Thursday, April 9, 2015

Youtube Update Video

Not much to see here, just a super quick video update on Youtube letting folks know:

a. Chronsega Ep. 9 is in editing now.
b. There's a new, secondary Chrontendo channel, and an official announcement about the video nasties series (which you guys already knew about.)

Check back soon for the release of Chronsega 9.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"What is this turning into? A goddamned movie blog?"


No, not at all.  But watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture led me to check out a few other sci-fi films of the late 70s/early 80s, and I'm writing about one of those today.  I've got to justify my monthly expenditure on Netflix somehow. Allow me to briefly draw you attention to the slightly obscure Saturn 3.

The opening shot is once again,  big ass spaceship.

Released in early 1980, a mere three months after ST:TMP, Saturn 3 boasts a ridiculous amount of talent on board; much more talent than you'd need for a low budget film designed to ride on the coattails of Star Wars. The director was Stanley Donen, a true Hollywood legend from the glory days of MGM's Technicolor musicals.  His past credits included On the Town, Singing in the Rain, Funny Face and Charade. The principal roles are filled by Kirk Douglas, in one of this last theatrical starring performances; Farrah Fawcett, who was one of the most famous women in the world in 1980; and none other than Harvey Keitel, hot off a series of amazing performances in Taxi Driver, The Duelists and Fingers. On top of this, the script was written by frickin' Martin Amis, who'd achieve literary fame a few years later with his novel Money. Throw in Oscar-winning cinematographer Billy Williams and an Elmer Bernstein score, and you've got one overqualified cast and crew.



Saturn 3 feels like a typical early/mid 70s Hollywood sci-fi movie being forced into a Star Wars-shaped box. The small cast and claustrophobic sets give it a Silent Running* feel. The slightly dystopian theme brings to mind Logan's Run and Soylent Green. The movie is often thought to be influenced by Alien (which it resembles in some ways, but Alien reached theaters only 9 months earlier, and Saturn 3 had been in development since 1975.) The film was conceived by John Barry, a production designer on Clockwork Orange, Phase IV, and Superman. Barry was the original director, but dropped out a couple weeks into filming, leading to Donen, the film's producer, to finish shooting the movie. Barry immediately went on to do second unit directing for The Empire Strikes Back. While working on Empire, he contracted meningitis and suddenly died.

Fawcett got involved when British film mogul Lew Grade, whose company ITC was producing Saturn 3, got seated next to her on an airplane flight.  With Fawcett on board, the movie suddenly became a more important project. Needing a big name male lead, the producers considered Sean Connery and Micheal Caine. They weren't available at that time, and Douglas ended up with the role. Despite the top tier names on the marquee, Saturn 3 wasn't really a big budget special effects orgy ala ST:TMP.  Upon release, it was widely mocked for it's cheap looking miniatures and matte paintings. A couple shots were simply borrowed from ITC's TV show Space: 1999. Thankfully, these sequences are confined to a short sequence near the beginning, when Keitel flies a small space ship to the third moon of Saturn. Once he lands, the rest of the running time is spent inside the confines of Douglas and Fawcett's research station. This set is, quite frankly, pretty damned cool looking, so after the first 15 minutes, it's all smooth sailing, visually.

Goofy looking miniatures sank Saturn 3's  chances to be the next Star Wars.

Despite the sci-fi setting, Saturn 3 basically uses the old "trapped in a house with a killer" psychological horror format. The movie opens in a space station. Keitel's character kills one of his fellow officers in order to impersonate him. He does this by opening a hatch, causing his victim to be sucked into the vacuum of space, hitting some wires on the way out which literally tear him into bloody shreds. This shocking opening bit grabs your attention. Regrettably, nothing else in the movie has the same visceral impact as this scene. Taking the place of the captain he murdered, Keitel travels to the remote Saturn 3 research lab, carrying with him a new type of robot, powered by cloned human brain cells. The lab is manned solely by Kirk Douglas and his assistant/girlfriend Farrah Fawcett. The physically imposing, humanoid "Demigod" model robot is programmed by connecting directly to Keitel's brain. Unfortunately, since Keitel is a homicidal maniac who killed the robot's intended trainer, things go quickly awry. The robot murders Keitel and attempts to hunt down Douglas and Fawcett. I think the parallels with Frankenstein will be obvious.

