THIS is a tale of two scripts, one that sold for a ton of money, one that remains twisting in the wind. Both are beautifully written, but in Hollywood, while scripts are prized for great writing, they must also give a studio chief enough ammunition to comfortably answer the question: If I spend $100 million on this, will I be bankrolling a big hit, not a colossal failure?
One script, an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” co-written by “Lord of the Rings” filmmaker Peter Jackson, sold after an intense bidding war to DreamWorks, which will spend close to $70 million for the Jackson-directed film.
The other script, a 1938-era Hollywood thriller written by John Logan (“The Aviator”) with Michael Mann attached to direct and Leonardo DiCaprio to star, made the rounds carrying a $120-million price tag. It has yet to sell, though one studio, New Line, remains interested, but only if the cost comes down considerably.
When both scripts turned up on my doorstep, I decided to give them a read in the hopes of answering the questions that have been floating around town the last few weeks: Why did “Lovely Bones” sell for so much money, even though it’s a very adult drama about a 14-year-old girl who is brutally raped and murdered? And why is Mann’s untitled thriller still unsold, even with a huge movie star in the package?
The reception to the two scripts offers an intriguing glimpse into the way studios view daunting material today, balancing the value of a film’s artistic ambition against its box-office potential. This cautious approach is best summarized by Warner Bros. chief Alan Horn, whose studio eventually backed away from both films.
“They are really well-written scripts,” he said. “I felt a pang with both projects, because it’s so hard to find great material. But it came down to a pricing issue. If the movies were budgeted at $40 million, we would’ve snatched them up faster than a blueberry muffin. But at the end of the day -- and believe me, it was a long day -- the pictures were just too pricey for us.”
One of the big complaints about “Lovely Bones” was its hefty price tag, especially for a film involving the death of a child, not subject matter that packs people into theaters. DreamWorks points to the success of “American Beauty,” a strikingly dark film that made $350 million worldwide after its 1999 release. But much of that extra value came from winning a slew of Oscars, a feat hard to predict, much less guarantee.
Why is DreamWorks willing to put so much money into such a risky proposition? Stacey Snider, the studio’s co-chairman, refused to discuss the issue, unhappy that the script -- read by only a select few -- had fallen into our hands. But according to Sony Pictures Co-Chair Amy Pascal, who was the first to bid on the script, the story’s strength lies in its strong tug on our emotions.
“It’s about a family that suffers a tragedy but finds a way to heal itself,” Pascal says. “I think it’s completely commercial. Movies about heaven and the afterlife that let people know there’s something after life really resonate with all sorts of people, including me.”
After reading the script, I see why the film’s supporters see it as less of a brooding “Little Children"-style drama and more of a supernatural thriller, packed with creepy chills and a sense of wonder.
In this scene, as the young girl’s attacker, Mr. Harvey, prepares his assault, you can imagine how Jackson will use his visual gifts to tell the story and illuminate the dark corners of a disturbed mind.
Int. Mr. Harvey’s House -- Night
ANGLE ON: CAMERA DRIFTS past the FRONT of a MOONLIT HOUSE -- neat and tidy, with FLOWERS PAINTED on the WALLS. We think it’s real at first, but soon REALISE that we’re looking at a model ... an intricately constructed DOLLS-
On the soundtrack: “The Great Pretender” by Brian Eno.
As the CAMERA rises above the roof of the DOLLSHOUSE, we see the hunched FIGURE of a MAN; a shadowy giant, grotesquely out of proportion with his small scale surroundings, working intently with plywood and glue.
There are 4 or 5 more
DOLLSHOUSES in various states of completion lined up in a row on the LIVING ROOM FLOOR.
An ALARM CLOCK RINGS! Through a window of the
DOLLSHOUSE we watch the MAN rise -- as if compelled by the ALARM -- to pull the blinds shut....
CLOSE ON: A PAINT BRUSH painting more FLOWERS on the WEATHERBOARD WALL but these ones are CLUMSY and CRUDE LOOKING. There is a faint but continuous TREMOR in the hand that is holding the BRUSH.
ANOTHER ALARM RINGS! The MAN rises, takes four paces to the left, and without looking -- flicks off the LIGHTS.
It’s hard to expect many of the same moviegoers who flocked to see “King Kong” or Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy lining up for this darker tale. But the “Bones” script makes it clear that the material is in the hands of a master of emotion and suspense, not a navel-gazing auteur.
Even though Sony was in the bidding to the end, DreamWorks had a card no other studio could play -- the Spielberg ace. The enthusiasm of Spielberg, long a fan of Jackson, allowed DreamWorks to see the deal as the beginning of a long-term relationship, not a risky one-off deal. It’s no coincidence that just days after the “Bones” sale DreamWorks announced that Spielberg and Jackson were also collaborating on a series of movies based on the comic-strip hero Tintin. Snider also has a strong relationship with Jackson built when he made “King Kong” at Universal Pictures when she was studio head there.
Snider’s track record is instructive, especially when it comes to making a bet on difficult material to maintain a relationship with a crowd-pleasing filmmaker.
In the 1990s, Tom Shadyac had three straight $100-million comedy hits at Universal. His next project, a dark drama called “Dragonfly,” found only one taker -- Snider, who shared the cost with an indie financier but wholeheartedly backed the movie. When Shadyac made his next hit, “Bruce Almighty,” it was for Snider and Universal.
Mann’s project has had a bumpier path, in part because he hasn’t cultivated such loyalty -- and is coming off “Miami Vice,” a costly flop. Although Mann is much admired for his filmmaking, his pictures rarely make much money and almost always go over budget.
In Hollywood, there is a generation of executives who’ve endured Mann’s intractable perfectionism. When Sony begged Mann to cut several expletives out of “Ali” so the film could get a PG-13 rating, he refused, going out with an R rating, a decision that arguably cost the studio millions in potential revenue.
The other big sticking point with the Logan script is its milieu. Though full of fascinating studio politics and action-packed scenes -- my favorite being a Sunset Strip shootout outside the Trocadero nightclub that involves both Bugsy Siegel and Judy Garland -- the story is full of familiar Hollywood characters who’ve been portrayed endlessly, in altered form, in films over the years. For all its popularity among filmmakers, the inside-Hollywood movie genre has a limited commercial reach.
At $120 million, even with DiCaprio, the deal was too rich, especially when people can get their Hollywood fix today via “Entourage” or “Extras.” The only studio with real enthusiasm is New Line, which has a history of buying material nobody else wanted, most notably “LOTR,” which was turned down all over town.
Still, the studio remains on the fence, especially after having run the numbers on recent DiCaprio dramas, using “The Aviator” as a high end, “Blood Diamond” as a low mark. If New Line buys, expect the budget to be comfortably under $100 million to allow for Mann’s usual overages.
Of course, even if the film is never made, the script will still survive, passed along from admirer to admirer, the story only playing out in their imagination.
When the story’s hero, a tough-guy studio fixer named Harry Slidell, meets with Louis B. Mayer, the studio boss -- who speaks the lingo of a crafty immigrant entrepreneur -- has deduced that Slidell is falling for the starlet he’s been paid to investigate. “Actresses are like lightbulbs,” he says. "... sooner or later they’re gonna burn out on you. Your heart, give to someone else.”
Studio chiefs don’t talk that way about the talent anymore. These days they’re much more worried about being seduced into buying a script that will win their heart but end up costing them their job.
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