59th ACADEMY AWARDS : BEATING THE ODDS : They Gambled Their Time and Energy, and Didn’t Give Up
In Hollywood, gambling is persistence. What the movie colony gambles on, prays for, dreams about is the ultimate payoff: the dual rush of prestige and popularity. For prestige read: “Oscar.” For popularity read: “box office.” When the two converge--as in “A Room With a View” or “Platoon"--the gamble is over. The game is won.
Right now the climate in Hollywood is fearlessly independent. (Only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees--"Children of a Lesser God"--is pure big-studio product, from start to stop.) Thus the new heroes aren’t studio executives or star directors; more often they are the unpublicized wizards who run financing outfits like Credit Lyonnais or Goldcrest or Cinecom--the powers who say, “Yes, you can make the movie.”
What follows is a Hollywood microcosm: A look at the five best-picture nominees and the players who gambled long enough to get the proverbial green light--the signal that ambivalence is over. Meaning profit and prestige could be right across the street. Even if crossing the street takes a decade.
NED TANEN SAW A LOVE STORY
Before Ned Tanen becomes typically cautionary, let him first celebrate how it feels to see a seven-year dream come true. Paramount’s Motion Picture group president shepherded “Children of a Lesser God” through two studios, tricky executive shuffles, Robert Redford, a dozen writers, several directors--and two score more directors who said no--and nobody knows what else. But there is a happy ending, aside from the movie’s five Oscar nominations.
“I’ve never before been to a Royal Premiere,” said Tanen the other day, “but Randa (Haines, the director of “Children”) asked me to go. So two weeks ago I went to London for one day. Lady Di sat next to Randa and I sat next to Prince Charles, with my daughter. And there was this moment. Randa and I looked at each other and started laughing, really laughing. Prince Charles said, ‘Why are you laughing?’ and we said, ‘If you knew what we’ve been through to get here. . . . We were dead in the water at least 15 times.’ And Prince Charles did in fact get it.”
In the superstructure of Hollywood, you have to get what William Morris agent Joan Hyler calls a “take” on each executive: “The take on Ned is that he knows when to go the distance. He understands ‘Top Gun’ but he also knows what projects to stay with, and he doesn’t mind waiting. Like ‘American Graffiti.’ Or ‘Children.’ ” Normally Tanen--Hollywood’s ultimate creative company man (28 years at MCA, four years at Paramount)--doesn’t talk to the press. Originally he refused requests to be interviewed, but finally agreed, through the urging of a longtime friend. The reluctance is understandable: Ned Tanen taken out of context can sound like a hip, ‘80s Damon Runyon character, but with a self-effacing streak.
“The list of directors who didn’t believe in ‘Children’ is the longest list I’ve ever seen. Twenty-five names is not too short a list,” said Tanen, who added he “didn’t ever believe they were right. I guess I’m pretty stupid. I never believe anybody.” But Tanen sees both sides; his best friend was the late, legendary editor-executive Verna Fields, who used to say: “Ned could see three sides to every situation.”
Thus Tanen sees the reservations about “Children” as “having a certain legitimacy depending on which side of the desk you sit. It’s a drama with a man playing his own role but also playing the Greek chorus. Could it work? Some people worried that stage audiences got involved with the histrionics, but that movies are a whole different game. That the canvas between the audience and the story would be a problem.”
In fact everything about “Children” was a problem. The film’s history is more checkered than a tablecloth at Elaine’s. Tanen saw the Mark Medoff play at the Mark Taper Forum, as well as in New York, and “I tried to buy it when I was president of Universal. But the bidding was getting crazy. It got to $1.3 million. I got out because I didn’t want to reach that high. Reluctantly I walked away. (“Children” co-producer) Burt Sugarman got the rights, but we kept calling each other.”
One of those calls--in 1983, three years after “Children” closed on Broadway--led to Tanen putting “Children” into development at Universal, without a screenplay. “Then I retired,” Tanen said deadpan, meaning he left executive ranks to become an independent producer at the studio. “Suddenly Burt and I were going to produce with Mark Rydell (“On Golden Pond”) directing. But we still had no screenplay. So Mark went on to do ‘The River,’ then ‘Children’ went into limbo, and Randa came to see me. Randa understood what most other directors didn’t.”
