"Brazil" is for sale. The movie, not the country.
Sidney Sheinberg, president of MCA Inc., the parent company of Universal Pictures, says the studio will take a loss on its $9-million investment in Terry Gilliam's futuristic black comedy, even though he and other Universal executives believe that the film has Academy Award potential.
Responding for the first time to Gilliam's public campaign to get his version of "Brazil" released in the United States, Sheinberg said he has told Gilliam and producer Arnon Milchan many times that if they want to get their version released, he'd sell it at a discounted price.
" 'If this movie is so wonderful in its present form, get somebody else to buy it,' " Sheinberg quoted himself as telling the film makers. " 'We'll take a loss on it.' "
During a two-hour interview in his Universal City office, Sheinberg said that while he thinks the movie "has brilliance in many portions of it," he assesses the commercial potential of Gilliam's cut at "something close to zero" and questioned whether any other studio would want to buy it.
Sheinberg said he has already approached the heads of two other studios about a potential sale. One of them laughed, he said. The other said he was interested only if Universal gave up the rights for nothing and agreed to cover the costs of prints and advertising.
Sheinberg wouldn't say how much less than $9 million he would take for "Brazil," but at one point in the interview he said that when he read Gilliam's ad in the Oct. 2 issue of Daily Variety--"Dear Sid Sheinberg: When are you going to release my film, 'Brazil?' "--he wanted to respond with an ad of his own:
"For sale. Half price. A film by Terry Gilliam."
"Brazil" producer Milchan, reached in Paris, said that if Sheinberg is willing to settle for half price--$4.5 million--he's got a deal.
"I will agree right now to pay him $4.5 million to get it back," Milchan said.
Meanwhile, Sheinberg said Universal is completing editing on its own version of "Brazil," intending to test both cuts with research audiences before deciding which to release.
Gilliam, who had final cut approval in his contracts with both Milchan and Universal, lost that privilege when he delivered a film 17 minutes over the contractual limit of 2 hours and 5 minutes. Twentieth Century Fox, which put up $6 million of the film's $15-million budget, released the long version in Europe several months ago, although it had the same 2-hour-and-5-minute limit written into its agreement.
"Brazil" could serve as a textbook model for examining the conflict of art and commerce in Hollywood: a serious director trying to protect a serious movie from a serious studio head trying to protect serious money.
In a way, it's the flip side to "Heaven's Gate."
"Brazil" is a movie that was made on budget, on schedule and according to its approved shooting script. Many of those who've seen the film--including top marketing and production executives at Universal--believe that while it has major marketing drawbacks, it is one of the year's best pictures.
"I think Terry Gilliam is a genius, and the movie is brilliantly made," said Marvin Antonowsky, president of Universal's marketing division, "but a lot of brilliantly made pictures don't do business. It's a very highbrow picture."
The questions now, nine months after Gilliam delivered his first cut to Universal, are whether the film will even be released this year, and if so, by whom, and whose version?
Gilliam, whose "Time Bandits" overcame the inaccessible label to gross $42 million for Embassy Pictures, has turned "Brazil" into a cause celebre, publicly accusing Sheinberg of bullying the film makers out of their editing rights so Universal can turn the film into something more accessible and upbeat for American audiences.
"Sid has said all along that he wants a happy ending," Gilliam said. "I've said all along that the ending is not negotiable."
"I don't want a happy ending; I want a satisfying ending," Sheinberg said. " 'Romeo and Juliet' didn't have a happy ending, but it had a satisfying ending."
"Brazil" (the title is taken from the film's theme song) is an Orwellian nightmare/fantasy about a numb mid-level bureaucrat (Jonathan Pryce) who stirs to life and has to be restrained by the system. There is a scene in the film where the protagonist is tied to a chair and tortured by his oppressors. In interviews, Gilliam has cast himself as the man in the chair and Sheinberg as his tormentor.
"I don't know why in God's name we fall into a category akin to Hitler or Genghis Khan for insisting that we get the picture in the length we contracted for," Sheinberg said, adding that Gilliam's public attack against the studio is more an act of terrorism than heroism.
Few people close to the Gilliam/Sheinberg war zone believe that length is the real issue. Sheinberg himself said, "As a matter of contract, length was the only issue that we had any right to insist on."