Studios go back to school to reevaluate summer slips

Every major studio has had its share of clunkers. When the subject comes up, there have traditionally been three types of responses: a happy spin (“We will eventually make a small profit”), finger-pointing (“The marketing division didn’t know how to sell this”) — or absolute silence (the folks at Paramount act as if “Marci X” was a non-existent film invented by an online critic).

However, a hardy band of renegades recently have been taking a different approach: Public apology and a vow that lessons have been learned.

  • A week after “Gigli” opened, Revolution Studios topper Joe Roth told the Wall Street Journal that the film’s flop, along with the failure of the company’s “Hollywood Homicide” and “Tears of the Sun,” was “humiliating.” “Gigli” star Ben Affleck went on “The Tonight Show” and laughingly read some of the pic’s scathing reviews.

  • DreamWorks Animation topper Ann Daly told the press the company was “extremely disappointed” at the results of “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.” Toon has earned only $26 million since July.

  • Citing “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” Columbia Pictures chairman Amy Pascal said that the cost of the film may not have been justified. “You can’t rely on formula,” she told the L.A. Times. “You have to look at what’s working and what’s working is stuff that’s fresh.”

  • The makers of “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” took a slightly different tack: A preemptive apology. Before the bow of the second installment of the Paramount franchise, they apologized for the first. Producer Lloyd Levin told Entertainment Weekly, “The first one did not have a strong story, I’ll be the first to admit it. We should have made a better movie. But we learned from our mistakes and this new one is a better movie.”

Even though the second pic earned less domestically than its predecessor — $62 million, vs. $131 million — Levin brings up a key point: the lessons learned.

As a result of its three 2003 disappointments, Revolution has made some changes. Budgets will be kept to $40 million per pic, limits will be placed on profit participation for stars, directors and producers, and the studio will no longer hire a director who insists on final cut. That’s a mini-revolution for a company that prides itself on being “talent-friendly.”

DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg told the New York Times, “I think the idea of a traditional story being told using traditional animation is likely a thing of the past.”

Beginning with DreamWorks’ slate of animated heavyweights in 2004 — “Shrek 2″ and the underwater-mob laffer “Sharkslayer” — hand-drawn toons that target young male auds are out. Talking fish, zoo animals and cute cuddly forest animals, all animated using computers, are in.

While this penitence seems like common sense, it’s a risky tactic.

Hollywood types rarely admit they’re sorry, let alone accept responsibility for failure. An admission of guilt implies weakness, and few in Hollywood like to acknowledge their vulnerability.

There’s another consideration: Work can dry up for anyone associated with a B.O. clunker. Despite scripts for such mega-hits as “American Graffiti” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz became virtually invisible after “Howard the Duck.” The 1994 “Radioland Murders” was their last onscreen credit.

But the most dangerous aspect of a clunker is that the entire studio administration can come under fire. In “Final Cut,” a post-mortem on “Heaven’s Gate,” Steven Bach wrote, “Press reaction went beyond ambushing Cimino and the movie to encompass finally the company and the industry in which ‘Heaven’s Gate’ had happened.”

The film eventually caused UA’s parent company, Transamerica Corp., to dump its entire entertainment arm. “Within three years of the ‘Heaven’s Gate’ debacle, the management of every major company in the motion-picture industry had changed,” wrote Bach.

So clearly, a clunker is a tricky thing to deal with.

DVD has provided an excellent forum for positive spin-control. In their audio commentary, the “Newsies” filmmakers admit that it wasn’t a hit when it opened, but has gained in popularity over the years. One compares its long-simmering popularity to “The Wizard of Oz.” Mm-hmm.

But the put-on-a-happy-face defense only works if you’re backed up by the bottom line. Disney, for example, was quick to point out that, despite the groans from audiences, “Country Bears” would break even. Fox insists its summer film “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” will end up in profit.

Otherwise, filmmakers frequently target marketing or distribution: “They didn’t know how to sell it” or “They picked the wrong date.” In a few cases, that’s true. WB-Village Roadshow’s “Three Kings” was greatly admired by those who saw it, but failed to connect. But marketing and distribution people are often forced to fall on their swords when actually nobody could have sold the film.

“Sinbad” and “Cradle of Life” seem to be under the radar of media satirists, but “Gigli” has joined “Showgirls” and “Glitter” as a punchline in jokes. Still, none of this summer’s disappointments is in the same category as Hollywood’s legendary failures such as “Heaven’s Gate” or “Ishtar.”

Seven years after it opened, media members are still talking about “Waterworld.” On a recent ABC “Primetime Thursday” interview with Kevin Costner, Diane Sawyer again brought up the film. The actor said, “It’s a great movie, it really is. I know it made a lot of money.” U execs also rather impatiently will reiterate this to anyone who asks.

A philosophical shrug is always nice. Miramax says its losses on “Pinocchio” were minimal. WB folk were close-mouthed on “Pluto Nash.” Sony folk are trying to sweep away all references to the Madonna fiasco “Swept Away” and get on with their lives.

But optimism is always a good thing in Hollywood. That’s why DreamWorks people are quick to point out that their upcoming slate looks good. Joe Roth and Revolution say that they have a trio of biggies coming up at the end of the year (“Radio,” which has been getting excellent test results, “The Missing” and “Mona Lisa Smile”).

(Cathy Dunkley contributed to this report.)

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