Quirky ‘Being John Malkovich’ May Have the Last, Best Laugh

On April 22, 1998, something truly amazing happened. A large movie company actually agreed to finance “Being John Malkovich"--one of the most inventive and unlikely movies Hollywood has ever produced.

Five weeks into its run, the quirky $10-million satire remains one of the most-talked-about movies in theaters and continues to raise the question of how it ever got made.

Companies that underwrite movies always look for easy marketing hooks, but “Being John Malkovich” is almost impossible to sum up in a single line of advertising copy.

The premise of the comedy, written by first-time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and directed by music video whiz Spike Jonze, is about a struggling puppeteer (John Cusack) who discovers a mystical portal that can transport people into the mind of John Malkovich (played by the actor himself) for 15 minutes, after which they’re spit out along the New Jersey Turnpike.


To say the film is offbeat is a gross understatement. It makes other recent unorthodox movies such as “American Beauty,” “Three Kings” and “The Blair Witch Project” look almost mainstream.

It’s no wonder that when Kaufman unleashed his spec script on Hollywood in 1994, “it got a lot of attention and it was fun for people to read, [but] nobody was interested in producing it,” the writer recalls.

About three years ago, R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe and his producing partner, Sandy Stern, tried but failed to persuade New Line Cinema, where their company, Single Cell Pictures, had a first-look deal, to option the script and make the movie.

Stipe and Stern loved the script, as did Jonze, whom the producers were eager to be in business with.


New Line Pictures President Michael De Luca said he personally loved the project but felt “it was too small and quirky” for New Line and was better suited to the company’s art house label, Fine Line. But Fine Line also passed.

“I just couldn’t get it through the system,” De Luca said.

To get the film made, Jonze called Steve Golin, co-founder and former head of then PolyGram Filmed Entertainment-owned Propaganda Films, where the young director had made dozens of music videos and commercials over a six-year period.

Golin, who acknowledged that years earlier he too had read Kaufman’s script and thought, “No one will ever make this movie,” said he changed his mind when Jonze called him.

“I knew Spike’s sensibility,” Golin said. “He’s a really unique thinker. And when he started telling me his vision, I said, ‘Now this movie makes sense.’ ”

Golin then had to get financing, which wasn’t easy.

“We scrambled to give PolyGram a budget,” said producer Vincent Landay, Jonze’s partner of six years. “And they kicked it back to us. Within two months we completed another budget, and they said, ‘Fine, but it’s contingent on getting Malkovich.’ Less than a month later, we closed a deal with Malkovich, and they said, ‘When you get one more [cast member], we’ll green-light it.’ We then signed Cusack. They said, ‘We’re not officially green-lighting until we know who the female leads are.’ ”

Golin recalls sitting in monthly meetings with his then-boss, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment chief Michael Kuhn, and executives from PolyGram’s sister movie labels, and being teased mercilessly every time he said “Malkovich” was the film he most wanted to make.


“Michael [Kuhn] used to laugh and say to me, ‘This movie will never get made,’ ” Golin said. “But I was so stubborn.”

Then, on April 22, 1998, Kuhn sent Golin the official memo confirming his agreement to green-light the movie. The tone of the memo underscores Golin’s recollection.

Kuhn dryly told Golin that he had decided--"good, bad or indifferent"--to OK the movie under four conditions:

1. “It doesn’t cost one penny more than is on the control sheet.”

2. “It does not distract Golin from delivering one big movie for us for 1999.”

3. “Golin delivers at least one big movie for us in 1999.”

4. “Golin’s [penis] is on the line in a big way.”

Sources said the agreed-upon cost was about $10 million, roughly $6 million less than the budget initially proposed.


Golin’s commitment to deliver a big movie in 1999--as well as the risk to his sex organ--became moot. Without Kuhn’s knowledge, Dutch electronics giant Philips already was negotiating a $10.4-billion deal to sell its PolyGram music and movie assets to Seagram Co.

