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THE UPSTREAM STRUGGLE FOR ‘RIVER’S EDGE’

By all that is perceived as holy in Hollywood, “River’s Edge” should be the title of a script that rests, like a novelist’s unpublished first book, on a shelf in the author’s home.

Novice screenwriters aren’t expected to sell their first scripts, not when they are written to fulfill course requirements in film schools, and particularly when they have themes so dark they can’t be sung, danced or made-out to.

“River’s Edge,” written by Neal Jimenez when he was a film student at UCLA, was inspired by a sensational incident in Milpitas, Calif., where several high school students remained silent for two days after a classmate had led them to the body of a girlfriend he had just murdered.

What it says about the potential for inhumanity among middle-class American teen-agers is chilling, yet the film’s reviews and word-of-mouth have heated up the box office. As of Monday, the $1.8-million movie had grossed $3.8 million since its market-by-market release began nine weeks ago.

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People magazine critic Peter Travers called “River’s Edge” “the best and boldest American movie so far this year.”

David Denby, of New York magazine, said “ ‘River’s Edge’ sent me tumbling head over heels. It should cause people to argue and celebrate for years.”

Jimenez, saying he was too lazy to research the real story, internalized the amoral behavior of the Milpitas students, asking himself how such an event would have gone down in his own high school environment. Then he let his thoughts all boil up in a writing exercise for which he said he received a C+.

“I was learning the screenplay form,” Jimenez said, during a cheerful autopsy of “River’s Edge” before members of Independent Feature Project/West on Tuesday night at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. (IFP is an association of independent film makers.)

“If it was put into a drawer as something that helped me make my next script better,” added Jimenez, “that would have been good enough.”

But “River’s Edge” had a pulse of its own. People read it, and though its implications made their skin crawl, they kept it alive. A classmate passed it along to a producer who passed it along to an agent. Within weeks, “River’s Edge” was curdling script readers’ blood all over town.

“We heard what the script was about and weren’t real interested in it,” said Midge Sanford, who produced “River’s Edge” with partner Sarah Pillsbury. “It’s not the type of material Sarah and I are usually drawn to.”

Sanford and Pillsbury, who were in the process of making their first feature, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” said that after reading “River’s Edge,” they still weren’t sure that it could be made, or if it was, that it could be marketed.

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But they said they knew good writing when they saw it. So they optioned “River’s Edge” and used it like a rug sample, hoping its fine weave and complex texture would convince someone to buy Jimenez’s next cut. The writer himself called “River’s Edge” his “calling card.”

No one was buying. They all thought “River’s Edge” was a great script, worth more than a C+ by any standard. But it had the commercial skull and crossbones stamped all over it. The studios didn’t want it and the directors whom Sanford and Pillsbury talked to didn’t want to risk their careers on it.

Nearly two years and more than 50 presentations later, the producers struck a deal with Hemdale Film Corp., and enticed Tim Hunter--whose $8.5-million “Sylvester” had been a box-office disappointment for Columbia--to direct.

“I really wanted to make a low-budget independent film because I wanted producers to see me as somebody who could . . . go with a good piece of material even if it didn’t have a big studio budget attached to it,” said Hunter, who previously directed “Tex” for Walt Disney Studios.

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Hunter said he essentially filmed Jimenez’s first-draft screenplay. The script was not compromised for its financial backers, according to the film makers, and the only external influence was Hemdale’s insistence on a name actor for one of the key adult roles.

Dennis Hopper got the part.

When the movie was finished, it looked as if the producers’ earlier fears about its ever being released were warranted.

The movie premiered last September at the Telluride Film Festival in the Colorado Rockies and was well received at subsequent festivals. But the producers said Hemdale, a company that also had the then-commercially dubious “Platoon” and “Hoosiers” on its mind, wasn’t sure what to do with “River’s Edge.”

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Hemdale, in the process of developing a distribution arm, dealt “Platoon” and “Hoosiers” off to Orion for their theatrical releases, and agreed to let Island Pictures handle “River’s Edge.”

“It all started in Telluride, where I saw the movie and thought it was probably the most disturbing film I’d ever seen,” said Jill Zignego, vice president of distribution for Island. “We all had the same reaction. It’s a movie that stays with you.”

Zignego said she had seen David Lynch’s sexually violent “Blue Velvet” the night before and thought it “was a lark” compared to “River’s Edge.” When Island Chairman Chris Blackwell saw “River’s Edge” for a second time at the U.S. Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Zignego said he came away saying “we have to do it.”

Zignego would not provide details on Island’s deal with Hemdale, except to confirm that Hemdale had already sold off the video rights and that Island would receive no share of other ancillary markets (foreign theatrical, pay cable). Under the urging of panel moderator Sam Kitt, a former head of United Artists Classics, Zignego implied that Hemdale did put up the money for the cost of prints and advertising, plus a guaranteed fee.

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Marketing “River’s Edge” was a challenge on the order of finding a home for paroled rapists. How do you sell a theme like this, and to whom? Do you offer it as a serious social document for sophisticated viewers, asked marketing consultant Bruce Feldman, or position it as high-class exploitation?

Zignego said they originally thought there were two audiences for “River’s Edge"--the sophisticated 22- to 35-year-old moviegoers who normally support Island’s specialty films, and the heavy-metal rock audience, “kids of that ilk who would relate to those people.”

“Young murderers?” Kitt asked, prompting a roar from the panel’s audience.

Island hired a firm called Concrete Marketing to tap into the metal audience. A video was created, airtime was arranged in nightclubs where the kids hang out, ads were placed in heavy-metal magazines.

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When “River’s Edge” opened in Los Angeles, Hollywood Boulevard’s box office out-performed Westwood’s, Zignego said, lending credibility to the heavy-metal strategy. But the business has held up much better in Westwood, and Island finally concluded that the metal audience wasn’t there at all for “River’s Edge.”

“Even though there was an amazing awareness (of the movie) in that audience (it didn’t matter),” Zignego said. “They don’t go to movies.”

If there is a moral to this story, besides the example of good things coming to those who wait, it is that when it comes to anticipating audience interest in a movie, no one--neither those who say “no” to a script, nor those who say “yes"--has a clue until the audiences get a chance to see it.


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