When a science-fiction movie called “Enemy Mine” opened on Dec. 20, executives at 20th Century Fox undoubtedly were more anxious than usual, awaiting word of the first weekend’s ticket sales.
And for good reason. Originally budgeted at about $17 million when the movie received the green light to go into production in 1983, “Enemy Mine” wound up costing the studio more than $40 million in production and marketing costs. (One insider insists the total price tag is closer to a whopping $48 million.)
At that price, the movie would have to take in more than $100 million in ticket sales just for the studio to break even. (A basic Hollywood rule of thumb is that marketing and distribution costs run about 2 1/2 times a film’s production budget.)
For the makers of “Enemy Mine,” the first weekend’s figures were not encouraging ($1.6 million at 703 theaters nationwide). “The opening numbers were nothing to write home about,” acknowledged one high-ranking Fox executive, who requested anonymity. When asked exactly how much the movie would have to take in to make its money back, he replied: “It doesn’t really matter, because it’s not going to do it.”
“Enemy Mine” was not alone that weekend before Christmas. Movies like “A Chorus Line” “Clue” and “Out of Africa” also attracted less business than expected. But for the executives at Fox, the early returns on this story of the developing bond between a fighter pilot and his one-time enemy alien were an especially bitter pill to swallow.
How does a $17-million movie wind up costing as much as 2 1/2 times its original budget? In this instance, the story is not one of creative excess, as in “Heaven’s Gate.” Here, it was a case of a studio trying to save money early on, only to wind up with that decision costing much more in the end.
“Enemy Mine” first started filming in Iceland and Budapest under the direction of Richard Longcraine (“Brimstone and Treacle”) in April, 1984. But after just one week’s shooting, the studio and producer Stephen Friedman, whose Kings Road Entertainment company had developed the script, became concerned. There were budget problems and creative differences on the set, and the dailies (footage shot each day) weren’t looking good. “What was coming back just wasn’t what we expected; there were serious problems with the look of the picture,” Friedman said in a recent interview at his Century City offices.
“In today’s market, where it’s not only expensive to make a picture but it also costs an inordinate amount to market a movie, if things don’t look right, it’s much smarter to just stop. It happens all the time. You have to be sure things are going well.”
Clearly, things were not going well. When the decision was made to halt filming, Fox had already spent about $9 million in production costs on “Enemy Mine” but had so-called “pay-or-play” commitments totaling about $18 million. (In such situations the studio must pay fees to the movie makers and stars even if production is stopped, or never even begun.) The critical decision then became whether to write off that amount and leave the picture on the shelf, or start fresh with a new director.
Complications surrounded that decision, however. Joe Wizan, the former production head of Fox who OKd the picture and then stopped it, left the studio when a new regime headed by Barry Diller came in. Diller and production head Larry Gordon decided to approve the decision to go ahead with new director Wolfgang Petersen (“Das Boot”).
All along, then-studio owner Marvin Davis had backed the project. Essentially, “Enemy Mine” became an orphan of sorts, but the concept remained a well-liked child. “Under the new administration, everybody still loved the project,” Friedman said. “They loved the script, they loved the actors. They realized that if you stop, that money is wasted forever. Fox made the decision to go forward.”
With that, Petersen took over the directing duties. But as is often the case in such situations, he didn’t want to use any of the existing Longcraine footage and even insisted that the original locations weren’t right for the film. “He saw the work done by the other director and knew it was of no use at all,” says a friend of Petersen’s, who insisted on anonymity. “The sets did not work, the makeup did not work, what was already shot was completely unusable.”
Petersen packed up the crew and moved the entire production from studios in Budapest to the Bavaria studios in Munich, where the director had made “Das Boot.” Entire new sets were constructed, a two-sun, six-moon volcanic planet was built and even a man-made lake was dug.
Such wholesale changes took months to finish. Perhaps the most dramatic change came in redesigning the makeup for the latex-covered Louis Gossett Jr., who portrayed the alien Drac from the planet Dracon. “It took five full months just to redo the makeup,” says one insider involved with the production.
Meanwhile, as costs rose, Fox was paying interest on the original $9 million. While the crew and actors waited for the new sets to be finished, Fox was forced to pay actors Gossett and Dennis Quaid additional “holding” money to prevent them from going to work on another movie. (Despite winning the best-supporting-actor Oscar for his role in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” Gossett had not had another role in a feature. He did portray Sadat in a TV movie and will soon appear in Tri-Star’s “The Iron Eagle.”)
“Enemy Mine” finally wrapped in November, seven months after first production had been halted. In the end, insiders say Petersen stayed on budget and delivered his picture at a cost of about $24 million. “The money was well spent and it’s all on the screen,” says producer Friedman.
Friedman (“The Last Picture Show” and more recently “Creator” and “All of Me”) refuses to say precisely what the picture finally cost. “Those figures are of a private nature,” Friedman said testily. “When you start asking who was paid what or how much a movie costs, it becomes more like a People magazine story. I don’t think that’s in the best interest of your readers.”
The producer’s reluctance to go over costs or even the chronology of the project (“Don’t ask me about dates, I don’t live my life that way,” he told a reporter) was a common response.
When reached at home on Christmas Eve, former Fox production executive Robert Cort--who developed the project for Fox with producer Friedman--told The Times: “I’ve just gotten over minor surgery and haven’t had a chance to see the movie, so I’d be loath to make any comment.”
Critics have been divided on the merits of the film. Janet Maslin, critic for the New York Times, called it “this year’s ‘Dune’ . . . a costly, awful-looking science-fiction epic with one of the weirdest story lines ever to hit the screen.” Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times called it “surprisingly coherent, surprisingly enjoyable.” TV critics Gary Franklin, Gene Siskel and Leonard Maltin all praised it.
The studio clearly backed the film with all of its marketing muscle. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the advertising blitz for “Enemy Mine” began. That morning, full-page advertisements ran in 43 of the largest newspapers in the country. That evening 20th Century Fox arranged for a “network roadblock”: three 30-second television commercials ran at virtually the same prime-time moment on the three networks. That same day, while 3,500 movie trailers were shipped to theaters across America, 164 of the nation’s biggest shopping malls were plastered with posters for the film.
But a smattering of good reviews and an ambitious ad campaign may not be enough to make “Enemy Mine” a success. Critics say that the campaign (a poster of Quaid and his lizard-like nemesis Gossett eyeballing each other) fails to reveal the warmth of the picture, which is essentially about an unlikely friendship. “The campaign was one of the worst of the year, really terrible,” says a rival studio marketing head. “There was a way to make the movie much more palatable.”
Fox marketing president David Weitzner defends the campaign and argues that selling the film was a challenging assignment. “In point of fact, this was an extremely difficult movie to market,” he said. “It was a unique film in the sense that you had two sworn enemies, one not human, who become closer than brothers. To sell it as a hardware film would have been wrong. We did it along the lines of brotherhood.” (The poster copy reads: “Enemies because they were taught to be, allies because they had to be, brothers because they dared to be.”)
As of Christmas day, “Enemy Mine had taken in $2.3 million at the box office.
In the end, at more than $40 million, this movie may well be remembered more for what it cost than what it took in at the box office. Says one independent producer: “The amazing thing about this movie is that no one seems fazed by it all. I guess $40 million just doesn’t mean what it used to.”