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They're Rumors, Not Predictions

The gossip's in overdrive: The production is out of control. But just because there's trouble on the set doesn't mean there will be trouble at the box office.

October 29, 2000|ALJEAN HARMETZ | Aljean Harmetz is the author of "The Making of the Wizard of Oz" and "Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca."

Movies that are perceived to be in trouble wave any number of red flags. First and foremost, production drags on for extra months as the budget spirals upward. The director may be a tyrant like James Cameron on "Titanic." Or he may simply lose control of his $100-million budget, as Kevin Reynolds did on "Waterworld." A sullen male star may hole up in his dressing room snorting cocaine. Or, always a bad sign, the studio may move a movie's release from prime time to fringe time as 20th Century Fox did when it pushed "The Last of the Mohicans" out of summer 1992 and into October.

A few decades ago, studios had enough control to bury the red flags under a counteroffensive of positive publicity on all but their most expensive and notorious movies. Today, there are few secrets on any Hollywood film set. And the 100 crew members and 14 leading actors have little loyalty to their current studio bosses because they will be working at a different studio next month.

"It's gotten more and more difficult, if not impossible, to cover up what went on on the set when crew members go from the day's work to pounding out gossip on the Internet," says Laurence Mark, co-producer of "Jerry Maguire."

So when Bill Murray and Lucy Liu had joint tantrums on the set of "Charlie's Angels" last spring, shutting down production for the rest of the day, they might as well have stood on Hollywood Boulevard waving a red flag saying "$65-million production in trouble" at passing cars.

But the Murray-Liu screaming matches were only red flag No. 1 for "Charlie's Angels." Red Flag No. 2 was the pink, blue, yellow and green pages of new script that tumbled out of the copying machines daily and bore the names of at least 10 writers. Red Flag No. 3 was a widely mocked teaser trailer that made the movie about three female private eyes seem extremely earnest and no fun at all. And then, of course, the director, known only as McG, had never directed a movie before.

"We live in a world of gossip," says Tom Sherak, who spent 17 years in the upper echelons of distribution and marketing at Fox before leaving a few weeks ago to become a partner in Revolution, former Disney movie chief Joe Roth's new movie company. "Information flows like a river down a mountainside. Ten years ago, if you were at a test screening and hated the movie, you could only tell your four best friends. Today, you can go on the Internet and tell the world."

Bad word of mouth has always been Hollywood's worst nightmare. In 1963, when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the married (to other people) co-stars of "Cleopatra," made a steamy spectacle of themselves cruising Rome's Via Veneto at night, the movie never recovered.

"We were on the front page of the New York Daily News and the New York Mirror five days in a row," says film producer Jack Brodsky, then a Fox publicist. "Burton complained that he hated 'seeing all this stuff' in the papers. He couldn't understand the furor. 'I always sleep with my leading ladies,' Burton said."

And the bigger the movie, the more likely it is to get bad word of mouth. At a cost of $44 million, "Cleopatra" was 44 times as expensive as "Tom Jones," which won the Oscar for best picture that year. "Cleopatra" was way over budget, especially when the London sets were rebuilt in Rome. Taylor was being paid an unprecedented $1 million, and suddenly she was in the hospital with a deliberate or accidental overdose of pills. Brodsky, an executive producer of the upcoming "The Black Knight," adds: "Even today, it's still the general opinion of people that 'Cleopatra' was a financial disaster--although it wasn't."

*

"Charlie's Angels," the hit ABC television series of the late 1970s, made a pop culture icon of Farrah Fawcett and short-term stars of Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd. In the big-screen version, the sexy girl detectives are played by Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu. Whether the resurrected "Charlie's Angels" is a dud like last year's "Mod Squad" or a blockbuster like the movie version of "Mission: Impossible" will be decided after the movie opens in nearly 3,000 theaters Friday.

Columbia's counteroffensive against the movie's earlier bad publicity included sending the three stars to an outdoor survival school for a magazine article proving that they were best friends and willing to share each other's torment on a three-day desert hike without cell phones, food or blankets. Columbia also put on a glitzy, old-fashioned premiere Oct. 22 at the Chinese Theatre, closing down much of Hollywood Boulevard. The party afterward had belly dancers, a disco and goody bags that included a copy of Marie Claire magazine with the survival cover story. Tracking polls show that "Charlie's Angels" will do good business its opening weekend. Until results are in from the second weekend, producer Barrymore and ex-music video director McG can take comfort in the fact that perception does not always turn into reality.

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