Malkovich sportingly agreed to substantially cut his usual fee to about $500,000, according to sources, and the movie went into production on July 20, 1998.

But even after the film was in the can, its release plans remained up in the air because of uncertainty about the fate of PolyGram’s movie assets.

In the spring of 1999, Propaganda’s film production assets were sold to Barry Diller’s USA Networks. PolyGram’s specialty film distributor, Gramercy Pictures, and October Films and other domestic assets were merged into a newly created entity, USA Films.

Golin left Propaganda in May to start a new entertainment venture producing music videos, commercials and interactive products. (This week he signed a separate multiyear deal with USA Films to produce feature films for its Gramercy label.)

USA Films President Russell Schwartz, formerly head of Gramercy, who worked closely with Golin on “Malkovich,” recalls saying: “This movie will do $2 million or $20 million. It will either be a big success or big failure--nothing in between.”

Schwartz said that, from a marketing standpoint, the best tack with a film like “Malkovich” is “to try to find the weakness of the movie--in this case, that you can’t reduce it to one line--and make that its strength.”

Based on an idea conceived by Jonze, the distributor set up a Web site in the name of J.M. Inc.--a faux company that did not promote the movie but claimed to have a proprietary process that enabled visitors to go inside the mind of another person.

Closer to the film’s release in late October, that site was linked to the actual movie Web site-- USA began running regular movie spots on TV.

Since its Oct. 29 release on about 30 screens--it has since been expanded to just under 600, the movie has done solid business amid mostly glowing reviews.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, it took in more than $2 million, up 9% over the previous weekend and pushing its total to about $12 million.

If the film can gross $15 million to $20 million domestically, as expected, it will probably wind up being quite profitable once all other revenue, including home video, TV and international sales, are tallied. Any Golden Globe or Oscar nominations would also help boost the film.

Golin recalls that PolyGram’s international division believed the film had no prospects overseas, so “I arranged to sell the foreign rights elsewhere.” But ultimately Kuhn insisted on retaining worldwide rights to the film in what now appears to have been a beneficial decision.

In September, “Malkovich” won the Grand Prix award at France’s Deauville Festival of American Cinema. It also won an award for the best film out of competition at the Venice Film Festival.


Company Town Film Profit Report

he report is based on projections of total U.S. box-office gross from a consensus of industry sources and studio financial models. The U.S. returns represent only 20% of a film’s final revenue, which includes income from video, TV and overseas theatrical. Typical industry marketing costs are factored into this profit analysis, as is the relative strength of specific film genres in foreign markets. Results for the weekend of Nov. 24-28:

Originally intended as a direct-to-video release, Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story 2" looks to be one of the company’s most profitable films ever, alongside “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.”

With Universal only in for 40% of the budget on “End of Days” (Beacon Pictures picked up the rest), the Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller should end up clearly in the black and will do stronger business overseas.

“Flawless” will be a total write-off for MGM.


Box- Estimated office cost, in Movie title Studio rank millions $$ Mega-Moneymakers The Sixth Buena 11 $40 Sense Vista Toy Story 2 Buena Vista 1 80 The World MGM 2 110 Is Not Enough Pokemon: Warner Bros. 5 8 The Movie $ Moneymakers Sleepy Hollow Paramount 4 $70 The Bone /Sony 6 48 Collector Universal Dogma Lion’s Gate 7 ? Tossups End of Days Universal 3 $85 Being John USA 10 13 Malkovich Money Losers The Insider Buena Vista 9 $68 Anywhere but Here Fox 8 23 Flawless MGM 12 27

Projected U.S. box-office receipts, Movie title in millions $$ The Sixth $275 Sense Toy Story 2 250 The World 130 Is Not Enough Pokemon: 105 The Movie $ Sleepy Hollow $100 The Bone 62 Collector Dogma 11 28 ? End of Days $75 Being John 16 Malkovich The Insider $28 Anywhere but Here 17 Flawless 5


Notes: Cost estimates are for production only. Only half of box-office receipts come back to the studio.

Researched by RICHARD NATALE

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