THE MOVIES : the fine art of MAKING THE DEAL

<i> Wilson is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

If it sometimes seems that all of Hollywood’s filmmaking community is scrambling from power breakfasts to pitch meetings to deal lunches to rewrite sessions, with lots of call-waiting jockey time in between, there’s a reason.


For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 2, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 2, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 7 Column 3 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong Agency--In an article, “The Fine Art of Making the Deal,” in the Los Angeles Times Magazine special edition on The Movies (May 27), a reference to agent Lennie Hirshan wrongly indicated the agency where he works. Hirshan is with the William Morris Agency.

It’s the key to getting studio features into production--placing the right script in the right hands at the right moment. And when major stars become involved--as they so often do with summer’s high-concept, big-budget productions--timing becomes crucial.

“Sometimes a film comes together in 12 minutes,” says independent producer Dan Melnick, who has the $30-million-to-$35-million “Air America,” starring Mel Gibson, on this summer’s schedule of releases. “More often, not. Getting pictures off the ground today defies all the laws of gravity.”

However, liftoff often occurs because of luck--key creative elements interested and available for assembly--rather than irrepressible quality.

“A PICTURE HAPPENS because the right people want to do it, not necessarily because of the intrinsic merits of the project,” says screenwriter Nora Ephron, who doubles as an executive producer on this summer’s “My Blue Heaven,” which stars Steve Martin.


Then, with a laugh, she adds: “I don’t necessarily mean my project.”

Ephron (“Heartburn,” “When Harry Met Sally”) pitched the idea for “My Blue Heaven” to actress Goldie Hawn and her partner, Anthea Sylbert, in the fall of 1987. The story line: A mid-level Mafioso--an important murder witness--is sent by the Federal Witness Protection Program to a bucolic California community, where he starts a crime wave because it’s the only thing he knows how to do. A beleaguered FBI agent tries to keep him in line, and a frustrated local district attorney tries futilely to bring him to justice.

Ephron, along with Hawn--who was interested in the D.A. role--took the idea to Warner Bros., which put it into development, with studio production executive Allyn Stewart assigned to coordinate. Shortly after Ephron started writing, however--in March, 1988--the 22-week Writers Guild strike intervened.

Following the strike and after revisions were made in the script, says Warners production chief Mark Canton, “It became very clear that it might not be a Goldie Hawn role.” (Translation: According to a source close to the project, the part was not of star stature.)

When Hawn dropped out early in 1989, the project needed a name actor to maintain momentum. “I sent the script to Steve Martin, who responded very quickly,” Ephron says. Martin wanted to play the lesser role of the FBI man. But Danny DeVito turned down the sizable and more offbeat part of the Mafioso, and Arnold Schwarzenegger never responded to studio queries, Ephron recalls. She then suggested that Martin play the gangster, and he agreed. For the FBI role, Martin’s agent, John Gaines, suggested another client, Rick Moranis, who had become hot on the heels of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and other hits. Fast-rising Joan Cusack (“Working Girl”) agreed to play the D.A.

But a top-flight comedy director was needed quickly--before the stars moved on to other commitments.

Director Herbert Ross (“The Turning Point,” “Steel Magnolias”) had a project delayed and “was available--immediately.” “My Blue Heaven” went into production in October, 1989, about two years after being pitched.

“We got a package in place that could be made immediately,” Ephron says. “It was very pleasant--the fastest of my career.”

While Canton heaps high praise on the script (“You can’t believe how much easier a good screenplay helps in making the movie”), Ephron is more modest.

“It’s a perfectly all-right script that happened to interest the right people,” she says.

IF “MY BLUE HEAVEN” WAS relatively painless to put together, “Air America” has been an operation sometimes in need of anesthesia.

A bombastic adventure about pilots in the CIA’s covert airline during the Vietnam War, “Air America” had been in development for several years as a labor of love under director Richard Rush (“The Stunt Man”) for Carolco Pictures. In September, 1987, when Melnick sold his IndieProd company to Carolco, he took over the project.

“They hadn’t been able to get a good script on it,” says Melnick. “It couldn’t attract stars. It was just lumbering along.”

Excited by the research material, Melnick brought in screenwriter John Eskow, who journeyed with Melnick and director Bob Rafelson to Malaysia and Thailand to scout locations. Malaysia was ruled out for shooting (“A repressive society, very grim,” says Melnick), but its government did have many of the aircraft--some 40 planes--needed for the picture.

A logistically difficult film was slowly coming together.

Then the trio returned to the delays of the writers’ strike. Because of the picture’s scope and budget, an international star was needed, Melnick felt. “But no way can you get a star to commit unless something’s written.”

Further complicating matters: Shooting had to take place during the Thailand dry season, roughly October through April. “My colleagues at Carolco were disturbed, because they had counted on the picture.”

Rafelson and Melnick went to Africa to shoot “Mountains of the Moon,” while Eskow--with the strike over--went back to work on “Air America.”

Melnick had envisioned an older actor--"a Connery or a Newman"--to portray the more experienced pilot in the piece, with Mel Gibson as the youthful sidekick. But Gibson, sizzling at the box office again after the success of “Lethal Weapon,” ended up in the top role, his commitment nailed down by Melnick after a special flight from Africa to New York. The script was adjusted, and up-and-coming Robert Downey Jr. was cast as the younger pilot.

