Levinson at War With DreamWorks Over 'Piece'

Having made Oscar-winning hits like "Rain Man," critical favorites like "Wag the Dog" and flops like "Sphere" in his 20-plus years in Hollywood, Barry Levinson knows when one of his movies is going up to the penthouse--or down to the outhouse. So the director smelled trouble for his latest film, "An Everlasting Piece," when DreamWorks decided to hold a test screening for the picture last July at a mall in Woodland Hills.

Made in Ireland for $10 million with a no-name cast, the film was a quirky comedy about two young wig salesmen who try to corner the toupee business in the fratricidal world of Northern Ireland. Levinson was horrified to find DreamWorks assessing the film's commercial potential before a suburban audience accustomed to seeing broad joke fests and star-driven dramas.

"If you really cared about this movie, you wouldn't screen it in Woodland Hills," he said in his first interview since the film was yanked from theaters in New York and Los Angeles last month after a brief 11-theater holiday season run in which it took in a minuscule $75,000. "I understand taking 'Cast Away' to Woodland Hills or a teen comedy to Woodland Hills, but why our movie? You'd never open our movie in Woodland Hills, so why even test it there?"

It was the first of many questionable decisions, Levinson claims, that spelled doom for a movie that, despite mixed reviews, earned praise from the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post and New York magazine, in which critic Peter Rainer called it "a real original--as lyrically nutty as a vintage Bill Forsyth picture." Angered by DreamWorks' handling of the film, Levinson wrote a letter of complaint to studio co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg last month describing the studio's treatment of the film as "the most disappointing experience I have ever had in this business."

Having obtained a copy of Levinson's letter, I only wish I could post it on Thesmokinggun.com to be read by every young independent filmmaker who, in a weak moment, might be tempted to sell an art-house film to a major studio. It's sad but true: In modern-day Hollywood, where movies are sold like McDonald's hamburgers, big studios often have no idea how to market little movies.

"Studio marketing is a machine built to sell big commercial movies," explained Revolution Films executive Tom Sherak, who spent 17 years overseeing marketing and distribution at 20th Century Fox. "They're geared to get everybody at once. They're not designed to nurture a little movie. That takes time studios just don't have; they have to do another movie next week."

In fairness to DreamWorks, it is better at marketing difficult films than most studios. Its campaign for "American Beauty," last year's best picture Oscar winner, was a model of marketing savvy. In fact, every studio has a skeleton in its closet: an intelligent, well-reviewed film that was cast adrift because it didn't have a big star or an easily digestible marketing hook.

The recent casualty list includes such buried treasures as "Rushmore" (Disney), "Election" (Paramount), "Go" (Sony), "Magnolia" (New Line), "The Yards" (Miramax), "Still Crazy" (Sony), "Tigerland" (Fox) and "Liberty Heights," a 1950s drama that Levinson made at Warner Bros. in 1999 that was poorly handled and disappeared without a trace. Paramount, a marketing Goliath when it comes to female revenge fantasies and action thrillers, was so baffled by the cerebral charm of "Wonder Boys" that it released the critically lauded film twice without reaching an audience once.

Although filmmakers rarely see the flaws in their own movies, to hear them tell it, studios rarely think out of the box. Kevin Allen, director of "The Big Tease," an oddball comedy fumbled by Warner Bros., says the studio first opened the movie nationwide in Scotland because its lead character was a Scottish hairdresser. It might not have been a bad strategy if the hairdresser had been played by a famous Scot. Unfortunately, the lead actor was an obscure TV actor, unknown even in his native land, so the movie failed, killing any studio support for its U.S. release.

"Warners were just trying to sell something they didn't understand," Allen says. "They kept trying to call the movie 'this year's 'Full Monty,' but they weren't willing to dig any deeper than that and figure out what made 'The Full Monty' work. It needed a little indie film magic."

