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JACK MATHEWS

A Fictional Role For A Mogul Pope

September 22, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

The following is excerpted from "Things Go Better With Pope," a chapter in the book "The Rise and Fall of Hollywood: The First Century," which first appeared in bookstores in the year 2008.

One of the more bizarre management episodes in Hollywood began in the fall of 1987 when executives of the Coca-Cola Co., a soft drink giant then dabbling in entertainment, were so moved by Pope John Paul II's plea for social and moral integrity in film and television that it offered him a three-year, play-or-pay contract to run one of its two studios.

It was an astonishing event for a couple of reasons. First, most people who watched the Pope's speech to yawning entertainment industry leaders on television that Sept. 15 would have sworn the audience didn't hear a word of it. Second, the Pope accepted the offer.

"Basically, all we said to him was, 'Put up or shut up,' "joked one of the Coke officials at a combined press conference/Mass at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "In his speech, he challenged the industry to 'promote human dignity.' We said, 'You show us what it is, your eminence; we'll promote it.' "

One of the ironies of Coke's offer to the Pope was that at the same time John Paul was pushing humanitarian themes, Coke was squeezing out David Puttnam--the only studio head in Hollywood actively interested in making those kinds of films--as chairman of Columbia Pictures.

Puttnam, whose abrupt style had gotten him in trouble with the well-oiled Hollywood machinery, announced his resignation in Burbank at about the same moment that John Paul was conducting a papal Mass at nearby Dodger Stadium. To some people, the coincidence was taken not only as a miracle, but as a sign from God to go forth and make more sequels.

To appreciate the boldness of the Coke-Pope deal, you have to understand the condition of the film industry during the Great Intellectual Drought of the 1980s.

Although people still trekked to movie theaters, like lemmings tumbling into the Dead Sea, the industry was in disarray. The studios changed chief executives like papal gowns. Scripts, stars, directors and producers were assembled into unholy alliances by powerful agents and fed into the hungry production pipelines.

Few of the movies were any good, but because the population had doubled between the 1950s and the 1980s, theaters continued to sell about the same number of tickets. This would look like a downward trend on any sophisticated economic chart, but it continued to pay the mortgages in Bel-Air, and with the advent of videocassettes to bolster the ledgers, Hollywood appeared to be prospering.

When Pope John Paul took over at Tri-Star, he changed its name to Trinity Entertainment (one newspaper wag said he should have renamed it St. Jude's, after the patron of lost causes) and did what all new studio heads do. He threw out the projects he wasn't interested in and began making sweetheart production deals with his own business associates--Divine Intervention Pictures, Vatican Video, Golden Rule FilmWorks.

But he operated with unprecedented decency, blessing projects put in turnaround and offering salvation to those producers whose free lunches he cut off.

The Pope was reportedly appalled by the scripts he read. He said he had no idea movies were promoting that much evil. His previous film watching had been limited to movies with Catholic themes, and after those movies had been edited by the Vatican censor--a former poison taster--there wasn't much left. One night, he watched "The Exorcist," "The Omen" trilogy and Alan Parker's "Angel Heart" in a total of 14 minutes.

Within a month of taking over the studio, John Paul announced that Trinity was going ahead with production on "Rambo III," the studio's hottest property. However, there were script changes. The setting, he said, was being shifted from Afghanistan to Biafra and John Rambo would be carrying food instead of machine guns.

The $30-million movie opened at Christmas, 1988, and grossed $1,400.

John Paul II wasn't around for the "Rambo III" debacle. He was forced out at the previous Epiphany when Coke sold Trinity to United States Gypsum Co., which then became the subject of a hostile takeover bid by Toyota Motors.

Coke officials said they were not unhappy with the Pope's production slate at Trinity, even while acknowledging the difficulty of marketing such films as "Father, Son and the Holy Ghost," a high-concept project pitched as "a male version of 'Three Faces of Eve' "; "RoboSaint," about a martyr who comes back to life and thanks his killers, and "The Sanctity of Marriage," a love story that Trinity's marketing people tried to sell as a "safe-sex film."

But there was no question that the Pope alienated most of the Hollywood Establishment with what one film maker described as his "holier than thou attitude," his high media profile and his charismatic negotiating style.

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