This is not the Panama Canal . We’re just trying to finish a little comedy.
--Warren Beatty, producer and co-star of “Ishtar”
When a two-page advertisement for “Ishtar” ran recently in the trade paper Variety, it did not contain the typical production information and back-slapping congratulatory messages common in these kinds of notices. Against an all-black background, the white type read: “Ishtar. National release May 22, 1987.”
To the moviegoing public the news could hardly be considered monumental. It simply meant that audiences would have to wait an additional six months before seeing the comedy about two down-and-out New York singer-songwriters played by Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.
But within the movie industry the ad was akin to heaving a gasoline-dunked torch on the already burning gossip mill. At studio commissaries and along talent-agency corridors, the questions emerged: Was “Ishtar” a mess? Was it true that director Elaine May wanted to return to Morocco to shoot additional scenes and that producer-star Warren Beatty didn’t want to? Had the budget gone out of control and reached the $50-million mark? How would the loss of this holiday heavyweight affect distribution plans of other studios?
Columbia Pictures had expected “Ishtar” to be its only Christmas release, and with stars like Beatty and Hoffman--each of whom reportedly received about $6 million to appear in the film--the marquee value alone made it a favorite for the hit of the holiday season.
A 90-second trailer attached to 1,554 prints of the comedy “Armed and Dangerous” that is still playing in some theaters, promises: “Coming soon to a theater near you.”
That trailer and a color magazine photograph of Beatty and Hoffman atop a cheery-looking camel were the only crumbs available to the press or the public on the film.
But in the only interview he has done in connection with the film, Beatty agreed to discuss “Ishtar” and the reasons for the delay.
According to Beatty and his attorney Bert Fields (who also represented Hoffman and May on “Ishtar”), the film makers were not contractually obliged to deliver a print on any specific date. “The studio wanted a Christmas picture and we thought it was worth trying to make that date,” Beatty said. “We were all very fond of Guy McElwaine (the recently deposed chairman of the studio who made the deal for the studio). He asked us to rush it and we were trying to do it, but it takes time.”
Under the directing hand of Elaine May, (“Mikey and Nicky,” “The Heartbreak Kid”), “Ishtar” started shooting in Morocco on Oct. 28, 1985, and finished--with a one-month break as the production returned to New York--on March 16, 1986. In order to have the picture ready for its originally planned Nov. 26 release, Beatty said that May would have had 6 1/2 months for post-production--the editing and mixing of the film.
Beatty said that his contract allows him to spend more than a year on post-production of his films. He insisted that 6 1/2 months was simply not enough time for May to bring the film up to her standards.
“Elaine is a meticulous director and it seemed like a shame to force her into a rushed situation. When you’re making a movie, you have to keep your eye on the ball and let someone work the way they work best.”
(Hoffman’s contract guarantees him 18 months from completion of filming to delivery of a finished print, Fields said.) Whether by contract or not, it is clear that the studio was counting on “Ishtar” as its Christmas plum. “They’re (Beatty and Fields) hiding behind a technicality,” said one high-ranking Columbia executive who insisted on anonymity. “The studio was anticipating the film and the fact that it will not be ready is a grave disappointment. You don’t put out a trailer now for a film opening on Memorial Day.”
The loss of “Ishtar” has had a profound impact on the already thin holiday roster. Of the nine major distributors, four studios--Columbia, MGM, United Artists and Cannon have no Christmas movie. Spotting box-office daylight, Universal Pictures has moved Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” from a limited run in New York and Los Angeles to 600 theaters across the country.
Exhibitors who were counting on playing “Ishtar” are now scrambling to find substitutes. “The absence of ‘Ishtar’ has created a void no studio will be able to fill,” said Marvin Goldfarb, head film buyer for the 550-screen Commonwealth Theaters. Though “Ishtar” had not yet been “bid out” (terms offered to theater owners), Goldfarb expected to play the picture in most of his theaters. “We (Commonwealth Theaters) need a hit movie and without ‘Ishtar,’ Christmas is lacking a big-name star picture.”
(Ironically, by moving to next May, “Ishtar” will avoid Eddie Murphy’s “The Golden Child” but will open within days of the opening of Murphy’s “Beverly Hills Cop II,” according to the current schedule at Paramount.)
In addition, the delay will be a costly one for Columbia Pictures. Though precise figures are hard to come by, sources at Columbia said that the final price tag before prints and advertising for “Ishtar” will be about $34 million ($14 million for Beatty, Hoffman and May’s services and another $20 million for production costs). With most of that investment being borrowed money, the studio will have to pay an estimated $2 million in interest costs--known in the business as “shelf cost,” in addition to the production costs.
“That (the cost and the scheduling problems for exhibitors) shouldn’t be the primary concern of the film makers or of the L.A. Times,” Beatty said. “What you and we have to think about is whether the picture is going to be any good. What gets lost in the shuffle sometimes is the movie itself. An exhibitor shouldn’t be telling us a picture is ready, especially if he hasn’t seen it yet.”
As for the additional costs prompted by the delay, attorney Fields argued that if the postponement helps the quality of the film it makes economic sense as well.
“Let’s assume you can improve the picture by 10%; that will go a lot further at the box office than the little bit of interest cost.” ( Relatively low current interest rates make the move to summer much easier for Columbia to stomach. A couple of years ago, when interest rates were close to 20% the cost would have been several million more.)
Fields also stressed that his clients have not in any way violated their agreement with Columbia. “Their (Beatty, Hoffman and May) contracts give them absolute approval over the release date. Not many people in this business have that. They got it by paying their dues. I don’t have to tell you about the hundreds of millions Dustin has earned for Columbia.” (Hoffman starred in two of Columbia’s most successful films, “Kramer Vs. Kramer” and “Tootsie.”)
So what do we really have here? A case of creative perfectionists exercising more power than any film makers should have? Or did the studio make promises that the film makers were not obliged to keep?
It is often said that the movie business is one where success or failure often depends most heavily on relationships.
It is possible that if former studio Chairman Guy McElwaine was still in power, Beatty and May might have rushed to meet that Christmas deadline. Recently installed Columbia Chairman David Puttnam has stayed out of the production of “Ishtar.”
“The key factor in even thinking about a Christmas release was the relationship with McElwaine,” Fields said. “Warren’s feeling was that since we no longer have the pressure to do it for Guy, let’s let her (May) do it the way she wants.”
We won’t know whether that way works until next summer when “Ishtar” finally opens. Only three people--Beatty, Hoffman and May--have seen the current footage, but Beatty is confident. “I think it’s funny, it’s just a comedy and we think it’s an entertaining one. In fact we’re talking about doing another one together, but not in Morocco.”
In the end, after the cost for prints and advertising is tacked on, “Ishtar” may end up costing at least $40 million--a bargain compared to the building of the Panama Canal, which took seven years to build and cost $336 million in the early 1900s.
Craig Modderno also contributed to this story.