidenced particularly by “Pulp Fiction,” which was in turnaround from TriStar.

“Miramax has been successful because they are committed to the material, not the package,” said Interscope’s Scott Kroopf, who is executive producing “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” which Polygram put into turnaround, for the distrib. “They’ll look at a script and say, ‘Let’s just make it with the best cast that we can get.'”

In addition, Miramax, like New Line, is small enough to be able to react quickly and with minimal bureaucracy. This makes it easier to get turnaround projects, where decisions often have to be made on the hoof.

Citing working with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck on “Good Will Hunting,” which Miramax took over from Castle Rock, Poster said Miramax also has benefitted greatly from its talent-friendly image. “We’ve always followed our own vision and not looked at what other people are doing, and talent likes that.”

Finding hidden gems

Miramax has taken the formula one step further by identifying other companies’ languishing properties that it wishes to develop, and pacting to co-finance them. “Shakespeare” and the upcoming Ben Affleck-Gwyneth Paltrow starrer “Bounce” were co-productions with Universal. Miramax attaches the talent, makes the movies and shares the profits with U.

Miramax’s new co-production deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is another example of this philosophy. The mini-major is no longer waiting for studios to put their pics into turnaround. It is sifting through MGM’s library and its current slate, together with Lion execs, and identifying potential co-ventures. The companies plan to make at least eight films together.

New Line Cinema, meanwhile, is producing a three-film series based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” which was originally in development at Miramax. While Miramax said it did not put the property into turnaround, New Line is repaying the Disney subsid its development costs. The Weinsteins remain exec producers of the pics, which are being directed by Peter Jackson (“Heavenly Creatures,” “The Frighteners”).

But even Miramax has succumbed to the turnaround syndrome. In 1996, its Dimension Films unit put a small horror pic, then to be directed by Wes Craven, into turnaround. The project eventually found its way to DreamWorks and was released this year on July 23, directed by Jan De Bont: “The Haunting.”

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