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A sure thing at the boxoffice

The long and winding road of Joel Schumacher’s career is a storybook example of how Hollywood will eventually reward a talent that is able to deliver movies with mass appeal without sacrificing time, budget or killing the morale of the cast and crew.

If one were to graph Schumacher’s career, the arrow would be pointing skyward right now. A man who started out as an art director for commercials, becomes a costume designer for Woody Allen on “Sleepers,” then pens such colorful urban films as “Car Wash” and “The Wiz.” After a string of oddball features (“St. Elmo’s Fire,” “The Lost Boys” and “Dying “Young”), he parlays his visual flair into vast success and becomes a studio head’s dream director who can deliver sure-fire bankable products one after another.

With his four most recent directorial efforts — all at Warner Brothers — he has been entrusted with a pair of the biggest franchises in Hollywood: the second and third “Batman” installments and two John Grisham adaptations. The new Batman pic, “Batman and Robin,” will be released this summer. “Runaway Jury”, the next Grisham adaptation, is in the pipeline for Schumacher and Warners, though no start date is set.

Though best-selling authors are known to be prickly about movie adaptations, “Grisham thinks the world of Joel,” per WB distribution prexy Barry Reardon.

Joel Schumacher is the kind of filmmaker for whom the studio is not the enemy, the ancillary chores that come with being a major franchise director are not sniffed at, and who appears to be universally loved by actors and execs alike. “I go all the way back to ‘Lost Boys’ (1987) with Joel,” observes WB distribution prexy Barry Reardon. “You could tell he had a great flair for the visuals. He came along very quickly after that. He’s already made three $100 million movies with us alone: ‘The Client’, ‘Batman Forever’ and ‘A Time to Kill.’ ”

Schumacher’s feature helming debut was “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” in 1981. With a steadily rising arc during the 1980’s — helming the brat pack classic “St. Elmo’s Fire,” the teen vampire pic “The Lost Boys” and the Gallic remake “Cousins” — Schumacher proved his mettle to studio brass. In the ’90s, the Parsons Design School grad entered a new phase of his career with a 20-something ensemble piece, the visually striking “Flatliners.”

Michael Nathanson, now New Regency CEO (soon to be MGM Pictures prexy and CEO), recalls meeting Schumacher about helming “Flatliners” while at Columbia. “I was in (producer) Michael Douglas’ office. From the second he opened his mouth, I saw Joel had a vision of the hereafter, the world between life and death. He stays true to the vision, the underlying theme of the material.”

Schumacher’s films are accessible, easy to watch: They draw you in and keep you hooked. This, matched with a sophisticated visual sense and a certain ease with storytelling, makes for a commercial filmmaker whose movies are highly palatable to mass auds. But none of that might matter were it not for the director’s personal relationships with execs at Warners-based New Regency and Warner Brothers itself, a studio known for its loyalty and long-standing deals with the likes of Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson.

“He was so proud to have finished ‘Batman and Robin’ two weeks ahead of schedule,” says Arnon Milchan, owner of New Regency and producer of such Schumacher pics as “Falling Down”, “The Client” and “A Time to Kill.” (Milchan is Showest’s 1997 Producer of the Year.) “For Joel, being successful doesn’t mean being wasteful or expensive. He is not interested in negative things — he forces you to come to him with positive stuff. I always call him when I’m down.”

Milchan says that with Schumacher, “you’re looking at a guy who didn’t become an overnight success. He can do almost everything on a movie: Nearly everything he asks people to do he can do himself. So there’s a level of comfort, a sure hand.”

Nathanson echoes other execs when he says Schumacher is scrupulously honest, positive and open. “He speaks the truth, he has high ethical standards every step of the way. He’s been there every step of the way since the time I met him.”

Nathanson went on to produce “A Time to Kill” with Schumacher helming: The adaptation of Grisham’s first novel went on to become one of the top 10 grossers of 1996. Grisham himself was said to be quite pleased with both of the director’s films based on his thrillers. Now, when was the last time one heard about a writer who was happy with the way Hollywood treated his novel?

Warners execs also agree that what sets Schumacher apart is his willingness to see a project through all of its phases, including marketing, merchandising and publicity. “There is no director more collaborative in the filmmaking process from the financial and studio point of view,” claims Nathanson. “Joel is one of the greatest directors you can have in marketing a film,” agrees Barry Reardon. “I took 15 exhibitors down to see the shooting of Batmobile scenes in Orange County. Joel came over, talked to them all, took pictures of them with the Batmobile. It’s a nuance Joel is so adept at.”

“Batman is more than a movie — it’s an industry,” says WB Co-Chairman Robert A. Daly. Of the upcoming “Batman and Robin,” Daly says “It’s not easy to do it on schedule, with no craziness going on. You go to the set — it’s ahead of schedule, everybody’s happy. All the costumes are contemporary and hip: He makes you feel like it’s happening today.

“Everything he touches is with terrific flair and taste. Joel stays on a movie from beginning to end: he talks to toy manufacturers, follows through on the video, does the publicity. Joel is conscientious, he cares very much about what he does. He’s a member of our family. As far as we’re concerned, we hope he’s with us forever.”

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