Gross Out

The Gross: The Hits, The Flops--The Summer That Ate Hollywood, by Peter Bart, New York: St. Martin's, 311 pages, $24.95

There's probably not a person in the world better qualified to write The Gross than Variety editor-in-chief and former studio executive Peter Bart. For anyone interested in how Hollywood really works, this book detailing the cinematic hits and misses of the summer of 1998 is well worth checking out. Even though it contains some faulty analysis, was clearly a rush job (it lacks not only an index, but a table of contents), and evinces the breathless style that mars too much show-biz reporting (Bart ends paragraphs with phrases such as, "the days of reckoning were at hand" or "he had assembled the right team that knew how to get the job done and he knew they would bring home the prize"), The Gross is still compulsively readable.

That's because Bart is able to get behind the scenes and show the tortuous path each movie traveled to get made. The result is thoroughly entertaining, if occasionally depressing. Bart knows that Hollywood is basically just a big horse race, but one in which most jockeys never get past the gate. Indeed, some of last year's films took 10 (Godzilla, Small Soldiers) and even 20 (Deep Impact) years to get made.

No matter what the budget, every film production is filled with tales of intrigue and weirdness. Take, for instance, last summer's Saving Private Ryan. It started with Don Granger, a Paramount exec who wanted his studio to make a World War II film, though the era was no longer fashionable. Producer Mark Gordon brought in writer Robert Rodat, who wrote a script that attracted director Rob Cohen. Then suddenly (and secretly), Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg were interested. So when studio chief Sherry Lansing called to greenlight the project with Cohen at the helm, Gordon was put in the odd position of telling her that he wanted to hold off making the picture.

Or consider Warren's Beatty's Bulworth. Beatty had a "put" picture--that is, a deal with Twentieth Century Fox to make a film any way he liked as long as the budget stayed under $32 million; but for some reason, no one knew where he got this deal. He definitely had a piece of paper giving him total autonomy, but, according to Bart, no one knew the paper's provenance. (I find this story, widely circulated by the people involved, a bit flimsy. It's more likely that since the film flopped, all the executives were running away from it, trying to absolve themselves of any blame by saying their hands had been tied.)

Then there's Lethal Weapon IV. Smoothly run Warner Bros., long the studio of big-budget, big-star hits, had a rotten 1997. Almost every project had failed, and 1998 was shaping up to be no better. Without an obvious blockbuster on the summer slate, they rushed Lethal Weapon IV into production, practically writing the script as they filmed it. And to get all the A-list talent they had to pay such huge salaries and give away such high percentages of the gross that it was almost impossible for the studio to make money on the $100 million dollar movie. The film did fine, but seemed to be released more to keep Warner Bros. in the game than to turn a profit.

In The Gross, Bart goes beyond toting up how much money a movie makes (or loses). He also lets you know how much the participants make. Spielberg, perhaps the biggest hit maker ever, has a deal that when he directs he gets half the gross once profits reach a certain level. According to Bart, even on films he has only produced, such as Men In Black and Twister, Spielberg has raked in over $200 million. Top screenwriter Ron Bass is essentially on retainer at Sony Pictures, writing his own stuff and rewriting others' scripts, and guaranteed a minimum of $10 million a year. Jonathan Hensleigh, who wrote Armageddon and other hits, has been hired to write a Jumanji sequel for $2.5 million; he'll get $1.5 million more if the picture gets made. Some think Hollywood takes itself too seriously, but it's hard not to when you get this kind of money.

Bart is also more than willing to dish the dirt. (Of course, he tends to do so in the time-honored way: by hearsay, quoting anonymous sources.) For all their commercial or aesthetic success, Bart details the alleged failure of some of Hollywood's top people on the human level. Working with Titanic director James Cameron is "like contracting a disease." Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files is called "brash and abrasive" and "an ego in search of a human being." Even Spielberg is taken to task for firing writers like he's swatting away flies.

