The Way ‘Rollerball’ Bounces


Consider this a cautionary tale for operating in Hollywood during the age of test screenings, spin strategies and the fickle power of the Internet.

After being delayed from its planned opening last summer, John McTiernan’s remake of the 1975 futuristic film “Rollerball” finally opens Friday. The original, directed by Norman Jewison and starring James Caan, is a cult favorite and--with a violent action-filled sport at its core--seemed ripe for a remake in this video game age.

But even if critics and audiences ultimately warm to McTiernan’s vision, it may never overcome the negative buzz it has been generating since its first test screenings last spring.


Bad breaks, bad timing, bad-mouthing--”Rollerball” has been a victim of all of them, though its reputation is based on a cut of the film that no longer exists. After reshoots last summer and further edits to conform to the Motion Picture Assn. of America guidelines for a PG-13 release, the finished “Rollerball” was publicly screened for the first time only this week.

Even the slick ad campaign MGM mounted, which seemed to suggest a National Hockey League game played by members of the World Wrestling Federation (if that’s not redundant), garnered the movie negative publicity. Last week Universal Pictures successfully enjoined the studio from touting that “Rollerball” was created by the filmmakers who brought us “The Fast and the Furious,” last summer’s sleeper hit. The only connection between the two movies is screenwriter John Pogue, who co-adapted the new “Rollerball” with Larry Ferguson. Pogue had done some uncredited script doctoring on “Fast” and had a co-executive producer credit on that film. MGM may have stretched the truth a bit in an effort to tap into the under-17 male action crowd that was still in swaddling clothes when McTiernan’s 1988 hit “Die Hard” established him as a commercial action director.

That was just the latest insult to the film’s many injuries, particularly in the relatively new, yet powerful, Internet gossip universe.

Ain’t It Cool News, a Web site that regularly reviews test screenings, printed several negative reviews of the movie last spring, the most damning of which was written by the site’s founder, Harry Knowles, who had been personally invited by McTiernan to take an early peek at the movie.

Knowles had been critical of the film from the script stage on. He had championed an early draft of the new “Rollerball” that, like Jewison’s original, had been set in a post-apocalyptic future.

“It was an amazing script,” Knowles says. “It solved all the problems of the original.” (Knowles owns a 16mm print of the original film).


When McTiernan (referred to as McT by the MGM staff and his co-workers) came aboard, he jettisoned that version in favor of a contemporary story. “My premise was that we didn’t have to go off into never-never land to show a game in which people get hurt so others can make money,” McTiernan said in a recent interview. “I wanted to project that in the here and now.”

In McTiernan’s version, three Americans (portrayed by Chris Klein, LL Cool J and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) are enlisted by the Russian Mafia to play the violent sport in the independent nation of Kazakhstan. “I deliberately chose a faraway place that nobody would know,” says the director, whose decision was made before even first-graders had memorized all the countries ending with “stan.” (The movie was actually shot in Canada).

Last April, about four months before the then-projected release date, McTiernan decided to take the bull by the horns and invite Knowles to a New York test screening of “Rollerball.” Unbeknownst to MGM, he flew Knowles in from Texas on a private jet and put him up at the Four Seasons Hotel, a move he now admits was “naive.”

No parameters were set by McTiernan, says Knowles. The director, he alleges, said to him, “If you’re going to [dump] on my movie, then at least [dump] on a movie you’ve seen.”

Knowles came to New York. He saw the movie. He eviscerated it. “I thought he was a nice kid, and I was trying to engage him in the process,” McTiernan says, who dismisses Knowles and the site’s impact on a movie’s fortunes as “negligible.” While opinions on the Internet site may not correlate to box-office appeal, the site is faithfully followed by other media and competing studios, giving them an early read on upcoming movies. And, after Knowles’ slam, word quickly spread that “Rollerball” was in trouble.

