For as long as Hollywood has made movies, its relationship with the truth has been as shaky as a hand-held camera. Actors -- and legions of others in the industry -- lie about their age; producers fudge the real costs of making movies; studio executives distort box-office grosses. One movie producer titled her memoir “Hello, He Lied.”
But can Hollywood handle the truth?
As the economic squeeze around the movie industry tightens, with executives openly worrying about the long-term prospects of the business, cracks are appearing in the industry’s carefully tended facade. Tensions between the studios and their movie stars have been rising all summer, turning this into an uncomfortably hot season of candor.
When Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone cast off Tom Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner this week with a frank assessment of the actor’s personal liabilities, it was just the latest salvo. In a biography released this summer, director M. Night Shyamalan excoriated the top brass at Walt Disney Co., the studio that backed his films for years, for daring to offer a blunt assessment of his latest project, “Lady in the Water.” Producer James Robinson chastised star Lindsay Lohan for her partying ways in a no-holds-barred letter that was quickly “leaked.” And top agent Ari Emanuel and Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal publicly denounced Mel Gibson for his anti-Semitic rant as he was being arrested for driving while intoxicated in July.
Even the Internal Revenue Service warned the town’s A-list stars that they needed to bring a little more truth to their tax returns, warning them that the free swag they cart off from award shows and film festivals counts as taxable income.
The town’s newfound honesty may last no longer than “Poseidon,” but agents and producers fear it will be here for a while, a consequence of an increasingly corporate culture in which a studio’s next quarterly earnings matter more than its past relationships and today’s stock price carries more weight than tomorrow’s potential blockbuster.
Top stars were usually spared public chastisement, but they are no longer immune. “There are fewer and fewer movies being made and fewer places to make them, so the tolerance for someone whose value is seen as being less than it was is much lower,” said Mark Gordon, the producer of “The Day After Tomorrow” and “The Patriot.” “People feel freer to make more cavalier comments.”
Under the industry’s standard operating procedures, studios terminate deals over “creative differences” and issue news releases effusively praising all parties. But in a Wall Street Journal interview, Redstone not only didn’t bother with such niceties, but he also went after Cruise for his off-screen behavior.
He seemed particularly upset that Cruise’s couch-jumping, finger-pointing pronouncements on love, psychiatry and Ritalin had damaged his box-office appeal, and hence Paramount Pictures Inc.'s profit.
But Hollywood is full of steadily employed actors and moguls who have assaulted hotel clerks with cellphones, picked up prostitutes and consumed massive amounts of illegal drugs. The difference is their indiscretions are not considered financially costly.
Morgan Creek Productions, the financier of the upcoming Lohan movie “Georgia Rule,” worried that her well-documented social life would cost the film money.
“You and your representatives have told us that your various late arrivals and absences from the set have been the result of illness; today we were told it was ‘heat exhaustion,’ ” Morgan Creek’s Robinson wrote in a letter published on the Smoking Gun website. “We are well aware that your ongoing all night heavy partying is the real reason for your so-called ‘exhaustion.’ ... Your actions have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.”
Disney was worried that Shyamalan’s ideas for “Lady in the Water” were uncommercial and told him so. He felt so betrayed by the studio’s lack of faith that he took the project to Warner Bros., where it flopped, but also went public in a book about the making of the movie.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who established Cruise’s stardom with “Top Gun,” notes that flare-ups between suits and talent are nothing new.
“I think there’s always been hostility toward actions that talent might take that management might feel is not in their best interest,” Bruckheimer said. “Management will lash out either in the press or toward the talent’s agent.”
In the last few months, there have been a number of studios shutting down high-profile star vehicles. Citing budget concerns, executives at 20th Century Fox canceled the proposed Jim Carrey-Ben Stiller film “Used Guys.” Paramount, citing similar worries, pulled the plug on Carrey’s “Believe It or Not.”
“Everybody’s feeling the ripple effect,” said Cathy Schulman, the Oscar-winning producer of “Crash.” “If Tom and Paula could lose their deal, what does that mean for everybody else?”
But others said Cruise’s slap-down was not a sign of the times.
“I don’t think it amounts to anything; it’s just an interesting diversion at the end of summer,” said Gil Cates, the producer of numerous Academy Awards ceremonies. “Sumner Redstone doesn’t have to be careful about anything he says. It’s not a harbinger of anything -- just Sumner being Sumner.”
Times staff writer Mary McNamara contributed to this report.