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A Lion Laid Low

With a string of casualties offsetting its box office triumphs, MGM gambles mightily on 'Windtalkers'

June 09, 2002|ROBERT W. WELKOS

In a moving tribute last July, President Bush stood in the Capitol Rotunda, where he presented the nation's highest civilian honor--the Congressional Gold Medal--to four surviving members of the original 29 Navajo "code talkers," whose daring exploits with the Marine Corps in World War II helped defeat Japan.

Among the invited guests that day were director John Woo, actor Nicolas Cage and other cast members of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's $100-million-plus wartime action film "Windtalkers," which tells the story of how the Marines used the Navajo recruits' complex, unwritten language as a secret code against the Japanese military in the Pacific.

MGM had been counting on news coverage of the solemn ceremony to create public awareness of this little-known piece of history as the studio prepared to launch an advertising blitz for the film, which was scheduled to open in November over the Veterans Day holiday. Then terrorists struck on Sept. 11, and MGM pulled "Windtalkers" from its fall schedule and gave it a new release date of June 14--Flag Day.

The question that has haunted MGM ever since was, did it make the right decision?

Rated R for "pervasive graphic war violence," Woo's film is an edgy psychological drama packed with epic combat scenes. It seems a proper fit for the more serious fall season. But releasing the movie in summer, when theaters are still crowded with youth-oriented popcorn movies is a strategy fraught with danger. Especially bothersome for MGM is that other studios decided not to delay the release of their war movies because of Sept. 11--a strategy that seemed to have no ill effect.

For MGM, the smallest of Hollywood's seven major studios, "Windtalkers" represents an enormous gamble. Woo and Cage certainly have the track record; they teamed up with John Travolta in 1997 in the action-drama "Face/Off," which grossed $112 million. But MGM is a studio that is attempting to regain its footing after three embarrassing box office misfires, which included two high-profile Bruce Willis films, "Bandits" and "Hart's War," and the effects-driven remake "Rollerball"--this for a studio that only releases between 10 and 15 films a year.

In the case of "Hart's War," the flameout was so embarrassing that even the filmmakers questioned MGM's marketing of the film, claiming the studio tried to get the public to believe the intense courtroom drama with racial overtones was a Bruce Willis action film. Indeed, an in-house MGM document obtained by The Times shows that selling it as an action film was part of the studio's pre-release marketing and distribution plan for the movie.

Once the Tiffany of Hollywood studios, MGM today operates out of an office building in Santa Monica, where bigger-than-life images taken from some of the studio's famous films grace the subterranean walls of the parking garage. Despite its small size, MGM is still a major brand name in the world of entertainment, the roar of its lion on the opening credits familiar to moviegoers everywhere. With a library of 4,100 films, the company's storied history includes such Academy Award winning movies as the 1935 "Mutiny on the Bounty," "An American in Paris," "Gigi" and "Ben-Hur."

For MGM employees, the past 18 months have been unsettling. One week, they're rejoicing over "Hannibal," which opened in the spring 2001 with $58 million at the box office, the biggest debut ever for an R-rated film, and another week they're ducking under desks hoping they don't get blamed for a stinker like "Original Sin."

By the end of 2001, MGM's slate of films for the year had grossed $448.5 million in total domestic box office, a vast improvement from the measly $95.3 million the studio chalked up the previous year. But the sobering reality was that two films had accounted for more than half the 2001 total. "Hannibal," co-produced with Universal Pictures, was responsible for $165.1 million, and the breezy Reese Witherspoon comedy "Legally Blonde" surprised everyone by grossing $96.5 million.

After last summer's Martin Lawrence comedy "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" sputtered to a dismal $32.3 million, MGM's top brass quickly ousted the heads of marketing and distribution, both industry veterans who had a hand in the success of "Hannibal" and "Legally Blonde." In their place, the studio installed Robert Levin as president of worldwide theatrical marketing and distribution. Levin is a veteran marketing executive who served previously at Sony Pictures Entertainment and Disney. By year's end, there was a shakeup in the publicity department as MGM brought in Jamie Geller-Hartoff to head that post.

The studio argued that this new marketing and publicity team would be better equipped to handle a ramped-up slate of films in the pipeline. But even with a new team, MGM's moves have been second-guessed in Hollywood.

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