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.

Still, it's exciting to replay what worked and what didn't. Normal math doesn't apply in Hollywood: In 1997, for instance, Hollywood math showed that Harrison Ford (in Air Force One) is greater than Harrison Ford plus Brad Pitt (in The Devil's Own), and that Julia Roberts (in My Best Friend's Wedding) is greater than Julia Roberts plus Mel Gibson (in Conspiracy Theory). This is what's exciting about following "the gross" and Bart captures this roller-coaster feeling. Last summer's guaranteed biggest hit–Godzilla–was a relative disappointment, while a film no one even saw coming–There's Something About Mary –became the most profitable.

There probably is no formula for success, but this doesn't stop the studios from searching for one. Bart does a good job of explaining the different approaches studios take, but he never gets around to actually evaluating their effectiveness. Paramount, for instance, believes in splitting the costs of movies with others. Its investment in Titanic was split with Twentieth Century Fox. Paramount's investment was limited to $65 million and its profits limited to domestic take. When the cost of the film ballooned to over $200 million, the deal looked brilliant. Ultimately, when the film broke all box office records, owning only half meant hundreds of millions in lost profit. For some reason, though, Bart simply parrots the company line that Paramount was lucky to avoid the pain and risk that financing the whole thing would have entailed.

Fox's strategy was to make a number of modestly budgeted films aimed at different demographics, hoping one or two would break out. In other words, the studio diversified its portfolio. Meanwhile, Disney decided to cut back on releases and spend more per film–the opposite of the Fox strategy. Bart reports these two facts but doesn't seem to notice that these strategies are at odds, much less say which one is better. Perhaps this is because no one really knows which will work better until the films come out.

When Bart gets into the quality of the movies themselves, he becomes unnecessarily nostalgic. He goes on a bit about how people really used to care about movies, but that now it's all packaging and profits. To be sure, there have been changes in how Hollywood plans and markets films, but the studios have always been about making money and people have always complained about how bad films are (compared to how they used to be). Without even getting into low- and medium-budget art films, the slate Hollywood offered in the summer of 1998 was diverse: Saving Private Ryan, There's Something About Mary, Bulworth, Small Soldiers, The Negotiator, The Avengers, Armageddon, The Truman Show, The Mask of Zorro, Deep Impact, The Horse Whisperer, Mulan, Out of Sight. You don't have to like all these films (I certainly don't) to recognize most were made by people sincerely striving to deliver solid entertainment, perhaps even art, not cynics just in it for a paycheck.

Despite its weaknesses, The Gross remains an interesting foray into Hollywood. When Bart set out to write his book he took as his model The Season, William Goldman's work about the 1967-68 Broadway season, where each chapter takes on a different production. Broadway has changed considerably since then, but that book is still delightful, filled with insights that make it worth reading even if it no longer describes how things get done on the Great White Way. It's doubtful The Gross will be remembered so fondly 30 years hence. However, while there's a better book waiting to be written about Bart's subject, until it comes out, The Gross will do just fine.

Steve Kurtz, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, fearlessly predicts that Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace will be the year's biggest hit.