When you’re the head of production for a major studio, with the power to say yes or no to a movie project, it sometimes pays to have a good memory.
For instance, when Joe Wizan was running 20th Century Fox a few years ago, he remembered an accidental encounter he had had with actress Kathleen Turner a few months earlier and decided to test her for the part of Joan Wilder in “Romancing the Stone.”
Turner got the part and “Romancing,” a project that had been kicking around Hollywood for five years, went on to become a $70-million hit.
Ah, but a good memory can also get you into big trouble.
While looking for a male lead to pair with Dolly Parton in “Rhinestone,” Wizan remembered Sylvester Stallone once telling him that he’d like to sing in a movie. Stallone and Parton, Wizan thought to himself, would make a perfect match.
Stallone’s performance and his singing were laughed off the planet and the $28-million “Rhinestone” became one of the decade’s most forgettable baubles.
“Nobody knows what a picture is going to do until you get it done,” says Wizan, now an independent producer with offices on the MGM lot in Culver City. “It’s like playing poker. The good poker players know which hands to throw out. The good production people know which movies not to make.”
All in all, Wizan says he threw out more bad hands than good ones during his abbreviated 18-month reign at Fox, and of the 13 or 14 movies he put into production, he says five made money.
“One out of three is pretty good,” Wizan says, sounding like a ballplayer reminiscing about better seasons. In a business where the product succeeds barely 25% of the time, and at a studio where the recent record had not been quite that good, he’s right.
Wizan’s money-makers at Fox were “Romancing the Stone,” “Cocoon,” “Bachelor Party,” “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Jewel of the Nile.” “Cocoon” and “Jewel” were both released under subsequent Fox leadership, but in Hollywood, where top executives are changed about as often as coffee filters, credit goes to the exec who “green-lights” the projects.
Wizan says he left Fox halfway through his three-year contract because he wasn’t green-lighting enough projects to fill the studio’s needs.
“When you’re the head of production for a major studio, your master is your distribution system,” he says. “Your distribution people want a movie a month--preferably a good one, but at least one--and there is that pressure to produce. But if you’re going to make movies you believe in, there are only so many you can do.”
Wizan, who has produced one modestly successful movie (“Iron Eagle”) since leaving Fox two years ago, says his biggest shock at taking charge of a studio’s production arm, after more than 10 years of independent production, was that there were so few good scripts to read.
“I figured that when I got to Fox, there would be 50 scripts a week to read and that I would sit back and choose which ones I wanted to make. There were more scripts, but in terms of quality, there were no more than I had been seeing before.”
Wizan says he took over at Fox at a time when it had very few assets in terms of sequels or deals with major stars, producers and directors.
“George Lucas had retired at Fox,” Wizan says, referring to the fact that there were no more “Star Wars” films planned for Fox distribution. “There were no stoppers--that big automatic movie that can get you 1,200 theaters for June 15. That is very, very key. You have to have big movies for the key dates.”
Wizan saw “Rhinestone” as his first big movie, even though Phil Alden Robinson’s script had been designed as a small piece whose central character was a woman. Wizan, however, saw Dolly Parton in the role, and once she was cast, it became mandatory to support her with an actor of equal screen stature. (“You can’t make a love story without equal weight,” he says.)
With Stallone and Parton, a match Wizan says was immediately perceived in Hollywood as a “terrific package,” the budget ballooned to about $18 million. The cost of a director change and other production problems kept the tab running.
Ironically, tragically, Wizan says, the package was never perceived by the public as a hot ticket.
“Six months before we opened it, we knew we had major problems,” he says. “Our (audience) research showed that nobody got the pairing of the two stars. It didn’t make sense to anyone.”
Not to dwell on Wizan’s failings, but the results of “Enemy Mine,” which he launched, was even more disastrous. Fox hasn’t released a final production figure for the science-fiction thriller released last Christmas, but estimates run as high as $40 million.
“I don’t know anybody who read the script who didn’t think it was the best script they had ever read,” Wizan says, adding that the script was already at Fox when he got there, but it immediately became his own highest priority.
It was another opportunity for one of those big movies for a big date (Christmas), but the movie got off to a slow start because he couldn’t find a major director willing to take on a project in territory staked out by Lucas and Spielberg.
The studio finally hired relatively unknown Richard Longcraine (“Brimstone and Treacle”). After a yearlong pre-production period and two weeks of shooting, Wizan fired Longcraine and replaced him with West German director Wolfgang Petersen (“Das Boot”).
“It (the movie) just wasn’t working on any level,” he says. “The look of it was wrong, there was just no electricity. . . . I was faced with two problems. I was going to end up spending a fortune for a mediocre movie, and one of the best scripts I ever read would not be realized.”
“Enemy Mine” opened last Christmas to mixed reviews and was gone in six weeks, having grossed just $12 million.
Good memories and bad, Wizan says he enjoyed the experience of running a movie studio and that its lessons are useful to him now that he’s back on the pitcher’s mound. He reads scripts now with a better sense of which ones will appeal to studios, given their production and distribution needs.
His first post-Fox production, “Iron Eagle,” a high-concept action picture about a teen-age boy who hijacks an F-16 and rescues his father from a hostile Middle Eastern nation, sold quickly to Tri-Star (and grossed $24 million). His second one, “Tough Guys,” starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, is in production for Disney.
Even on his darkest days, Wizan says, he has never regretted working in film.
“It’s a real roller-coaster ride, this business,” he says, “but if you love movies, you’re crazy not to love the work. . . . I remember a few years ago, (director) Mark Rydell and I were in New York pitching a movie called ‘Autograph Hound’ with Alan Alda and Goldie Hawn.
“We were sure it was going to be made, then it just fell through. We were depressed, angry and upset, but what did we do? We went to a movie.”
Does he remember what he saw?
“No, but I remember it was a comedy,” he says, “and we felt a hell of a lot better when we came out. That’s what good movies can do.”