Despite potentially damaging disclosures that its writer/director is a convicted child molester, the new Walt Disney film "Powder" placed second at the nation's box office over the weekend.
The $10-million film grossed a higher-than-expected $7.1 million despite protests from the now-20-year-old victim, who urged the public to boycott the PG-13 movie.
As controversy swirled around filmmaker Victor Salva, who pleaded guilty in 1988 to molesting a boy on the set of his low-budget picture "Clownhouse," Salva's agent said that a good showing at the box office may salvage the 37-year-old director's career.
"At least three studios are meeting with him. One has already given Victor scripts to read," said his agent, David Gersh, who declined to name the studios.
"If 'Powder' does well," Gersh added, "Victor will see work again. He is a true talent. If not . . . who's to say?"
Meanwhile, a producer of "Powder" told The Times that he had been "misled" by Salva and his handlers, and that had he known the full extent of Salva's criminal case, he likely would not have worked with him.
Producer Daniel Grodnik said Gersh and Salva's former manager, Mike Levy, left him with the impression that the victim was an older teen-ager who consented to the act and that Salva had served his full three-year sentence and was undergoing therapy.
In fact, the victim was 12 at the time Salva molested him and the director served only 15 months in prison before his parole. The agent said he was unsure whether Salva is undergoing therapy at present; Salva declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Levy, who is now an independent producer.
"I asked questions, plenty of questions based on the information at hand," Grodnik said late last week. "I felt kind of indemnified. This man had a major agent, a major manager. Even though the man had committed a crime, I was told it was an isolated incident, that it happened once and that it involved consenting parties.
"Victor always maintained that it was consensual," Grodnik added. "If I had known the full truth, I probably would not have done a movie with this man."
But Gersh said he "never presented Mr. Salva in that way" to Grodnik.
Gersh, who has represented Salva since "Clownhouse," told The Times that he never discussed the extent of Salva's past with Grodnik early on. Gersh noted that the producer confronted him last week after the controversy erupted.
"He told me . . . that he was misled about Victor's past," Gersh said. And, he added, "Victor did lose a job [in the movie business] once before because we disclosed his past. But we have never, ever, kept it from anyone."
Although he represented him at the time, the agent said that Salva did not fully describe to him the nature of his acts.
"I was working with Victor prior to his going to jail. . . . One day [Salva] called me up and said he was going to jail for a while for something he had done. That he would see me when he got out."
Gersh said he never pressed to find out all of the details.
Salva, a former child-care worker, had made amateur films in Northern California and came to the attention of famed director Francis Ford Coppola, who funded "Clownhouse." Salva met Grodnik two years ago when he approached the producer about his script "Nature of the Beast," a psychological thriller about two men on the road. That film was released on video last week by New Line Cinema.
"Powder's" moderate success came despite protests by the victim, Nathan Winters of Concord, Calif., who picketed theaters and passed out leaflets urging the public to boycott the film.
Exhibitors said that the protest, widely reported in the media, may have sparked turmoil inside Disney but didn't seem to cause a ripple effect across the country.
"In the hinterlands, [the controversy] didn't seen to make a difference," said John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Inc., a firm that tracks box-office results.
Krier said some exhibitors were nervous entering the weekend, not knowing how the controversy might impact attendance, but by Monday he described it as a "tempest in a teapot." He said the "movie sold itself."
The film, which stars Mary Steenburgen, Jeff Goldblum and Sean Patrick Flanery, in the title role, is about a young man with extremely pale skin who has telekinetic powers.
"Powder" is the second film Salva has directed since he was released on parole after pleading guilty to charges of lewd and lascivious conduct, oral copulation with a person under 14 and procuring a child for pornography.
While producers of "Powder" assert that no minors were used in the film, children of cast and crew members were present on the set, several crew members said in interviews. The producers acknowledged that they did not notify the parents that Salva was a convicted child molester, but sources close to the production say Caravan executive Roger Birnbaum told Salva to advise the cast of his past.
"You can look at everything in hindsight," Grodnik said. "If there is a burden of disclosure with cast and crew, it should rest with the person who committed the crime."
The producers say they were unaware of the extent of Salva's crime until midway through the production, but rumors circulated among some crew members before filming even began.
Debra Dotts, who worked second assistant camera, said she first heard the rumors during makeup testing a week before shooting started.
"I was prepping camera equipment when an assistant said, 'If you have kids, don't come to the set. I worked with him on movie a couple years ago and he was convicted of molesting a child in the movie,' " Dotts recalled.
Brian LeGrady, first assistant camera, said he heard the news from another camera assistant who had worked in the past with Salva.
LeGrady said the camera assistant told him: "You know, this guy you are going to be working with molested a kid." LeGrady said he reacted, "We'll see about that" and then wondered why Disney would even hire him.
Disney has issued a flat "no comment" on the controversy, saying neither Disney Chairman Michael Eisner nor studio chief Joe Roth will discuss the matter.
Executives at Caravan Pictures, which produced "Powder," said Salva won the directing job because they had been impressed by his original script.
Welkos is a Times staff writer; Brennan is a free-lance writer.
one of the producers of "Powder," speaking about the film's director, Victor Salva, left