Haines understood, but executives misunderstood. Especially at Universal where management changes were unusually (for MCA) unpleasant. Meaning Robert Rehme departed and Frank Price arrived. And as Tanen puts it: “The project went into disfavor. Randa went into disfavor. And me? I’m always assuredly in disfavor. So I left Universal to come to Paramount. The first two things I did were say yes to ‘Top Gun’ and try to get the rights to ‘Children.’ ”
Here comes Hollywood politics at its murkiest. Industry thinking had it that Tanen’s Paramount contract included the rights to “Children,” that the project was a sweetener to get the executive to jump ship from MCA. “Not true,” said Tanen categorically. “ ‘Children’ was not even discussed in the contract negotiations. When I came here, I had to buy the rights back.”
What that meant exactly: “There was still no script. But I remember the day a check was messengered to Universal for $3 million. I mean, was that a lovely move?” That was the price Universal--which didn’t want to make ‘Children'--made Tanen pay because Tanen did want to make ‘Children.’ (The Spanish proverb, “Take what you want but pay for it” comes to mind.) Tanen knew all along “this was not going to be ‘Raiders,’ but once (screenwriter) Hesper Anderson was on the script, I knew we had a movie. Hesper had been with it at Universal, but at Paramount, we had to start from scratch, and did.”
Then the luck changed. “Bill Hurt came to us. Marlee Matlin came to us, almost by accident, after another actress was practically cast. Marlee tested with Bill, and all of us knew. . . . Randa was fearless, or rather she hasn’t been around long enough to be scared. Finally it was the movie I wanted it to be.”
Will lessons be learned from the success of “Children”? The movie’s cost “all in” was $10.5 million; the U.S.-Canadian box office take is $30 million so far, with foreign revenues unexpectedly promising. “One lesson is that people say women can’t direct difficult movies. Here’s one who can. This was a difficult movie. But other lessons? No. The truth is the game is the game. The community wants magic--but worse, it wants generalizations. And they never work.”
But what magic kept Tanen hooked on “Children”? “To me this was a love story,” said Tanen simply. “Any love story is about communication, or the lack of it. Always, love is about misunderstanding each other. But with hearing-impaired people it’s difficult to get into the nonsense of relationships. Games don’t really work with hearing-impaired people.” Tanen took a breath and added, “That’s the wonderful thing about this. It’s a love story in black-and-white, so to speak.”
‘ROOM’: A CASE OF MERCHANT-IZING
The Polo Lounge these days is rather like a watering hole without water--or people--and the circular booth in the very back corner can be the quietest corner in town. Thus it was the perfect spot for producer Ismail Merchant (“A Room With a View”) to discuss the breakthrough movie of a 25-year-old troika--Merchant, director James Ivory, writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The corner was apt because Merchant is a big, booming Bombay-born salesman, as he calls himself, and right now the wares are selling: In 1985, Merchant and Ivory invested $200,000 in the E. M. Forster classic novel “Room,” and 55 weeks after its early 1986 release it’s still grossing upwards of $45,000 a week in New York alone. It’s one of the two longest-running films ever to play Dallas. North American film rentals should exceed $20 million by early April--on a $3-million film rejected by virtually every Hollywood studio.
Not surprisingly a phone call detained Merchant in his Beverly Hills Hotel suite on a recent morning; the irony was that the call was from Universal. That studio, as well as six others, passed up “Room,” as it has passed on almost every one of Merchant-Ivory’s 18 pictures (“Shakespeare Wallah,” “The Europeans”).
Merchant remains unperturbed. His enthusiasm is built-in and shockproof--the enthusiasm of the salesman who never stops ever . “The same people who turn me down one year I go back to the next year,” he said, sipping a mid-morning Perrier. “They think of me as an elephant perhaps. But so what? You can’t resist a stubborn elephant!”
