This is not the Panama Canal . We're just trying to finish a little comedy.
--Warren Beatty, producer and co-star of "Ishtar"
When a two-page advertisement for "Ishtar" ran recently in the trade paper Variety, it did not contain the typical production information and back-slapping congratulatory messages common in these kinds of notices. Against an all-black background, the white type read: "Ishtar. National release May 22, 1987."
To the moviegoing public the news could hardly be considered monumental. It simply meant that audiences would have to wait an additional six months before seeing the comedy about two down-and-out New York singer-songwriters played by Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.
But within the movie industry the ad was akin to heaving a gasoline-dunked torch on the already burning gossip mill. At studio commissaries and along talent-agency corridors, the questions emerged: Was "Ishtar" a mess? Was it true that director Elaine May wanted to return to Morocco to shoot additional scenes and that producer-star Warren Beatty didn't want to? Had the budget gone out of control and reached the $50-million mark? How would the loss of this holiday heavyweight affect distribution plans of other studios?
Columbia Pictures had expected "Ishtar" to be its only Christmas release, and with stars like Beatty and Hoffman--each of whom reportedly received about $6 million to appear in the film--the marquee value alone made it a favorite for the hit of the holiday season.
A 90-second trailer attached to 1,554 prints of the comedy "Armed and Dangerous" that is still playing in some theaters, promises: "Coming soon to a theater near you."
That trailer and a color magazine photograph of Beatty and Hoffman atop a cheery-looking camel were the only crumbs available to the press or the public on the film.
But in the only interview he has done in connection with the film, Beatty agreed to discuss "Ishtar" and the reasons for the delay.
According to Beatty and his attorney Bert Fields (who also represented Hoffman and May on "Ishtar"), the film makers were not contractually obliged to deliver a print on any specific date. "The studio wanted a Christmas picture and we thought it was worth trying to make that date," Beatty said. "We were all very fond of Guy McElwaine (the recently deposed chairman of the studio who made the deal for the studio). He asked us to rush it and we were trying to do it, but it takes time."
Under the directing hand of Elaine May, ("Mikey and Nicky," "The Heartbreak Kid"), "Ishtar" started shooting in Morocco on Oct. 28, 1985, and finished--with a one-month break as the production returned to New York--on March 16, 1986. In order to have the picture ready for its originally planned Nov. 26 release, Beatty said that May would have had 6 1/2 months for post-production--the editing and mixing of the film.
Beatty said that his contract allows him to spend more than a year on post-production of his films. He insisted that 6 1/2 months was simply not enough time for May to bring the film up to her standards.
"Elaine is a meticulous director and it seemed like a shame to force her into a rushed situation. When you're making a movie, you have to keep your eye on the ball and let someone work the way they work best."
(Hoffman's contract guarantees him 18 months from completion of filming to delivery of a finished print, Fields said.) Whether by contract or not, it is clear that the studio was counting on "Ishtar" as its Christmas plum. "They're (Beatty and Fields) hiding behind a technicality," said one high-ranking Columbia executive who insisted on anonymity. "The studio was anticipating the film and the fact that it will not be ready is a grave disappointment. You don't put out a trailer now for a film opening on Memorial Day."
The loss of "Ishtar" has had a profound impact on the already thin holiday roster. Of the nine major distributors, four studios--Columbia, MGM, United Artists and Cannon have no Christmas movie. Spotting box-office daylight, Universal Pictures has moved Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" from a limited run in New York and Los Angeles to 600 theaters across the country.
Exhibitors who were counting on playing "Ishtar" are now scrambling to find substitutes. "The absence of 'Ishtar' has created a void no studio will be able to fill," said Marvin Goldfarb, head film buyer for the 550-screen Commonwealth Theaters. Though "Ishtar" had not yet been "bid out" (terms offered to theater owners), Goldfarb expected to play the picture in most of his theaters. "We (Commonwealth Theaters) need a hit movie and without 'Ishtar,' Christmas is lacking a big-name star picture."
(Ironically, by moving to next May, "Ishtar" will avoid Eddie Murphy's "The Golden Child" but will open within days of the opening of Murphy's "Beverly Hills Cop II," according to the current schedule at Paramount.)