14 years ago I was talking to a gifted, highly respected, somewhat bitter guy who was well acquainted with how big-studio Hollywood worked. The subject was John Moore‘s Flight of the Phoenix, a commercially unsuccesful, not-so-hot remake of Robert Aldrich’s same-titled 1965 original with Dennis Quaid in the James Stewart role.
What may have seemed like an overly angry assessment from “bitter guy” 14 years ago is now par for the course. The production wings of major film studios are largely staffed by soul-less zombies who instinctively flinch at the idea of adult-friendly drama. Marketing films to the empty-Coke-bottle crowd is all. Now we say “of course!” but back then (three and a half years before Iron Man and the eventual MCU/D.C. takeover) it was different. Back then paying $100 million for a movie of this calibre ($65 million to shoot it, $35 million to sell it) seemed exorbitant and wasteful. Back then there was still a belief in some corners about mainstream movies occasionally serving adults.
Here’s how “bitter guy” described the Flight of the Phoenix back-story:
“It was going to be Deliverance in the Gobi desert. The script was about character with everyone slowly going insane as the days went on, and when the new plane was built the pilot [Quaid’s role] is reluctant to fly it because the desert crash was his fault and his confidence is shot.
“And he couldn’t be Mel Gibson. If it was Gibson you’d want to see him do it. You’d be waiting for that.
“Then the studio said they wanted the Bedouins to come back and attack the plane at the last minute, just as they were trying to lift off. But hold on. If the baddy Bedouins are close enough to regroup and gather their forces they must be within shouting distance of some kind of half-civilized outpost, so why don’t the survivors just walk to wherever that is? That didn’t get through. The studio didn’t care about that.
“It was the first movie I ever worked on in which notes on the script were sent along by the head of marketing. Mainly because suddenly the movie was costing $60 to $65 million dollars. The average movie costs $65 million, and then it’s $35 million to open it.
“This business has become so wag-the-dog, so marketing driven. And with $65 million being spent no one can look like they’re really hurt or dying, no one can lose their minds, there can’t be any swearing, and no heavy character stuff.
“There was another stranded-in-the-desert thing called The King is Alive. It was a Dogma movie, didn’t cost anything, same basic deal, people stranded in the wilderness. But on a stripped-down budgetary level. Hollywood doesn’t know how to make a film like that. They don’t want to know, I mean.
Bitter Guy: “I’ve actually heard studio guys refer to drama as “the ‘d’ word.”
HE interjection: When was it, exactly, when the term “execution dependent” became part of the common vocabulary? The first time I recall hearing it was in a 9.13.12 New Republic piece, written by David Denby, called “Has Hollywood Murdered The Movies?”
“The phrase you always hear when it comes down to the crunch about whether to greenlight a movie is ‘let’s run the numbers’,” B.G. said. “The new kind of studio heads like Jeff Robinov who are ex-studio agents, and they all have the same matrix in their heads. They run their p and l’s, profit and loss projections, expectations of earnings in this market, that territory. And I’m telling you this mentality of running the numbers is killing the business.
“Bill Mechanic was the original guy on it, and Michael Mann and Eric Roth worked on it. But then Mann and Mechanic couldn’t come to terms on the deal. But it kept on. Five or six guys wound up writing it in stages.
“Remember when Jeffrey Katzenberg was running Disney? All the movies started to feel the same? That’s what happening to the movie business as a whole now. They all have to meet the same requirements, and the audience is so chicken these days. Nobody wants to see what’s on the other side, and nobody wants exotic…not really. Everybody wants to see more-or-less familiar. And the adult film is being killed. Studios used to make genre films for adults, and that’s over now.
“We’re getting what we’ve asked for. We really are.
“If I were starting my career now, I would want to be David Chase. That’s who I’d want to be. Doing a show like The Sopranos is the only way to explore character and theme these days and make something that feels like art.
“The old-time executives would bet on a few really good films. Today’s executives have been programmed to skip the heartbeat part. Formula is all. Studio-level jobs are the worst jobs in the world. The way it’s decided, when things are sussed out, they’re all in the room together including the marketing guy, and he always has a very strong voice.
“It’s a free-market economy, and what’s being made is determined by what people want to see. There was this marketing guy who said to me once, ‘We’re trying to get a younger audience, so we’re retooling the campaign to get the 60 year-olds in.’
“If they were making Dog Day Afternoon today Sonny wouldn’t be robbing a bank to get money for a sex change operation for his lover. He’d need the money now to try and keep his son from dying of cancer.”