High Risk for This Pirate Cargo

<i> Judy Brennan is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

The squall of Hollywood sniping over movie budget excess didn’t blow away with last month’s launch of “Waterworld.” If anything, it’s picking up steam over Carolco’s forthcoming “Cutthroat Island.”

Specifically, the question is this: Will director Renny Harlin’s pirate film--showcasing his wife, Geena Davis, who hasn’t been in a successful film since 1992’s “A League of Their Own"--be Carolco’s Waterloo?

The answer depends on whom you ask. Carolco, which has been on the brink of bankruptcy for years, has had to pay higher-than-normal fees on most of its recent productions because of its dire financial state. Production and financial sources at the company say “Cutthroat Island’s” budget, originally $65 million, is now $90 million to $100 million. Several put it closer to $105 million, thanks to high insurance (it was shot earlier this year in Thailand and Malta), bank and completion-bond fees paid out to assure the film’s completion.

A Carolco spokesman says that the budget is closer to $90 million--but even at that price, it would nearly equal that of Carolco’s 1991 blockbuster, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”


Still, those numbers don’t include the estimated $30 million in expected marketing costs. MGM will release “Cutthroat Island.”

“I know it well,” Harlin says of the rumored budget range. But he puts the final budget at about $80 million to $85 million, with actual production costs at $65 million; another $13 million has to be tacked on for contingency and completion costs. “Those are the numbers I know. Before we started even shooting this picture, we had to have $78 million in the bank. The $13 million is a cushion you dip into if there are problems.” It was a dip he says the film had to take when it ran 10 days over its shooting schedule due to food poisoning of several crew members in Thailand and another minor mishap. Other snags included the rewriting of some scenes, and the fact that all of the lighting and camera equipment were from Italy and unfamiliar to the American electricians used on the production.

While Harlin says he tried to meet the original July release date, it was always an impossibility, since the shoot didn’t wrap until the first week of April. “It was an unrealistic dream,” he said.

The film had originally been planned for a July release. But Carolco and MGM announced in the spring that it couldn’t complete the film in time, and pushed the opening to Dec. 15.


While $100 million may be about half the budget of “Waterworld,” the difference is that Davis and her co-star, Matthew Modine, are not the box-office draws that Kevin Costner is. And “Waterworld” opened to only $21.6 million, with box office falling off about 50% the second week.

MGM says that it’s not worried because of Harlin’s proven track record as an action director (“Cliffhanger,” “Die Hard 2: Die Harder”).

“We plan to position this as a big-event movie: From the director who brought you ‘Cliffhanger’ and ‘Die Hard 2!’,” says one MGM executive. “Renny is big overseas. ‘Cutthroat’ is not being positioned as a Geena Davis movie, although her fans will certainly know she’s in it. . . . The scope of this film will be the big star.”

The big question on the minds of some exhibitors who have seen about 20 minutes of the film is the rating. MGM says that it will carry a PG-13, although most of Harlin’s films have been rated R for violence. An R rating would knock out a sizable chunk of the target young teen-age audience for “Cutthroat Island.” Carolco sources say the picture does not have that much violence and certainly not much sex.


How this picture fares is critical to Carolco, although insiders and those who have followed the company for years believe it will probably eventually fold regardless of the film’s performance.

Carolco, which was started in 1986 by Andy Vajna (now head of Cinergi) and Mario Kassar, has been burdened with crippling debt for about four years. Its foreign partners, Japan’s Pioneer and France’s Canal Plus, have helped subsidize Carolco since 1992 but have been rumored to want out of the arrangement, insiders say. Any “Cutthroat Island” revenues will go toward the company’s debt.

Carolco’s future projects include Adrian Lyne’s “Lolita” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls,” but those films have been financed by another French investor, Chargeurs.

“The reality is, the Carolco we’ve known over the years is a shell of itself,” says one former Carolco executive. “It was always Mario’s vision that made it what it was. Now he’s out shopping a deal for himself around town with what’s left of Carolco’s assets"--sequel rights to Carolco hit properties “Rambo,” “Total Recall” and “Terminator.”


Kassar refused to comment.