Despite some reservations by Carolco, Melnick hired Roger Spottiswoode to direct. “He had never done a breakout picture, but I thought ‘Under Fire’ was terrific,” Melnick says. “I had admired his work for 23 years and had real conviction about him.” A “very complicated shoot” followed, much of it in primitive Northern Thailand where the film company had to install 200 toilets. Up to 15 cameras were at work, Melnick says, during 14 weeks and 84 shooting days.

The producer takes primary credit for giving the film “the thrust it needed. . . . Each time a tough movie gets made, it’s the passion of one person involved.”

Yet he can’t dismiss the importance of a major star saying yes at the right time.

“If I hadn’t gotten Mel or someone comparable,” Melnick says, “it probably wouldn’t have gotten made.”

WHEN UNIVERSAL releases “Ghost Dad,” starring Bill Cosby, this summer, it will also be because the fates smiled.

In January, 1989, Cosby was preparing to make a feature film for Columbia during his hiatus from NBC’s “The Cosby Show.” But when the latest revision on the script proved unsatisfactory, the star of the unsuccessful “Leonard, Part 6" was left without a project.

Things looked bleak. Cosby would only be free until the first week in August, a seven-month window.

Then Lennie Hirshan, an agent with the Norman Brokaw Agency, which represents Cosby, remembered a script by Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”) called “Thursday” that had been languishing at Universal, intended at one time for Steve Martin.

Producer Stanley Robertson, partnered with Cosby, got a copy. The comedy, replete with special effects, centers on a widower, a workaholic executive who is emotionally neglectful toward his three kids and who finds himself a ghost after an auto accident. Frantic to provide his children with financial security, he learns that what they really crave is love.

It looked promising. “Cosby did not want to play Cliff Huxtable (his TV character),” Robertson recalls. “He wanted to play a character who is not a good father.”

Time, however, was of the essence.

On Feb. 3, a contingent of six exe- cutives, including Universal production president Tom Pollock, visited Cosby at the Las Vegas Hilton, where the comedian was performing. There was a “creative meeting of the minds” on script revisions, and Cosby suggested Sidney Poitier as director. Within a week, a deal was set. Rewrites began in earnest--"it needed to be ‘Cosby-ized’ "--with Denise Nicholas cast as Cosby’s love interest and Kimberly Russell, Salim Grant and Brooke Fontaine as the kids.

“Ghost Dad"--the new title--began principal photography on April 26, 1989, about four months after Cosby first read the script. Sixty-seven shooting days later, the film was in the can.

Finding the screenplay, says Robertson, “was exceedingly lucky, because so much of what was being submitted to Cosby would never do.” Poitier was also an important element, because of his longtime relationship with the actor. “The rapport was there, a trust that would have taken time” to develop with another director.

Robertson calls the production “smooth in every aspect, from the time we decided to do it, all the way through production. We were very fortunate.”

“PRESUMED INNOCENT,” based on the best-selling 1987 novel by Scott Turow, was likewise graced, according to Warners’ Canton.

Filmmaker Sydney Pollack (“Out of Africa,” “Tootsie”) had bought rights to the novel for a reported $1 million when it was still in book galleys. A sexy suspense drama, it features a prosecuting attorney--a solid, deeply moral man unjustly accused of murdering a seductive colleague with whom he’s had an affair--who must track down the killer.

Pollack and his partner, Mark Rosenberg, first developed the project at MGM/UA, with Frank Pierson adapting. But a little over two years ago, with that studio up for sale and divesting itself of properties, “Presumed Innocent” was put on the market.

“We immediately jumped into the fray and went after the material,” Canton says. “We felt it was a big-time opportunity for us.”

Pollack and Rosenberg offered Warners a package that included director Alan J. Pakula (“Klute,” “All the President’s Men”). As his star, Pakula wanted Harrison Ford and his forthright, Everyman quality. “We had a list of possibilities, but it was never offered to anybody else,” Pakula says. And the actor happened to be willing and available.

“We agreed we were all in sync (creatively),” Canton says. “We decided very quickly to green-light the movie--which is very rare, especially with elements (at such a high level).

“Then (late last year) Alan went off and made the movie.”

With a cast that includes Brian Dennehy, Bonnie Bedelia, Raul Julia, Greta Scacchi and Paul Winfield, “Presumed Innocent” appears to be one of the classier productions of the summer.

Canton calls the experience “a very smooth ride. I’d even call it delightful, which is not a term I’ve thrown around, because I’ve been at both ends . . . . It was a lot shorter period than ‘Batman.’ ”

Pakula gives his executive producer, Susan Solt, much of the credit: “The fact that we came in on schedule and within budget--she gets enormous responsibility for that.”

The director acknowledges the significance of fortunate timing on such a big project but insists that a filmmaker must be patient until the right “confluence of factors” occurs.

“It’s such a collaborative medium,” Pakula says. “The best script with the wrong actor can fail, and the other way around.

“If Harrison Ford had said, ‘I can’t do it for another seven or eight months,’ I would have waited.”