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In Hollywood, Almost Anything Goes--Except for ‘Lolita,’ That Is

After seeing 90 minutes of “Lolita,” a studio head told director Adrian Lyne, then seeking U.S. distribution for his controversial movie, “The footage is unequivocally extraordinary.” Lyne never heard another word from that executive.

Another studio chief came racing out of a screening of “Lolita,” ordaining Lyne “a genius.” Executives at that studio would later say “Lolita” was essentially an art film that was too great a financial risk to release.

There may have been myriad reasons for these rejections--including that some executives simply didn’t like his movie--but in Lyne’s view, the Hollywood establishment was scared off by his $58-million screen version of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1954 novel for no other reason than it deals with the taboo subject of pedophilia.

“It had nothing to do with finances. They were frightened. Peer pressure, if you like,” said the outspoken 57-year-old British director, who has made his home in Provence, France, since 1983.

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Not even Paramount Pictures, the studio for which Lyne had delivered such blockbusters as “Flashdance,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Indecent Proposal,” would step up for what would have amounted to $10 million in marketing and release costs.

“It would have been an expensive favor,” said a source familiar with the situation.

As it turned out, Showtime Networks--a wholly owned subsidiary of Paramount’s parent company, Viacom Inc.--wound up making a $4-million deal to acquire the U.S. rights to “Lolita,” which stars Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons, newcomer Dominique Swain as Lolita, Melanie Griffith and Frank Langella. The two-hour, 17-minute movie will debut Sunday on the premium cable network, with three additional airings throughout the month.

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Showtime cut a deal with Samuel Goldwyn Co. to release the movie theatrically after its U.S. premiere on the network. Goldwyn made what sources said is a $2-million prints and advertising commitment to release the film Sept. 25 in Los Angeles and New York, followed by its release across the country.

Last week, “Lolita” had a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in a Beverly Hills theater. With no consumer advertising, the film grossed $41,089, according to Jeff Lipsky, Goldwyn’s marketing and distribution chief who characterized the reception as “spectacular” and indicative of a very strong “want-to-see” among moviegoers.

Showtime programming chief Jerry Offsay, the first entertainment executive to embrace Lyne’s movie, suggested that distributors turned their backs on the movie because “they were afraid of the controversy. . . . It wasn’t a Friday night date movie.”

But, interestingly, Lipsky said the makeup of last week’s audience was largely female and young couples.

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Offsay recalled a recent dinner with a studio executive who told him, “It’s perfect for you, because in the privacy of the living room, people can feel comfortable watching that subject matter.”

Lyne sees great hypocrisy in the fact that studios--which have no compunction about releasing slasher movies and others glorifying heinous crimes and hateful characters--are afraid to be associated with a “dirty” film like “Lolita,” which is based on one of the most highly regarded novels of the century.

“For some reason, the subject matter just petrifies them,” said Lyne. “You can make a film about necrophilia or a 13-year-old girl getting chopped up by cannibals, and that’s OK. But this is a hot potato.”

Adapted by first-time screenwriter Stephen Schiff, Lyne’s “Lolita” faithfully recounts the tragic story of an angst-ridden fortysomething college professor’s obsessive passion for a pre-pubescent girl, who, by his design, becomes his stepdaughter.

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Lyne is a passionate fan of Nabokov’s novel and wanted to make sure his screen version would adhere to the book more than Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 version did.

The director said he first read the book as a kid “for all the wrong reasons. . . . I just flipped through it looking for the spicy bits, but not really finding any.” He then reread it “properly” about 10 years ago, while making “Jacob’s Ladder” for Carolco Pictures.

“I was just bewitched by it,” recalled Lyne, who first discussed the idea of making the film with Warner Bros. Lyne also mentioned his interest to Carolco co-founder Mario Kassar, who then bought the rights outright from legendary agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar for $1 million.

Lyne said Schiff was the one writer “who was prepared to put more of the novel into the script rather than himself, whereas the other ones were more concerned with making it a Pinter screenplay or a Mamet screenplay.”

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During the pre-production phase, Carolco went bust and sold the rights to Chargeurs, a French company that subsequently spun off its entertainment assets to Pathe, which took over the film’s financing.

A long and laborious shoot in various locations across America--hampered by bad weather and other logistical problems--caused the budget to swell considerably from the $40-million range, where it had started.

Adding to the inflated cost were legal problems arising during post-production that forced the film to be re-cut. When Congress passed the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996--aimed at Internet users grafting children’s heads onto adult bodies and prohibiting the visual depiction of what was “or appeared to be” a child having explicit sex--Pathe sent lawyers into the editing room with Lyne. He cut various sequences, including footage of a body double for then 15-year-old Swain.

Lyne said the Motion Picture Assn. of America had already rated the film “R,” with no requests for cuts or changes, paving the way for its release in mainstream theaters.

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By the time the film was complete, Pathe had invested nearly $60 million. Nervous about making its money back, the financier reportedly demanded more than $25 million, plus an additional $20 million in prints and advertising costs, for the U.S. distribution rights.

Jeff Berg, chairman of Lyne’s talent agency, International Creative Management, talked to the head of every major studio and independent company without luck. Pathe reconsidered its unrealistic asking price, and ICM came back to the studios asking for a releasing commitment of $10 million to $15 million and, in one case, simply a reduced distribution fee.

Still no takers.

“The major distributors rejected the film based on surrounding political events both inside and outside the U.S.,” said Berg, referring to such high-profile crimes against children as the JonBenet Ramsey murder and the Polly Klaas murder.

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Lyne, whose credits also include the sexually daring “9 1/2 weeks,” agreed that the cultural climate in America “changed dramatically” over the course of the project. “When I started the process, you weren’t reading about pedophilia in newspapers on a daily basis and you weren’t hearing about it on television. Now there is a fixation.”

Pathe released the film in Europe, hoping its reception would prompt U.S. distributors to reconsider. The film did business in some overseas territories, such as Italy, but not as well in others. In any case, the studios weren’t impressed. And the critics were divided.

“In my opinion, the backlash against the subject matter and decision not to distribute the movie had nothing to do with the aesthetics or commercial values of the film,” Berg said. “And I think it was sobering for Adrian, after delivering so many successful films to the industry, to be left on the sidelines with a film he really believes in.”

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Lyne said he was told by studio heads, executives and agents that “Lolita” was “my best work, and, honestly, I think it is.” In the preface of Schiff’s just-published “ ‘Lolita’: The Book of the Film,” Lyne says, “Nothing prepared me for the outrageous response it received . . . the de facto banning of the film by every studio in Hollywood.”

Nonetheless, the director said he has several new projects set up at some of the same studios that rejected “Lolita.” And he’s ready to move on.

“In the end, I’m thrilled that Showtime wanted up,” he said, praising the network for also having the guts to air the controversial “Bastard Out of Carolina,” a film about child sexual abuse, after it was dumped by TNT.

Offsay said Showtime will spend “as much as we ever spend promoting our originals,” which ranges from $1.5 million to $2 million. The cable network, in far fewer homes than rival HBO, airs about 20 original upscale adult films a year and 12 family films in addition to 100 theatrical movies.

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Calling “Lolita” a “beautifully rendered version of a classic book,” Offsay said, “We get from the studios films that are far more offensive and provocative and not as finely made and not dealing with as important a subject matter.”


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