Writing the negative review was not an easy decision, Knowles acknowledges, since he is a major fan of McTiernan’s work, which includes “Predator” and the recent “The Thomas Crown Affair” (another remake of a Jewison film). Knowles even likes most of McTiernan’s legendary commercial debacle, “The Last Action Hero.”

“The [‘Rollerball’] edit I saw was one of the worst films I’d seen in my life. There was jeering in the theater,” Knowles says.

McTiernan and producer Charles Roven remember the screening somewhat differently. “There were a great many places where the audience was cheering,” Roven says. “There was spontaneous applause a number of times in the movie.”

The producer admits that, at that point, the movie was too long (more than two hours) and needed some clarification. But that’s what the preview process is for, he says.

Roven has his own explanation for Knowles’ downbeat assessment. “The whole thing was just a set-up,” he says. “At that time he and his Web site were being accused of being co-opted by Hollywood.”

In the past the Internet guru has been courted by filmmakers, including Ron Howard, who invited him to an early screening of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” resulting in some laudatory advance reviews. Knowles doesn’t deny that a negative assessment of a film “would do my career good. But in this case I would rather have had access to the next five McTiernan projects. This is the guy who created the modern action movie.”

Knowles says he had no covert agenda, and would not have even written the review if McTiernan had established that as a ground rule, as has been the case with some other directors who have shown him movies in the past. The version of “Rollerball” he saw was close to a finished film, he says, and McTiernan seemed pleased with it. He suspects the real reason he was invited was that McTiernan may have been trying to enlist him to persuade MGM to maintain the R rating on the film. The director has rarely shied away from violence or nudity, and “Rollerball” was no exception.

At the time all the studios were under increasing pressure in regard to the marketing of R-rated movies to teenagers and trying to skirt the issue by cutting back on certain aspects of violence and sexuality. The pressure only increased after Sept. 11, according to McTiernan, who says he was not contracted to deliver the film under any specific rating.

Shortly after the screening last spring, MGM appointed a new head of marketing and distribution, Robert Levin, who convinced McTiernan to let go of the summer release slot. This would give the studio more time to devise a better marketing strategy and allow McTiernan to do reshoots and to re-edit the film for a PG-13 rating at a more leisurely pace.

“The release date was coming up on us,” Levin says. “When I saw the movie I had a strong feeling that it would appeal to the under-17 audience and that, while it might do well as an R, it might do even better as a PG-13.”

“Rollerball” was moved to early 2002 and McTiernan shot two weeks of additional footage last fall to clarify certain scenes, especially the film’s ending. McTiernan trimmed some of the violence and all the nudity (including a full-frontal shot of Romijn-Stamos). “The difference is not radical,” Roven says.

The new cut of the film, with a running time of about 100 minutes, was quietly tested and got higher marks, according to Levin. “It has lots of adrenaline, and young males and even females liked the movie.”

Still, MGM has kept the movie under wraps. While it is only on the hook for about one-third of the film’s cost, officially $60 million (though other industry sources peg it closer to $80 million), MGM is trying to maintain an upbeat profile since the recent news that the company is up for sale.

The studio even had a press junket for the movie without showing it last weekend, when the “Rollerball” principals participated in Super Bowl activities in New Orleans and were interviewed mainly by sports journalists.

The studio had almost slipped “Rollerball” into theaters when the fracas with Universal Pictures erupted, bringing the movie more bad press. Another potentially bad stroke of luck is having to contend with a major rival for the action audience. Warner Bros. recently moved the delayed Arnold Schwarzenegger terrorism thriller “Collateral Damage” onto the same release date. Levin says he’s not worried. “Rollerball” is tracking strongest with an under-21 audience while the Schwarzenegger film is skewing older.

“Rollerball” will have to hit the ground running since there’s more competition next weekend--another action film, “Hart’s War” starring Bruce Willis, also from MGM, and also sporting a hefty budget (more than $65 million). Levin says he’s confident the audience can expand to accommodate all three films. “I don’t think they’ll cannibalize each other. It’s our job to make sure they don’t all look like the same movie.”