The imagery is deceptively simple, of course. Merchant and Ivory have been forever resistible; as recently as “The Bostonians” (1983) the team began filming without financing. “The first week of production a friend wrote us a check for $50,000,” remembered Merchant, wincing. “But me, I wasn’t worried. When you believe in what you are doing--money follows you. People say ‘Merchant is a madman but even if we say no, he is going to do the film anyway.’ To get a film financed is truly a miracle, which is why people in Hollywood live 15 years on development deals without ever making movies. . . . I want to become rich from my films not from my fees.”
This is the year Merchant becomes rich. Not rich-rich, but rich enough. In England the film has done what Merchant calls “James Bond business,” meaning "$7 million. Which means that in one country alone, the United Kingdom, the movie has made back its negative cost. I expect a worldwide gross of $60 million. The profit ratio is 400%, something that never happens unless you are talking about a ‘Star Wars.’ ”
Probably “Room,” of all the Merchant Ivory product, was the easiest to launch. The project began, appropriately, on a holiday. “I’d gone to Corfu to rest directly after the London opening of ‘The Europeans,’ ” Merchant recalled. “At Ruth’s suggestion I took the Forster novel to read. Forster’s trustees had asked us earlier to do ‘A Passage to India,’ but we wanted to do ‘Heat and Dust.’ ” (When Merchant explained why, it was clear why the team has stayed together: “ ‘Heat and Dust’ was based on Ruth’s novel, and 1981 was our 20th anniversary. Our first film (‘Householder’) was based on another of Ruth’s novels--you see the symmetry.”)
Because the Forster trustees were up on Merchant-Ivory films (especially the ones adapted from Henry James) there was no trouble about acquiring “Room With a View.” “It was late ’84 when we had a final draft of the script. Then we sprung into action.”
How does Merchant spring into action? “I got a call from Ira Deutchman at Cinecom, who asked if the screenplay was available and I said yes. Then we met in New York, where he offered us $950,000 against American and Canadian rights. Then Roger Wingate at Curzon Film Distributors gave us $250,000. Goldcrest put up $650,000. National Film Corp. gave us $650,000. We had commitments from Britain’s Channel Four and Embassy Home Video but. . . .” Merchant’s pause was not unexpected: “No American distributor wanted us. Even Sam Goldwyn Jr. said no to ‘Room With a View.’ ”
But Merchant says the green light came the “moment when Ira Deutchman said: ‘Here’s $950,000.’ You see, that’s a lot of money for a British film made for American audiences. Because of Ira we had an advance guarantee plus a commitment.” Last week Deutchman in New York, explained his backing: “Merchant and Ivory make movies that are consistently good--they now have a following.”
Next to commit was Maggie Smith, in a case of coincidence odd even in show business. Merchant pantomimed scribbling a note on the Polo Lounge tablecloth. “I did a note to Maggie, to attach to the script, saying ‘Jim and I would love you to play Charlotte Bartlett.’ Maggie was in a play in London, and I took the script to her. She read it in her dressing room after a matinee but listen to this!” Merchant’s grin was ear-to-ear. “Maggie always listens to the radio between performances to relax herself. And while she was reading our script she heard a British radio broadcast of--guess what?--'A Room With a View,’ including scenes of Charlotte Bartlett’s! Of course she had to say yes to us!”
But of course. Not for nothing is Merchant the son of an Indian textile merchant who was a major gambler. The son learned early to play for big stakes. Merchant-Ivory gets 5% of “Room’s” worldwide profit, plus more financial control over “Maurice,” their upcoming picture based on another Forster classic. The reason is Credit Lyonnais, the French bank based in Rotterdam, which could really be considered akin to a major studio: “They have something like 21 nominations,” reminded Merchant. “They ‘do’ us and Hemdale and Cannon and God knows who else. Franz Afman of Credit Lyonnais has a thing of not shying away from independent companies just because they have no collaterals. Banking is finally a person-to-person business.”
