Boring Their Critics Into Submission

Making Books About Making Movies

Boring Their Critics Into Submission

Making Books About Making Movies

Boring Their Critics Into Submission
New books dissected over email.
July 8 2002 2:07 PM

Making Books About Making Movies

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Dear J.D.,

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Peter Bart and Peter Guber's Shoot Out, one of the Hollywood memoirs we're reading this week, has "rehab effort" written all over it. Last year, Los Angeles Magazine charged Bart with using his position as editor-in-chief of Daily Variety to peddle his own film scripts to a studio, a big no-no, and he had to give up the job for a while. Guber's last prominent gig was as chairman of Sony Pictures from 1989 to 1994, a period during which the studio unleashed box-office lepers like Last Action Heroand lost close to $3 billion. These guys make Sly Stallone's recent films look like a winning streak.

To fend off the jackals, Bart and Guber devised a brilliant tactic. In Shoot Out, they have not smeared their accusers, nor returned their fire, nor even denied their charges. Instead, they have written a movie textbook—and an incredibly dreary one at that. The strategy here seems to be bore their critics into submission. I am forced to admit that they succeed.

Shoot Out's chapters each cover a particular niche of the film industry, to which the authors have lent psychedelic code names. Studio executives are called "dream merchants"; directors are "alchemists"; the town's creative types are alternately "vision keepers" and "poet-shamans"—it all makes Variety's insider patois look clever by comparison. For 275 pages, Bart and Guber bludgeon the reader with bits of conventional wisdom. In Chapter 4, for example, we learn that hiring a great director does not ensure a hit movie and that a director must constantly have his ego stroked. Later, they declare that "Money is the barometer of power and prestige. In Hollywood you don't get what's fair; you get what you're able to negotiate." By this point, even the sourest critic will have long since surrendered.

The problem with Hollywood, the authors argue, is that "global mega-companies" like News Corp. and Vivendi now own the big studios and seem more interested in churning out bland content than indulging the artistic whims of the poet-shamans. The solution, they say, is to let stars and directors exert more ownership over their films, just like they did in the early- to mid-1970s, the last golden age of American filmmaking.

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I'd rather be watching '70s films, too, but I don't buy this line. As the authors themselves point out, big stars and directors practically own their films these days, at least in a financial sense, often commanding a larger chunk of the first-dollar gross than the studio. It hasn't made the films any better. Moreover, the transfer of power to directors in the '70s was an admission by the studios that they had lost touch with the filmgoing public. That's hardly the case now—see Men in Black II's$90 million take last weekend—and thus there's no financial incentive for the studios to relinquish power again.

I could have forgiven Bart and Guber this if they had spotted us a handful of trashy backlot anecdotes, stuff I might have used in line at the Seattle International Film Festival next year. But outside a riff on Milos Forman's ill-fated sumo-wrestling comedy, what contraband they do come up with is really, really stale. (Two anecdotes from the set of 1977's forgettable Islands in the Stream? Please.) In their chapter on screenwriting, the authors take the just-the-facts-ma'am approach to a ridiculous degree, writing, "Was it Barry Morrow or Ronald Bass who was truly responsible for the script of Rain Man, which won the Academy Award for both writers?" Peter Guber produced Rain Man, and he should be dishing instead of asking.

Art Linson, the author of What Just Happened?, has no such qualms. He piddled away a producing contract at Fox by churning out middling fare like Pushing Tin and Great Expectations (Ethan Hawke's version, not David Lean's). But where Bart and Guber clam up, Linson names names. The book, he says, is an intense examination of his "few small victories and many vast defeats."

The book's most entertaining passages have Linson wooing Robert De Niro, trying to convince the great actor that wrestling with a bear in the wilderness drama The Edge is just what his career needs. After extorting Linson for torturous script readings and phone consultations, De Niro turns down the part. Desperate, Linson casts Alec Baldwin, who shows up on the set sporting an enormous beard that looks like it was borrowed from Stonewall Jackson. Linson tells him to shave it off. He refuses. The standoff lasts for days.

Linson doesn't blame the studio system for his failures as a producer, but he makes some cutting observations about it all the same. I'll leave those for you to sort out, J.D. Is the marketing director really the alpha male of a movie studio, as Linson suggests? And what about his contention that Hollywood is too obsessed with the likability of its movie heroes and heroines, a notion that comes up again in Julie Salamon's The Devil's Candy?

No matter what you think of Linson's version of Great Expectations, you have to admire a producer that after a string of box-office flops turns to Charles Dickens for source material. As he writes, "I know about Scrooged, but this is different. …"

Best,
Bryan