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THE HIGH COST OF ‘ishtar’

In Peoria, Ill. (pop.: 124,000), the town that has come to stand as the metaphor for Middle America, moviegoers didn’t stand in line for “Ishtar” at its opening shows last weekend.

Paul Evans, 24, who manages Peoria’s biggest showplace--the 800-seat Fox Theater--said that if it were up to him, he’d send “Ishtar” on its way and run in another movie.

His theater was less than half full for the main shows (at 7:15 p.m.) on both Friday and Saturday nights: “For a movie that was supposed to be this big hit. . . .”

Evans came to the Fox only a month ago, by way of a 5-plex (where he started as an usher, then rose to assistant manager), just as “Hoosiers” was finishing a rousing engagement. “So was ‘ “Crocodile” Dundee,’ ” said Evans.

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He’s seen lots of spectacular business--including “Tootsie” (1981), the last film made by Dustin Hoffman prior to “Ishtar.” Warren Beatty, “Ishtar’s” other star--and its executive producer--also made his last film in 1981. Evans never found the time to see the epic “Reds.” “But I know about it,” he said. “It was a real long movie. And he (Beatty) talked to these people in their 80s, and then they flashed back to the Russian Revolution or something like that.”

For the Peoria Journal-Star (daily circulation: 100,000), critic Jerry Klein, who covers movies, theater, art, symphony, ballet, opera (“You name it”), wrote: “ ‘Ishtar’ is probably the most overpublicized, overbudgeted, overwrought, overpraised movie of the year. It also is one of the more disappointing. . . . It unfolds up there on the screen with the dreary predictability of some Abbott and Costello farce.”

Klein, who has been at the paper 35 years, gave the movie 1 1/2 stars. “That’s pretty low,” he said.

He gave 2 stars to Burt Reynolds’ shoot-em-up, “Malone”: “It was a modest little thing and it didn’t pretend to be anything else.”

A Columbia Pictures executive, who asked not to be identified, attributed “Ishtar’s” shaky opening to the fact that “it didn’t quite make it in the Heartland.” In Los Angeles, he bragged, “Ishtar” pulled in strong figures.

The implication was that the movie was too sophisticated for the hinterlands.

But Middle America wasn’t the only part of the country that didn’t get the joke.

In New York City, “Ishtar” came in second after a horror picture called “The Gate.”

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(Budgeted at $4 million, with a story about some kids who discover there’s a hell-hole--literally--in their backyard, “The Gate” boasted special effects rather than any names that even veteran filmwatchers would recognize.)

Nationally, “Ishtar” came in No. 1, with grosses of $4.3 million. “The Gate” made $4.2 million. And each played 1,139 screens.

That a little horror film from the 8-month-old New Century/Vista came close to upsetting a mega-production was not lost on those who cover the box office. One Los Angeles headline opined: “ ‘ISHTAR’ ISHTUCK.” (“Ishtar” jokes--like “Ishtar-and-feathered"--made the rounds.)

Indeed, it would appear that “Ishtar,” with a budget somewhere between $35 million and $47 million (depending on who is calculating) for what appears to be the most expensive comedy ever put on the screen, has a very uphill road to travel to make its money back.

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(Along with high star salaries, the film required eight weeks’ shooting in Morocco and nine weeks in New York for its tale of a pair of down-on-their-luck singer-songwriters who take a gig in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Ishtar, where they are embroiled in convoluted political turmoil. Post-production took a tedious 10 months.)

Not everybody concerned is ready to pronounce “Ishtar” a disaster--not just yet. Many are quick to point out that this second weekend is the weekend that really counts. Memorial Day weekend, after all, officially kicks off the summer movie season, with twice as many people out (from the week before) looking for a movie. But now the competition is Eddie Murphy and “Beverly Hills Cop II,” which opened Wednesday.

At Mann’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, “Ishtar” has been moved from the 1,400-seat main house to the theater’s 700-seat house. “Beverly Hills Cop II” has taken the big screen.

The reason is obvious when you consider that the first “Beverly Hills Cop,” which opened in the Christmas season in 1985, debuted with $15.2 million in ticket sales.

