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Is It a Deal? Maybe, Maybe Not

When Leonardo DiCaprio expressed interest in 'American Psycho,' the Hollywood publicity machine went into overdrive.

June 03, 1998|AMY WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Has Leo gone "Psycho"?

That's what Hollywood wags are wondering in the wake of a series of contradictory announcements about Leonardo DiCaprio's commitment--or lack of it--to play a serial killer in the film version of Bret Easton Ellis' novel "American Psycho."

Earlier this month at the Cannes International Film Festival, Lions Gate Films announced with great fanfare that the 23-year-old heartthrob--and arguably the world's hottest movie star coming off "Titanic"--had agreed to take the lead in the controversial project.

Then came the backlash: Daily Variety reported that by turning the low-budget film into a big-ticket project, DiCaprio (who was offered $21 million) had effectively caused Lions Gate to ditch two people who were attached to the film: actor Christian Bale and director Mary Harron.

DiCaprio apparently wasn't pleased by the report. The next day his publicists suddenly denied that he had ever committed to the project in the first place--though they had been silent for the two weeks since Lions Gate's announcement.

"They jumped the gun," publicist Cindy Guagenti said of Lions Gate. "He was approached about the project, he's interested, but they have not negotiated the contract at all. He may do the project or he may do another project." Among films also under consideration for DiCaprio, she said: Spike Lee's Son of Sam project and Lasse Hallstrom's "Cider House Rules."

The announcement and the skinback jump-started the continuing debate about what it means to be "attached" to a movie project. The back-and-forth also said much about the mammoth power of A-list movie stars to transform the films with which they are connected. But mostly, the story shone a light on the workings of the industry's publicity machinery.

Publicizing which stars have committed to upcoming movie projects is an age-old tradition in Hollywood. More than mere bragging, these announcements affect production companies' ability to finance their films. If a big-name star with worldwide recognition is committed to a project, it is easier to pre-sell the foreign distribution rights, bringing in cash before the film is even made. Many such deals are made in Cannes, so there is incentive to trumpet your stars there.

Industry veterans stress, however, that without an iron-clad agreement, the strategy can backfire.

"I make it a practice never to announce a star until the deal is done--that is, if the agent agrees to the deal and the material terms are agreed upon," said Mike Medavoy, longtime studio chief and co-founder of Phoenix Pictures. "If you haven't agreed on material terms, then [the star] has got an out."

But what to do when word leaks out before you've completed the deal? According to sources, that is what happened with "American Psycho." (Because negotiations with DiCaprio are continuing, several key players refused to speak on the record for this story, referring inquiries to their publicists.)

Sources said the trade press, which routinely reports that actors are "nearing" decisions on projects before the deals are finalized, got wind of DiCaprio's increasing interest in the project. Eager for control, Lions Gate rushed to put out a release.

Though DiCaprio's team insists that he had not committed to the project, one source close to the negotiation says that the actor had indicated he was definitely in--but negotiations about financial and other terms were not complete. When the publicity pendulum suddenly swung against the actor, this source said, DiCaprio flinched.

Some see this as inevitable given the inexact nature of Hollywood deal-making, which typically begins with an oral agreement, followed by a deal memo and reams of paperwork outlining major points--but which rarely culminates in a long-form agreement signed by both sides.

Others see this as proof that leaks to the trade papers--often by sources who have a personal agenda--are out of control.

"It's gotten to the point where you can't even finish a deal before it's out there because everybody's racing to get their name in print," said one Los Angeles publicist, noting that commonly even the flimsiest stories about possible casting make a point of naming actors' agents, lawyers and managers. "So often, they are the source of the articles. Everybody talks."

Most observers, though, are less interested in the initial burst of publicity than in the awkward way DiCaprio attempted to distance himself from the fray. By equivocating--saying not that he would never commit to "American Psycho," only that he had not done so yet--he reduced his own spin doctors to making even more confusing clarifications.

Rick Yorn, DiCaprio's manager, said he had been misquoted in Lions Gate's original release, which had him saying, "Leo is extremely excited about this script and has decided to make it a priority." But the statement, he said, was not untrue.

"It was never a quote that I would ever make. At the same time, it's not wrong," Yorn told Daily Variety.

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