Taylor Hackford and other top officials of his New Visions Pictures first viewed "Wired," a surreal chronicle of comedian John Belushi's life and 1982 death, at a private screening Jan. 16.
Soon after, they began negotiating with F/M Entertainment for the rights to distribute "Wired" to American theaters. The two sides were apparently close to a deal when, on March 21, New Visions president Stuart Benjamin called "Wired" co-producer Charles Meeker with some troubling news.
"The pressure has gotten to be too much," Benjamin said, according to notes that Meeker, an attorney, said he took of the 18-minute conversation. "Too many relationships are threatened." Benjamin said he was very sorry, but it couldn't be helped, according to Meeker's notes.
The pressure, according to Meeker, was coming from Creative Artists Agency, the talent agency headed by Michael Ovitz. Meeker discussed his conversations with Benjamin in an interview with The Times this week. Meeker said that Benjamin told him that if his company released "Wired," it risked the loss of important film projects already in the works with CAA.
Hackford, chairman of New Visions and a film director with such credits as "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Against All Odds," is a CAA client. Sources in Hollywood say that New Visions' decision to not release "Wired" represents a textbook case of how power is exercised in Hollywood, in this case by the town's most influential talent agency. In a business that puts a premium on big-name talent, CAA's extraordinary client list of top actors and directors gives the agency tremendous leverage--not only to facilitate projects the agency wants, but also to discourage deals it doesn't.
Reached Wednesday, Ovitz denied that his agency put any pressure on New Visions or any other distributor. "The film will rise or fall based on its own merits," Ovitz said. "We have nothing to do with the movie."
Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter who wrote the book upon which the movie is based and served as technical adviser to the producers, said Tuesday, "It is clear from conversations I had with people from that company (New Visions) that they planned to distribute the movie, that they walked away from what they considered to be several million dollars, because of perceived fears that Mike Ovitz and CAA would not be happy."
At the time of his death, Belushi was a CAA client, and the agency continues to represent his brother James Belushi and such close Belushi friends as Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd.
Woodward's book, also titled "Wired," detailed not only Belushi's habits, but drug abuse throughout the entertainment community. Many of the same Belushi friends and associates who cooperated with Woodward blasted the book when it came out.
"Wired" co-producer Edward S. Feldman said Ovitz called him when he first learned that Feldman planned to make the movie and "suggested that I not make it, that the book ("Wired") was not accurate, that the (Hollywood) community does not want this movie made." But, Feldman added, Ovitz "didn't threaten me."
Ovitz said he doesn't recall the details of his conversation with Feldman. However, he acknowledged that many of the agency's clients were concerned about seeing Woodward's book made into a film.
"There's no question about that," Ovitz said. "A lot of these people took strong positions that they didn't want to see Belushi's life exploited." Ovitz added that those concerns "have not been discussed" recently.
In 1985 and again in 1986, an attorney for Ovitz, Aykroyd, Murray, Belushi's manager Bernie Brillstein and director John Landis, among others, wrote to F/M Entertainment threatening an invasion of privacy lawsuit if the film depicted any of these clients. (Of those people, Aykroyd is the only person depicted by name in the film. A look-alike of Landis also appears in one scene, although his name has been changed. In addition, a character apparently based on Brillstein appears, but the character's name has been changed to Arnie Fromson--a decision made upon the advice of the film's insurance company, according to Feldman.)
Despite the opposition to the film, "Wired," which stars unknown Michael Chiklis as Belushi, was made. Production was finished last fall and the producers have been seeking a distributor since then. All of the major studios passed on distributing the film, according to F/M Entertainment. Some smaller distributors expressed interest in it, the producers said, but F/M Entertainment decided to do business with New Visions, in part because both companies shared the same Amsterdam-based bank, Pierson, Heldring and Pierson.
Paul Kijzer, a Los Angeles-based consultant to the bank who was involved in the "Wired" negotiations with New Visions, said that company president Benjamin also told him that CAA had applied pressure to his firm.
"Benjamin clearly told me that various packages with CAA would be at risk" if his company released "Wired," Kijzer said this week. "He (Benjamin) cannot deny that."
"It was not a creative decision," Kijzer said of New Visions' sudden disinterest in "Wired." Kijzer added that releasing "Wired" would not pose any immediate "financial risk" to New Visions.
Both Benjamin and Hackford denied that they dropped the film because of CAA pressure. Hackford has said that his decision not to release the film was strictly a creative one. Benjamin told The Times this week that Kijzer's and Meeker's accounts of conversations with him were "inaccurate."
Under the tentative distribution agreement, F/M Entertainment would have provided $6.5 million in prints and advertising money, enough to cover expenses through the film's opening week, according to F/M officials and Kijzer. Much of that money would come from advances provided by a company that planned to buy videocassette rights to "Wired," according to Feldman. (A New Zealand conglomerate, Lion Nathan, financed the $13.5-million movie.) In addition, New Visions would earn distribution fees from the box-office receipts.
During the negotiations, New Visions hired marketing consultant Gordon Weaver to draw up a release plan for the film. Weaver said that as the outside ad agency for New Visions, he routinely provides marketing plans for projects under consideration at New Visions, but he would not discuss the plan. However, a copy of Weaver's marketing analysis obtained by The Times from F/M Entertainment suggested two alternative plans for a mid-summer release.
Feldman said that he and Weaver met to discuss the plan the day Benjamin called to say his company would not release the film. The alternative plans both suggested limited national Aug. 4 openings; one would have opened the film in 25 cities, the other in 50.
