Studios Were in Passing Lane for ‘Rush Hour’

It’s classic Hollywood.

There’s probably not a top executive in the movie industry who hasn’t passed on a project and regretted it later when the movie turns out to be a huge hit.

“Rush Hour” is the latest to join the myriad legendary “I could kill myself” stories that include films such as “Star Wars,” “E.T.--The Extraterrestrial,” “Forrest Gump” and “Home Alone.”

The buddy comedy, starring martial arts daredevil Jackie Chan and comic Chris Tucker as a Hong Kong detective and rogue Los Angeles cop who team up to solve a kidnapping case, is one of those unexpected hits that has taken Hollywood by surprise.

Directed by Brett Ratner, from a script by Jim Kouf and Ross Lamanna, the film exceeded all industry estimates when it opened three weeks ago with a whopping $33 million in box-office receipts, the biggest debut ever for a movie released in September or October. In less than three weeks, “Rush Hour” has grossed $84 million, putting it on track to end up as one of Hollywood’s biggest films of the year.

New Line Cinema, which bankrolled the $34-million comedy, stands to make a pretty profit on the movie given its total investment, which, with marketing and distribution costs, is about $65 million. Mitchell Goldman, the company’s president of marketing and distribution, estimates the film could gross as much as $150 million in the U.S. alone.


Its prospects in foreign markets are more difficult to predict, although Chan is popular in Asia. New Line officials said the film is performing strongly in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea.

By today’s standards, “Rush Hour” is moderately priced compared with many movies that boast production costs alone in excess of $60 million.

Even so, not one major Hollywood studio rushed to make “Rush Hour,” not even Walt Disney Co., where one of the film’s producers, Roger Birnbaum, has based his production company for years and where his close friend, Joe Roth, runs Disney’s studio operations.

“I had seven good reasons for not wanting to make this movie,” Roth said, including not liking the script; not having confidence in a young, second-time director; concern that Chan’s last movie had grossed only $25 million domestically; and that Birnbaum had too many projects going to focus on that one.

“So I added up all seven and came up with the wrong answer,” quipped Roth, who has been the beneficiary of another studio’s mishap. When Warner Bros. refused to pony up an additional $750,000 needed for the budget of “Home Alone,” Roth, then the movie chairman at 20th Century Fox, agreed to make the film at his studio and it became a huge worldwide hit.

Hollywood’s general reluctance to finance what is essentially a formulaic buddy cop movie with no major stars may indicate more cautious thinking at a time when production and marketing costs are spiraling and studios find themselves suffering long, costly dry spells at the box office.

Nonetheless, Birnbaum said, “I couldn’t understand” why no one wanted to make this particular movie.

“People had zero interest in it,” said Birnbaum, who produced the movie with Arthur Sarkissian and Jonathan Glickman.

Sarkissian said screenwriter Lamanna brought him the project about 3 1/2 years ago, which he then took to Disney, where he was executive producer of the Birnbaum-produced comedy hit “While You Were Sleeping” in 1995.

Disney’s Hollywood Pictures unit bought Lamanna’s script and the project went into development at Birnbaum’s Caravan Pictures, which recently folded when Birnbaum and partner Gary Barber launched a new endeavor at Disney, Spyglass Entertainment.

Chan and actor-comedian Martin Lawrence were both interested in the project, but Disney dragged its feet on giving the movie the green light and ultimately passed.

Birnbaum and Sarkissian said the only champion of the project at Disney was Hollywood Pictures executive Mike Stenson. But even he couldn’t convince his bosses to go forward with “Rush Hour.”

When Disney put the project into turnaround--Hollywood’s term for putting a project up for grabs--the script was sent to all the other studios.

“Fox did not want to do ‘Rush Hour’ because they said they couldn’t make my deal,” said Birnbaum, who gets a producer’s fee against a piece of the profit.

Universal Pictures was the only studio that showed any interest in the project, but Birnbaum said it, too, refused to make him and the talent pay-or-play--Hollywood parlance for guaranteeing the principal players their fees even if the movie never gets made.

Birnbaum said Universal also wanted another 30 days to decide whether or not to make the movie.

Meanwhile, Sarkissian took the project to New Line, where he had a long-standing relationship and had produced “Last Man Standing,” starring Bruce Willis.

New Line production chief Michael De Luca said that although he “wasn’t blown away by the draft that Disney put into turnaround,” he became increasingly interested in the project when he learned that Ratner was interested in directing and Chris Tucker was interested in co-starring. Ratner had directed Tucker in New Line’s hit comedy “Money Talks” last year.

“I told them [the producers] I’ll green-light this movie right away and make everyone pay-or-play, but that Chris Tucker was our guy,” recalled De Luca. “Creatively, I thought it was a better movie with Chris Tucker, and I knew that Chris and Brett had worked together and had great chemistry--so it was a sure bet for me.”

De Luca said another reason he favored Tucker was that Lawrence had recently starred in a similar buddy movie, “Nothing to Lose,” so it was preferable to “go for the fresher new talent” of Tucker, “who was also less expensive.”

Tucker was paid $2 million, while Lawrence’s going rate then was $7 million.

New Line’s insistence on making the movie with Tucker put Birnbaum in an awkward position, since he had brought Lawrence aboard the project in the first place.

“I had a huge problem,” acknowledged Birnbaum. “New Line said they would make the movie, but it meant abandoning Martin Lawrence. I had been checkmated. I had no other move to make.”

Birnbaum said delivering the bad news to Lawrence’s agent, Jim Berkus at United Talent Agency, “was one of the worst conversations with anyone I’ve ever had to have in this business.”

The producer said that although Berkus--who declined to comment on the incident--was understandably angry, the relationship has since been smoothed over.

In any case, the screen chemistry of Chan and Tucker worked.

“This is like ‘Lethal Weapon’ without Mel Gibson,” said Goldman, suggesting that “it works because Jackie and Chris are regular guys who don’t have movie star personas.”

When it came to marketing “Rush Hour,” Goldman said he wanted to avoid the impression that this was just another buddy cop movie. Rather, “we wanted it perceived more as a ‘Lethal Weapon’ or ‘Beverly Hills Cop'--more fun than bloody action--that would appeal to a broad range of age, sex and ethnicity.”

In fact, the pairing of Asian film star Chan with African American comic Tucker proved a shrewd move, broadening the movie’s appeal across demographic lines.

De Luca said he believes the movie works primarily because “Chan’s and Tucker’s chemistry feels like something new,” and because of Ratner’s “execution of a formula we’ve seen before but that everyone tried to make fresh and hip.”

And in no way is De Luca smug about the fact that Disney and the other studios passed up making “Rush Hour.”

“We all have them,” he said. “I’ve done it. I passed on ‘Clueless,’ ” Paramount Pictures’ 1995 hit satire.


Surprise Endings

Here are some examples of once-scorned movies that went on to make a ton of money for the competition:

“Star Wars”

* Rejected by: All the other studios in town

* Produced by: 20th Cent. Fox

“E.T.--The Extraterrestrial”

* Rejected by: Columbia

* Produced by: Universal

“Forrest Gump”

* Rejected by: Warner Bros.

* Produced by: Paramount

“Home Alone”

* Rejected by: Warner Bros.

* Produced by: 20th Cent. Fox


* Rejected by: Paramount

* Produced by: 20th Cent. Fox

“Pulp Fiction”

* Rejected by: TriStar

* Produced by: Miramax