Hollywood’s ‘secret’ survival guide

Charlton Heston's politics out of character

HBO’s recent decision to bury six episodes of a new TV show and eat the $25 million cost provides a vivid reminder of an abiding law of show business: Everyone knows how to deal with a hit, but no one copes well with defeat.

When a new movie or TV show strikes paydirt, it’s always fun to count the people lining up to take credit. When a project tanks, however, some of the same people set a speed record for leaving the scene of the crime.

In the HBO example, a series called “12 Miles of Bad Road.” the producers, to their credit, decided to hang in there with their project. Indeed, when HBO bailed, Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth Thomason sent it to every critic they could find. Their tactics met with mixed results — Most critics, like Variety‘s Brian Lowry, liked the show but didn’t love it. And no other network has yet picked it up.

The studios, too, have had to cope with a series of clunkers this year, and they haven’t exactly kept their cool. Among their bad habits:

  • Scheduling, then canceling, critics’ screenings. As in the case of “Leatherheads,” this is the equivalent of announcing to the media community that a picture doesn’t play. The critics will hammer it anyway, but maybe a couple of days later.

  • Scaling down expectations: As with “Drillbit Taylor,” the marketing folks created a lowball forecast for the opening weekend, then gloated when they hit that number. None of this gets away from the basic fact that the film didn’t perform.

  • Delaying release dates: When studios say they’ve found a “more appropriate” date for a film many months later, the subtext usually is they don’t want red ink splashed over their quarterly results.

“Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise, has been delayed twice (it’s now slated for Feb. 13, 2009) and, while United Artists insists the film has excellent prospects, the glimmer of doubt is still put out there.

To be sure, studios, too, take the HBO route now and then, but it’s become increasingly difficult to make a pricey movie disappear or slip it direct to video.

During my studio days, I once decided to bury a film after several truly embarrassing trial screenings. I thought I’d gotten away with it until the CEO of the parent company intervened. “If you’re going to make something disappear, at least cover your tracks!” he admonished. His scheme: Transfer the basic rights to a separate shell company so that the title not only vanishes from the release schedule but even from the books. The plan worked suberbly until the SEC sent up a red flag, as if to say, “You made it, now live with it.”

The regulators had a point.

* * *

Politics and pitfalls

I had a certain respect and fondness for Charlton Heston, who died April 5. He was a gracious and considerate man (and my occasional tennis partner) but there was one sector of his life that seemed out of character: his politics. And with more and more stars and random celebrities going public with their political beliefs today, it’s an area worth revisiting.

There was something admirably earnest, if downright square, about Heston’s attitudes. An activist on civil rights and a defender of actors’ rights as president of SAG, Heston in his later years swerved to the right and became a shrill advocate for the NRA. It was chilling to see the man who played Moses and Michelangelo hoisting rifles at NRA conventions and declaiming that, “In this country if someone breaks into your house, you can shoot them.”

Heston, too, let himself be “set up” by a range of mischief-makers from Gore Vidal to Michael Moore. The flustered actor walked out of an onscreen Moore interview, and let Vidal draw him into a bizarre debate over the supposedly homoerotic undertones of “Ben-Hur.” In his autobiography, Vidal said that he and director William Wyler had agreed that the Heston-Stephen Boyd relationship in the film was too distanced and that an erotic subtext was therefore added.

Rather than ignore Vidal’s chiding, Heston fired back to Time magazine arguing that Vidal’s proposals on the movie had been rejected by everyone, including Wyler, and that Vidal’s assertions “irritated the hell out of me.”

Everyone’s got a right to be irritable. Heston, however, was basically a nuts-and-bolts Midwesterner who grew up in the idyllic setting of St. Helen, Michigan. He did well in the world, but had trouble coping with its changing dynamic. His conflicts might provide grist among the young actors today who are venturing for the first time into the political arena.

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