As is often the case in Hollywood, money is at the root of the problem. Big studios are built to make the big score; they make their money off $100-million home runs, not $15-million singles. Because films make a big chunk of their overall box-office take in their first week of release, marketers rely on the instant sizzle of star appeal. As one studio marketer put it: "You don't pay movie stars $20 million for their acting. They get $20 million so your ads can say, 'Tom Cruise Is Jerry Maguire.' "

Small movies are actually a bad economic bet: If a studio has $10 million invested in one film and $90 million in another, guess which one it's going to work harder to make a hit. "It's all about money," Levinson says. "The studio has to get behind the movie that costs $90 million because they have a lot of exposure. It's the inexpensive films that they let slip by. The problem is that studios have lost their sense of showmanship. They don't know how to squeeze every penny out of a movie.

"Look at how Miramax has pampered 'Chocolat,' staying with it, trying every angle. With a studio, if a movie stumbles out of the blocks, it's history. They go, 'Next!' "

*

If you believe the filmmakers, co-founder Steven Spielberg was the only DreamWorks executive with any true enthusiasm for "Everlasting Piece." He loved the script and advocated making the movie when his other executives wanted to turn it down. He was such a staunch supporter that when the filmmakers sought out independent financing, Spielberg insisted the project remain at DreamWorks.

As Levinson wrote to Katzenberg: "I would be the first to admit this was never going to be an easy movie to sell, [which is why] I am simply bewildered at why you went down this road to begin with. . . . It was evident the project was an unwanted, misunderstood curiosity at best. . . . A small film, Irish, no-names--that's a tough task in today's marketplace. I'm not suggesting that more money should've been spent, simply some care, enthusiasm and understanding of the project."

Katzenberg disputes this theory. "If anyone in our team of principal decision makers had been unenthusiastic, the movie wouldn't have been made," he says. "Steven was the most enthusiastic, but everyone here wanted to work with a director of Barry's stature."

Nevertheless, when other studios were refreshing their ad campaigns with new critic blurbs or ad slogans over the holidays, the ad for "Everlasting Piece" remained unchanged, running one lone critic blurb from Newsday. By then, hostilities had erupted between Levinson and the studio. He says the studio repeatedly lobbied him to cut any political references involving the IRA out of the picture, saying he should stick to wig jokes. He refused. Convinced the studio was burying the film, the director canceled a series of interviews he'd scheduled to support the film.

DreamWorks says Levinson's refusal to do press severely damaged the film's visibility. In lieu of any name actors, the director was the movie's draw: His was the only name touted in the film's print ads.

DreamWorks insiders also contend that Levinson was unrealistic about the movie's playability. They say the film was rejected by several film festivals and played as poorly in promotional screenings as it did in Woodland Hills. They dispute Levinson's charges of nonsupport, noting that the studio took out local TV ads touting the film, a luxury an indie company could never afford. The studio also held word-of-mouth screenings for bald men; they were poorly attended, which the studio viewed as a sign of low audience appeal. Others would say it was a dumb idea--I know I would've been insulted if they'd asked me--and my hair's just thinning.

"I'm proud of the efforts our people made to support this film," Katzenberg says. "It wasn't like we were distracted by four other bigger movies that we were working at the same time. We did the best we could. Unfortunately it didn't work."

Even if you believe DreamWorks made a good-faith effort to market the film, I'm convinced that an opportunistic independent such as Lions Gate or USA Films would've squeezed more than $75,000 out of the film, either by moving the movie out of the crowded Christmas season or by aggressively screening the picture to build grass-roots support. The movie still might have failed, but an indie wouldn't have given up after two weeks. Showmanship is what indies are all about: Instead of being wary of an IRA subplot, they would've viewed it as a potential publicity windfall. Think of the media coverage that would get!

For Levinson, that's small consolation. "What I'm most angry about is that it wasn't like we made a deal with the devil," he says. "We wanted to go somewhere else to finance the picture. Studios want the biggest common denominator for their product. When I hear studio people complain about movie budgets being so high, I'm tempted to say, 'The way you treat little movies, what is the incentive for us to make movies for less?"

*

"The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°