Hollywood’s new scapegoat

Strike allows some to bail out of projects

During the best of times, movies heading toward production are fragile chemical equations. Add a writers’ strike to that mix and things were bound to explode. “It’s tough enough to get things right,” says one senior agent. “This difficult situation makes it even more difficult. If something is risky it’s always the first casualty, whether there’s a strike or anything else.”

So it was no surprise when five volatile go-projects fell apart last week: Sony pulled the February start for Ron Howard’s “Da Vinci Code” sequel “Angels & Demons,” starring Tom Hanks; United Artists shut down Oliver Stone’s November starter “Pinkville,” an investigation into the My Lai massacre starring Bruce Willis; Warner Bros. pushed back Mira Nair’s Indian epic “Shantaram,” starring Johnny Depp; Weinstein Co. postponed “Nine,” Rob Marshall’s screen adaptation of the Broadway musical inspired by Fellini’s “8 ½”; and when Brad Pitt pulled out of Kevin Macdonald’s political thriller “State of Play,” Universal threatened to sue.

Players involved in all five pics cited striking writers as a key factor in scuttling the projects. But while the strike certainly made things more vexing, there were also other forces at play. The strike offers studios, filmmakers and movie stars a smokescreen for doing just what they want to do, with a convenient scapegoat.

“It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card,” says one producer.

Over the past six months the looming writers’ strike (with potential director and actor walkouts threatened in July 2008), pushed the studios to announce a raft of green lights sooner than they would have under normal circumstances. Stars jostled for position on projects lined up for takeoff like planes at LaGuardia. But many of those commitments seem less firm than if writers were available to make changes.

Take Stone’s “Pinkville.” The Vietnam era movie was just three weeks away from principal photography on Dec. 10, with complex sets built in Thailand and a large cast led by Bruce Willis prepping to fly to Southeast Asia, when UA chief Paula Wagner shut it down. She cites WGA member Stone’s habitual script-tinkering throughout shooting as the main reason for not being able to proceed. Not being able to write during a strike “violates his process,” she says. But the script, by Stone and Mikko Alanne, had been locked down enough to get the movie to the verge of shooting.

It was Willis who had made the film’s financing possible by taking a fraction of his normal fee. And it was Willis who walked away, saying that the script was only 90% there, and booked another, more commercial, film with a bigger payday, Jonathan Mostow’s “The Surrogates,” originally ready to go in March, now set for February for Touchstone Pictures. Some parties say there was a “scheduling issue,” while others insist that the two movies could have gone back to back.

Stone is repped by CAA partner Rick Nicita, who is married to Wagner. Obviously, UA had initially wanted to work with the filmmaker. But today’s harsh box office climate for political war films makes it likely that in the wake of Robert Redford and UA co-head Tom Cruise’s disastrous political screed “Lions for Lambs,” Willis’s withdrawal gave UA an excuse to shut down a commercially risky film. It is improbable that “Pinkville,” even with “Platoon” director Stone attached, will get made anytime soon. Encumbered by several million dollars in costs, it needs another star to save it.

As it turns out, Hanks, Pitt and Depp may be available.

Actually, Hanks and director Ron Howard are sticking close to “Angels & Demons.” In this case, Sony and Imagine are waiting out the strike, because this tentpole is such a big-money franchise that it would be foolish to proceed without everyone being 100% happy with Akiva Goldsman’s script. This ultra-commercial sequel isn’t going anywhere; Sony moved its official release date from Christmas 2008 to May 15, 2009. And on a smaller scale, Harvey Weinstein couldn’t afford to make any mistakes with “Nine,” his big play for a major musical with his “Chicago” director Rob Marshall, who contractually owes him a follow-up movie. In this case, Wall Street investors are breathing down Weinstein’s neck. While “Nine’s” global cast — Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard — is charming, it lacks real marquee draws. Weinstein had given Michael Tolkin’s script to Anthony Minghella for a rewrite just three days before the strike was called, and Minghella simply ran out of time. So Weinstein pushed “Nine” back to September 2008, to give Marshall plenty of time to rehearse with his cast.

