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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

"I'm feeling like this . . . ," said producer Robert Green hut with some reluctance in his voice. "I'm feeling like maybe it's not so bad to be a member of the club."

The Academy Award Club has for a decade now--since "Annie Hall"--welcomed Woody Allen and Bobby Greenhut, his associate since "Play It Again, Sam." If a New York branch of the academy had award dinners in Manhattan (preferably at a jazz spot, or at Elaine's) the Woody Allen gang would probably be there--sans Woody, of course, who shuns awards shows. With seven nominations, "Hannah and Her Sisters" is as mainstream as movies get. The news this year is that Greenhut expects to attend the Hollywood pomp and circumstance. "Last year it was all so lackluster, I can't even remember the nominees," admitted the producer. "But the movies are healthier this year. It seems to me to be 'Platoon's' moment--it's a great movie and it took Oliver Stone 10 years to make it. But we're in good intelligent company."

The surprise about Greenhut is that he has time to fly out. Production is ongoing on Woody Allen's 17th film, still untitled, to be released probably in November. After "Hannah" there was "Radio Days," and when the new one appears, the tally will be two Woody Allen releases in 1987. Last year, along with "Hannah," Greenhut also co-produced "Heartburn" with Mike Nichols. Getting the green lights are easy with names like these, and the chronology is quick. "The operation has gotten very streamlined," said Greenhut. "Probably we could prepare a feature faster than anybody. We could get a film up in three months if we had to--including the writing."

(Since 1978, Orion Pictures has released all of Woody Allen's films; before 1978, the same distributors, then at United Artists, released most of the earlier Woody Allen films. According to Orion CEO Eric Pleskow, the arrangement works this way: "Woody decides what he wants to do. We agree on budget. He goes forward. There are no other discussions. There is never a disagreement.")

How did "Hannah" become more than a glint in Woody Allen's eye? Greenhut simplified: "With Woody in the last six years, we've been making films as quickly as we can get them together. The arrangement allows us to go at our own speed." But speed is the key word. "When 'Purple Rose of Cairo' was in post-production, Woody wrote the screenplay for 'Hannah.' 'Hannah' took three or four months to prepare, and in the fall of '84 we were ready to go."

It can't be that simple. "Well, usually we have an early discussion. Woody zeros in on what kind of film it will be so we can start planning weather, etc. If there are going to be hurdles production-wise, he lets me know before the script is written. 'Purple Rose' was much more difficult than 'Hannah' from a production standpoint--the 1930s, a small-town movie theater, the clothes."

Though unspoken it's understood between the two men that there's a rhythm. "We alternate a visually more ambitious film with something simple. We go from a tough one to a simple one to catch our breath. For example, 'Radio Days' was complicated logistically; 'Hannah' was not. Think about it. 'Hannah' was not a period piece, which is a pleasure--though maybe not creatively simple. But wardrobe is easier. You have the regular affluent Manhattan locations. The hardest thing about 'Hannah' was the casting. Especially finding actors age 40 to 60."

Does the "rhythm" of alternating easy films with difficult ones transfer to release patterns? Recently a rival studio V.P. questioned the wisdom of releasing "Radio Days" while "Hannah" was in Oscar competition. The thinking might go like this: "Gee, Dianne Wiest (supporting actress nominee) is wonderful in 'Hannah' but next year she can win for 'Radio Days.' " Does Woody Allen thus hurt himself? Does new product, even Woody Allen product, hurt something like "Hannah"? It's not something Greenhut hasn't worried about.

"After 20 years of trying to figure it out, I've stopped. I've had discussions in concert with our distributors. I've had well-thought-out plans. But whether it's February or August seems not to matter with us. We recently re-released 'Hannah' and people said it would dilute 'Radio Days,' or vice-versa. 'Zelig' came out mid-summer. So? There's no perfect time. What we are talking about is a function of the calendar."

And the movie business. Woody Allen has come uptown, so to speak, in terms of both budget and box office. What used to be $3-million Woody Allen films have grown with the times, and so have the receipts. "Hannah" cost $9 million; domestic grosses are hovering around $80 million, according to Greenhut. Allen's more experimental "Radio Days" cost $15 million; "Purple Rose" cost $13 million; the new one, $9 million. As Pleskow puts it, "Woody doesn't like bigger budgets any more than we do. But figures are a fact of life."

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