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.