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Troubled Route to Pirate Epic 'Cutthroat' : Movies: As the swashbuckling adventure starring Geena Davis, directed by her husband, Renny Harlin, opens this weekend, financial woes surround its release.

December 21, 1995|JUDY BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The pirate epic "Cutthroat Island"--the year's second-most-expensive picture--finally arrives in theaters this weekend, months delayed and millions over budget, with a once-high-flying movie company submerged in its wake.

"Cutthroat" is the work of Finnish-born action director Renny Harlin ("Cliffhanger," "Die Hard 2") and stars his wife, Geena Davis. It was produced by Carolco Pictures, responsible for megahits such as "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Basic Instinct," but which recently declared bankruptcy--a victim of free spending and low-risk financing strategies that cut into profits. Twentieth Century Fox has put in a bid for the Carolco library and most other assets, although this film is being released by MGM.

"Cutthroat" has already been likened by competitors, and even some involved with the production, to this summer's "Waterworld," another famously expensive film shot on water that could never turn a profit on its theatrical box office alone.

Harlin, MGM and Carolco insist that "Cutthroat"--billed as a "Treasure Island" for the '90s--stands on its own as a non-stop thrill ride, action adventure and should be given a chance to sail before Hollywood naysayers weigh in.

But the roughest seas in this yarn may be in how "Cutthroat" got made at all.

Start with the budget. Some Carolco and MGM sources peg the final figure at $120 million, although Carolco says it's about $90 million, including interest and insurance fees.

Unlike "Waterworld," "Cutthroat" does not have a theme park attraction or other tie-ins to bolster revenues. Universal and star Kevin Costner, a producer on "Waterworld," say that film's budget was $172 million, but sources involved with the movie have said it climbed higher than $200 million, some putting it at $235 million.

But the gods smiled on Universal, which reportedly got to write off all but $50 million of "Waterworld's" budget when the studio was sold by Japan's Matsushita Electric Industrial Corp. to the Canadian distiller Seagram's.

Another problem for "Cutthroat" is that unlike "Waterworld," it has no huge star. Davis, who plays a sword-wielding grand dame, has most recently appeared in back-to-back flops ("Speechless" and "Angie"), and co-star Matthew Modine has even less marquee draw.

When the film was first brought to Carolco by producer Laurence Mark, Michael Douglas was expected to star. Mario Kassar, Carolco's colorful longtime top executive, had pressed Harlin to direct and wanted Davis to play the female lead, a role that was secondary to Douglas' at the time.

After contemplating the role for weeks and bringing on a second round of writers for rewrites, Douglas--weary from his shoot on "Disclosure" and concerned that he wouldn't have enough time to prepare for a strenuous role that included intense fencing lessons--dropped out.

At the time, reports said Davis had strong-armed Harlin into beefing up her role and overshadowing Douglas' character.

"My wife will not talk about this because she doesn't want to offend anyone in any way and she doesn't want anything said misinterpreted," Harlin said last week. "The truth is this: I am friends with Mario. Mario approached me about doing this picture and said he wanted Geena to play the female lead. She said she was scared [about doing] it, that she couldn't carry this alone. She would only do it if she had a bigger male star. She would do it if Michael said yes. She wanted it to be a 'Romancing the Stone' [the 1984 hit that starred Douglas and Kathleen Turner]. She never really wanted to do this picture. She wanted to do 'Mistress of the Seas.' "

That film, Harlin said, "was much less of an adventure and more of an extremely erotic story about these two women and their escapades with pirates. It was more like a 'Dangerous Liaisons' on ships."

But "Mistress," steered by Jon Peters, fell apart at Columbia Pictures after the director, Paul Verhoeven, failed to agree on a lower budget. Columbia then approached Harlin about directing "Mistress." At the same time, Kassar was pressing him to do "Cutthroat," an action picture that he conceded is much more geared to his talents.

The difference was that Columbia was a solid studio with sound financing, while Carolco had been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for years, relying on foreign investors and its lender, French bank Credit Lyonnais, for the much-needed cash. Harlin had already been through the hurdles of dickering for money with Carolco's keepers on his last picture, "Cliffhanger," a film that ended up grossing about $89 million in box office.

"On 'Cliffhanger,' the production was postponed three months because we couldn't get the money," Harlin said. "I remember I had to tell Sly [Stallone] one day . . . 'Just get on the plane and go. The money somehow will be there.' I always felt like we were really flying by the seat of our pants."

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