Not a great idea to have the most shocking scene at the very beginning.

We don't learn much about human society outside of the lab, but hints of overpopulation of mass drug abuse are dropped. The purpose of the Saturn 3 lab is apparently to research hydroponic methods for increasing food production. Keitel arrives with a stash of pills with names like "Blue Dreamers," and it's implied that the human population on Earth is kept under control through sex and drugs. Keitel's characters speaks in an unemotional monotone and immediately informs Fawcett that he is attracted to her and requests to "use" her body for his pleasure When she reacts with digust, he informs her that such relationships are normal on Earth. The old-fashioned Douglas, a man with 20th century values and who has a monogamous romantic relationship with Fawcett, is mocked by Keitel as having no place in the world anymore.


Scenes like this make up about 30% of the movie, it feels like.

Saturn 3 spends a suprising amount of time on Douglas and Fawcett making pillow talk while longuing around in their bathrobes. They've created a mini-paradise for themselves on Saturn 3 and are counting the days until Keitel leaves. One issue: it seems like Keitel is the only one who is actually doing any real work at the lab. We are supposed to relate to this pair of lovebirds, but Keitel has a point when he yells at them for failing to produce results while people on Earth are starving. The first 2/3 of Saturn 3 consists of slowly building tension between Keitel and Douglas/Fawcett. Once the robot goes rouge, we are treated to 15 minutes Douglas and Fawcett being chased around the corridors. Eventually, Douglas, realizing that he IS a bit a relic, straps some bombs to himself and blows the robot up.

Cool set design. Cool killer robot design.

Upon release, Saturn 3 was rejected by critics and audiences and died at the box office. It received Golden Raspberry nominations for worst picture, actor and actress. 30 plus years later, it just seems like a nice, harmless sci-fi film, and currently holds a respectable 5/10 rating on IMDB. However, it does very much feel like a movie put together by some old Hollywood dudes trying to make a quick buck off of that Star Wars bullshit. At times it is very stagey looking, and feels incredibly set-bound. There are some very cool looking sets, and the killer robot is sufficiently scary looking. But somehow, Douglas and Fawcett just don't fit into Saturn 3's futuristic world very convincingly.  Kirk Douglas was simply not made for science fiction films. Also, you may get creeped out by the huge age difference between the two. Saturn 3 exists in the 1960s-70s movie tradition of romantically pairing a young woman with someone waaaay older.  (See also, George C Scott and Julie Christie in Petulia and Donen's own Funny Face with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn). Douglas displays an ample amount of his naked, sagging flesh in the movie. The fact that he is biologically old enough to be Fawcett's grandfather makes their love scenes a bit icky.

An example of the stylized, artificial looking sets.

My verdict: An entertaining failure. A brief epilog: Sean Connery did end up staring in a similar sci-fi movie, Outland in 1981, which takes place on a moon of Jupiter instead of Saturn. Like Saturn 3, Outland was a joint Hollywood/UK effort, and also featured a grisly, space vacuum-themed death. I suspect I'll post my thoughts on this eventually.




*The 1972 movie directed by Douglas Trumball, special effects guy on ST:TMP. Silent Running seems to have had an influence on Star Wars and Aliens. Trumball also worked on The Andromeda Strain, directed by ST:TMP's Robert Wise. Hollywood is a small town in many ways.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Star Side-Tracked

Sometimes I feel like I ignore this blog, and leave it pretty much unattended between  announcements of new Chrontendo videos. So here's a quick little project I'll throw into  the works (my previous little project, reviewing all of Russian River's 'religious' beers got cut short due to the fact that those beers are now impossible to find.)

This particular project was inspired by the estimable Bill Mudron, an artist you might know from his illustration of movie reviewer Mr. Plinkett. He does all kinds of art based on videogames and other nerdy stuff. He was talking about the Star Trek movies, and I mentioned I had not seen all of them, and probably have not seen any of them since their original release. Bill let me know that all the movies were currently available on Netflix streaming, which seemed like a good excuse for me to flesh out my Star Trek knowledge and then serve up my terrible Star Trek opinions. I'll start this today with 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

One caveat: I am not a Star Trek fanatic.  I think Star Trek is OK. I will only be covering the six original ST movies, since I do not give one shit about the various spin-offs such as Next Generation, Babylon 5, Enterprise, etc. I will not engage in any Star Trek geekery here and will look at these movies with the cold, clear eye of a man who has no special attachment to any of them.

