Film Fund-amentals: The Vast Imponderables

There are many ways to create a quantifiable measure of a movie’s economic prospects. There are various means of mapping and figuring data from box office reports, budgetary figures, past financial indicators, ad infinitum. After a while, this stuff is almost easy.

Then there are the vast imponderables of the qualitative realm. It is a mist-filled grayish zone packed with variations of temperament, vision and just plain luck. It is populated by what the suits snidely refer to as the talent. It is also the talent to whom the suits will pay almost anything when they are desperate enough. This is the part of the system that defies any form of rational analysis.

Sure, there are ways of second-guessing some of it. The reunion of Lucas, Spielberg and Ford on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a box office shoe-in, no matter how hard they tried to screw it up. Boorish predictability is the key to any franchise. It’s all like a can of Campbell’s Soup. You don’t expect much, but at least you know what you are getting.

But this comfort zone is extremely narrow, and the talent factor weaves over the map more than Mel Gibson on his way to a bar mitzvah.

There is the Wild Card factor, perhaps best demonstrated by the casting in Easy Rider. Rip Torn was the third main cast member until they got on the road filming, and Torn and Dennis Hopper decided that one of them shouldn’t be allowed to live. With Torn out of the picture (fleeing or not fleeing for his life, depending upon who tells the story), Hopper and Peter Fonda had to get a new actor in a hurry. They knew a guy back in Los Angeles who wasn’t working much and brought him in to basically wing it in a secondary part. Jack Nicholson even brought his own helmet. It was that weird moment when an actor was ready to burst forward and incredible luck just opened the door.

Then there is what I refer to as the Timothy Dalton factor. On paper, Dalton has it all. He has talent (in fact, he is a very good actor); he has matinee idol looks; he has gotten a variety of extremely promising roles; he was even James Bond, for crying out loud. But it just doesn’t matter. The minute Dalton is signed for a film, its box office future plummets. It doesn’t even have anything to do with him (and by the way, I thought he was okay as Bond). It’s like a gypsy curse. He could have been in Titanic and the movie would have sunk before the opening credits were done.

Let’s not even get started on screenwriters. At their luckiest, screenwriters get treated much the same as the piano player in a fancy brothel. More often, they are used as towel boys. For example, back in 1989 when Tim Burton and Warner Brothers hit the big one with Batman, the screenwriter Sam Hamm was the wunderkind of the hour. Everyone agreed that his major last-minute rewrite had saved the film. Suddenly, everybody wanted him and he was tentatively engaged to write half the movies on the release schedule. Then he wrote an extremely good (though long-winded) sequel script packed with a surprisingly strong social/political message. Burton proceeded to shred the script, gutting the entire storyline and only keeping a few basic set pieces. The result: Batman Returns produced one of movie history’s most notable drops in ticket sales from its opening to its second weekend (sending panic through the offices at Warner). Whom did they blame? Sam Hamm, of course.

So talent alone just ain’t enough.

Then there is the complete, total, absolute, this-is-no-bullshit bullshit factor. Sure, money talks, but guess who walks? Orson Welles claimed that he once cut a deal for a movie based on nothing more than the title of a cheap paperback he spotted on a book rack (Touch of Evil). Before the movie Blade Runner came out, I got into a bar room chat with one of the crew members. He told me that the film was going to be fantastic (an opinion I came to agree with). He also told me how they were using three different scripts, shooting most of the scenes four different ways, and that every time the director yelled cut, the director, the producer and the screenwriter then had a screaming fight about how they were going to re-shoot everything. He concluded by admitting that he didn’t have a clue what the film was going to be like, but he felt it was going to be great.

Whole movies get made this way. Some of them turn out to be pretty good. A few even become successful. This part of the process remains imponderable.

— Dennis Toth