What's That Nasty, Whispering Buzz?
By Ron Grover
Every summer, there are two key holidays for the studios: Memorial Day and July 4th. Both are usually long weekends, and moviegoers head to their local theater in droves.
The most important time for the studios isn't either of those weekends, however. It's actually sometime between the All American holidays. You see, June is when studios generally have their spin machines whirring at full speed. It's when studio executives start bad-mouthing the competition, spreading less-than-flattering stories about each other's films.
I guess it's an ideal time to do it: You can slam any movie that hasn't lived up to its prerelease hype (Pearl Harbor, anyone?), and maybe you can doom an unreleased film to a poor opening weekend. Granted, gossip -- including the less-than-flattering variety -- isn't exactly unknown in Tinseltown. But this year, the naysayers seem to be working overtime.
DISMEMBER PEARL HARBOR.
I recently had lunch, for example, with one movie executive who dissed two upcoming films: Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence for Warner Brothers, and Fox's Tim Burton remake of Planet of the Apes.
Before we get to those two movies, let's examine the heavy negative buzz that's going around town about Pearl Harbor, which is going to gross "only" $200 million at the U.S. box office. Disney's crime with that film? O.K., some critics say it's too long, too sappy, and not accurate. That's not what Hollywood cares about. As far as Hollywood is concerned, Pearl Harbor's real crime is that it isn't going to be the biggest film of 2001, as promised earlier this year by Disney Chairman Michael Eisner. Instead, it may merely be the second- or third-biggest film of the year, and will return a tidy -- if not spectacular -- profit.
Why does the Hollywood crowd so love to see someone else fail? I haven't been able to fathom that one, although that particular strain of bloodlust is as common as the Jags and Porsches that execs lease to impress each other. Best as I can see, the thinking goes like this: If studios can throw enough dirt at the competition, maybe -- just maybe -- the buzz will jump from the gossip mills (the Palm restaurant, say, and the trade publications) to the popular press. Perhaps, if the mainstream press takes notice, that bad buzz will influence folks who rely on People or US when choosing which movie to see. Toxic gossip also helps to deflect attention from the studio exec who's dishing the dirt, which, given many of their records, is definitely something they should want.
SPANKING THE MONKEY.
Back to Burton's Planet of the Apes, which has humans rocketing off to a world controlled by sentient simians. According to the buzz, Burton and crew holed up for more than a week in London's Pinewood Studios, where they hurriedly reshot the ending. That little tidbit was picked up from the film gossip site aint-it-cool-news.com and quickly made the rounds of the power-lunch set.
Reshoots usually mean trouble, but Burton is renowned for secrecy -- and for changing endings. Maybe the film is flawed. Maybe it isn't. But hey, is it such a bad thing to have the public think so? That depends on whether you're Fox and Tim Burton, or a rival studio and someone else.
In the early '90s, a similar buzz about a reshoots and a poorly conceived ending plagued Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which was produced by Francis Coppola. The result was a film that generated a meager $22 million at the box office and helped lead to a massive reshuffling of the deck at Sony.
THE POSTMAN'S HARD KNOCKS.
The same thing happened to The Postman, the 1997 Kevin Costner film that was supposed to rescue him from Waterworld. Make no mistake, it really was a bad film. But the post-apocalyptic tale probably would have done more than its pathetic $18 million at the box office had Hollywood types not dished so much dirt to the press.
The movie getting most of the negative spin right now is A.I., the tale of a robotic boy "adopted" by a real family. Rumors insist it is a muddied mess, mostly because Spielberg, rather than make his own storyboard, chose to stick as close as possible to the one laid out by the late director Stanley Kubrick. I've also heard that Warner refused to screen the film for reporters other than those it considers friendly. And even then, reviews in some of the major outlets, including Newsweek and Time, were mixed -- nothing like the gushes that normally greet Spielberg's efforts.
We'll soon see if the movie has legs. I've got to believe that a Spielberg movie, even one that doesn't represent him at the top of his game, is going to have a decent opening and attract a loyal audience. Still, the movie is taking on a little water, thanks to the very loud anti-Dreamworks crowd in Hollywood.
Spielberg himself is sacrosanct, but Dreamworks' success with a string of films, including Gladiator, American Beauty, and Shrek, has set the tongues of some very powerful Hollywood executives to wagging. It wasn't so long ago that many of them were pitching unlikely stories about Dreamworks running out of cash. "Will you guys be writing about how bad Spielberg and Dreamworks are doing if that film tanks?" one Hollywood biggie asked me expectantly.
Probably not. Even if A.I. flops, I know it takes more than one failure to unravel a studio, especially one with as much muscle behind it as Dreamworks. (Heck, that same Hollywood biggie even told me that A.I. had to add the words Artificial Intelligence in some of its promotion material to avoid having the movie confused with A.1. steak sauce!)
I must say it's amusing to see the spin doctors at work in summer, right before they head off to Sun Valley, or Europe, or wherever else they go once the heavy lifting is over. It can be almost as good a show as some of the ones they put up on the screen. No, that's not right: Often, it's more entertaining -- and a whole lot cheaper.
Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BW Online
Edited by Patricia O'Connell