Of the six Star Trek feature films, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the weirdest, and in some ways, most interesting, of the bunch. It was also the biggest money maker of the six, based on the original theatrical runs. It's the only one directed by a renowned filmmaker, namely Robert Wise, winner of two Best Director Oscars. Wise was an editor before he became a director, and one of his editing credits was Citizen Kane. Let that sink into your skulls for a moment. The guy who made the first Star Trek movie had Citizen fucking Kane on his resume. His lengthy directorial credits included the early sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Just to remind you, The Sound of Music is, to this day, the third biggest money making movie of all time. Wise mostly made big, high budget, all-star movies, so bringing him aboard was a sign of Paramount's seriousness when it came to this movie.

Classic Bob Peak artwork on the poster.
A bit of backstory: the original Star Trek series ran for three seasons, from 1966 to 1969. It was cancelled due to low ratings but quickly began a second life in syndication.  Now as a person who was born in the 70s, I can assure you that every single kid in the country was familiar with Star Trek at the time The Motion Picture was released. Star Trek was inescapable in the 70s. Syndicated reruns aired constantly. ST novels hit the shelves starting in 1970, and an animated TV series aimed at kids debuted in 1973. Mego launched a line of Star Trek action figures in 1975. Gold Key published a Star Trek comic throughout the 70s.  Star Trek fans launched a letter-writing campaign to change the name of the new space shuttle to The Enterprise. Gerald Ford agreed to the name change. So by 1976, Star Trek was such a established cultural institution that the president was cool with naming a multi-gazillion dollar aerospace project after the show.

Star Trek was hugely popular among kids in the 70s

Resurrecting Star Trek was a foregone conclusion by this point, and a protracted attempt to do so had begun around 1972. Plans to make a Star Trek film were jettisoned, but Paramount attempted to launch a new Trek TV series in 1977.  In addition to the original cast, roles for new characters were created, such as Will Decker, and Ilia, who was to be played by Indian actress/model Persis Khambatta.  The new series obviously never happened, since Paramount decided to opt for a theatrical movie instead, following the huge success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The intended first episode of the new TV series, "In Thy Image," was expanded into a film script. The new characters, Decker and Ilia were carried over. Gene Rodenberry was given the position of producer. Sets were hastily rebuilt.  Paramount felt they were in a race against time, as they assumed the post Star Wars sci-fi movie fad would soon run its course.

Persis Khambatta in a test shot for the TV show project.

Aside from Robert Wise, Paramount brought in some big names like special effects guy Douglas Trumbull, who previously worked on 2001 and Close Encounters. (Interestingly, his father worked on Star Wars.) Also Richard Yuricich from Close Encounters was hired and John Dykstra, from Star Wars, had some involvement. (Dykstra got the Star Wars job because Doug Trumball was already committed to Close Encounters.  Special FX was an incestuous scene at the time.) The point is that Paramount was dedicated to making a Close Encounters-sized hit. The resulting picture was more expensive than Star Wars and Close Encounters combined.  When it finally premiered in December 1979, it had the best opening weekend of the year. Star Trek: The Motion Picture made a nice chunk of money, but it wasn't exactly Star Wars money. It was generally considered a bit of a disappointment at the box office, since it only made $150 million, instead of $300 million. By comparison, it made more money, adjusted for inflation, than American Sniper or Guardians of the Galaxy.