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(For the sake of comparison, the opening weekend of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was $33 million. As for comedies: “Ghostbusters” took in $13.6 million and “Back to the Future” $11.3 million.)

In recent weeks, Beatty and Hoffman have been on the covers of Life, American Film, USA Weekend and People. This following an unflattering tale of “Ishtar’s” off-screen travails in a March issue of New York magazine. (Beatty is also on the cover of the current Playgirl, which asks, “Does He Live for Sex?” But, said a publicist, the article is not based on a personal interview.)

Although Beatty very infrequently offers himself to the media, he and Hoffman have also been featured in numerous newspapers across the country, the result of a press junket that also found them doing numerous interviews for TV. (Beatty also did an exclusive cover interview with Calendar.)

One of the major ironies surrounding “Ishtar” is that the studio that financed it, Columbia, has a new chief who has been openly critical of big-budget movies (and has cited Beatty’s “Reds”) and star egos (specifically, Hoffman and his attempts to gain artistic control over the movie “Agatha”).

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The people who work for new boss David Puttnam are in a tricky position. As one Columbia spokesman put it: “If ‘Ishtar’ fails, they’ll all say, ‘I sure didn’t have anything to do with that .’ If it succeeds, they’ll all stand in line to share in the victory.”

Studio publicists were unusually evasive. Senior Columbia officers referred a reporter’s phone calls to other officers--who then transferred her calls back again. Interviews were postponed, rescheduled, then canceled. (The cancellation came one hour before the studio officially announced the first weekend’s box-office take.) Calls placed to Puttnam and David Picker, president of Columbia, weren’t returned.

It remained for Francis T. (Fay) Vincent, chairman of the Entertainment Division of Coca-Cola, Columbia’s parent company, to speak up for the project.

Said Vincent, from his New York office, “Do I need to remind you that Columbia has had a very good relationship, in the past, with both Dustin and Warren?”

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He cited Beatty’s “Shampoo” and Hoffman’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Tootsie.”

He discounted the notion that “Ishtar” could impair the company should it not recoup its investment: “I don’t want to sound arrogant to you, but the fact is we are involved in many film and TV productions (including “Wheel of Fortune”). It can be misleading to deal with a particular film and its profits or losses when we take a very long view of our projects. And the long view says we’ll do just fine.”

“Ishtar,” for profit or for loss, is a Hollywood curiosity.

For starters, it seems to typify the big-budget film beset by hefty above-the-line costs--in this case, the salaries of Beatty and Hoffman ($5.5 million each, plus a $500,000 producing fee for Beatty) and director Elaine May ($1.5 million). Which means that before a single frame of film was shot, “Ishtar” had spent $13 million.

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“Ishtar” also underlines the power that a successful producer-star can wield. And it asks: What is a star worth? And who is or isn’t a star?

In a career spanning three decades, Beatty has done only 17 films. He may be an icon to adult moviegoers, and a formidable force to the critics (who cannot overlook a best-director Oscar), but do younger audiences know who he is? His last “accessible” movie (as opposed to “Reds”) was “Heaven Can Wait,” released nearly a decade ago, when today’s teen-agers were only 5 and 6 years old.

(A Toronto film critic tells of overhearing a teen-age girl, exiting an “Ishtar” screening, asking her friend, “So what was the name of the pretty guy?”)

Hoffman has made the same number of films as Beatty--but in a shorter period of time (Hoffman made his film debut in “The Graduate” in 1967, Beatty in “Splendor in the Grass” in 1961), so it seems as if he’s worked more.

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But both actors have been away from the screen for 4 1/2 years. In the interim, moviegoers have discovered new (and younger) faces.

“Ishtar” also looks at the director-as-star. In many critical circles, May is considered a genius as an improvisational comedienne and as a “script doctor” who can be brought in to improve the writing. But her directorial track record is bumpy.

Then there is the fact that “Ishtar” found itself in a kind of time warp, trapped between regimes at Columbia--and two differing philosophies on film making.

Approved by a Columbia regime that has since departed, “Ishtar” was inherited by producer-turned-studio boss Puttnam. His credits range from such heralded Academy Award titles as “Chariots of Fire” and “The Killing Fields” to such “little” but critically admired films as “Local Hero.” Puttnam is esteemed as that rarity--an artiste in the executive ranks. When he arrived at Columbia, he was envisioned by many to be a knight riding in on the white horse.

