Beating the Odds

March 21, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: It’s that night again when Hollywood does its thing, a night of cleavage and diamonds, of limousines and bleachers of fans, of winners and losers, over long and marked by less than spectacular production numbers, the Oscars are still must-see TV for the whole world. All the glitz and glamour looks no doubt to so many out there like fairy-tale time. But it’s also a night of reckoning, a night when Hollywood, itself, like its expensively turned out stars, spends a little more time than usual looking in the mirror.

Underneath all that glitz is always a little soul searching going on. This year what the industry sees is a kind of comeuppance. The big studios, those acres full sound stages and fake towns, and ghosts of movies past, aren’t cutting it like they used to. Yes, they’re turning out the special effects thrillers, the tornado and volcano extravaganzas. But those are hardly the stuff of Oscar consideration. Even the people who make them don’t vote for them.

ACTRESS: Why did you follow me yesterday?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: No, this Oscar night belongs to the little guy, the independent film companies like Miramax, which released “The English Patient,” with 12 nominations.

ACTOR: Oh, sock it to us, Liberace.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Fine Line which gave us “Shine,” up for seven Academy Awards. There is also the nastily witty “Fargo” from Gramercy. It has seven nominations.

ACTRESS: Oh, no, no sweetheart. No, darling. You’ve been ringing the wrong–

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: And “Secrets and Lies” from October films with five Oscar shots.

ACTOR: What can I do for you, Rod? You just tell me what can I do for you.

ACTOR: Show me the money.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Only one of the five finalists for Best Picture, “Jerry Maguire,” with Tom Cruise as a soul-searching sports agent, came from one of the seven major studios. Does that mean the studios are out of touch, passe? Hardly. They’ll go on doing their mega buck mass market thing, making big action films for a world audience. The average Hollywood film now costs $60 million, an increase of 148 percent in just a decade.

To recoup costs studios are making big action kid picks, “Jurassic Park” and the like that can spin off into theme parks and toy store merchandise and will play overseas as opposed say to a film like “Slingblade,” a modest slice of life about a retarded man in a small town which cost only $1 million to make and is holding two Oscar nominations this year–one for Best Actor, the other for Best Screen Play Adaptation. But the truth is the movie studios have always buzzed with the tension between art and commerce, vision and profit. I spent time around Hollywood studios when I was a kid.

My parents were in the business–actors when I was young. And then my father became a director. They had good careers and there were days that my parents were optimistic and flush with work. But there were also days when they were idle, and we waited, sometimes anxiously, for those residual checks. That tension you don’t see on Oscar night. You see everyone all gussied up, worried at the most about winning or not winning an Oscar.

You don’t see all the dreams denied, the longing of gifted people to do good work in a business that by its very nature makes that so difficult. With the stakes so high, doing good, honest, heartfelt work is harder than ever. Hollywood films are now road tested to the max, screened and re-screened for marketing experts and preview audiences, cut and re-cut. The audience didn’t like the ending? Change it. So it is refreshing this year–I certainly find it so–to see quirky, edgy, personally-stamped films get the Oscar nod. I don’t like them all.

I don’t think they’re all wonderful just for their relative modesty. But even the ones that aren’t wholly successful, a film say like “Breaking the Waves,” has its moments that stop the heart and moments, after all, are all a film is finally about, those incandescent moments of distilled loss or love or hate or joy, something that Hollywood in its big picture, go-for-broke mania seems to have lost sight of. I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more on all this we go now to Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles.

JEFFREY KAYE: For a further look at the business of making movies I’m here with one man who makes them and one who watches them for a living. Saul Zaentz is the producer of the Oscar nominated “The English Patient” and many others films, including “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus.” At Monday night’s awards he’ll be presented with the prestigious Irving Thalberg Award for his body of work. Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the “Los Angeles Times.” Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

Mr. Zaentz, let me start with you. In that essay which we just saw Anne Taylor Fleming suggest that there was sort of a comeuppance to the major movie studios because of the many nominations independent films received, do you see it that way?

SAUL ZAENTZ, Producer, “The English Patient”: No, I don’t think it is. I think you have to understand the studios are in business. They’re parts of big corporations and they–if art mixes with commerce, they’re thrilled; they would love to he that, but commerce is their number one aim. And the other, the independents, are people who are just thriving to make films.

JEFFREY KAYE: Mr. Turan, do you attach any significance to the high number of nominations that independent films got?

