‘Waterworld’: Voyage to the Bottom of Hollywood


Everybody talks about the budget of ‘Waterworld.’ . . . It’s not fair. Let’s see the movie first.

-- Lauren Shuler-Donner

You can’t stop people from gossiping. If there’s anything people in Hollywood love, it’s talking about the other guy’s bad news.

--Samuel Goldwyn Jr.

Producer Richard Zanuck was reflecting recently on the troubles befalling Universal Pictures’ “Waterworld,” the Kevin Costner action film now mired in huge cost overruns, and he couldn’t help recalling another time when a movie was plagued by unrelenting controversy over its production delays and skyrocketing budget.

That film was “Cleopatra.”

“It was more scandalous than ‘Waterworld,’ ” said Zanuck, whose father, the late Darryl F. Zanuck, ran 20th Century Fox in the 1960s and saw the budget of 1963’s “Cleopatra” soar beyond $30 million, a record up to that time.

“That film broke the company,” Zanuck recalled. “My father and I came in, and we had to let everybody go for four months. We elected to shut it down, reorganize and start over again.”


Volumes have been written about “Cleopatra"--how co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton carried on a torrid affair during production. How Taylor fell ill and how a tracheotomy probably saved her life. How Fox changed directors after spending $6 million with only 11 minutes of usable film in the can. And how the film finally came in at more than 6 hours long.

Now volumes are sure to be written about “Waterworld"--how Costner’s career is riding in the balance. How he is being sued for divorce. How the set in Hawaii has been hit with one misfortune after another, from divers getting the bends, to the cast and crew fleeing a tidal wave that never appeared, to the recent sinking of a “slave colony” set moored off the Big Island.

All tantalizing tidbits for the media. All grist for the Hollywood lunchtime crowd. All enough to make life miserable if you’re Tom Pollock, head of motion pictures at Universal Pictures, who at this point is beseeching anyone who will listen to just wait for the movie to come out--it’s scheduled for the summer--and then judge if it’s good or bad.

“Universal and the filmmakers are trying to take audiences to a place they have not been before,” said Pollock. “That costs money. It costs a lot of money. Because of production problems, it costs more money than we anticipated. But it doesn’t make it a bad movie. It makes it an expensive movie.”

While “Waterworld” pales in comparison to the headlines once generated by “Cleopatra,” it nevertheless has reignited a debate over whether Hollywood and the entertainment media focus too much on movie budgets.

What sparked the debate was David Twohy, a writer on “Waterworld,” who took out ads in the Hollywood trades last Tuesday asking the movie industry to stop criticizing the film’s huge costs--estimated at $160 million and climbing--before it was even completed.

In an “open letter to the industry,” Twohy wrote: “Stop gnawing on the hand that feeds you. Just shut the hell up until the movie comes out. When it does, go see it. Then you can decide whether it’s deserving of criticism or not.”

Twohy said major movies “drive this industry,” and added, “All of us should want the studios to swing for the fences with something like ‘Waterworld.’ Because when a summer movie hits big, there’s more opportunity for other films.”

Twohy said Friday he had received about 50 phone calls since the ad ran, most of them “universally good--and, by that, I don’t mean from Universal.”

“I received calls from high-ranking executives at Disney and Paramount saying, ‘Bravo! Right on! Somebody should have said it a long time ago,’ ” Twohy said. “It’s gratifying because even though it seems everybody in the industry wants to eat their own young, there are still some classy people left.”

Lauren Shuler-Donner, a producer not associated with the film, applauded Twohy’s stand. “I thought his letter was terrific,” she said, adding that people are now judging “Waterworld” by its budget before even seeing it. The film’s trailer, she noted, looks terrific. “It has great elements in it, it looks futuristic and it has Kevin Costner, for gosh sakes!” she said.

Samuel Goldwyn Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of the Samuel Goldwyn Co., agreed that some pictures “get made into disasters” before anyone has seen them, but Goldwyn said it’s impossible to stop people from gossiping.

“You’re dealing with (an industry) that is basically insecure,” Goldwyn said. “Sometimes, the only thing you have to hang onto is that the other guy’s movie is worse than yours.”

Goldwyn also said it’s understandable that movie budgets are good topics for discussion.

“Let’s face it,” he said, “one in seven movies get their costs back theatrically. More and more, studios are only interested in big-budget pictures that can go $300 million or $400 million worldwide. That pushes up ancillary sales and everything else goes with it. They go for broke--and sometimes it breaks them.”

Nancy Griffin, West Coast editor of the movie magazine Premiere, said her publication looks at the cost of films because movies are, after all, a business.

“When a movie studio spends as much as Universal is spending on ‘Waterworld,’ we consider that news,” Griffin said. But, she added, “The way we have chosen to cover this movie is not as a disaster in the making. I think it is unfortunate when the media refer to it as a ‘suspected flop.’ ”

“Waterworld” is now being called “Kevin’s Gate,” a play on the title of the 1980 Western “Heaven’s Gate,” which brought down United Artists. Yet Costner’s 1990 Western, “Dances With Wolves,” which won the best picture Oscar, also got tagged as “Kevin’s Gate.” The Wall Street Journal last week referred to “Waterworld” in a headline as “Fishtar,” a takeoff on the critically panned 1987 film “Ishtar” starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.

“I can see if you are Tom Pollock and see the word Fishtar at the top of the front page of the Wall Street Journal, you are going to wince because that is a clever label to put on a movie that is having trouble in production and is very expensive, and it is going to stick,” Griffin said.

For his part, Zanuck said he warned the producers of “Waterworld” that they were in for a tough time filming on water. Zanuck said he had firsthand experience making the 1975 thriller “Jaws.” He said his $4-million budget doubled because of the difficulties shooting on water.

“I jokingly told Larry Gordon (brother of ‘Waterworld’ producer Charles Gordon), ‘Bring every bit of clothing you got because you are going to be there a long time,’ ” Zanuck recalled.

When asked to comment on Twohy’s statement that studios should be encouraged to swing for the fences, Zanuck replied that “Waterworld” no longer fits that analogy.

“This is swinging for the fence and throwing your bat over the fence at the same time,” he said.