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Company Town | THE BIZ

The Geffen Camp Heh-Hehs All the Way to the Bank

January 17, 1997|CLAUDIA ELLER

Paramount Pictures, naturally, will make a nice profit off its current hit movie, "Beavis and Butt-head Do America."

Not so obviously, so will the David Geffen Foundation--the film's biggest profit participant.

It was entertainment mogul David Geffen who first proposed the idea of transforming the irreverent MTV cartoon series into a movie and record album.

Hours after the show hit the MTV airwaves three years ago, Geffen remembers calling MTV Networks Chairman Tom Freston and saying: "This is going to be huge. Let's make an album and a movie of this."

"And we made a deal that day," he said.

Freston said Geffen called him at home that Saturday at 7 a.m., the morning after the show first aired in March 1993, "before anyone in my own company," and told him, " 'This is an incredible thing you have--it's totally right for the time.' "

Geffen's instincts were right.

The movie, which cost $11.7 million to produce and about $20 million to market, will gross more than $60 million in its U.S. theatrical run. Additional millions are expected to flow in from the movie's soundtrack, international release and ancillary sales, particularly home video. And, of course, plans for a movie sequel are under discussion.

As with all movies and Broadway shows Geffen produces, 100% of his profit goes to his foundation, which supports various AIDS charities, arts and cultural groups and civil liberties organizations. Over the last five years, the foundation has donated more than $35 million to such causes. Because his deals call for Geffen to receive 10% of a film's first dollar gross--which is distributed even before the studio recoups its costs--his foundation will reap millions from "Beavis."

The soundtrack, released by Geffen Records, has so far sold more than 900,000 copies, and the label's 1993 album "The Beavis and Butt-head Experience," featuring original recordings by such artists as Cher, Aerosmith and Nirvana, sold more than 2 million copies worldwide.

When all revenue streams are eventually counted, Geffen estimates his foundation could receive $5 million to $7 million. Geffen Films' 1994 hit movie "Interview With the Vampire" gave the charity group more than $8 million.

The first movie collaboration between Geffen and MTV, "Joe's Apartment," released by Warner Bros. last summer, was a box-office flop at $4.6 million domestically.

No matter. MTV's relationship with Geffen, which Freston describes as "fantastic," goes back more than 15 years. "David Geffen was the first guy to give us music videos at MTV," when the music channel was launched in 1981, said Freston.

For years, MTV and Geffen had a gentleman's agreement on "Beavis" while a number of other studios were vying for the film rights. Getting "Beavis" to the big screen was "a long road," Freston said.

The MTV chief said that although Geffen "knew it was a hit out of the box," they had to convince "Beavis and Butt-head" creator Mike Judge that a movie was a good idea.

Another big issue holding things up was deciding whether it should be a live-action or animated movie. Geffen and Freston believed live action was the way to go, because the conventional wisdom held that animated movies aimed at adult audiences weren't commercial.

"Mike was resistant," Freston said. He argued that the movie should stay true to the characters' animated roots since it could hurt the franchise having live actors trying to capture the essence and physical likeness of the geeky, hormone-engorged teens.

Once it was agreed that the movie would be animated, another problem arose. Originally, it was to be produced at Warner Bros., because that's where Geffen Films was based at the time. But when Sumner Redstone, whose Viacom owns MTV, bought Paramount, the first cross-promotional project he excitedly announced was the "Beavis and Butt-head" movie.

"Everybody got bent out of shape," Freston said. After an aborted attempt to structure a joint venture with Warner, Paramount retained the rights and struck a deal with Geffen Films to produce with MTV Productions.

Meanwhile, Geffen had inaugurated a new studio, DreamWorks SKG, with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Geffen Films is no longer active other than to service preexisting projects.

"Beavis" is a first release from MTV Films, a start-up feature unit in Los Angeles headed by David Gale. According to Van Toffler, the New York-based head of MTV Productions, the movie's success "has made a fair amount of people pay greater attention" to the company.

NBC's order for 22 episodes of a new sketch comedy starring former MTV "Singled Out" co-host Jenny McCarthy (to air this fall) has similarly raised the profile of TV projects by the company.

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