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59th ACADEMY AWARDS : BEATING THE ODDS : They Gambled Their Time and Energy, and Didn't Give Up

March 29, 1987|PAUL ROSENFIELD

This is the year Merchant becomes rich. Not rich-rich, but rich enough. In England the film has done what Merchant calls "James Bond business," meaning "$7 million. Which means that in one country alone, the United Kingdom, the movie has made back its negative cost. I expect a worldwide gross of $60 million. The profit ratio is 400%, something that never happens unless you are talking about a 'Star Wars.' "

Probably "Room," of all the Merchant Ivory product, was the easiest to launch. The project began, appropriately, on a holiday. "I'd gone to Corfu to rest directly after the London opening of 'The Europeans,' " Merchant recalled. "At Ruth's suggestion I took the Forster novel to read. Forster's trustees had asked us earlier to do 'A Passage to India,' but we wanted to do 'Heat and Dust.' " (When Merchant explained why, it was clear why the team has stayed together: " 'Heat and Dust' was based on Ruth's novel, and 1981 was our 20th anniversary. Our first film ('Householder') was based on another of Ruth's novels--you see the symmetry.")

Because the Forster trustees were up on Merchant-Ivory films (especially the ones adapted from Henry James) there was no trouble about acquiring "Room With a View." "It was late '84 when we had a final draft of the script. Then we sprung into action."

How does Merchant spring into action? "I got a call from Ira Deutchman at Cinecom, who asked if the screenplay was available and I said yes. Then we met in New York, where he offered us $950,000 against American and Canadian rights. Then Roger Wingate at Curzon Film Distributors gave us $250,000. Goldcrest put up $650,000. National Film Corp. gave us $650,000. We had commitments from Britain's Channel Four and Embassy Home Video but. . . ." Merchant's pause was not unexpected: "No American distributor wanted us. Even Sam Goldwyn Jr. said no to 'Room With a View.' "

But Merchant says the green light came the "moment when Ira Deutchman said: 'Here's $950,000.' You see, that's a lot of money for a British film made for American audiences. Because of Ira we had an advance guarantee plus a commitment." Last week Deutchman in New York, explained his backing: "Merchant and Ivory make movies that are consistently good--they now have a following."

Next to commit was Maggie Smith, in a case of coincidence odd even in show business. Merchant pantomimed scribbling a note on the Polo Lounge tablecloth. "I did a note to Maggie, to attach to the script, saying 'Jim and I would love you to play Charlotte Bartlett.' Maggie was in a play in London, and I took the script to her. She read it in her dressing room after a matinee but listen to this!" Merchant's grin was ear-to-ear. "Maggie always listens to the radio between performances to relax herself. And while she was reading our script she heard a British radio broadcast of--guess what?--'A Room With a View,' including scenes of Charlotte Bartlett's! Of course she had to say yes to us!"

But of course. Not for nothing is Merchant the son of an Indian textile merchant who was a major gambler. The son learned early to play for big stakes. Merchant-Ivory gets 5% of "Room's" worldwide profit, plus more financial control over "Maurice," their upcoming picture based on another Forster classic. The reason is Credit Lyonnais, the French bank based in Rotterdam, which could really be considered akin to a major studio: "They have something like 21 nominations," reminded Merchant. "They 'do' us and Hemdale and Cannon and God knows who else. Franz Afman of Credit Lyonnais has a thing of not shying away from independent companies just because they have no collaterals. Banking is finally a person-to-person business."

So is movie making. Merchant sees himself maybe becoming "a religious guru or a politician, because I transmit conviction with great speed. Masses of people appeal to me. But you have to be realistic too. I have a master's from NYU in business administration and it doesn't hurt when you are dealing with five lawyers and five accountants on every film but . . . the success here is due to small appetites. We've gone without proper fees but we made what we believed in. And as I've told Ruth, she's the luckiest screenwriter alive; 90% of her scripts get made."

By hook or crook. At one point in "The Bostonians"--which Ruth Jhabvala wrote on speculation and waited four years to see produced--Merchant went to the sons of Estee Lauder for financing "because the film was cultural, with American values and maybe up their alley. I found the interest was on the periphery. The movie business is perceived as glamorous, but when it comes time to write checks, people fly away. I'm used to being rejected nine times out of 10. We're not showing investors paradise; we are not saying 'Here are the stars and here is this wonderful pre-sold project.' A lot of people see movie making not as an act of commitment--but an act of glamour. It isn't."


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