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H’w’d’s three scariest words: ‘Labor of love’

MEMO TO: Elie Samaha

FROM: Peter Bart

The experience of producing “Battlefield Earth” — arguably the worst-reviewed movie in a decade — has hopefully taught you some valuable lessons, Elie.

Lesson one: The three most ominous words for a producer are “labor of love.” When someone like John Travolta, your star in “Battlefield Earth,” says he’ll commit to a movie because it’s a “labor of love,” that really means the following:

  • He’s given the script to every studio in town and they’ve all passed.

  • Even the star’s agent hates the project so much that he’s embarrassed to ask for money.

Ask any veteran producer about labors of love and you’ll elicit a look of abject agony. They’ll tell you about the time Steve McQueen fought to do Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” — not even his own family would see that movie. They’ll tell you about Marlon Brando and all the scripts about Indians he’d tried to get financed. They’ll tell you about Bill Murray and “The Razor’s Edge,” Kevin Costner and “The Postman” and Bruce Willis and “Breakfast of Champions.”

Though you manage to get more coverage from the press than even Leonardo DiCaprio — the New York Times Magazine canonized you last weekend — you’re still a relative newcomer to the producing game.

Clearly, you love to hold forth about your star-laden slate. You claim to have movies in development with directors ranging from Kirk Wong to Kaos, with actors ranging from De Niro to Vin Diesel. Your scripts have titles like “Six” and “Ecks vs. Sever.” You like to bill yourself as the busiest producer in Hollywood.

WELL, BUSY AS YOU ARE, Elie, I hope you’ll carve out a few minutes to reflect on your “Battlefield Earth” reviews and maybe even prepare a Cliff Notes version for Travolta. Stars don’t like to read their reviews, I realize, but these may be instructive.

Your movie is “The ‘Showgirls’ of sci-fi shoot-em-ups,” wrote Dennis Harvey in Variety. ” ‘Battlefield Earth’ may well turn out to be the worst movie of this century,” said Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times. ” ‘Ishtar,’ pishtar. … You haven’t endured pain till you’ve seen ‘Battlefield Earth,’ ” said Rita Kempley in the Washington Post. “Some movies run off the rails, but this one is like the train crash in ‘The Fugitive,’ ” said Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Notices like this normally would give someone like Travolta pause. After all, his career has been a roller-coaster ride. He managed to go from the heights of “Saturday Night Fever” to the sub-basement of “Moment by Moment” and “Perfect.”

The thing to remember, however, Elie, is that stars make comebacks faster than producers. If a producer who needs independent financing comes out with a series of turkeys, people stop signing checks and subdistributors stop advancing the big bucks. What with the dollar soaring overseas, it’s already tough enough to peddle Hollywood product. And “Battlefield Earth’s” 67% drop in its second weekend doesn’t exactly help the cause.

I know you consider yourself a tough guy, Elie, plus you’re from the Middle East, where people know how to drive a hard bargain. You’ve already made your mark in businesses ranging from nightclubs to dry cleaning. You like to talk the talk.

I’D REMIND YOU, HOWEVER, there’s a long list of foreign-born producers who started strong in Hollywood only to hit tough times. Remember Mario Kassar, Menahem Golan, Giancarlo Parretti and even the fabled Dino De Laurentiis. Their formula, by and large, was not that different from yours. Go after big stars. Pay them more than anyone else. Finance their labors of love.

Oops, there are those terrifying words again. Every major star, it seems, has a favorite script in the bottom of his drawer that is guaranteed to self-destruct. Their labor of love will surely earn them that long-sought Oscar. Or sometimes the stars just fixate on a particular writer.

John Travolta, a proselytizing Scientologist, clearly relished the mission of making a film based on an old L. Ron Hubbard novel, since Hubbard was the guru of Scientology.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with having a favorite writer, provided you don’t cause $70 million or so to be spent inflicting your taste on a clueless public.

So the next time a star talks about his labor of love, Elie, ask him to do you a favor: Give me a script you really hate. Maybe there’s a big hit lurking there.

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