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On the Ropes : Columbia Execs Under Fire Over Costly Flops 'Gladiator,' 'Radio Flyer'

March 17, 1992|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the same time, the studio pulled out a plan that had been in the works for a long time--giving away "tens of thousands" of free copies of the soundtrack. That stunt boosted box-office attendance on opening night by 20%, but box-office figures were dismal.

By late last week, there was talk that Silver or Spitz or both would be fired. Those allied with Spitz were blaming Silver for the fiasco. Those siding with Silver were blaming Spitz. Columbia was in a foul mood.

Canton would escape criticism, the source added, because he inherited the film from the prior regime of Frank Price.

The flap with "Gladiator" could not have come at a worse time because Columbia was still reeling from "Radio Flyer," a film about child abuse.

While "Hudson Hawk" starring Bruce Willis is the reigning champ of box-office disasters with losses of at least $50 million, "Radio Flyer" is no puny contender.

Had it cost only $17- or $18-million, "it would have been a sweet little film that failed," said one source close to the project. "Now you have this big, fat elephant that has been shot and when it falls it leaves a dent in the ground.

"The child abuse was more potent than any people's love of the movie," he added. "I think a lot of people knew it would be tough for this movie to work. A vast majority knew that at the studio."

Industry sources said it was Jon Peters who championed the project until he was pushed out of Columbia last year.

"Radio Flyer" was the first big purchase by Peters and his partner, Peter Guber, after they were installed as co-chairmen of the studio by Sony Corp., which had stunned Hollywood in 1989 with its $3.4-billion purchase of Columbia Pictures Entertainment Inc.

At a marketing meeting a year ago, Peters moved senior studio executives when he told them of his hopes for the movie and that he too had had a troubled childhood.

"This was a script Jon loved more than life itself," said one who attended the meeting.

The script touched off a spectacular bidding war and was eventually purchased by Stonebridge Entertainment Inc., whose chairman is actor and producer Michael Douglas. As part of the $1.1-million deal, then-27-year-old screenwriter David Mickey Evans was given the chance by Douglas to direct the film.

"Radio Flyer"--a story of two young brothers who flee into a fantasy world to escape an abusive, beer-swilling stepfather--enchanted many who read the script.

The initial budget was $14 million, but 10 days into filming Douglas knew there were significant problems with the directing and pulled the plug.

Richard Donner, who made such hits as "Lethal Weapon" and "Superman," was then asked to step in. He demanded and got $5 million to direct "Radio Flyer" while his wife, Lauren Shuler-Donner, was paid $1 million as producer.

Costs ballooned further when the decision was made to hire a new cast that included Lorraine Bracco ("GoodFellas," "Medicine Man") and Donner decided to film in Northern California.

But even with a new director and cast, some who saw early cuts of the film wondered if the subject matter itself would turn off audiences.

The film was test marketed more than a dozen times last summer in Torrance. "You can go down to Torrance High School and find kids who have seen it three or four times," said one source.

The initial audience reaction was that the movie was "very confused and not even at all," according to a person with knowledge of the screenings. "Then the filmmakers made a huge improvement in the movie. It's a helluva lot better than it was."

Industry sources said Columbia could not be faulted for the way it marketed "Radio Flyer," adding that they did the best they could, given that the subject matter was unpalatable.

For now, the studio is looking ahead to the April 10 release of "Stephen King's Sleepwalkers."

If that flops, they said, then Columbia really does have problems.

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