In 1985, producer Wendy Finerman went to Warner Bros. to pitch a movie based on the novel "Forrest Gump."
A quirky story about a man with a low IQ whose remarkable life intersected key moments in modern American history, author Winston Groom's book was a difficult concept to sell to a major studio, but Warner Bros. took a gamble, acquired the property and Finerman went off to develop a script.
Today, "Forrest Gump," starring Tom Hanks and directed by Robert Zemeckis, has become one of the year's biggest blockbusters--for Paramount Pictures.
In 1990, Warner Bros., unable to come up with the kind of screenplay it wanted, put the script in "turnaround." That's Hollywood jargon for when a studio decides not to go forward with a project and offers it to other buyers in order to recoup its development costs.
While Paramount today is basking in the enormous success of "Gump"--it has grossed more than $165 million this summer and could be an Oscar contender next year--studio executives are also kicking themselves because a previous regime at Paramount let "Speed" slip away. The bomb-on-a-bus thriller starring Keanu Reeves has grossed more than $100 million this summer for 20th Century Fox.
That one studio can create a blockbuster from the same source material rejected by others is one of the great ironies of Hollywood.
Every studio has a story about the big one that got away. Columbia Pictures once had Steven Spielberg's "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial," but let it go to Universal Pictures, which then turned it into a $400-million blockbuster. Warner Bros. gave up on "Home Alone" because of an escalating budget, and it went on to gross nearly $286 million for Fox. "A League of Their Own" was at Fox before it became a big hit for Columbia.
But for the studio executives who let the big ones get away, the embarrassment can be stinging.
If you ask the question today, "Who at Warner Bros., and later, at Columbia, made the decision to pass on 'Forrest Gump'?" or "Who at Paramount made the decision to pass on 'Speed'?" memories begin to fade, fingers are pointed, and conversations quickly go Off the Record.
In Hollywood, it is a truism that just as people try to attach themselves to success, they also try to distance themselves from failure. And if it was you who made a decision to pass on that $200-million mega-hit, you hope nobody notices.
In the case of "Gump," the question is especially intriguing because at the time the project was placed in turnaround by Warner Bros., Finerman's husband, Mark Canton, was in charge of worldwide production at the studio.
Did Canton, who today heads Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures, reject his own wife's project? Or, was the decision made down the line by production executive Bruce Berman, who in 1990 worked directly under Canton?
Naturally, all that sources at Warner Bros. will say is that it was a "studio decision."
Finerman said that Canton was removed from making any decisions on her projects. "Mark did not get involved in the development of any of my projects at Warners, including 'Forrest Gump,' " Finerman said, declining further comment. Canton declined to be interviewed for this story.
However, others contend Canton cannot distance himself completely from the decision that ultimately was made.
"Mark Canton was aware of everything that went on," said a source familiar with the project. "There's something called pillow-talk. Are you telling me that his wife never told him that Warner Bros. was putting her movie in turnaround? . . . These things (did) not happen without his knowledge. He (was) in charge."
A source close to Canton, however, pointed out that Canton had been elevated in 1989 to executive vice president of Warner Bros. Inc. and, though he was still responsible for overseeing production, he was out of the day-to-day decision-making loop.
Allyn Stewart, who brought "Gump" to Warner Bros. when she was a vice president of production there, recalled that it was a "group decision" to put the script in turnaround.
Stewart said the decision was made at a meeting chaired by Berman and attended by as many as 10 of his staff. She said neither Canton nor the studio's two top executives, Bob Daly or Terry Semel, were present.
Some point the finger at Berman, while others say he is the convenient scapegoat.
"It was Bruce Berman," one source recalled. "Canton was not responsible day-to-day for putting things into development." Berman was on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment, but one of his defenders said, "You would be making a serious error if you laid this off on Berman."
To be sure, the Eric Roth screenplay that Paramount used for "Gump" did not exist when Warner Bros. put the project in turnaround. Similarly, the computer-generated special effects that Zemeckis inserted in the movie did not exist when Warner Bros. bought the rights to the novel in October, 1985. Indeed, neither Hanks nor Zemeckis was attached to the project.