A shiver of horror has crept through Hollywood this summer as word spread that the Australians who will soon own United Artists Corp. did something weird.
They pulled the plug on a sure thing--a movie that virtually had to make money--because it was, well, beneath them.
The film in question is "Child's Play II," a planned sequel to last fall's surprise hit about a homicidal doll. The second movie, to be produced by David Kirschner and directed by John Lafia, was supposed to start shooting Oct. 15.
About a week into pre-production, however, UA movie president Richard Berger called Kirschner to tell him that "Child's Play II" was dead. (Kirschner was in flight from Cincinnati at the time, having just agreed with financier Carl Lindner to take a job as head of cartoon-maker Hanna-Barbera.)
"The new management," Kirschner remembers Berger telling him, "has decided that horror films are not the kind of films they think will be good for the image of the company."
The new management at UA includes Christopher Skase, 40-year-old chairman of Qintex Group, and David Evans, a Skase associate who has been named chief executive of UA pending a deal under which Qintex, an Australian resort and broadcasting company, will acquire the U.S. studio from MGM/UA Communications Co. by Sept. 30.
The prohibition against horror--or at least horror of the kind represented by "Child's Play," which was scary but hardly broke new ground in terms of perversity--is unusual because it outlaws a genre of movie from which virtually every studio in Hollywood has profited.
"I think the decision is insane. The one thing they don't have is product," a competing studio chief said last week of UA's stance on "Child's Play."
"Since when has anyone in this business drawn a line that means not making money?" said a top Hollywood agent, who declined to be identified for fear of jeopardizing future relations with UA. "The first thing Joe Roth did (when recently hired as film chief at Fox) was to put 'Predator II' and 'Die Hard II' right into production."
In fact, word that "Child's Play II" had been turned loose at UA triggered a chase by Paramount, Warner Bros., Columbia, 20th Century Fox, the Price Co., Carolco, New Line and even Disney, all of which expressed interest in acquiring the film. It now appears that Universal will distribute the sequel, after Kirschner shoots it as an independent production this fall.
Studios were hot for the property because it could become a lucrative, long-running franchise, like Paramount's "Friday the 13th" or New Line's "Nightmare on Elm Street." Produced for about $15 million, the original "Child's Play" surprised studio executives when it grossed $35 million without a huge ad budget last November, then went on to sell a sizzling 200,000 videocassettes.
"Child's Play" was about Chucky, a very bad doll who happened to be possessed by the spirit of a serial killer. In the first movie, Chucky came home with sweet little Andy, played by 6-year-old Alex Vincent, and proceeded to kill again, leaving Andy to take the blame.
Neither Berger nor Evans returned calls seeking comment on their reasons for dropping "Child's Play," although Evans earlier told one Times reporter in a brief telephone interview, that the movie "philosophically doesn't fit our plan," which excludes "certain exploitation genres."
Talk about "exploitation" raises hackles among Hollywood's Establishment, which still hasn't forgiven British producer David Puttnam for his "higher standards" crusade during a brief and stormy reign as head of Columbia.
According to Kirschner, even Berger claimed to disagree with his bosses' decision but said that he had been overruled by Evans, who apparently felt that any movie associating a child with murder would "not be looked upon well in the world financial community." The point is sensitive, since Qintex is searching far and wide for partners to take shares in its $1-billion UA acquisition.
Last week, Evans told the Wall Street Journal that he expects to close the acquisition by the Sept. 30 deadline with help from as many as eight partners in Europe and the Far East, despite widespread rumors that the deal is in trouble. According to several sources familiar with the deal, Skase has approached such Japanese companies as Dentsu and Mitsui and European companies, such as Bouygues in France, with plans that would involve selling investors territorial rights to UA's film library while retaining a management fee.
It's hard to know exactly where the new UA will draw the line. One individual who spoke recently with the company's officers maintains that they explicitly declared films such as "The Bad Seed," "The Omen," and "The Exorcist" to be out of bounds as far as they are concerned. Does this mean that UA will quit licensing reruns of "Carrie," Brian DePalma's bloody 1976 horror classic? Kirschner, who created the story for "American Tail" and co-produced that children's film with Steven Spielberg, said his greatest fear is that "Child's Play" will be publicly perceived as something more vicious than it really is as a result of the UA action.
"I mean, this isn't a snuff film. . . . A child doesn't kill in this film," he says.
Kirschner adds that Evans--who will release this week a more innocent UA production called "Little Monsters," starring Fred Savage of TV's "The Wonder Years"--was "very gracious" when the two eventually discussed the Australians' distaste for "Child's Play." He said Evans seemed genuinely puzzled by Hollywood's enthusiasm for the film.
"Why would you make a film like this?" Evans asked the producer.
Says Kirschner: "I tried to explain that Universal built a foundation on horror movies. . . . I told him that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote 'Kidnapped,' then turned around and did 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.' "
Leonard Klady contributed to this article.