Despite its relative financial success, the involvement of names like Roddenberry, Robert Wise, Doug Trumball and Syd Mead; its state of the art special effects, and fact that it succeeded in reuniting the original cast and restarting the franchise, Star Trek fans tend to really dislike The Motion Picture. As I mentioned at the top of this post, it's a weird movie, closer in some ways to Kubrick's 2001 than the rest of the Star Trek movies.  It begins much like Star Wars, with special effects shots of spaceships flying through space, in this case Klingon battleships.  Everything in this opening sequence looks expensive. The Klingons have more elaborate makeup than they did in the TV show; the interiors of the Klingon ship look great compared to the drab design and flat lighting ST fans were used to.  The Klingon ships attack some mysterious space cloud and very quickly get themselves disintegrated by the cloud's unstoppable plasma bursts. We then cut to Earth, where Kirk, now an admiral, is preparing to return to active duty and take the Enterprise out to meet the mysterious cloud, which is headed on a course straight to Earth. Simultaneously, Spock is hanging out on Vulcan with a hippie haircut, doing Vulcan things.

Vulcan looks very matte-painty in this movie.



The first third of the movie is the 'getting the old gang back together' bit. Kirk has bulldogged Starfleet command into giving him control of the Enterprise again, (this is not shown) then runs into Scotty who drives him to the recently-updated Enterprise in a little space shuttle. The scene of the shuttle approaching the enterprise it quite interesting. It lasts about 5 minutes, and mostly cuts between shorts of Kirk getting teary-eyed at the sight of his old ship, and impressive special effects shots of the Enterprise as it sits in some kind of space drydock. This sequence is all visual spectacle. There is virtually no dialog, just shots of the Enterprise from every angle, set against orchestral arrangements of TV show's theme music, as the audience gazes in wonder at this new, post-Star Wars imagining of the Enterprise.

This sequence is a tour-de-force of cutting edge, post Star Wars special effects.

Once Kirk is aboard, Uhura, Sulu, Chekhov, etc, all greet him, expressing wonderment at his unexpected appearance. A grumpy, bearded Bones is quickly brought aboard, against his will, and then a bit later, Spock somehow tracks down the Enterprise and flies in using a another little space shuttle.  Now that the original cast is completely reunited,  the Enterprise sets off to stop the giant killer cloud. The remainder of the movie mostly consists of the journey to the center of the cloud, as the crew attempts to solve the mystery of the cloud before it reaches Earth.

Fans, critics and the cast itself generally did not like The Motion Picture.  In theory, the story of an all-powerful yet unknowable alien lifeform menacing Earth could make for an exciting movie.  Yet TMP is almost completely lacking in action and excitement. The crew of the Enterprise are reduced to spectators, watching passively as they drift through the alien cloud. Unlike most episodes of the TV show, the crew remains shipbound for the entire movie. Aside from one scene where the Enterprise gets sucked into a wormhole and has to fire photon torpedoes at an asteroid, everyone mostly sits in their chairs and stares at the bridge's big monitor screen. No phasers are fired, no red shirts are killed, Kirk doesn't engage in any fisticuffs or make love to any alien ladies. The returning cast had complaints about the script not giving them much to do. Uhura, Sulu and Chekov sit at their stations and do nothing other than provide the occasional reaction shot.  Scotty remains stationed in the engine room and makes various comments about the engines not being at full power, etc. The only returning cast members who get any noteworthy dialog are Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Bones exists pretty much to squabble with Spock (which is fine) but mostly stands around on the bridge looking lost. Spock is the movie's deus ex machina, who had an unexplained psychic link to the cloud, and spends the movie telling Kirk what his next move should be.

Psychedelic effects are used for the wormhole sequence.

First time viewers of TMP may be surprised at how much time it spends on the two new characters,  Stephen Collins' Captain Decker and Persis Khambatta's Ilia.  The source of the film's main dramatic conflict is the tension between Kirk and Decker after Kick re-assumes command of the Enterprise. Ilia herself is one of TMP's central images. With her shaved head and high collared white bathrobe outfit, she cuts a striking figure, and she was featured heavily in the film's promotions. Check the movie's poster up there: her face is plastered front and center right between Kirk and Spock's.  It appears she was briefly being positioned to become a major star, with Star Trek TMP as her breakout role. She was considered for a role in an upcoming James Bond movie, but this never came to pass, and she mostly ended up in low-budget flicks after this. MST3K fans will recall her from Warrior of the Lost World, where she was upstaged by Megaweapon. 

People who were around in 1979 still think of ST:TMP as the "one with the bald lady."