So is movie making. Merchant sees himself maybe becoming “a religious guru or a politician, because I transmit conviction with great speed. Masses of people appeal to me. But you have to be realistic too. I have a master’s from NYU in business administration and it doesn’t hurt when you are dealing with five lawyers and five accountants on every film but . . . the success here is due to small appetites. We’ve gone without proper fees but we made what we believed in. And as I’ve told Ruth, she’s the luckiest screenwriter alive; 90% of her scripts get made.”
By hook or crook. At one point in “The Bostonians"--which Ruth Jhabvala wrote on speculation and waited four years to see produced--Merchant went to the sons of Estee Lauder for financing “because the film was cultural, with American values and maybe up their alley. I found the interest was on the periphery. The movie business is perceived as glamorous, but when it comes time to write checks, people fly away. I’m used to being rejected nine times out of 10. We’re not showing investors paradise; we are not saying ‘Here are the stars and here is this wonderful pre-sold project.’ A lot of people see movie making not as an act of commitment--but an act of glamour. It isn’t.”
‘HANNAH’ AND HER WOODY
“I’m feeling like this . . . ,” said producer Robert Green hut with some reluctance in his voice. “I’m feeling like maybe it’s not so bad to be a member of the club.”
The Academy Award Club has for a decade now--since “Annie Hall"--welcomed Woody Allen and Bobby Greenhut, his associate since “Play It Again, Sam.” If a New York branch of the academy had award dinners in Manhattan (preferably at a jazz spot, or at Elaine’s) the Woody Allen gang would probably be there--sans Woody, of course, who shuns awards shows. With seven nominations, “Hannah and Her Sisters” is as mainstream as movies get. The news this year is that Greenhut expects to attend the Hollywood pomp and circumstance. “Last year it was all so lackluster, I can’t even remember the nominees,” admitted the producer. “But the movies are healthier this year. It seems to me to be ‘Platoon’s’ moment--it’s a great movie and it took Oliver Stone 10 years to make it. But we’re in good intelligent company.”
The surprise about Greenhut is that he has time to fly out. Production is ongoing on Woody Allen’s 17th film, still untitled, to be released probably in November. After “Hannah” there was “Radio Days,” and when the new one appears, the tally will be two Woody Allen releases in 1987. Last year, along with “Hannah,” Greenhut also co-produced “Heartburn” with Mike Nichols. Getting the green lights are easy with names like these, and the chronology is quick. “The operation has gotten very streamlined,” said Greenhut. “Probably we could prepare a feature faster than anybody. We could get a film up in three months if we had to--including the writing.”
(Since 1978, Orion Pictures has released all of Woody Allen’s films; before 1978, the same distributors, then at United Artists, released most of the earlier Woody Allen films. According to Orion CEO Eric Pleskow, the arrangement works this way: “Woody decides what he wants to do. We agree on budget. He goes forward. There are no other discussions. There is never a disagreement.”)
How did “Hannah” become more than a glint in Woody Allen’s eye? Greenhut simplified: “With Woody in the last six years, we’ve been making films as quickly as we can get them together. The arrangement allows us to go at our own speed.” But speed is the key word. “When ‘Purple Rose of Cairo’ was in post-production, Woody wrote the screenplay for ‘Hannah.’ ‘Hannah’ took three or four months to prepare, and in the fall of ’84 we were ready to go.”
It can’t be that simple. “Well, usually we have an early discussion. Woody zeros in on what kind of film it will be so we can start planning weather, etc. If there are going to be hurdles production-wise, he lets me know before the script is written. ‘Purple Rose’ was much more difficult than ‘Hannah’ from a production standpoint--the 1930s, a small-town movie theater, the clothes.”
Though unspoken it’s understood between the two men that there’s a rhythm. “We alternate a visually more ambitious film with something simple. We go from a tough one to a simple one to catch our breath. For example, ‘Radio Days’ was complicated logistically; ‘Hannah’ was not. Think about it. ‘Hannah’ was not a period piece, which is a pleasure--though maybe not creatively simple. But wardrobe is easier. You have the regular affluent Manhattan locations. The hardest thing about ‘Hannah’ was the casting. Especially finding actors age 40 to 60.”
