Bay bends budget stream to save ‘Island’

Helmer tap dances to get his pix off the ground

While he delivered hits like “Armageddon,” “Bad Boys,” “Pearl Harbor” and “The Rock,” Michael Bay was a director who could be as combustible as his subject matter when an actor or an exec got in the way.

So what did Bay do when he discovered his latest project, “The Island,” was in danger of being beached over budget?

“I decided to tap dance,” Bay says.

That meant lopping more than $10 million off the budget, guaranteeing overages and vowing he’d deliver for a July 22, 2005, opening. When DreamWorks balked at writing a $120 million check — the most ever for a homegrown live-action project — he helped recruit Warner Bros. as co-financier.

“I remembered moments when it seemed like ‘Pearl Harbor’ was going down, and I swear I thought ‘The Island’ was going down about four or five times,” Bay says. “There were points where the studio would say, ‘If you can’t cut $1 million here, we’re out.’ I thought to myself: They are $9 million in, could they do that?”

Bay says such studio threats used to be bargaining tactics. “Not anymore,” he says.

After Hollywood has seen too many films with soaring costs and minimum profits, Bay offers a cautionary note to fellow helmers: “Passion is OK, but you’d better not be arrogant or you won’t work.”

Early this fall, Universal execs decided it was better to eat as much as $30 million in pay-or-play costs on “American Gangster” rather than make a film that seemed headed over $100 million and had limited foreign potential.

If director Antoine Fuqua was unwilling to compromise his vision, he’d hardly be alone. David Fincher has reached an impasse with Paramount and WB over “Benjamin Button,” a Forrest Gump-like fable in which a man ages backward.

Despite interest from Brad Pitt, the pic stalled when the studios wouldn’t budge beyond $150 million. DreamWorks said no thanks to “The Talisman,” an Ed Zwick-directed film, scrapped over budget and creative concerns.

“Island” could have suffered the same fate. Though Steven Spielberg personally recruited Bay, budget was always a concern. The fate of the picture came down to Bay making his case to WB execs to underwrite half the cost.

The budget was trimmed. Plus, Bay put some of his own salary back and guaranteed overages — even though he vowed never to do it again after Michael Eisner forced him and producer Jerry Bruckheimer to do that on “Pearl Harbor.” Bay also used his connections to ring up product placement deals worth $750,000.

“I felt like I spent more time preparing the budget than prepping the movie, but this was all about getting to the starting gate.”

The helmer estimates that they cut about $15 million from the budget. “Getting the last $3 million out was the roughest. But my producer, Ian Bryce, and I got it done and came away feeling pumped about it.”

Bay is now in Detroit shooting the thriller, which concerns a man who realizes he’s been cloned to provide spare body parts. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson star.

DreamWorks production president Adam Goodman worked closely with Bay on the budget. Goodman would not say whether “Island” would have been shipwrecked had Bay not been so flexible. But he acknowledged a change in attitude on the studio level.

“With production and P&A costs, it can make more sense to bail if the alternative is to spend multiple millions more on a movie that can run off the rails,” Goodman says.

“These big films are no longer on autopilot; there’s no longer a point of no return where films will get made because money has been spent.

“So it is dangerous for producers and directors to consider studio executives to be the enemy who should be kept at arm’s length. These days, you need allies inside,” he says.

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