Ultimately, I'd say that Star Trek TMP's strange passivity is its greatest failing.  I'll tie this in with a cinematic mini-trend that I have just now thought up: "The Cinema of Spectators." 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind may be the greatest examples of this genre. In the Cinema of Spectators, characters are always staring, wide-eyed and opened mouthed, at some amazing sight unfolding before them. A character's goal may simply be to see something, rather than interact with it. Astronauts travel to the moon to look at the monolith in 2001. Later in that movie, Dave witnesses the secrets of the universe unveiling themselves, just as we viewers do. Dave acts as a stand in for the viewer. Compare Close Encounters with Spielberg's other films, which all involve some kind of spectacle, but non-passive characters. In Jaws, they want to kill the shark; Indiana Jones wants to steal the Ark, Eliot wants to help ET get back home. In contrast, Richard Dreyfus' character in Close Encounters leaves his entire life behind just to get a chance to witness the alien spacecraft again. The classic shot construction in such films is cutting back forth between the character's motionless gaze and the spectacle they are viewing.

Some moments almost feel lifted straight out of 2001.

This is exactly what happens in Star Trek: TMP.  First we have Kirk and Scotty's surprisingly long shuttle trip around the Enterprise. The cloud's attacks on the Klingon warship and a Federation space station are both witnessed by people looking at viewscreens. Once the Enterprise enters the cloud, they cannot attack it or even really communicate with it. All Kirk can do is ponder the cloud's vast and wondrous interior spaces. These special effects scenes are the meat of ST: TMP.  We are treated to countless expensive special effects shots of the enormous alien spaceship in the heart of the cloud. Deigned by Syd Mead, all this stuff is pretty amazing looking, but is treated mostly as background scenery.  Even the film's ending finds Kirk and Spock behaving in a uncharacteristically passive way. Captain Decker sacrifices himself to save the Earth, while everyone else just stands there.*

Countless scenes like this made ST:TMP cost more than Star Wars and Close Encounters combined.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture's over-reliance on spectacular visual effects over action and characterization makes it an interesting failure.  I wouldn't call it boring, per se, but it is a bit frustrating. In some ways it resembles the original series more than the later films (it was sort of a rewrite of a TV episode called "The Changeling.") Regardless, it was not the mammoth success Paramount hoped it would be. The studio reacted by shit-canning Roddenberry, hiring new production staff, and slashing the budget for the sequel by 75%. The result was a film loved by fans young and old, which we'll cover next time.

Lens flares, years before JJ Abrams.

*Spoiler alert! At the center of the gigantic space cloud is an enormous alien spacecraft piloted by a mysterious being called V'Ger, who takes over Ilia's body (sort of.) V'Ger is guiding the cloud to Earth to meet "the creator." Eventually the Kirk and the gang manage to come face to face with V'Ger, who turns out to be an old Voyager space probe (with dirt covering up the "oya" part of the logo) who went thru a black hole to the other end of the universe and somehow merged with some super-advanced race of sentient machines or something. Decker, as one of the human "creators," fuses with V'Ger, perhaps infusing him with human intelligence, and creating a new form of life. Spock stupidly muses that they may have just witnessed the next step in human evolution. Kirk, having completed his mission, decides to immediately hightail it to furthest reaches of space just like they did in the old days, despite having no orders to do so, and not taking into consideration that his crew members might have family members on Earth they might want to check on. (Earth was literally minutes from being vaporized by a super-powerful space being. I assume some crazy end-of-the-world shit went down on the surface while all this was going on.) The End.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Out of the Blue, a Book Review


While we're all waiting for me to hurry and finish the new Chronsega (the one with Revenge of Shinobi and Ghosts n' Ghouls in it) I thought I'd fill some time with a book review.  Though perhaps this is not really a book review. It's more like the review's dimwitted younger half-brother, the book summary. Along the way, maybe we can pick up on a few interesting points about perceptions on how movies are made.