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Because “Ishtar” has long generated headlines and gossip by running over production (it originally was planned for release at Christmas) and over budget, the irony was lost on no one when it came to rest with Puttnam’s regime.

It was Puttnam who initiated “Agatha,” the 1977 film that starred Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave. He later quit as the producer. “Agatha” and “Straight Time” (1978) became the subject of bitter lawsuits involving Hoffman and the producing company, First Artists Productions, when Hoffman attempted to gain artistic control (and final cut). It was during this period that Hoffman achieved his notoriety for being “difficult.”

Puttnam would later say to The Times’ Roderick Mann: “Dustin is a gifted actor with a bit of magic on the screen. But my experience with him was an unhappy one. There seemed to be a malevolence in him, a determination to make other human beings unhappy.”

Hoffman later related to Mann that he once confronted Puttnam in the Russian Tea Room in New York (as Puttnam sat with Albert Finney), asking, “Why are you telling these lies about me?” According to Hoffman, Puttnam didn’t respond.

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Then there were Puttnam’s remarks about his disdain for big budgets in which he took a swipe at “Reds”: “Look at ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ But you notice nobody criticized Michael Cimino when he should have been criticized--when he was actually making that movie. . . . That seems to be the classic Hollywood reaction. Nobody would criticize him when there was a chance that they’d be proved wrong, when there was a possibility that the film might be a huge success and they’d be made to look foolish. When it was safe to attack him, they did it with glee. Too late. It’s while films like ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and ‘Reds’ are being shot that someone has to cry, ‘Enough, this is madness.’ ”

(Contrary to some reports, “Ishtar” was not a runaway production a la “Heaven’s Gate.” Associate producer David L. MacLeod--who is also Beatty’s first cousin--stressed that both on location and in post-production, the film was constantly supervised by Columbia executives.)

Puttnam’s history with the “Ishtar” principals would seem all the more strained by reports that, since coming to the studio in June of 1986, he never once made contact with the “Ishtar” office. Not so much as a memo was dispatched.

Those who work with Puttnam, including his secretary and Fay Vincent, said they did not know if Puttnam had ever screened “Ishtar.”

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Beatty was, at first, going to talk with a reporter about “Ishtar.” He tried to reach her--leaving a message on a home answering machine. But in the days following the film’s opening weekend, he decided against an interview.

Bert Fields, his lawyer, called to explain: “Warren thinks it’s probably better if he doesn’t talk about this just now. He wants to maintain his policy of not giving comments.”

Fields--who also represents May and Hoffman--was present at the dinner (“It was purely social”) where Beatty and May got the notion that Beatty and Hoffman should team. Later, said Fields, as he walked May home, she began making up scenes.

Beatty took the story idea to his old friend (and former press agent) Guy McElwaine, then Columbia’s chief executive. It was submitted on the basis of a Beatty-May collaboration, with the possibility of Hoffman coming aboard.

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The budget--said Fields--was $39 million. “I don’t know where the stories about it once being $28 million, shooting up to more than $50 million, got started.”

After Hoffman said yes to the project, he and Beatty and May offered to defer their salaries. “That would have brought the film’s budget down to the $25-million range,” said Fields, adding that it was Columbia’s decision that the stars not defer their salaries.

McElwaine, who has since become executive vice president and chairman of the motion picture division of Weintraub Entertainment Group, didn’t balk at giving the idea a go-ahead: “When you deal with someone like Warren Beatty, you cannot ignore his record as a producer. It’s probably as good as anyone’s in this business,” he said in an interview.

He estimates that it was roughly three months after being pitched May’s idea that he was presented with May’s script, originally titled “Blind Camel.” (Columbia first announced the project as “The Untitled Elaine May Comedy.”)

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“Everyone thinks it was a tough decision to do ‘Ishtar,’ ” said McElwaine. “It was not a tough decision. The fact is, people don’t know anything about this business. They just don’t know .”

From the beginning, explained McElwaine, “my trust was in Warren--and his ability to merge artistic propensities with populist taste. His track record is almost unmatched.”

