Road Full of Obstacles Made ‘Rent’ Overdue

Times Staff Writer

Hollywood is rife with movie projects that languished for years before being made. The Oscar-winning hits “The Lord of the Rings” and “Chicago” each took more than a decade to get greenlighted. So did “Forrest Gump.”

But for pure drama, it’s hard to beat the tortuous journey of “Rent,” the musical adaptation that opens in theaters Wednesday. Since the film rights to the award-winning Broadway show were sold in 1996, the project has been buffeted by clashing egos, missed opportunities and unnatural disaster.

“My proper title on this movie should not be producer, it should be Sisyphus,” said Jane Rosenthal, the movie’s longest-suffering advocate, who recalls how the events of Sept. 11, 2001, derailed a key meeting on the project with Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein.

And the boulder still isn’t all the way up the hill. To be a breakout hit, the movie, which cost its backers Revolution Studios and Sony Pictures nearly $50 million to produce and at least $27 million to market, will have to appeal not only to its cult following of “Rent-heads” but also to millions of people unfamiliar with the show.


How the movie fares will be viewed by many as an indicator of how Hollywood works -- or how it doesn’t. Although the show has had a successful national tour, for years some studio chiefs felt its gritty subject matter would limit the size of its audience. Even with the backing of director Chris Columbus, who made the first two “Harry Potter” movies huge hits for Warner Bros., it was tough to persuade anyone to gamble on “Rent.”

If the movie flops, those who passed on it will say, at least privately, that they were right all along. If it takes off, those who rail against increasingly cautious decision-making in Hollywood will claim victory.

No one says success will be easy. An updated version of the classic Puccini opera “La Boheme,” “Rent” features such characters as a drag queen, a drug-addicted sadomasochistic dancer and a lesbian couple. Set in the 1980s, the plot depicts the struggles of squatter artists in a dingy loft in New York’s East Village as they cling to friendship and love in the face of AIDS and poverty. Although rated PG-13, it’s hardly middle-of-the-road fare.

The show’s beginnings are rooted in tragedy.

In the early morning of Jan. 25, 1996, less than 24 hours before “Rent” was to have its first preview at the off-Broadway New York Theater Workshop, the show’s 35-year-old author and composer, Jonathan Larson, died of an aortic aneurysm at his Greenwich Village home.

Larson’s sister Julie recalls how surreal a time it was. As the show became an immediate hit and several Hollywood studios clamored to buy the rights, she and her parents struggled to weigh competing offers while also trying to grieve.

“It was like ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass,’ ” said Larson, a former commercial producer who lives in Los Angeles. At first, she said, the family wasn’t sure whether the musical would translate to film, and they agonized over what her brother would have wanted.

“We were in shock,” she said. But ultimately, the Larsons let one of the musical’s central themes be their guide: “Don’t let fear keep you from taking chances.”


When a bidding war broke out, the family chose Miramax, whose artistic track record and New York-based headquarters seemed in sync with the sensibilities of “Rent.” But their initial optimism would turn to disappointment.

Rosenthal and her partner at Tribeca Films, Robert DeNiro, were asked by Miramax’s Weinstein to produce the film. Rosenthal hired screenwriter Stephen Chbosky to adapt the material and began talking to directors. Martin Scorsese considered the project, as did Barry Levinson. But it wasn’t until Spike Lee expressed interest that the project got traction.

Throughout the summer of 2001, Lee worked on the script with Chbosky. He put together a budget and had begun casting when things went awry.

Lee declined to be interviewed, other than to say he wished the film well. But he did confirm an account in Peter Biskind’s 2004 book, “Down and Dirty Pictures,” that paints an unflattering portrait of Weinstein. In the book, Lee said that in the summer of 2001, he couldn’t get Weinstein on the phone. He finally tracked him down in Martha’s Vineyard, where they both have vacation homes. After an hourlong meeting on Weinstein’s porch, Lee recalled, the Miramax chief shook his hand, looked him in the eye and assured him, “We’re making this film, Spike!”


But as Lee edged toward preproduction, Weinstein refused to write any checks.

Today, Weinstein says the script just wasn’t good enough. “I’m pretty snobby about the writing,” Weinstein said in an interview. “Whatever Spike said about our differences, it was about the script and the script only.”

But Rosenthal said money was the problem: Weinstein wanted a proposed budget of $28 million cut to $20 million.

Whatever made Weinstein balk, Lee was furious and quit the project. Asked by Biskind if he’d ever work with Weinstein again, Lee said, “I would rather sell tube socks, three for $5.”


Desperate to save the project, Rosenthal resolved to meet with Weinstein. On the morning she was to see him at the Tribeca office building where both their companies are housed, the attacks on the World Trade Center towers occurred just 1 1/2 blocks away.

“That meeting never happened,” she said.

In the months after 9/11, the project foundered. Weinstein wanted Rosenthal to land a financial partner to share the risk. But she had trouble finding one.

“Because of the subject matter -- the homosexual relationships and AIDS -- Harvey always thought we should do it for a price,” meaning he wanted to limit his financial risk, she said. “We shopped it everywhere: HBO Films, Warner Bros., Universal.”


In 2002, Weinstein saw how dark musicals could hit it big when Miramax’s “Chicago” won an Oscar for best picture and took in more than $170 million at the box office. But he still didn’t loosen the purse strings for “Rent.”

Instead, in 2003, Weinstein secretly approached NBC about making a TV movie of “Rent.” When the producers and the Larson family discovered that Weinstein had gone behind that their backs, they were appalled.