Griffin & Masters' Hit & Run is a book I've had on my 'to read' list for a while. The subtitle is "How Jon Peters and Peter Guber took Sony for a ride in Hollywood." Movie industry insiders know of Sony's Peters/Guber era as a huge disaster; the pair nearly financially ruined Sony/Columbia Pictures while greatly enriching themselves. Odds are, you're not familiar with names Jon Peters & Peter Guber. They were hired to run Columbia Pictures after it was purchased by Sony in 1989. Their greed, outrageous antics, and gross mismanagement of Columbia were legendary in Hollywood at the time. Today however, most online information sources paint a deceptively bland picture of the two.  The Wikipedia page for Jon Peters gives a brief bio, mentions he was fired by Sony, and talks about his involvement in various superhero movies. Guber's Wikipedia page is positively glowing, pointing out that Sony had the highest market share of any Hollywood studio during his time there, and lists the number of Academy Award nominations Sony racked up under Guber. (Never mind that  Sony's market share was achieved simply by pumping out lots of over-budget movies.) Wikipedia makes no mention of him being fired by Sony nor the massive financial losses Sony suffered while he was CEO of Columbia. And don't even get me started and Gurber's reverential IMDB page, or Peters' which makes an incredible error in claiming Sony offered Peters & Guber one billion dollars (!) to run the company.

So who were these guys and why were they so infamous? Jon Peters was a smoothing talking high school dropout who went into hairdressing and made a fortune cutting hair for the rich and famous.  In the 1970s he became Barbra Streisand's stylist and eventually, her boyfriend. Peters set about remaking Streisand's image into something more contemporary and glamorous. Streisand allowed him to co-produce her upcoming film, A Star is Born. While officially a remake of the Hollywood classic, Star's story was updated to be about Jon and Barbra. So much so that Streisand wore her own clothing in the movie and the sets were furnished using her and Jon's own furniture.

Another Jon Peters/Streisand production.
  
A Star is Born is not considered to be a good movie, but it made a nice profit, prompting Peters to start his own production company in 1977. The films he produced alternated between egregious flops (Die Laughing) and solid hits (Caddyshack.) In 1980 Peters began a bromance and business partnership with Peter Guber, together forming a partnership to produce movies for Polygram. Guber was a former Columbia Pictures exec who went into production for himself after being fired from Columbia. His first movie as an independent producer, The Deep, was a massive hit, it's main selling point being Jacqueline Bisset's perky nipples. The Deep was Guber's only movie as a 'hands on' producer.  In the future he would act primarily as a behind-the-scenes deal maker.

Guber stated this white t-shirt made him a rich man.

Peters/Guber produced a solid hit for Polygram, An American Werewolf in London, as well as several disappointments, Endless Love, King of the Mountain, and Pursuit of DB Cooper. Polygram lost a huge amount of money on the movies it financed for Peters/Guber, yet the pair were financially well rewarded for their efforts. The two certainly had questionable taste and judgement.  While at Polygram, one of their associate producers, Lynn Obst, was working on a project for a film to be called Flashdance.  Guber saw no potential in this movie, and sold the product to Paramount on exchange for a small fee and having his name put in the credits.  Paramount went ahead with Flashdance, which eventually pulled in $180 million. Afterwards, Guber and Peters took bragged about their association with the film, despite not being involved in the production at all.  This is a recurring theme in their history: attaching their names to projects developed by other people, and claiming more creative input than they actually had. An example would be The Color Purple.  They were ostensibly the film's producers, but Spielberg's agreement required them to be completely hands-off during the film's production. Spielberg did not even meet them until the screening. This didn't stop Peters & Gruber from calling themselves The Color Purple's 'creators' in their company bio.

Aside from The Color Purple, Peters & Guber's company produced a series of flops/disappointments for Warner Bros, such as Clue, Head Office, Innerspace, Vision Quest, The Legend of Billie Jean and the disastrous Clan of the Cave Bear, along with the occasional hit like The Witches of Eastwick and Rain Main. Their personal involvement on Rain Man was minimal, not being present on the set during filming (Peters supposedly asked Hoffman "Are you playing the retard or the other guy?") However, this didn't stop them for borrowing someone else's Rain Man Oscar statue and posing for pictures with it at the NYC Governor's Ball.

Totally not joking about borrowing an Oscar statue for photos.