Does the “rhythm” of alternating easy films with difficult ones transfer to release patterns? Recently a rival studio V.P. questioned the wisdom of releasing “Radio Days” while “Hannah” was in Oscar competition. The thinking might go like this: “Gee, Dianne Wiest (supporting actress nominee) is wonderful in ‘Hannah’ but next year she can win for ‘Radio Days.’ ” Does Woody Allen thus hurt himself? Does new product, even Woody Allen product, hurt something like “Hannah”? It’s not something Greenhut hasn’t worried about.
“After 20 years of trying to figure it out, I’ve stopped. I’ve had discussions in concert with our distributors. I’ve had well-thought-out plans. But whether it’s February or August seems not to matter with us. We recently re-released ‘Hannah’ and people said it would dilute ‘Radio Days,’ or vice-versa. ‘Zelig’ came out mid-summer. So? There’s no perfect time. What we are talking about is a function of the calendar.”
And the movie business. Woody Allen has come uptown, so to speak, in terms of both budget and box office. What used to be $3-million Woody Allen films have grown with the times, and so have the receipts. “Hannah” cost $9 million; domestic grosses are hovering around $80 million, according to Greenhut. Allen’s more experimental “Radio Days” cost $15 million; “Purple Rose” cost $13 million; the new one, $9 million. As Pleskow puts it, “Woody doesn’t like bigger budgets any more than we do. But figures are a fact of life.”
But are surprises a fact of life in a Woody Allen project? “After 11 films together, I’m surprised by his backup of ideas,” remarked Greenhut. “He has 15 films he still wants to do. I love other directors, I love Stanley Kubrick, but he makes one film every 40 years. Woody has made 16 movies and he’s still not halfway home. Therefore I’ve tried to make sure this relationship continues because . . . as you become more familiar, there’s shorthand. And it works simply: Woody says, ‘I think I can do a good job.’ Not ‘It’s time to make a war film.”’
Be it a war film or “Hannah” or whatever, Oscar means competition. “Woody Allen doesn’t understand competition in artistic areas,” Greenhut reiterated. (Another theory is that along with being productive, Allen has become superstitious. Oscar is a final Hollywood punctuation, after all.) If the star is superstitious, though, his producer is not. “Somebody offered me a free meal,” joshed Greenhut. “I’ve never been to the Academy Awards. My wife would like to go. And I’m proud of the whole situation.”
JOFFE’S ‘MISSION’ IMPOSSIBLE
No Best Picture grouping would be complete without a Big Budget Opus, which this year was “The Mission.” Director Roland Joffe’s $17-million epic-lush adventure saga of colonization in South America became unbeloved by critics even before release. Joffe himself wasn’t unsurprised by the reaction: He can, in fact, track the exact moment when “The Mission” became “un-critic proof.”
“It was last spring in Cannes, at the film festival,” remembered Joffe recently. He was relaxing in his Beverly Hills-chic living room that seems more suitable to an executive than to the director of “The Killing Fields.” At Cannes, “The Mission” won the coveted Palme d’Or . “And I knew then we’d put some critics off. Critics can’t discover a movie if it’s already been discovered. So the agenda becomes, ‘Oh, it’s not as good as it’s cracked up to be!”’
Joffe remained undaunted--he looks at the bigger picture. The Englishman also understands realities of modern movie making. “The Mission” was financed two-thirds by Goldcrest and Kingsmere, and only later did Warner Bros. put up the necessary $5 million for completion. “Essentially it was Goldcrest who financed the film,” explained Joffe. “I remember early on saying to Goldcrest, ‘This is not a quick investment picture, this is the kind of picture that goes on forever.’ You have to see a company in terms of strategy. Ideally you do a movie that has an early break-even point. But with Goldcrest, we were dealing with a company that has a broader spectrum. Of course, they had financial troubles while we were shooting, so. . . .”
