On the Ropes : Columbia Execs Under Fire Over Costly Flops 'Gladiator,' 'Radio Flyer'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At screenings, teen-age boys stood on their seats throwing punches at imaginary foes. They clapped and screamed and whistled their approval as the youth-oriented boxing film wound toward its conclusion.

As they left the theaters, many people checked off 95 out of a possible 100 when asked how high they would rate the movie.

But now "Gladiator" is a box-office flop, and Columbia Pictures is at a loss to explain why. Produced and marketed at between $20-$25 million, the film grossed only $5.9 million since it opened March 6.

The failure of "Gladiator," however, is all the more troubling for Columbia since it marks the studio's second major box-office failure in a row.

"Radio Flyer," produced and marketed at a cost of $41 million, has generated $4.2 million at the box office.

While Columbia executives suspected they would have a tough time attracting large audiences to "Radio Flyer"--a film about the sensitive issue of child abuse--no one thought it would be difficult drawing crowds for "Gladiator."

Why the two films failed and the possible repercussions for high-level employees at Columbia have been the talk of Hollywood. There has been finger pointing, second guessing and running for cover.

Those connected with the films say Columbia cannot be criticized for its commitment.

"I don't fault the Columbia marketing group," said Steve Roth, producer of "Gladiator." "I think everybody gave 110% from the top to the bottom. The people supported the hell out of it, continue to support the hell out of it, and that's very gratifying."

But others contend there were serious flaws in judgment that contributed to the box-office demise of both films.

In the case of "Gladiator," some are asking why two Columbia executives who attended the recent ShoWest convention in Las Vegas did not know that New Line Cinema was leaking word to exhibitors that it would be releasing Stephen King's "The Lawnmower Man" on March 6--a week earlier than planned and the same day as "Gladiator."

Specifically, fingers are being pointed at Jimmy Spitz, Columbia's president of domestic distribution, and Marvin Antonowsky, senior executive vice president. Both spent three days at ShoWest, where studios showcase their new films for exhibitors, but they did not pick up on the word-of-mouth on the change in the release date of "The Lawnmower Man."

"That is critical competitive information," said one industry source. "The notion that they didn't pick it up is unusual."

"(They) should have had (their) eyes on it," said another source. "Other studios were informed. People inform each other. For some reason, they were asleep at the switch."

Spitz and Antonowsky declined to comment, as did spokesmen for Columbia Pictures.

The failure at intelligence-gathering meant that "Gladiator"--a film without major stars--had to compete with a film that had the built-in appeal of best-selling horror novelist Stephen King's name.

The result? "Gladiator" was crushed by "The Lawnmower Man," which grossed $7.8 million on its initial weekend, second only to Paramount's box-office hit "Wayne's World," which grossed $8.4 million that weekend. "Lawnmower Man" has grossed $15.9 million to date.

While "Gladiator" may have fared better if it only had to compete with "Wayne's World," the late entry of "The Lawnmower Man" had to hurt, industry watchers said, because all three films were aimed at the youth market.

Another Columbia executive under fire is Paula Silver, president of marketing. Silver, along with producer Roth, Columbia Chairman Mark Canton and others, devised the advertising campaigns that some believe failed to convey what the movie was all about.

In one ad, actors Cuba Gooding Jr. and James Marshall were shown from the chest up with the word "Gladiator" written below. There was nothing to denote that the film had a boxing theme. "It was bad advertising," one source said.

Other ads showed the actors wearing boxing gloves and trunks, and a woman was inserted in hope of attracting females. Then the actors were shown in street clothes, which was even more confusing.

Meanwhile, advertisements for another film aimed at a similar market, 20th Century Fox's "White Men Can't Jump," had been plastered on billboards and buses across the city far in advance of the movie's March 27 opening. Some at Columbia wondered if they should have used more street advertising for "Gladiator."

Columbia first suspected problems were in the making when only a modest crowd showed up at a sneak preview the week before "Gladiator" opened.

The studio decided to screen the film more heavily the following week. It was shown 120 times in various cities.

"That is a huge number of screenings," said one source close to the project. "If you show a movie that much and there is any good word of mouth, you don't need to advertise."

At the same time, the studio pulled out a plan that had been in the works for a long time--giving away "tens of thousands" of free copies of the soundtrack. That stunt boosted box-office attendance on opening night by 20%, but box-office figures were dismal.

By late last week, there was talk that Silver or Spitz or both would be fired. Those allied with Spitz were blaming Silver for the fiasco. Those siding with Silver were blaming Spitz. Columbia was in a foul mood.

Canton would escape criticism, the source added, because he inherited the film from the prior regime of Frank Price.

The flap with "Gladiator" could not have come at a worse time because Columbia was still reeling from "Radio Flyer," a film about child abuse.

While "Hudson Hawk" starring Bruce Willis is the reigning champ of box-office disasters with losses of at least $50 million, "Radio Flyer" is no puny contender.

Had it cost only $17- or $18-million, "it would have been a sweet little film that failed," said one source close to the project. "Now you have this big, fat elephant that has been shot and when it falls it leaves a dent in the ground.

"The child abuse was more potent than any people's love of the movie," he added. "I think a lot of people knew it would be tough for this movie to work. A vast majority knew that at the studio."

Industry sources said it was Jon Peters who championed the project until he was pushed out of Columbia last year.

"Radio Flyer" was the first big purchase by Peters and his partner, Peter Guber, after they were installed as co-chairmen of the studio by Sony Corp., which had stunned Hollywood in 1989 with its $3.4-billion purchase of Columbia Pictures Entertainment Inc.

At a marketing meeting a year ago, Peters moved senior studio executives when he told them of his hopes for the movie and that he too had had a troubled childhood.

"This was a script Jon loved more than life itself," said one who attended the meeting.

The script touched off a spectacular bidding war and was eventually purchased by Stonebridge Entertainment Inc., whose chairman is actor and producer Michael Douglas. As part of the $1.1-million deal, then-27-year-old screenwriter David Mickey Evans was given the chance by Douglas to direct the film.

"Radio Flyer"--a story of two young brothers who flee into a fantasy world to escape an abusive, beer-swilling stepfather--enchanted many who read the script.

The initial budget was $14 million, but 10 days into filming Douglas knew there were significant problems with the directing and pulled the plug.

Richard Donner, who made such hits as "Lethal Weapon" and "Superman," was then asked to step in. He demanded and got $5 million to direct "Radio Flyer" while his wife, Lauren Shuler-Donner, was paid $1 million as producer.

Costs ballooned further when the decision was made to hire a new cast that included Lorraine Bracco ("GoodFellas," "Medicine Man") and Donner decided to film in Northern California.

But even with a new director and cast, some who saw early cuts of the film wondered if the subject matter itself would turn off audiences.

The film was test marketed more than a dozen times last summer in Torrance. "You can go down to Torrance High School and find kids who have seen it three or four times," said one source.

The initial audience reaction was that the movie was "very confused and not even at all," according to a person with knowledge of the screenings. "Then the filmmakers made a huge improvement in the movie. It's a helluva lot better than it was."

Industry sources said Columbia could not be faulted for the way it marketed "Radio Flyer," adding that they did the best they could, given that the subject matter was unpalatable.

For now, the studio is looking ahead to the April 10 release of "Stephen King's Sleepwalkers."

If that flops, they said, then Columbia really does have problems.

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