Of course, no one would give a shit about Peters and Guber today had they not made Batman in 1989. Unlike Rain Man or Flashdance, this was a project they were deeply involved in, having signed a contract with the owners of the film rights, Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker, in 1979. (Sadly, after Batman was underway, Uslan & Melniker's extremely valuable original contract was declared null and void, and they were forced to sign a new contract that paid them virtually nothing.) Peters was a major creative force on Batman. You could say Batman was a Jon Peters film just as much as it was a Tim Burton film. One problem with the way we think about films is that most of us apply some form of auteur theory when assigning 'credit' for the film. Some directors act as their own producer, as Hitchcock and Capra did. Others like Spielberg are powerful enough to get creative control over the movies they direct and often work with the same producer over and over again (Kathleen Kennedy in Spielberg's case.)

Guber & Peters, at the height of their powers.


Tim Burton had a close collaborator in producer Denise De Novi for such movies as Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, and these feel like very personal films. But when making Batman, he was essentially a hired gun and wouldn't have had enough pull to override his producers. In a recent "Career View" article from The Dissolve, Noel Murray refers to Burton "casting" Micheal Keaton and Jack Nicholson, assuming that a director like Burton picked his own actors. In fact, Keaton and Nicholson were Peters' choices, as was Kim Basinger. Burton was hoping for a more traditional tough guy in the lead and Robin Williams as the Joker. Peters also made substantial alterations to the script, adding a bunch of action sequences and, at the last minute,  crafted a new ending without discussing it with Burton first. Burton was somewhat terrorized by Peters on the set, who was prone to constantly hiring and firing crew members and who drove Burton to tears once.


Peters and Guber crafted Batman's unprecedentedly massive promotional campaign, which may have been a bigger factor in the movie's success than, you know, the actual movie. It made over $40 million in its opening weekend, a box office record, and was the 5th biggest money making movie at that time. (Without inflation factored in, of course. With changing ticket prices factored in, it currently sits at #50 in Box Office Mojo's list of all-time highest domestic grosses. Hollywood enjoys congratulating itself simply for inflation existing.)

Batman's saturation bombing ad campaign ensured everyone had seen this iconic logo about a million times prior to its August 1989 release

Suddenly, they were the hottest producers in town, and signed a lucrative multi-year contract with Warner Bros. This is the point where this story turns from farce to tragedy. Sony decided to get into the movie business and purchased Columbia Pictures from Coca-Cola. The ailing Columbia had not had a major blockbuster movie since Ghostbusters in 1984.  One of Sony's conditions for buying Columbia was that Sony America's VP, Micky Schulhof, find suitable management to run the studio. Now kids, I'm going to let you in a little secret about success in this world: it's not what you know, it's who you know. Peters and Guber knew Schulhof and Schulhof recommended them to Sony for the job, despite the pair having no experience in running a film studio. Jon Peters was a barely literate ex-hairdresser, for god's sake. Sony, in their enthusiasm paid too much for Columbia and waaay too much for Peters and Guber. Another problem was that Peters/Guber had just signed a new contract with Warner Bros. Guber told Sony that WB had promised to release them from their contract in the event of another opportunity coming up. And WB probably would have done this, if Peter and Guber had simply asked CEO Steve Ross to cancel their contract beforehand. Instead, Ross was furious when he found out about Peters/Guber's new job only after Sony had hired them. Legal threats quickly followed. Once Warner Bros were paid off, Peters & Guber had ended up costing Sony a staggering 800 million dollars.

If the pair had turned Columbia into a profitable studio, Sony's outlandish expenditures might have been justifiable. Instead, the pair went spending spree: renovating the studio's lot, redecorating offices, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on antique furniture, throwing expensive birthday parties and buying Lear jets. Peter's and Guber's true love seemed to have been interior design and landscaping rather than producing movies, based on the gusto with which they threw themselves into these projects. Peters did start buying up overpriced scripts by the handful and Guber threw down obscene amounts of cash to sign up Francis Ford Coppola, Laura Ziskin, Tim Burton, Penny Marshall, and (in a seven movie deal supposedly worth $100 million) James Brooks. The theory was that Columbia had to spend a lot of money to procure the biggest and best talents. Huge profits would then follow.

Brooks' first Columbia picture, I'll Do Anything, lost the studio $40 million.