Despite its virtues, The Gross is a slip-shod job, full of errors, padding, and questionable judgments. Why? My guess is, this being a book about the movies of the summer of 1998, Bart and his publisher figured they'd better get it out before the summer of 1999 came around and turned 1998 into just another year. Bart is trying to puff up 1998 into a turning point--as his subtitle puts it, "the summer that ate Hollywood"--when in fact it was no different from the year before or, I assume, the year after. The same essential trends that were visible through the whole decade--e.g., higher production costs, bigger star salaries, wider releasing patterns--simply continued in 1998.

That The Gross was a lightly edited rush job is suggested by its annoying repetitions. For instance, on pages 20 and 21, then later on page 298, Bart notes that Paramount's Sherry Lansing can be both very sweet and very tough. On page 94, Warren Beatty says, "Bulworth is certainly the most controversial movie I ever made, yet it was the easiest to set up and it was the only one that stayed at the same studio throughout its life." One hundred pages later, Beatty opines, "The irony...was that Bulworth was my most controversial movie by far, yet it turned out to be the only one that I didn't have to switch from one studio to another."

Bart notes thrice how it was feared that the release of two meteor films would be a fiasco similar to the release of two volcano films the year before (pages 39, 81, and 88). He states twice that Francis Ford Coppola won an $80 million judgment against Warner Bros. over a version of Pinocchio he never got to make (42, 247). And that Ed Limato, Mel Gibson's agent, advised Gibson not to make Lethal Weapon IV because the series was tired (115, 303). And that Warner Bros. was reeling by 1998 from flops like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Postman (42, 116). And that director Michael Bay accused Dreamworks' spies of stealing from his movie Armageddon (170, 211). Just reading this book once gives you a feeling of déjà vu.

Such slovenly repetition is not as distressing as the outright mistakes. Bart claims, for instance, that Warren Beatty directed Love Affair; in fact, it was Glenn Gordon Caron. Six Days, Seven Nights is called Six Weeks, Seven Nights. He says The Horse Whisperer grossed $7.4 million on its first weekend when he means its third. And when you write a book called The Gross, you better get the numbers right. But Bart says Titanic made $1.3 billion worldwide, when the correct figure is $1.8 billion. (He later gets this right--was he revising as he went along or was this just a typo?) He claims Down and Out in Beverly Hills grossed $38.6 million in the United States when it actually made more than $60 million. He also claims Home Alone grossed $188.9 million worldwide when in fact it made more than $285 million domestically.

Then there's Bart's general failure to offer context in discussing the numbers. He'll list the opening weekend figures for a film and pronounce them good or bad without explaining where the expectations came from. Thus, Bulworth's $10.6 million is "drab" and The Avengers' $10.7 million is "dismal" while The Negotiator's $10.4 million is "solid."A Perfect Murder's $16.3 million is "respectable" but "hardly...spectacular" and The Horse Whisperer's $14 million opening is "respectable" but not impressive, while Hope Floats' $14.6 million is "buoyant" and There's Something About Mary's $13 million is "encouraging." Mulan's $23 million is "respectabl[e] but unspectacular" while The Mask of Zorro's $23 million is "very respectable."

The expectations game is based on a number of factors, including the cost of the movie, the breadth of its release, and its genre. Hence, an opening take of $12.7 million for an action flick like Out of Sight is in fact "dim" while $11.8 million for a movie geared to black and female audiences such as How Stella Got Her Groove Back is indeed "impressive." A knowledgeable reader may (and then again, may not) understand what's going on, but a novice looking for a clear explication of the grosses will likely be at a loss.

Similarly, Bart's week-by-week analysis of the gross is, to use his terminology, respectable if unspectacular. Over the past decade or so, newspapers and TV shows across the country have been reporting on weekly film grosses. It's become another spectator sport and anyone interested can find out how much films cost and how well they're doing. While Bart's analysis is useful, he offers nothing an interested outsider can't ultimately figure out.

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