By Ronald Grover To the many mysteries of Hollywood, let's add a new one: Why would anyone give director Quentin Tarantino $55 million to make Kill Bill, a blood-splattered take on Hong Kong martial-arts flicks? Yes, the 40-year old Tarantino is Hollywood's favorite bad-boy director (and a personal favorite of mine). The former video-store clerk struck it big in 1994 with the gruesome crime flick Pulp Fiction, which grossed more than $107 million and won him an Oscar for best screenplay.
In the nine years since, however, Tarantino has directed just one film -- Jackie Brown, an ode to "blaxploitation" flicks and a so-so effort that grossed $39 million. Rumors flew around Hollywood that he has been in a deep writer's funk, fiddling with a World War II script that he never felt he got right.
LEFT COLD. Now, Tarantion is back -- or is he? After seeing Kill Bill, which opens this week, I'm not so sure. Starring Pulp Fiction's Uma Thurman as a sword-swinging assassin known simply as "the Bride," the film is being bankrolled by Miramax Films, which knows something about long shots. It gave Tarantino his start with the 1992 cult classic Reservoir Dogs. But that film cost Miramax a mere $1.2 million, and even Pulp Fiction set the studio's Harvey and Bob Weinstein back a mere $8 million.
However, $55 million is serious -- if not outlandish -- money for a film that shifts between English and English-subtitled Japanese, has a 20-minute animated segment, and sends more separated arms and legs to the floor than Hollywood usually does in a year. It left me cold.
Miramax is betting that it just might be a 21st century farce with box-office appeal. A couple of younger women who screened Kill Bill with me said it was terrific, and the blood "was a lot but not over the top." Figuring they might be Harvey Weinstein's secretaries, I called Paul Dergaradebian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., which handicaps movie prospects for theater chains. "I loved it," he says, "With all the over-the-top horror flicks and kung-fu craziness right now, it will be a big hit with the kids." A marketing executive I know says it's testing well with audiences under 30.
O.K., so maybe this isn't a film for aging business writers who have, shall we say, watched 30 pass by some time back.
HELLISH START. Still, I wonder about the film's economics. Initially budgeted at $42 million, Tarantino turned in a 222-page script (about twice the norm) and then went on to shoot for a staggeringly long 155 days. The first scene alone went five days overschedule when Tarantino and Yuen Wo-Ping, the fight master who choreographed both The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, scrapped scenes that were costly to improvise. Harvey Weinstein hustled to the set in Beijing in the first week just to make sure all hell wasn't breaking loose.
That wasn't the half of it. Well, actually it was the half of it. Tarantino kept shooting scenes, and soon Harvey insisted that the director cut the film in half (the current version runs 110 minutes) and release a sequel from the footage he had already shot. Very unusual -- and possibly very expensive, too.
The studio isn't saying how much the second flick will cost. For starters, Miramax had to increase salaries for some of its headline talent, say Hollywood insiders, including Thurman and Darryl Hannah, who will appear in both episodes. As for marketing costs, Miramax plans to release the first version "very wide" to more than 3,000 theaters. The second, scheduled for release on Feb. 20, will probably go into just as many. Distribution costs mount with numbers like that.
CHOP-SOCKY APPEAL? Miramax, as is its custom, has sold off most of the foreign rights to others to protect its downside. That will likely cut down on any serious losses. But it doesn't mean the studio has a hit on its hands. The film is still R-rated, so a lot of kung-fu junior high schoolers will be left hanging out in the lobbies.
"It remains to be seen what mainstream Yank audiences will make of an American film that's, at heart, a loving recapitulation of the '70s-era chop-socky highlights," wrote Variety reviewer Todd McCarthy, who generally liked the first installment. McCarthy figures: "Tarantino's large following, which has been waiting for six years for a follow-up to Jackie Brown, and the spectacular action sequences should generate flashy B.O. numbers for Miramax."
Perhaps. Miramax's PR machine has been working overtime, getting Thurman on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and most of the talk shows, plus a large piece in Time magazine. The notion of film fans waiting for Tarantino to give them his next flick is all part of the shtick. Even the director knows it: In the film's opening credit, his listing includes "the fourth film by Quentin Tarantino."
I find it hard not to like a guy who takes himself that seriously. I just wonder if big money can be made in what's basically a warped take on Asian bloodsport. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online