So Joffe, a pragmatist, resolved to stick to budget “even if it meant missing a scene. I felt honor-bound, and so we came in slightly under budget.” The honor came from Joffe’s understanding of what a risk “The Mission” was--from the start. “Pitching it--I pitched it a bit to Goldcrest and so did (“Mission” producer) David Puttnam--I realized something. I realized the plot couldn’t be told in three sentences. It’s a story of faith and redemption played out against a broad background. There’s no romance. What woman there was, disappears early. But Goldcrest was enterprising, and then, you know, these things go in stages.”
Meaning Goldcrest first commissioned “a feasibility study because we were going to very remote Argentinian locations. Would the Indians be usable as actors? I didn’t want to do an ‘Emerald Forest’ kind of thing where the natives were played by extras flown in from Rio. I wanted naturalism.”
Joffe nodded in agreement at the notion that he is, at heart, an old-fashioned big-budget epic-movie director. “I feel movies learned how, with color and sweep and music, to present visual spectacles, and tell stories. Spectacle appeals to me. . . . Frankly, I feel ‘The Mission’ is five years ahead of its time in terms of American audiences.”
(If not American box offices. “The Mission” has so far grossed “between $14 and $15 million, domestically,” according to Joffe, “and about $20 million foreign.”)
Does the director quibble with the distribution? Did Warners sell “The Mission” too much as a religious film? “In the main, Warners handled it very well,” replied the director diplomatically. “In retrospect they may have played its religious sense up more than necessary, but I don’t want to play Monday-morning quarterback. The film has a long run ahead of it.”
The trek from Cambodia (“Killing Fields”) to Argentina (“Mission”) takes a true world traveler, though. “The Mission” turned out to have been one of those films that crystallized in a director’s head--then got constant backing from the producer. Joffe and Puttnam made their mark with “Killing Fields,” and both wanted the momentum not to end. “‘The Mission’ began with a conversation David and I had by a river in Bangkok. We played around with an idea David had about Latin America, but I was afraid it was too contemporary. That it might sink under the weight of ‘attitudinizing.”’
Flash forward: Screenwriter Robert Bolt (“Dr. Zhivago”) saw a rough cut of “Killing Fields” and soon after gave Joffe a script dealing with “Indians coming of age. I didn’t like the script but loved the idea. I loved having an Indian tribe, a group that could speak throughout the film. I became fascinated with liberation theology. I remember one moment when it came together. Bolt had worked on the script after we talked, and I came to see him at his flat in London. He’d had a stroke. I remember picking up the script, getting into Bolt’s elevator, and when the elevator doors shut--that was it. I knew in a week’s time I’d be on a plane to the jungle. I wasn’t far off.”
‘You can be sold a bill of goods when it comes to passion,” said John Daly, dispassionately. Daly is the executive producer who said yes to “Platoon” and yes to “Salvador” and yes to “Hoosiers,” which means his company, Hemdale, has 14 Oscar nominations. (Yet a couple of weeks ago when a Hemdale representative called the academy to discuss seat allocation for Oscar night, the academy’s response was ‘Who’s Hemdale?’)
“Passion” is a John Daly word. It’s perhaps his major criterion for backing a particular project. “Passion” can be attached to a terrible movie--Hemdale has also backed “Images” and “Triple Echo"--but the values (says Daly) were passionate.
“Here’s how you know,” confided the transplanted Englishman who first came to California with his friend (and ex-partner) David Hemmings during “Camelot.” “There are film makers who come in and say, ‘All my life I’ve wanted to make this movie.’ That’s passion. Now you must realize that by the time material gets to me it’s been to studios. Very little fresh material is brought directly to my company. I see people who are still clinging to their dreams. But it’s when you get into negotiations that you find out. It’s then the agent says, ‘My client must have his full price, the full $2 million, to direct--or he’s walking away from the deal . . . this is after insisting there is nothing they would not do to prove their passion.”
Oliver Stone had nothing to prove, in terms of “Platoon,” when John Daly visited him in Mexico on the set of “Salvador” in late 1984. Hemdale was backing “Salvador,” and Daly went to see some footage. “I looked at two or three hours of film, and I saw Jimmy Woods giving a passionate performance. But I also saw Oliver not giving attention to the people who actually parade in front of the White House, the unfortunate people, the Americans who actually do speak up. And Oliver and I had a few friendly words about that, and he sort of said, ‘If you care that much about my work and my views, you should read my script ‘Platoon.”’