If all these expenditures resulted in a string of Batman-sized hits, then the financial risks Peters & Guber were taking might have paid off.  As it turned out, Peters outrageous behavior led to his firing in 1991. He had not produced a single movie in his two years at Columbia (He focused a great deal of energy on a Quixotic attempt to make an action movie starring Michael Jackson.) Guber carried on spending money as Columbia's movie budgets spiraled higher and higher. Some expensive flops were produced: Radio Flyer, Hudson Hawk, Return to the Blue Lagoon, Double Impact, etc.  There were some movies that turned a nice profit, My Girl, Boyz in the Hood, Groundhog Day and others. If you look at the list of Columbia Pictures movies from this time period, you'd think a lot of huge hits were produced. However, many of those movies were actually produced by independent production companies and merely distributed by Columbia. For example: Castle Rock (City Slickers, Misery, A Few Good Men, In the Line of Fire) and Carolco (Terminator 2, Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Cliffhanger.) Columbia received a much smaller slice of the profits on these, compared to its internally financed films. Despite Columbia's losses, Guber assured everyone that several surefire megahits were in production which would fill the coffers when released. Hudson Hawk was one these, followed by Warren Beatty's Bugsy. Both suffered from huge budgets: $1 million was spent to produce promotional photos alone for Bugsy. Until recently, I was not even aware of Bugsy's status as huge flop. It got a few Oscar nominations and Wikipedia states it "did well at the box office." In fact, everyone in Hollywood knew after Bugsy's limp opening weekend that Sony was going to take a beating on this movie. Sony ended up losing around $30 million.

The stuido's other big savior was supposed to be Steven Spielberg's Hook. Once again, an incredibly expensive film, but the E.T. sized profits it was expected to bring in would put Columbia into the black. In fact, Hook was a hit, but not a hit of Spielbergian proportions. It brought in around $25 million in profit, not even enough to make up for Bugsy's losses. Guber the planned to make up for all this with yet another sure-fire money maker when he signed up Arnold Schwarzenegger for The Last Action Hero. The budget was outrageous, but this was finally going to the one to right the Columbia ship. I think we all know what happened: Last Action Hero was simply not the Schwarzenegger movie people wanted to see. It had the misfortune to premier one week after Jurassic Park. Spielberg's movie brought in $50 million its opening weekend. Hero did only around $15 million.  More flops followed such as Geronimo, a movie you've probably never heard of but which lost $40 million. In 1994 Sony finally announced that it was writing off a $3.2 billion loss due to its little Hollywood adventure.

Columbia hoped Last Action Hero, which cost $100 million to produce, would make about $500 million at the box office. It only brought in $50 million.

An odd tradition in the world of CEOs and VPs is that you can be richly rewarded when they fire you for doing your job poorly. A number of Columbia executives were handed fat wads of cash as they were shown the door. When Guber himself was inevitably fired, he was sent off in style.  Aside from being entitled to funds from Sony's profit sharing pool, Sony forked over around $275 million to help Guber finance his new production company. This deal included a multimillion annual dollar salary for Guber, an office suite on Columbia's lot and the right to take over certain film projects from Columbia & Tristar at his discretion. Just when you think things couldn't get any more ridiculous, Guber actually arranged for Sony to buy his old house from him at around twice its market value! Mickey Schulhof, Guber's former boss at Sony, eulogized him as "a visionary."

I'm not saying you should hate guys based solely on their appearance, but... just look at these douches.

In retrospect, it's easy to see what the problems were. Sony paid way too much money for a pair of guys who weren't qualified for the job. Once on board, Peters and Gruber wasted Sony's money prodigiously. Guber hired a small army of executives, often with unclear responsibilities, including some relatives in purely decorative, yet high-paying, jobs. Confusion reigned at Columbia's offices and no one knew who was in charge of what. Guber often shirked when it came to decision making. Movies went dramatically over budget: Hook and Last Action Hero were among the most expensive movies ever made. A decent number of movies produced under Peters/Guber made money; the problem was Columbia spent too much money on average per picture to make any profit.

Sony's unfamiliarity with Hollywood and American business culture was part of their problem.  Peters and Guber were totally mercenary in their actions. They went into the Sony deal with the goal of enriching themselves and enjoying themselves on Sony's dime, instead of making money for Sony. Eventually Sony brought it's movie division back around to profitability and is now a film-making juggernaut. For 5 years, however, they endured one of the most embarrassing debacles in Hollywood history.