“Michael Tolkin’s first draft helped jump start this highly anticipated project and now with Anthony Minghella on board to channel his unmatched passion for Fellini into the script, we believe we have the key ingredients needed to bring this incredible project to the screen,” says Weinstein.

On the other hand, Universal and Working Title are desperately trying to keep “State of Play,” which was supposed to start Nov. 15, on the fast track. The studio was threatening to sue the pay-or-play Pitt, as it once did Mike Myers over “Dieter.” (Myers eventually settled.) Now the studio is trying to replace the balky Pitt with “American Gangster” star Russell Crowe, who trying to work out his schedule. He is skedded to start Ridley Scott’s “Nottingham” in March for the studio.

Universal and Working Title couldn’t afford to wait for Pitt because they had assembled a huge A-list cast, all committed to work for several weeks at a time, all backing into other pictures. Lose Pitt, and the entire house of cards — Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman– would come tumbling down. That’s why replacing him with another Universal-friendly player was the best solution. “We have a fantastic script,” says one Universal exec. “We were ready to go. Everybody knew what we were doing. It was not a writer/script issue. I hope we recast the movie.”

But it was a script issue for Pitt. His reps at CAA insist that “the script was not ready, because there was no writer to finish it.” Major stars are invested in not making career mistakes, in feeling confident that they can carry a movie to a win. Thesps like Pitt, who often take chances on riskier material, have to jump in with both feet. Pitt is known for last-minute waffling. (He walked away from Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” which flopped with Hugh Jackman, and the Coen brothers’ “The White Sea,” which never got made, and only reluctantly went ahead with Doug Liman’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” which was a huge hit. He just completed filming the Coens’ “Burn After Reading.”) “If it’s script-related, it becomes strike-related,” comments one agent at CAA.

Similarly, while neither Warners, producer Graham King, nor star Johnny Depp had script issues with “Shantaram,” they couldn’t afford to proceed with a movie of this scope on location in Mumbai with destructive monsoons looming. That meant they had to commit to a “hot start date” by the third week in February. And while director Nair could make cuts in the too-long script to accommodate the studio’s budget demands, she couldn’t add anything. Again, Depp, who was playing a heroin addict who escapes from prison and flees to India to become a slum doctor, had too much at stake to go forward without the usual read-throughs, enhancements, and writer changes. Warners says it is committed to starting production in September. Depp will likely stick with the project — after all, Warners bought the Gregory David Roberts book for him for $2-million — until the ideal conditions can be met.

That’s the point. Mega-stars like Pitt have come expect to be able work in conditions that are ideal. But studios are committed to filling their pipelines, and Universal, at least, is willing to butt heads with a major star to do so. Other studios are capitulating. Odds are, Crowe will make “State of Play,” Hanks will eventually shoot “Angels & Demons,” Marshall will direct “Nine,” and Depp will travel to India for “Shantaram.” “Pinkville” looks more iffy, but Stone and producer Jon Kilik could revive it on a smaller indie scale.

Other movies are hovering and could go either way, like Sony’s Denzel Washington-starrer “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” and an untitled “Fast and Furious” sequel starring Vin Diesel. It looks like the 22nd James Bond pic, starring Daniel Craig, is a solid go, although the filmmakers pushed the start date from December to January, “for production reasons,” according to striking writer Paul Haggis, who was unable to complete his final polish, “mostly to adapt it to locations.” 

For the near term, the strike’s impact on the film industry isn’t nearly as dramatic as television. The strongest films will survive, weaker ones will fall away or wait to get stronger, and if there are fewer films in the pipeline, every pic gains a better shot at making some boxoffice headway. If the strike heads toward summer, when the directors and actors could shut everything down — then that’s a disaster.