Heavy price paid by H’w’d’s lofty losers

Cinephiles increasingly look back on the ’70s as a golden era of filmmaking, but here’s one reason why the studios looked good then: If a movie turned out badly, its distributor simply didn’t release it. The turkey would be allowed a quiet demise.

Today’s costs are so stratospheric that a disappearing act is no longer an option. Every film gets a big push irrespective of the risk factor.

And the risk is considerable.

Witness “All the King’s Men,” which represents an investment far north of $100 million if marketing is included. Despite a heroic sell by Sony, it opened to a dismal weekend gross of $3.6 million. The potential loss to Sony could approach the film’s production budget.

And its failure will resonate broadly, representing another nail in the coffin of the studio drama. The so-called “serious” film increasingly will be relegated to the indie circuit.

Talk to studio gurus, however, and there are other conclusions to be drawn from “All the Kings Men”:

  • Nothing is more important than casting. Sean Penn was the wrong choice to play a Huey Long-like demagogue — he radiated rage, not charisma — and Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Tony Soprano (oops, I mean James Gandolfini), all seemed as though they’d wandered by the wrong film set.

  • Period dramas are a hard sell (witness “Cinderella Man”), and the problem is compounded when the audience can’t quite figure out when the story is really taking place.

  • If a film doesn’t work, a re-edit usually won’t save it. “All the Kings Men” was held up for more than a year for further fine-tuning, and none of it helped.

  • Critics’ raves don’t save you, especially if it’s Time magazine, which called this film “an existential epic.” A year ago Time called “Munich” “Spielberg’s secret masterpiece.”

  • The fate of most movies is decided by the first day of principal photography. “Pirates of the Caribbean” was destined to be a blockbuster irrespective of its sloppy storytelling. “All the Kings Men” from day one was the wrong idea with the wrong cast.

The final irony: When well-intentioned movies fail, they seem to trigger more despair, and cause more collateral damage, than when cynical ones go down the tube. Such is certainly the case with “All the Kings Men.”

So were the studios acting appropriately a generation ago when they simply abandoned films they felt were disappointing? The answer is both yes and no. The most famous near-mistake was when the old-school management at Warner Bros. simply didn’t “get” “Bonnie and Clyde” and relegated it to a few theaters in the deep South. The film ultimately found its way into the mainstream.

On the other hand, I attended a test screening of one movie of that era when the entire audience filed out before “the end” mercifully flashed on the screen. There was no need to solicit audience reaction — they’d already delivered their reaction. Dino Di Laurentiis, the fabled producer of the film, turned to me with a pained smile and said, “Obviously, this audience did not care for the popcorn.”

The movie opened in Europe, but never in the U.S.

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