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Stepping Back and Featuring the Big(ger) Picture

Stepping Back and Featuring the Big(ger) Picture

by Eugene Hernandez

Is it any surprise that a stage featuring Miramax‘ Harvey Weinstein,
Polygram‘s Michael Kuhn, producer Lynda Obst, Variety‘s Peter Bart,
and Viacom‘s Jonathan Dolgen in a discussion moderated by David
Frost would offer a few tasty morsels of insight, and a window into
a Hollywood film community that is as plagued by production and
distribution issues as the indie scene? The site was last week’s
Schroders/Variety Big Picture Conference.

As could be expected so soon after the Oscars, the subject immediately
turned to “the ‘Titanic‘ phenomenon.” On that subject, Obst lamented,
“The bar has been raised with respect to studio pictures — I also
think that the bar has been raised in terms of being able to say no
to directors — we’ve just given enourmous applause on the highest
possible scale that we award to a person who went wildly over budget.”

As could also be expected, Viacom’s Dolgen — whose company is the
recipient of the steady stream of cash carrying the phenomenon to
unimaginable depths — was defensive. Calling the film “a perfect
thing.” He gushed, “He’s made a perfect thing on its own terms, its
totally engaging, its totally overwhelming in some ways, it uses
technology in a new and special way. It makes you feel very much
a time and place.” While Harvey Weinstein praised the movie for
much more basic reasons, “What they have done is raised the pole
for how much money a movie can gross. The potentiality now is all
changed, and that’s exciting for the business.”

Obst offered a window into the reality that she and other producers
are currently facing. “It’s very difficult to make a $20 million studio
film,” she explained. “By and large if you are going to drive an idea
to the market place — a notion as opposed to a high concept, not a
tent pole but a script — you need a movie star in order to do it,” Obst
continued, “A small script becomes a $35 million – $40 million
movie.” For Obst, this situation is pushing her to work more and
more with the companies that thrive on the lower budgeted, not
quite as star-driven movies. “To me its a problem and its one of
the reasons for making movies with a Polygram or a Miramax or a
Searchlight — because there is possibly a way we in which we can
get talent to reduce their prices and therefore make movies in the
responsible way that these smaller companies are able to do.”
Whither the indie-minded emerging filmmakers in a world that will
place them in competition with the under-worked Hollywood writers
and producers? Well, that’s going to have to be addressed at the next
film festival seminar or IFP event.

In some ways countering what he calls the “conventional wisdom”
addressed in some of Obst’s points, Dolgen said, “I don’t really
believe that people are honing to that conventional wisdom as people
would like to say.” And Obst countered, “The conventional wisdom
is in crisis right now because the movie stars who make $20 million
a picture aren’t systematically opening pictures — the crisis of the
studio system this year is that its not automatic that if you pay $20
million that your baby boomer generation movie star is gonna open
that movie.” The new star, she explained, is “production,” or the
effects and spectacle that, as in the case of “Titanic,” can only be
delivered when studios (in this case Viacom’s Paramount and News
Corp’s FOX
) are involved.

For Harvey Weinstein, the crisis is in the scheduling. Never mind the
“glut of indies” argument that arises at virtually every gathering of
insiders from the indie community. Harvey is battling for screens with
Hollywood. “The distribution schedule looks like a mine field
combined with a chess board, and its just taking unbelievable skills
to be able to dance through that particular situation,” Weinstein
commented. Obst interjected, “And its driving up marketing costs
enormously — the only way you can compete with a glut of movies
is by a glut of marketing.”

The ever-probing Frost attempted to steer the conversation to the
studio-specialty system that recently saw the addition of a new
company at Paramount. “Do you feel that people are sort of copying
you Harvey, to try an exploit the cheaper picture?” Weinstein
responded plainly, “I feel like Israel and everybody is the six Arab
nations.” Frost replied, “Do you feel like Netanyahu or Peres?” Harvey
concluded, “I feel a bit more like Peres, but we have a good Air Force
…” Next question.

With regard to the way that specialty pictures are being distributed,
Peter Bart quizzed Weinstein about the possibility of taking the old
“roadshow” approach. “A picture like the ‘English Patient‘ arguably
could have opened in one city, charged reserved seats, had an
intermission — it needed an intermission — there maybe some
argument in returning to that…how do you feel about that?”

“I’ve got ‘Cinema Paradiso‘,” Weinstein explained, “We actually have
the director’s cut — which contrary to rumor we didn’t cut, it was
actually cut by his French producer — and I think we’re going to
experiment with that — because its three hours and ten minutes
— and put an intermission in and see what that does.”

“I agree with Michael,” Weinstein added, “One of the great things about
going to the movies is its so democratic. You just go into the theater.
Everybody pays the same price. Its one of the last bastions where
there isn’t a corporate box and you don’t have to feel excluded — its
just so accessible — which is why its the more popular medium, so
I don’t want to lose that. But I think when a movie is really long
sometimes maybe you can make a special presentation and that way
you subsidize the one performance a night that you can get…and I
disagree with Peter — I thought the ‘English Patient” was just fine
and it grossed $200 million dollars around the world.

Finally, a topic that was on the minds of many on the panel was
reactions to Seagram Chairman Edgar Bronfman’s comments earlier
in the day suggesting that tickets for bigger budget movies
should be sold at a higher price. “Rubbish,” Polygram’s Michael
Kuhn stated when asked by Frost for his reaction. He continued,
“When I make a movie such as ‘Bean‘, which is coming off a
250 million gross around the world — it cost 17 million dollars
— why should I be paid less. Because people enjoyed it just as
another movie that grossed $250 million and cost $70 million
to make. I think its a complete nonsense of an argument.”

Agreeing, Viacom’s Dolgen quipped, “It would have one interesting
benefit — you would actually have the studio lying to up the cost
of their film.”

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