Meeker said that Benjamin called him on March 16 to say that the distribution deal was in trouble because of CAA pressure. The agency voiced objections after a published report in The Times disclosed that a deal between New Visions and F/M Entertainment was in the offing, according to Meeker's account of the conversation. Benjamin, according to Meeker, said the deal would embarrass CAA because of the agency's ties to Hackford.
"(Benjamin) went into a long speech saying that CAA itself didn't care, but that the agency was getting lots of heat from clients and that Ovitz was caught in the middle," Meeker said.
During that same conversation, Benjamin proposed a deal that he said would satisfy CAA. Under that deal, the film would be distributed by New Century/Vista, a distribution arm partially owned by Hackford's company. But the film would not carry the name of Hackford's company, Meeker said.
Five days later, Benjamin called to say the deal was off, that "the pressure had gotten to be too much," according to Meeker's notes. The notes are contained in a phone log kept by Meeker.
"This has been almost a McCarthy-type campaign," Feldman said of the CAA pressure. "It's innuendo and rumor. . . . I'm a little disappointed in the community. These are the same people that rallied to the side of ("Satanic Verses" author) Salman Rushdie, who defended Martin Scorsese's right (to make "The Last Temptation of Christ.)"
Mike Smith, director of Lion Nathan, the New Zealand company that financed the film, said Tuesday that he was "shocked" by the pressure, "particularly given how jealously everyone (in Hollywood) guards the rights of freedom of expression."
The most public display of pressure so far has come from Aykroyd, who, in an interview on MTV last June, said he was placing a curse on everyone involved with "Wired."
"I have witches working now to jinx the thing," Aykroyd said, on the MTV show "The Big Picture." "I hope it never gets seen and I am going to hurl all the negative energy I can and muster all my hell energies (against them). My thunderbolts are out on this one, quite truthfully."
Sources say that Aykroyd acted out his enmity when he discovered that a co-star in Tri-Star Pictures' "Loose Cannons" was in the "Wired" cast, as well, and refused to work with him.
The actor, J.T. Walsh, who portrayed Woodward in "Wired," had reportedly worked two days on "Loose Cannons" before the flap occurred. Soon after, he was replaced by Paul Koslo.
Neither Walsh nor Aykroyd would comment on the incident, and "Loose Cannons" co-producer Alan Greisman would say only that the casting of Walsh "didn't work out."
Many industry people contacted for this story said that allegations of CAA trying to suppress the movie were just a paper tiger and that the reason Feldman can't get a deal is that his movie isn't commercial.
"If that movie looked like it could make money, it would have been snapped up in a minute," said one studio executive. "It's going to be a tough movie for anyone to market."
Samuel Goldwyn Jr. said that he went to a "Wired" screening anticipating that he would want to make a deal for the film, but he came out convinced otherwise.
"We could really use a picture right now and I was very excited about it," Goldwyn said. "But, frankly, I'm afraid to take on a picture I don't know how to handle. And I wouldn't know how to handle this one."
Goldwyn said the $6.5 million Feldman is willing to put up for prints and advertising removes any financial risks for a small distributor, but without video rights, the potential is limited. And for those who are in business for the long haul, he added, the possibility of failure is sufficient risk.
"We get offered pictures on this basis all the time," Goldwyn said. "But if you take (their money) and don't deliver, you pay for it in other ways."
Goldwyn said he has had "no calls from anyone" advising him not to distribute the movie.
Feldman said this week that he was close to making a deal with another distributor, but there were details remaining to be worked out. He received some good news recently when "Wired" was selected for Un Certain Regard, one of the official programs at the Cannes Film Festival.
Still, marketing experts disagree on the commercial prospects of "Wired," a strangely surreal film in which Belushi revisits his life under the guidance of a Puerto Rican cab driver, played by Ray Sharkey. One studio marketing executive said he didn't think Belushi's story is of interest to many people outside Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, or to very many filmgoers under age 20.
"This is a movie that says drugs are a bad thing, and that isn't a very controversial issue anymore," the executive said. "Whether Hollywood didn't want the movie released isn't going to fill any seats. Do you think people in Akron are going to say, 'Hey, Michael Ovitz wanted this killed, let's go see it.' "?
Another marketing expert who saw "Wired" said "it is absolutely marketable," but added that the recent publicity surrounding the film threatens to make it commercially untenable.
"I can't think of a single film that was helped (at the box office) by this kind of publicity," he said. "When people talk about problems that have nothing to do with the movie itself, the movie suffers."
Both of these executives, who refused to be quoted by name, said they considered allegations of CAA pressure to be unfounded.
"When you talk to the major studios, they'll say there is no pressure, but you can feel it, you can just feel it," said one person closely associated with "Wired." "There's the feeling that if you release this picture, you're going to have trouble getting CAA clients. The pressure is immense."
Ironically, while the film makes reference to rampant drug use in Hollywood, it portrays Belushi's friends and associates as caring, sober people who tried in vain to keep Belushi off drugs. (The people who pass drugs to Belushi in this version of his life are anonymous fans, and Cathy Smith, the woman who was with Belushi shortly before his death. Although in one scene, an employee of Belushi's business manager does admit giving Belushi stimulants to keep him alert during a recording session.)
The film makers go out of their way to criticize Belushi himself for robbing his audiences of his tremendous talent. In one of the last scenes, Woodward--played by J. T. Walsh--says, "You did it to yourself, John."