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THE MOVIES : the fine art of MAKING THE DEAL

May 27, 1990|JOHN M. WILSON | Wilson is a frequent contributor to Calendar

If it sometimes seems that all of Hollywood's filmmaking community is scrambling from power breakfasts to pitch meetings to deal lunches to rewrite sessions, with lots of call-waiting jockey time in between, there's a reason.


It's the key to getting studio features into production--placing the right script in the right hands at the right moment. And when major stars become involved--as they so often do with summer's high-concept, big-budget productions--timing becomes crucial.

"Sometimes a film comes together in 12 minutes," says independent producer Dan Melnick, who has the $30-million-to-$35-million "Air America," starring Mel Gibson, on this summer's schedule of releases. "More often, not. Getting pictures off the ground today defies all the laws of gravity."

However, liftoff often occurs because of luck--key creative elements interested and available for assembly--rather than irrepressible quality.

"A PICTURE HAPPENS because the right people want to do it, not necessarily because of the intrinsic merits of the project," says screenwriter Nora Ephron, who doubles as an executive producer on this summer's "My Blue Heaven," which stars Steve Martin.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 2, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 7 Column 3 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong Agency--In an article, "The Fine Art of Making the Deal," in the Los Angeles Times Magazine special edition on The Movies (May 27), a reference to agent Lennie Hirshan wrongly indicated the agency where he works. Hirshan is with the William Morris Agency.

Then, with a laugh, she adds: "I don't necessarily mean my project."

Ephron ("Heartburn," "When Harry Met Sally") pitched the idea for "My Blue Heaven" to actress Goldie Hawn and her partner, Anthea Sylbert, in the fall of 1987. The story line: A mid-level Mafioso--an important murder witness--is sent by the Federal Witness Protection Program to a bucolic California community, where he starts a crime wave because it's the only thing he knows how to do. A beleaguered FBI agent tries to keep him in line, and a frustrated local district attorney tries futilely to bring him to justice.

Ephron, along with Hawn--who was interested in the D.A. role--took the idea to Warner Bros., which put it into development, with studio production executive Allyn Stewart assigned to coordinate. Shortly after Ephron started writing, however--in March, 1988--the 22-week Writers Guild strike intervened.

Following the strike and after revisions were made in the script, says Warners production chief Mark Canton, "It became very clear that it might not be a Goldie Hawn role." (Translation: According to a source close to the project, the part was not of star stature.)

When Hawn dropped out early in 1989, the project needed a name actor to maintain momentum. "I sent the script to Steve Martin, who responded very quickly," Ephron says. Martin wanted to play the lesser role of the FBI man. But Danny DeVito turned down the sizable and more offbeat part of the Mafioso, and Arnold Schwarzenegger never responded to studio queries, Ephron recalls. She then suggested that Martin play the gangster, and he agreed. For the FBI role, Martin's agent, John Gaines, suggested another client, Rick Moranis, who had become hot on the heels of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and other hits. Fast-rising Joan Cusack ("Working Girl") agreed to play the D.A.

But a top-flight comedy director was needed quickly--before the stars moved on to other commitments.

Director Herbert Ross ("The Turning Point," "Steel Magnolias") had a project delayed and "was available--immediately." "My Blue Heaven" went into production in October, 1989, about two years after being pitched.

"We got a package in place that could be made immediately," Ephron says. "It was very pleasant--the fastest of my career."

While Canton heaps high praise on the script ("You can't believe how much easier a good screenplay helps in making the movie"), Ephron is more modest.

"It's a perfectly all-right script that happened to interest the right people," she says.

IF "MY BLUE HEAVEN" WAS relatively painless to put together, "Air America" has been an operation sometimes in need of anesthesia.

A bombastic adventure about pilots in the CIA's covert airline during the Vietnam War, "Air America" had been in development for several years as a labor of love under director Richard Rush ("The Stunt Man") for Carolco Pictures. In September, 1987, when Melnick sold his IndieProd company to Carolco, he took over the project.

"They hadn't been able to get a good script on it," says Melnick. "It couldn't attract stars. It was just lumbering along."

Excited by the research material, Melnick brought in screenwriter John Eskow, who journeyed with Melnick and director Bob Rafelson to Malaysia and Thailand to scout locations. Malaysia was ruled out for shooting ("A repressive society, very grim," says Melnick), but its government did have many of the aircraft--some 40 planes--needed for the picture.

A logistically difficult film was slowly coming together.

Then the trio returned to the delays of the writers' strike. Because of the picture's scope and budget, an international star was needed, Melnick felt. "But no way can you get a star to commit unless something's written."

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