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The Big Picture

Levinson at War With DreamWorks Over 'Piece'

February 13, 2001|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Having made Oscar-winning hits like "Rain Man," critical favorites like "Wag the Dog" and flops like "Sphere" in his 20-plus years in Hollywood, Barry Levinson knows when one of his movies is going up to the penthouse--or down to the outhouse. So the director smelled trouble for his latest film, "An Everlasting Piece," when DreamWorks decided to hold a test screening for the picture last July at a mall in Woodland Hills.

Made in Ireland for $10 million with a no-name cast, the film was a quirky comedy about two young wig salesmen who try to corner the toupee business in the fratricidal world of Northern Ireland. Levinson was horrified to find DreamWorks assessing the film's commercial potential before a suburban audience accustomed to seeing broad joke fests and star-driven dramas.

"If you really cared about this movie, you wouldn't screen it in Woodland Hills," he said in his first interview since the film was yanked from theaters in New York and Los Angeles last month after a brief 11-theater holiday season run in which it took in a minuscule $75,000. "I understand taking 'Cast Away' to Woodland Hills or a teen comedy to Woodland Hills, but why our movie? You'd never open our movie in Woodland Hills, so why even test it there?"

It was the first of many questionable decisions, Levinson claims, that spelled doom for a movie that, despite mixed reviews, earned praise from the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post and New York magazine, in which critic Peter Rainer called it "a real original--as lyrically nutty as a vintage Bill Forsyth picture." Angered by DreamWorks' handling of the film, Levinson wrote a letter of complaint to studio co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg last month describing the studio's treatment of the film as "the most disappointing experience I have ever had in this business."

Having obtained a copy of Levinson's letter, I only wish I could post it on Thesmokinggun.com to be read by every young independent filmmaker who, in a weak moment, might be tempted to sell an art-house film to a major studio. It's sad but true: In modern-day Hollywood, where movies are sold like McDonald's hamburgers, big studios often have no idea how to market little movies.

"Studio marketing is a machine built to sell big commercial movies," explained Revolution Films executive Tom Sherak, who spent 17 years overseeing marketing and distribution at 20th Century Fox. "They're geared to get everybody at once. They're not designed to nurture a little movie. That takes time studios just don't have; they have to do another movie next week."

In fairness to DreamWorks, it is better at marketing difficult films than most studios. Its campaign for "American Beauty," last year's best picture Oscar winner, was a model of marketing savvy. In fact, every studio has a skeleton in its closet: an intelligent, well-reviewed film that was cast adrift because it didn't have a big star or an easily digestible marketing hook.

The recent casualty list includes such buried treasures as "Rushmore" (Disney), "Election" (Paramount), "Go" (Sony), "Magnolia" (New Line), "The Yards" (Miramax), "Still Crazy" (Sony), "Tigerland" (Fox) and "Liberty Heights," a 1950s drama that Levinson made at Warner Bros. in 1999 that was poorly handled and disappeared without a trace. Paramount, a marketing Goliath when it comes to female revenge fantasies and action thrillers, was so baffled by the cerebral charm of "Wonder Boys" that it released the critically lauded film twice without reaching an audience once.

Although filmmakers rarely see the flaws in their own movies, to hear them tell it, studios rarely think out of the box. Kevin Allen, director of "The Big Tease," an oddball comedy fumbled by Warner Bros., says the studio first opened the movie nationwide in Scotland because its lead character was a Scottish hairdresser. It might not have been a bad strategy if the hairdresser had been played by a famous Scot. Unfortunately, the lead actor was an obscure TV actor, unknown even in his native land, so the movie failed, killing any studio support for its U.S. release.

"Warners were just trying to sell something they didn't understand," Allen says. "They kept trying to call the movie 'this year's 'Full Monty,' but they weren't willing to dig any deeper than that and figure out what made 'The Full Monty' work. It needed a little indie film magic."

As is often the case in Hollywood, money is at the root of the problem. Big studios are built to make the big score; they make their money off $100-million home runs, not $15-million singles. Because films make a big chunk of their overall box-office take in their first week of release, marketers rely on the instant sizzle of star appeal. As one studio marketer put it: "You don't pay movie stars $20 million for their acting. They get $20 million so your ads can say, 'Tom Cruise Is Jerry Maguire.' "

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