Forty-five men and women stand motionless, staring at a small brass plaque.
They do not say a word.
Each silently reads about the hundreds of U.S. soldiers entombed, almost 60 years ago, in the sunken battleship Arizona. And each is transported, disturbed.
“That’s why people are doing ‘Pearl Harbor’ and deferring their salaries,” said Todd Garner, co-president of Buena Vista Motion Picture Group, describing the reactions of crew members on a recent scouting trip to the Hawaiian site. (Garner gave director Michael Bay the idea for the project.)
But there are many other reasons why principal crew and vendors agreed to make deferments on the pic, which is budgeted at $135 million. And greater ramifications.
If the “Pearl” model works, deferments could become the newest way for studios to produce more $100 million-plus films while avoiding co-financing pacts — pacts that reduce studios’ potential upsides.
Still, the “Pearl” deferments have already caused rumblings among crew members, some of whom have elected to pass on Disney’s offer to work for less. And the new model could ignite already smoldering studio/union relationships.
With ILM agreeing to take deferments, other effects houses, many hurting for work, may find themselves forced to follow suit — and risk the consequences.
One key below-the-line pro was delighted when Michael Bay approached him to do the film but was taken aback by the director’s throwaway line: “I’m deferring my salary on this film. How about you?” Reluctantly, the crew member accepted the offer.
Soon thereafter, Bay invited some guests to his new multimillion-dollar home in Bel-Air for his birthday party. “It was a nice gesture,” the crew member reflected. “But looking around, I had to ask myself, ‘Why am I deferring my meager pay?’ ”
Bay countered that no crew members attended his party and noted that nearly all of his primary crew from past films are returning for “Pearl.” However, at least three of them assured Daily Variety they are returning under normal terms, with one arranging for the deferred portion of his salary to be put into an escrow account.
Crew members on low-budget films frequently have to make deferments, but when the producers on a few bigger pics, such as “The English Patient,” have tried this arrangement, the results have not always been happy.
Deferments mean that the crew member or vendor agrees to work for a lower rate, with money coming back once the pic turns a profit. In this case, Disney promises that if “Pearl” reaches a domestic gross of about $140 million, crew members will recoup what they would have been paid under normal circumstances.
Over the past year, however, only 10 movies have surpassed the $140 million domestic mark, including “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” “The Sixth Sense” and “Toy Story 2.”
Unlike movies such as “American Graffiti” and “Star Wars,” where below-the-line crew received considerable backend on the film, only producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director-producer Bay have “points” on “Pearl Harbor.”
Hence, crew members and vendors are in for considerable risk — something that sources say they would have balked at had it not been for the subject matter and the talent involved. Others have found Disney’s “point”-less proposal uninviting. Since these crew members are crucial to the production, Disney has signed them on anyway, under traditional terms.
Despite the rumblings, Disney is steamrolling ahead with its plans, having already arranged for the following savings:
n Many heads of major below-the-line departments have agreed to deferments, including the D.P., editor, production designer and lighting director. The total budget value of such deferments is said to be $5 million-$10 million.
n Panavision and Technicolor have been asked to take deferred payments. A Panavision spokesman said that while such deferments were discussed, the camera house will work on “Pearl” under its standard deal with Disney.
n ILM has agreed to what one Disney exec called “meaningful deferments” on some 200 effects shots, said to cost close to $25 million.
Disney says its use of the shots will make it look more like 500 f/x shots were used. While ILM has ostensibly agreed to the deferments because the company wants to be in the Bruckheimer-Bay business, deal could add additional pressure to the post biz’s bottom line.
n A conservative approach has been taken regarding set construction: Instead of building full sets, it will at times build only what’s needed for a shot. Unlike the method used for “Waterworld,” the studio will only build a section of some ships.
n The Mouse will take an equally conservative approach to battle re-creations: While one scene will require a fleet of 20 ships, 12-15 camera positions and nine Air Force planes, Disney plans to digitally add in numerous more ships and planes.
n Prop houses, wardrobe houses and labs — among other vendors — have offered up to 25% deferments in exchange for upfront payments. But some say that they certainly don’t want to make a habit of doing so.
“I wanted to change the way $100 million movies get made,” said Bruce Hendricks, the studio’s president of motion picture production and the man responsible to the studio for sticking to the “Pearl Harbor” budget.
“Nobody said to do this. It was something that I just came up with after seeing it done with such studio movies as ‘The English Patient.’ I just wanted to try a different way of making the movie cost-effective.”
Under this strategy, below-the-line craftsmen and vendors, many of whom are undergoing tough times, may find themselves in an untenable situation, having to choose whether to work and take a pay cut or not work at all.
Even with deferred pay, they lose money. If the film recoups, they will get a salary in two years but will lose the interest they could have accrued if paid this year.
A DGA spokesman, who pointed out that a.d.s could only defer dollar amounts over scale, said he was “appalled by this trend.”
But Bay, known for such blockbusters as “Armageddon” and “The Rock,” emphatically said, “The business thinks they are rewriting the rule books, but this is a special circumstance. I am going into this thinking that I am not going to make a dime. But I would rather gamble on myself.”
Still, some craftsmen are unimpressed by Bay’s wager.
“I am sure that there must be some people who must be unhappy with me because we are making every dollar count,” said Hendricks.
“Certainly the production won’t be as comfortable as people are used to. But no one was arm-twisted into doing this movie. Everyone knew that to do this movie, that’s what needed to happen.”
Production begins in Hawaii on April 8 with a relatively compact shooting schedule of 85 days. Bay hopes to bring the film in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, or under.
(Dana Harris and Steve Gaydos contributed to this report.)