Daly flew back to Hollywood with the script, read it once, and called Stone in Mexico. “I told Oliver, ‘I want this to be your next picture. It will take three months to get the financing. . . .’ It wound up taking six months. But I think the idea that ‘Platoon’ was his story kept me going on it.” Even though Daly had no military experience. The former amateur boxer says he shares with Stone “a penchant for the underdog. Also I felt this revulsion at the Vietnam exploitation films that were surfacing. ‘Platoon’ said ‘It doesn’t matter who the enemy is. Nobody wins.”’
But did Daly know the back story? Did he know that ‘Platoon’ had been a Hollywood reject for nearly a decade? One wonders if independent producers aren’t sometimes just lucky outsiders who take the runt of the litter, and wind up with a star.
Daly nodded knowingly. “I was told--or let’s say I thought --'Platoon’ had been turned down maybe once, because the budget was $14 million. I could never have said yes to Oliver at $14 million. But also I knew that Oliver was working 24 hours a day in dirt and grime in Mexico on ‘Salvador.’ That picture looked like $15 million and cost $4.5 million.” Thus Daly knew his director, but trusted his own instincts: “If ‘Salvador’ cost $4.5 million then ‘Platoon’ could be done for $5.5 million. To me ‘Salvador’ was a filler, anyway. It was a way of proving that Oliver could direct.”
Thus was born a Hollywood relationship. “You could say ‘Platoon’s’ being made was really about my getting to know Oliver. Seeing the dark and light sides, the security and insecurity, the humanism. Of course for a person of such great morals, Oliver doesn’t live up to them all the time. There is a materialistic side to Oliver. But maybe the money from ‘Platoon’ will give him a chance to be more secure.”
Maybe. As Daly explained, “I have the wherewithal for a certain budget. I have a library of about 100 films. I have a line of credit with Credit Lyonnais. A movie costing $8 million or under is not a strain to my company. I’m responsible for any short fall, but. . . .” But since being interviewed, Daly and Hemdale have gone public in a reverse takeover (with Computer Memories, Inc.) that makes the company $30 million richer.
Not that there would be any red ink on “Platoon.” “By the end of today,” Daly summed up in mid March, “Hemdale will finish up--before third parties like Oliver get their share--with between $40 and $50 million. That’s on a $5.5 million investment.”
How much was luck? The dapper Daly digressed for a moment. Sitting in the cozy offices of the West Hollywood house that doubles as headquarters for Hemdale, Daly looked every inch the modern mogul: Pink Oxford-cloth shirt, Italian moccasins, an Ed Ruscha book on the coffee table, two four-wheel drive Wranglers out front. “Luck is (cosmetics czar) George Barrie, whose first picture was “A Touch of Class.” He had a winner to begin with, and 15 losers thereafter. But if you keep going to the table and hedging your bets, you leave yourself with an upside.”
(Hemdale was built on a shoestring. When London was London--in the swinging ‘60s--John Daly was selling life insurance and David Hemmings was on the brink of bankability with Antonioni’s “Blow Up.” When Hemmings got two tickets to Hollywood for “Camelot,” he gave Daly one, and “suddenly I was here doing chores on behalf of David and going to meetings. I apparently had some sort of business brain.”)
But Daly isn’t looking to become a studio man like his fellow Brit David Puttnam. “My idea is to take chances and create success rather than buy it. Movies with a great big price should be with major studios. Studios need product to satisfy exhibitor relationships. I don’t. If I felt I’d peaked I could sit for a year and wait.”
Is that then what independent producers really do? Wait for the right one? “An independent producer today,” said Daly, pointing both index fingers in the air, “does two things. With one hand he reads the Wall Street Journal, and with the other he reaches for a screenplay.” And if you are an English independent producer, “you move to Los Angeles because Los Angeles is 70% of the world.”