He referred to the Beatty-produced “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Shampoo,” “Heaven Can Wait” and “Reds.” Of the latter title, McElwaine said, “You can’t ignore Academy Awards and critical acclaim.”

Of writer-director May: “You know, everyone calls her a genius. I guess, from a studio standpoint, her track record is fairly spotty. But the films she has made have all been wonderful.

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“I spent a lot of time with Elaine, talking about this project. And she assured me she was not going to misbehave.”

May’s tendency to “misbehave” can be explained, in part, by this admission from a Beatty associate: “Nobody ever accused Elaine May of being conventional.”

There were offscreen dramatics when May directed (and wrote) “A New Leaf.” And when May directed “The Heartbreak Kid” (script by Neil Simon). And, especially, when she directed " Mikey and Nicky,” based on her script.

“More than a million feet of chaos” is how one source tabs the 1976 film that was seven years in the making. A night in the life of two unlikable hit men played by Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, the film ate up more than three times the raw film stock of “Gone With the Wind.” Plagued by production troubles, it later became the subject of a string of lawsuits between May and Paramount Pictures.

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When it was finally released (at a length of 10,000 feet of film, culled from the more than 1.4 million that had been shot), it was to critical acclaim (writing in the New Republic, Stanley Kaufman named it one of the 10 best films of the decade), critical disdain (New York magazine’s John Simon deemed it one of the year’s worst films) and public indifference.

As it was put by one “survivor” of the Moroccan shoot (as he good-naturedly put it), “With Elaine (directing), the camera would start and the scene would go. And it wouldn’t stop until the cameraman would say, ‘We’re out of film.’ By that time, Warren and Dustin would have forgotten their lines a long time ago. So they’d just stand there, trying to improvise. Only Warren wasn’t too good at improvising.

“Anyway, it would go and on and on. And some of us would wonder when the heck it would end. But until Elaine May says ‘Cut,’ you do not stop the cameras. And most of the time, she just let the scene go until the film was gone.” (A film magazine lasts approximately 10 minutes--1,000 feet of film.)

Generally on schedule during the Moroccan portion--no small feat, considering logistical woes, as well as constant worries about a terrorist reprisal to the Israeli bombing of Tunisia on the first day of shooting--the film’s “sparks” flew most furiously in New York. There, largely due to the musical numbers featuring non-musical pros Beatty and Hoffman, and a tedious 10-month post-production, tempers--and headlines--began to flare.

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The most delicious gossip (blurbed in New York’s spoofy Spy magazine) had Beatty and May trading blows in an editing room, with attorney Fields being summoned to New York. “Not true. Not a word of it,” laughed Fields. “I don’t remember fistfights in New York. But we did have some Chinese food.” Then he joked, “Warren must weigh three times what Elaine does, but, if they did have a fight, I guarantee Elaine would hold her own.”

Costume designer Anthony Powell described May’s directorial style this way: “She directs from her subconscious. She doesn’t do it intellectually.”

Animal trainer Buford (Corky) Randell--whose career has spanned four decades, and includes working the camels in George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and the mustangs in John Huston’s “The Misfits"--summed up Morocco, and May, this way: “It was hot. It was fun. I enjoyed it. I can’t tell you I understand Elaine May. But I sure like her.”

Second assistant director Marcia Gay used the word “improvisational” to describe May’s directing process. Mused Gay, “Yes, it is a very different way of making feature films.”

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Among May’s challenges: directing executive producer Beatty.

“It was tough for her, having to direct the boss,” said once source. “She had to do a lot of rewriting for him. There were a lot of discussions--between Warren and Dustin and Elaine--over the lines.”

There is a shared feeling of fondness--among most of those crew members queried--for May. At the same time, some acknowledge that they would prefer not to work with her again.

“It’s exasperating, in the sense that you think you’ve done your very best job. But to her, it can always be done another way,” said one crew member.

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“Ishtar” production designer Paul Sylbert (who also did “Mikey and Nicky”) defended her: “That woman had not made a movie in 10 years. And then the first thing she had to do was paint the Sistine Chapel.”