“Bob [De Niro] and I were very upset,” Rosenthal said.

Weinstein said he did not recall what happened.


But the Larsons had a contract that would rein in Weinstein. In signing over the rights, they had secured veto power over who would be producer and director and a guarantee that no TV project could go forward without their permission.

“That gave us a lot of clout,” said Jonathan Larson’s father, Al.

Even so, the family agreed to meet with NBC executives. Jeff Zucker, then the network’s president of entertainment, recalls trying to convince the Larsons that NBC would make “Rent” a major television event.

“This would not be a cheesy TV movie,” Zucker, now president of NBC Universal Television Group, said he assured the family.


The Larsons took a pass. “We couldn’t see a TV movie that would tell the story,” said the 80-year-old patriarch. “Men kissing men and women kissing women wouldn’t have been on TV!”

It was the ill-fated TV pitch that prompted director Columbus to take action. He had expressed interest in the project earlier, but when he heard that “Rent” was being courted by the small screen, he said he couldn’t sit still. “I was stunned,” he said.

Columbus told his agent to set up a meeting with Rosenthal. Columbus also sought out the Larsons, who were understandably wary.

“Here we go again,” Julie Larson remembers thinking. “The fear kicked in.” But after spending just 10 minutes with the director, she recalls, “I felt this was right. He just got it.”


There was one problem. Weinstein and his brother, Bob, were by now in the midst of splitting from their corporate parent, Walt Disney Co. They weren’t financing new movies.

Weinstein let Columbus take what by then had become his passion project to Warner Bros., where the director has a production deal. Columbus had helped launch the “Harry Potter” franchise there, and he had high hopes that Warner President Alan Horn would show his gratitude by backing “Rent.”

But like Harvey Weinstein, Horn and his creative team were reluctant to bankroll “Rent.”

“They would only make it for a price of $20 million,” recalled Columbus, “I couldn’t see doing it that way.”


Money wasn’t the only issue. Columbus said Horn found the material “a little dark.”

Horn put it this way: “I am a huge fan of Chris Columbus, but I just did not connect to the material creatively.”

Columbus didn’t give up. Last year, while writing and producing “Christmas With the Kranks,” a comedy starring Tim Allen, Columbus slipped that movie’s director, Joe Roth, a copy of the “Rent” script. The two had made five other movies together when Roth was a studio head at 20th Century Fox and later at Disney.

Roth, who now has his own production company, Revolution, loved the script. He told Columbus something he’d been longing to hear: yes.


Roth admits that he greenlighted “Rent” in part because of an echo. The last time he got a Columbus project out of turnaround from Warner it was “Home Alone,” the 1990 comedy that would gross $285 million.

There was also this: Back in 1996, when Roth ran Disney Studios, he bid against Miramax for the film rights to “Rent.” Now, he called Weinstein, who had outbid him years before. The Miramax chief agreed to let the rights go for $4 million, and Roth sent him a check.

Today, Roth admits making “Rent” was risky. But he’s counting on young audiences, especially girls and women 12 to 25 years old, to turn out in droves. Although the film’s controversial elements will turn some people off, he says, he believes “Rent” will be a success.

“I think some stories like this one, about friendship, love, passion and living for the moment, transcend the divisions of states and countries,” he said.


To try to deliver on that potential, Revolution partner Tom Sherak and Sony marketing president Geoff Ammer said they were targeting teens and twenty-somethings with radio promotions, an in-school TV network, grass-roots “street teams” in major markets and TV spots on such shows as “The O.C.” and “Smallville.”

Columbus understands those who doubt the box-office potential of “Rent.” He once felt doubtful himself.

“I admit I was feeling insecure about the commercial prospects of the film,” said the director, who toyed with the idea of putting pop stars such as Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake in the lead roles. But ultimately, he opted not to tinker much with the magic of the original cast of eight, six of whom appear in the movie.

Although none are A-list stars, two -- Jesse L. Martin of TV’s “Law & Order” and Taye Diggs -- have developed a fan base since the musical’s debut.


Columbus and executives at Revolution and Sony are really banking on the film’s biggest star -- its driving rock score. The musical’s most popular song, “Seasons of Love,” an anthem to living each day as it comes, is often sung at high school graduations.

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. How do you measure, measure a year?” it asks. “In daylights? In sunsets? In midnights? In cups of coffee?”

Come Wednesday, Hollywood will know exactly how to measure the 133 minutes of the movie “Rent”: In dollars.




The sounds of music

Movie musicals -- once a Hollywood staple -- were recently revived with Oscar-winning hit “Chicago” and the creative triumph “Moulin Rouge.” Now “Rent” is trying to keep the momentum going for the genre. Here are the box-office leaders:

*--* Domestic gross Opening Movie (In millions) date Distributor “Grease"(1) $181.4 6/16/78 Paramount “Chicago” 170.7 12/27/02 Miramax “The Sound of Music” 158.7 1/1/65 Fox “The Rocky Horror Picture 112.9 9/26/75 Fox Show” “Saturday Night Fever” 94.2 12/16/77 Paramount “Flashdance” 92.9 4/15/83 Paramount “Footloose” 80.0 2/17/84 Paramount “Best Little Whorehouse in 75.3 7/23/82 Universal Texas” “Purple Rain” 68.5 7/27/84 Warner Bros. “Moulin Rouge” 57.4 5/18/01 Fox Searchlight



List does not include music biopics, such as “8 Mile,” “Buddy Holly Story,” “La Bamba” and “What’s Love Got To Do With It.

(1)Includes rereleases

Source: Exhbitor Relations


Los Angeles Times