‘Rex’: Extinct on the Big Screen
New Line Cinema had planned to release “Theodore Rex,” a film pairing Whoopi Goldberg with an animatronic dinosaur, last Friday--four days after her critically acclaimed turn hosting the Academy Awards.
But the date came and went with no “Theodore Rex,” which New Line says is now headed for TV or home video after an unsuccessful test-market theatrical run. The $33.5-million family comedy becomes one of the most expensive films in memory to virtually bypass the nation’s cinemas.
“Though this movie isn’t ‘E.T.,’ I find it hard to believe that it wouldn’t hold its own against ‘All Dogs Go to Heaven 2' and the Disney reissue of ‘Oliver & Company,’ ” said executive producer Stefano Ferrari, who invested $14 million of his family’s pharmaceuticals fortune into his first major feature film and had to defend himself against five lawsuits filed in its wake.
According to the studio, the film had a “disappointing” run in February in cities including Las Vegas; Des Moines; Providence, R.I.; and Portland, Me. In a strategy aimed at recouping New Line’s $5-million investment for domestic rights, the movie is tentatively scheduled to surface on home video on July 2, and may surface on cable, pay per view or a broadcast network even sooner. (The rest of the budget came from pre-selling the film internationally.)
“No one likes to be told that their child isn’t beautiful enough for theatrical release, but that’s a fact of life,” said Mitch Goldman, head of marketing and distribution for New Line. “In the end, the prints and advertising investment for a theatrical run seemed greater than the box-office promise. We’re fans of Whoopi’s but felt that this isn’t the right movie to grab her audience’s attention. It would be irresponsible to our owners to throw money down the drain.”
If Goldberg’s Oscar night gig celebrated all that was right with Hollywood, her “Theodore Rex” experience epitomized many of the things that can go wrong. After verbally committing to the project in October 1992, the star attempted to back out. Settling a $20-million breach-of-contract suit out of court, she agreed to do the movie for $7 million the following fall.
Still, the production was far from problem-free.
After run-ins with Goldberg and the filmmakers, producer Richard Abramson relinquished his day-to-day duties before pre-production. And once shooting started, tensions ran high, according to several people involved in the film. Goldberg’s ex-business partner, Larry Finch, was banned from the set--as was Ferrari when the actress was around.
“Life is too short,” Abramson said this week. “The budget was tight, relationships were strained, and I had second thoughts about going into a situation with an unhappy star.”
Goldberg was traveling and unavailable for comment, according to her press representative.
When shooting finally concluded, the film was only a few days and $300,000 over budget. But after one downbeat rough-cut preview in June of 1995, New Line asked the filmmakers to trim some of the more violent segments and rewrite some dinosaur dialogue to clarify the plot.
In September, the revised movie was previewed in Orange County. While New Line said the results were disappointing, others involved with the film reported a more positive response. When the studio pushed the movie back from Thanksgiving to Christmas, sources close to the film theorized that it was an attempt to please Goldberg. In the settlement, the actress had given up a percentage of the profits, at which point, some suspect, she decided to bury the film.
A New Line press spokesman denied such strategy on the part of Goldberg, as well as the claim that the actress agreed to sign on to another New Line project on the implicit condition that “Rex” be undermined. The star has not committed to appear in any pictures for the studio, said a spokesman. “Voodoo Dreams"--an 18th century period film bio-picture to which she committed a few years back--is no longer even on the development slate, he said.
New Line’s Goldman was even more emphatic. “We have money invested and wouldn’t flush a movie for any reason other than the movie itself--even for the opportunity to work with Whoopi,” he said. “This movie hasn’t been buried . . . nor will it be. We’re just finding the right niche. Though this is the first time New Line has adopted this strategy, it’s quite common industrywide. As for skewing the numbers, we don’t have a smoke-filled room as in many of the major studios. We’re probably the most open company when it comes to the research process.”
The movie, a buddy film in which Goldberg teams up with an 8-foot-tall, cookie-eating dinosaur to save the world from a mad scientist, received mixed notices during its limited run. “The tot majority in the audience liked it but were visibly restless with much of the sophisticated talk and grown-up plot details,” said Marty Meltz, a critic for the Portland (Me.) Press Herald, who gave it a 2 1/2-star review. “The parents laughed with the contemporary humor even as they were left flat by [the] story.”
When it comes to aesthetics, recalled “Rex” director Jonathan Betuel (“My Science Project”), problems surfaced early on. “I wanted Whoopi to carry the comic end, to do what she does best,” he said. “She favored the Clint Eastwood approach--a taciturn, less-is-more characterization. The script was rewritten to accommodate her with the dinosaur, as she hoped, as the star.”
Whatever her hands-on inclinations, said Betuel’s assistant, Scot Watson, the actress came through in the end. “No one pulls Whoopi’s strings,” he said. “But there are stars who are far worse whose names are not nearly as big. Despite conflicting personalities and visions, she had a job to do and she did it.”
Julia Palau, a partner in the London-based J&M; Entertainment--the foreign sales representative on the film--said she plans to go “flat out” and has sold the movie theatrically in every major market except Italy. Though the movie fared poorly in Germany when it opened in December, it did well in Spain the following month, she said. When it opens in Japan in June, there will be a live tour featuring Teddy the animatronic dinosaur--but not Goldberg, who has not provided marketing support.
“New Line gave it their best shot,” said Palau, disputing filmmaker charges that the movie was left out in the cold. “They came up with a wonderful trailer and ad campaign. If we thought for a moment that they weren’t doing their job well, we would have been on their back. I don’t think they dumped this picture . . . that sounds like a case of sour grapes.”
Ferrari is much the wiser after absorbing the lessons of “Rex.” Never take on a major star, he said, because it’s “a David and Goliath situation.” And never invest your own money in a film because you become the broadest of targets. His father, Lorenzo Ferrari, has died since lending $14 million of his Europe-based SPA Pharmaceutical fortune to his son, but the rest of the family is understandably miffed. Since he deferred his executive producer salary, he said, he has yet to see a dime.
Since the start of the project, moreover, Ferrari said he has been slapped with an $80,000 suit by Maria Dylan, ex-wife of producer Abramson who claimed she was promised a line producer job; a $400,000 suit by City National Bank for an unpaid loan; and a suit from attorney Gregg Homer, who collected more than $100,000 for legal fees on the initial Goldberg deal. Abramson associate Tommy Yanez Ferrari (no relation to Stefano) was paid $400,000 after suing for copyright infringement--claiming he owned the rights to the movie. And an arbitrator awarded Goldberg $800,000 after she maintained that the legal fees from litigation against her were added onto the budget of the film.
“I’m sure that people think I’m a naif who ended up in Hollywood and got skinned,” said Ferrari, 35, who lives in Upstate New York. “New Line’s strategy may be fiscally sound, but I just hope it’s based on cold-headed judgment instead of on possible pressure from within.”
Goldberg’s former partner Finch, meanwhile, sees himself as another “sacrificial lamb.” He said he is owed a six-figure fee for bringing Goldberg into the film (a sum Ferrari said was “deferred until the distributors recoup their guarantees”) and that he and the star are no longer on speaking terms.
“This was the worst deal in which I’ve ever been involved,” Finch said. “As I told one of my sons, there’s nothing entertaining about the entertainment business. This could have been a beautiful kids’ picture but it turned . . . it just turned. Nobody gave their all except in screwing each other so a lot of people got used and abused. I try to put the experience out of my mind but it keeps coming back like a bad dream.”