Former Columbia chief McElwaine expressed his irritation over reports that the studio has had to cough up all of the budget (which he puts at “somewhere right around $35 million--and I won’t be off by 3%"). Said McElwaine: “How much of the negative was covered by outside revenue sources?” He did not answer his own question, but added: “Imagine that I’m not stupid. Assume that we had a good portion of that negative covered before we ever started filming.”

Yet even if financing were securely in place, why bankroll such a costly comedy?

McElwaine’s answer: “The most successful movies in the history of cinema have been adult comedies. Look at ‘Tootsie.’ Look at ‘Ghostbusters.’ Look at the record of comedies in this business.”

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Comedy is king at the box office. According to Variety, 15 of the 50 top-grossing films are comedies. Three (“Ghostbusters,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Back to the Future”) are in the Top 10 with U.S.-Canada domestic ticket sales of more than $650 million combined. (This figure doesn’t take into account ticket sales in foreign territories, as well as monies from videocassettes, cable and commercial TV.)

The remaining top money-making comedies and their domestic rental figures (the money actually returned to the studios): “Tootsie,” $95 million; “The Sting,” $78 million; “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” $71 million; “Smokey and the Bandit,” $60 million; “9 to 5,” $59 million; “Stir Crazy,” $58 million; “American Graffiti,” $56 million; “Porky’s,” $54 million; “Every Which Way but Loose,” $52 million; “Heaven Can Wait,” $49 million, and “Blazing Saddles,” $48 million.

Added to the roster, in recent months: “ ‘Crocodile’ Dundee,” with ticket sales, to date, of more than $166.8 million, about half of which, by usual studio accounting standards, is returned to the studio.

Some of these titles had hefty price tags:

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Ectoplasmic wonders and a rampaging 112-foot marshmallow man sent “Ghostbusters’ ” budget climbing to $33 million. “Tootsie” cost $35 million.

Then there are those big-budget comedies that achieved notoriety as box-office bombs. Like Steven Spielberg’s “1941,” filmed in 1979 for a then-staggering $27 million.

And what marquee-gazer could forget the summer of ’86--and the colossal egg laid by the $35 million “Howard the Duck,” which may have inspired a changing of the guard at the studio. (Frank Price, then chairman of the studio’s motion picture group, was ousted. He has become an independent producer--familiar terrain to former studio heads.)

Monster-budget movies such as these (including the infamous $36.5-million “Heaven’s Gate”) serve as reminders that inflated budgets (and the inflated egos that are their frequent companions) aren’t always funny. As then-Washington Post critic Paul Attanasio surmised, “As you watch ‘Howard the Duck,’ you get the vivid sensation that you’re watching not a movie, but a pile of money being poured down the drain.”

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If “Ishtar” should take off at the box office, the question persists: Can it make its money back . . . or will it go down in movie history as (said one cynic) “Warren the Duck”?

In addition to its hefty budget, there are ad and promotion costs. Daily Variety industry analyst Art Murphy--who’s been at this sort of thing 22 years--estimated that it cost Columbia $10 million for the opening weeks’ advertising and promotion.

Murphy added that as the film continues playing, the studio must also continue buying ads to remind moviegoers that “Ishtar’s” still around. “With a movie like this, it wouldn’t be unlikely that they’d have to spend another $10 million to keep it going.”

(Ed Russell, senior vice president of publicity, promotion and field operations for Columbia, refused to comment on the amount of money spent for the film’s campaign. Nor would he discuss the campaign. And he declined to send this newspaper artwork to accompany the article.)

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There used to be an easy rule of thumb to figure if--and when--a film had made back its production costs and gotten “in the black” (the money-making plateau). That is, you simply multiplied production costs by 2 1/2--thereby taking into account print and distribution and advertising and promotion costs.

But Murphy insists that mathematical trick no longer applies.

Said Murphy: “What the press keeps missing these days are all the added markets. There are six different markets for a movie to play off.”

Playing off those six markets--theatrical, pay-per-view, video, pay TV, network TV and syndicated TV--can take from 7 to 10 years, explained Murphy.

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By the same token, the cost of the film is spread out over those markets. (And, said Murphy, very few films make their money back these days solely through theatrical distribution.)

What all this means is that, sometime in the mid-1990’s, “Ishtar” may come straggling in, after a long and troubled trek, to the land of the profits.

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