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FILM COMMENT : ‘Nobody Knows Anything’; Yep, He’s Still Got That Right

Among the thousands of people who’ve worked in Hollywood during the last half-century, Samuel Goldwyn probably uttered the most interesting truth--"An oral contract is not worth the paper it’s written on"--but it was screenwriter William Goldman who gave us the most profound one. In his book, “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” Goldman observed that when it comes to deciding which movies will appeal to the public, “Nobody knows anything.”

“Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work,” he said. “Every time out it’s a guess--and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

The Goldman Rule popped into my mind last Sunday while watching the second installment of “Naked Hollywood,” a documentary series about the film business currently airing on cable’s Arts & Entertainment Network. The episode, titled “18 Months to Live,” focused on studio chiefs during the Revolving Door Era of Hollywood, a time when recruits from the ranks of producers, agents, lawyers and filmmakers are paid massive amounts of money and given 18 months or so to show what they know.

Of course, as we know, and they know, and the people who hire them know, they know nothing. Hollywood is like a $5-billion game of craps, where you keep handing the dice to a new player hoping he’ll get a hot hand. (Somebody once demonstrated theoretically that a monkey let loose in a room full of scripts would have the same probability of success in picking winners as a studio executive. I’m still convinced that’s how “Howard the Duck” got made.)

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Serendipitously, the producers of “Naked Hollywood” decided to track the seminal months of Joe Roth’s administration at 20th Century Fox. Roth, a young and dynamic filmmaker who made a quick success of the independent production company Morgan Creek, took over a studio that trailed five others in market share and immediately got hot with the dice. “Die Hard 2,” “Marked for Death,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Home Alone,” “Sleeping With the Enemy.” Just like that, Fox was No. 1.

It worked out great for the makers of “Naked Hollywood,” who caught Roth’s winning streak in progress. And it worked out great for Roth, who was able to gloat sheepishly about his fabulous decisions, while others earnestly attributed his success to the fact that he has been an honest-to-God filmmaker. If it was that easy, Hollywood could be reformed overnight; the pool of available applicants is unlimited.

Of the former studio bosses interviewed, only Ned Tanen remembered the Goldman Rule: “There is no fool like a fool who gets a hit movie,” said Tanen, who’s been the production boss at both Universal and Paramount. “You start to think you know something. Well, wait a couple of weeks until you’re next movie comes out, you’ll be brought back to some form of humility.”

Sure enough, Roth has been getting a reality check lately. Yes, “Home Alone” was a colossal success--$281 million in box-office grosses and still counting--but John Hughes’ follow-up boy-terrorist story, “Dutch,” was an instant flop. And putting Julia Roberts in “Sleeping With the Enemy” produced a jackpot for Roth, but her next Fox outing, “Dying Young,” was a major disappointment.

So far in ’91, Roth has rolled far more losing numbers than winners: “Class Action,” “The Five Heartbeats,” “Mannequin 2,” “Point Break.” “Hot Shots,” which opened 10 days ago, got off to a quick start, but next up for Fox are two very hard sells: the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink,” about a New York screenwriter’s terrifying experiences in a fleabag Hollywood hotel in the early ‘40s, and Alan Parker’s “The Commitments,” about the formation of a Dublin soul group.

Roth admits that he relies on his gut when choosing which movies to make, which is how most of us choose which movies we want to see. But how does one gut know what another gut wants? Roth doesn’t know. Nobody knows .

When Frank Price, twice the head of a major studio, was given a third chance at Sony’s Columbia last year, the first project he greenlighted was “Return to the Blue Lagoon.” Another teen-age skinny dip in the South Pacific? What did he know that we didn’t? Nothing.

When David Puttnam took over at Columbia a few years ago, with a promise to upgrade the intellectual level of product, the first film he greenlighted was “Leonard Part 6,” the story of a spy who dresses up like a chicken. What did he know that we didn’t? Nothing.

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When Jerry Weintraub, a man who’d made his fortune promoting the careers of Frank Sinatra and Neil Diamond, started his own film production company, he said he was going to make the kinds of pictures people want to see. The company’s first picture was “Fresh Horses,” starring Molly Ringwald as a femme fatale of the South. What did he know that we didn’t? Nothing, and his company was soon out of business.

The problem with the modern system of studio management is not that these people know nothing, but that they think they know everything. I think both the industry and the audience it serves would both be better off if they just admitted their ignorance about the audience and put their faith in the filmmakers. But what do I know?


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