IN HIS QUEST TO FIND A SUCCESSOR to Sherry Lansing, Tom Freston might take incidental note of this fact: It was just 40 years ago that history’s most successful studio regime first appeared on the radar. When United Artists won an Oscar for “Marty,” Hollywood awakened to the realization that this iconoclastic little company would redefine how to create and finance films.
The basic idea behind United Artists in that epoch was to afford filmmakers creative control and substantial ownership of their projects. Directors and stars took less money upfront in return for liberation from studio bureaucrats. Indeed, UA’s entire executive corps consisted of four or five people — no development troops, no story notes.
The business plan meshed perfectly with the times. In its heyday, UA turned out everything from the “Bond” pictures to “Never on Sunday.” Its ranks of filmmakers ranged from Billy Wilder to such amazing Brits as Tony Richardson (“Tom Jones”) and Lindsay Anderson (“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”). Its biggest flop was a Mel Gibson-like biblical epic which didn’t have Mel Gibson. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was directed by George Stevens and it tanked.
UA’s strength was that it was a privately owned company (Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin were its principals) and its creative chief was a brilliant young exec named David Picker. When it was swallowed up by a conglomerate called Transamerica in 1967, its days were numbered. Its legacy, however, provides a living reminder to corporate Hollywood that mavericks can smartly outperform conglomerates given the right place and time — and attitude.
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The public hair-pulling between Leslee Dart and Pat Kingsley, the matriarchs of PMK-HBH, may be diverting to the press, but to celebrities it’s tantamount to losing their security blanket.
To the Nicole Kidmans of the world, a press agent represents a shield against the raging paparazzi. To a Mike Nichols or Martin Scorsese, watching a feud between their press agents at Oscar time is like losing their nanny on the first day of school.
When Kingsley canned Dart, did either think of this chain reaction of trauma? Did they ponder the skyrocketing analyst bills? Stars and filmmakers were scurrying to choose sides last week, but clearly their preferred choice was being ignored: They wanted their nannies to kiss and make up, but there was no sign this was happening.
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One of the fascinating idiosyncrasies of the film-directing trade is that artistic paralysis can stem from both success and failure.
Martin Brest has yet to start another film following”Gigli” and, even more remarkably, James Cameron has yet to initiate a successor to “Titanic,” which he started prepping precisely 10 years ago. It’s understandable why abject failure can be daunting; yet success of the magnitude of “Titanic” can also cast a pall. It was, after all, the first billion-dollar movie.
There are rumblings now that Cameron may be zeroing in on a new film, though Cameron’s aides deny it. Bloggers have claimed its working title is “Battle Angel,” and that it will embrace innovative technology and a “Titanic” budget.
Interestingly, 20th Century Fox, whose executives became catatonic during the shooting of “Titanic,” seem prepared to finance Cameron’s next movie even though its survivors still shrivel when recalling the traumas and shouting matches.
Will Cameron actually shout “action” in the near future? Some at Fox think so. And sleepless nights already accompany that production.