KENNETH TURAN, Los Angeles Times: I think it really just is a fluke this year, that it’s four independent films. It could have happened any year. But I think Saul’s point is the correct one. Really the studios–I don’t know that there’s any studio that would trade “The English Patient” for “Independence Day.” “Independence Day” is a dreadful film. It made close to a billion dollars worldwide gross. That’s what they’re aiming for. That’s why they’re not getting films that are getting Oscar nominations.

JEFFREY KAYE: But, Mr. Zaentz, explain something to me that I’m very confused about. We use this term “independent film companies.” What is an independent film company?

SAUL ZAENTZ: I think it’s independent film makers. And the four nominations–

JEFFREY KAYE: It’s what? I’m sorry.

SAUL ZAENTZ: Independent film makers. The directors who are involved in making those pictures. Mike Lee makes a picture a certain way. No one will ever tell him how to make a picture. The Cohen Brothers have been making their pictures for many years. Scot Hicks, who made “Shine,” waited three or four years before he could get the money to keep Jeffrey Rush in the picture.

JEFFREY KAYE: And, Saul Zaentz?

SAUL ZAENTZ: We made pictures our way, where we retained final cut always, including on the film, and cast it, and it was our script that went into the film.

JEFFREY KAYE: But this is what I don’t get Miramax put in how much money into your film?

SAUL ZAENTZ: $27 ½ million.

JEFFREY KAYE: Out of how much?

SAUL ZAENTZ: Out of 33.

JEFFREY KAYE: And they’re considered an independent film maker.

SAUL ZAENTZ: Well, they are. Their economists, even though in running their company, even though they’re owned by Disney, they get the films they want to make and can make films up to 13 or 14 million dollars without asking anyone.


KENNETH TURAN: I mean, I think it’s mistake to focus on where the money comes from. Really, the answer is what’s on the screen. There’s a famous line by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when asked about what obscenity was, what pornography was. He said, “I know it when I see it.” And I think that’s the best way to define an independent film. There’s a quality to them, a quality of intelligence, of concern with character that you know when you see. You can put your finger on it, and it doesn’t matter who signs the check. It’s what’s up on the screen that really matters with these films.

JEFFREY KAYE: How do these films get made, Mr. Zaentz? How did you go about getting the money for your film?

SAUL ZAENTZ: We used to finance our own film.

JEFFREY KAYE: But on this one in particular?

SAUL ZAENTZ: This one we started with trying to finance it separately in Europe. And American Fox was involved, 20th Century Fox, and we had a deal one night. The next day we didn’t have a deal. And then–

JEFFREY KAYE: They turned you down, or–

SAUL ZAENTZ: Well, it fell apart over casting, as they say casting and money, which is about making a picture. The script was already written. And they wanted us to replace Chris and Scott Thomas in it, and another actor–not Ray Fiennes. And we wouldn’t replace ’em. And then their offers went down to where we couldn’t get the money. We didn’t have enough money to make the picture.

JEFFREY KAYE: And you wouldn’t replace them for artistic reasons or financial ones?

SAUL ZAENTZ: For artistic reasons, of course. Financial reasons, we could have made the picture if we accepted them. Their American stars they wanted in the picture.

JEFFREY KAYE: And then you went to Miramax.

SAUL ZAENTZ: We had been talking to them off and on. We always felt they were the best for the picture, but they didn’t come up with enough money to make the picture. And finally they did. There are some heros in this, like Sidney Pollack, the director, who was–who I had never met up till this film, who saw the script and went around to studios trying to get them to make it. And he had no financial interest in it.

JEFFREY KAYE: Kenny Turan, why do films like this not get made by the major studios?

KENNETH TURAN: All film making is a risk. What the studios are interested in is the risk with the biggest payoff. These films are more difficult to make because it’s easier to do special effects, even though they’re costly, than to get character rights and to get story nuance. So they’d rather take the risk with something like “Independence Day” that has a potential to make a billion dollars than something like “The English Patient,” which will never make a billion dollars no matter how many Oscars it wins. The studios are in a different business.

JEFFREY KAYE: But it’s cheaper to make a film like “The English Patient.”

KENNETH TURAN: The mind set is different. The mind set here wants enormous profits. You just have to understand what the mind set is like. It’s not what makes sense in the real world. It’s what people think in Hollywood, and that’s the way people think who make those decisions.


SAUL ZAENTZ: You have to realize they make 24–20 to 30 pictures a year they put out, each studio.


SAUL ZAENTZ: Now, they very seldom have more than two pictures that are very expensive pictures. And they still have 20 some odd to make. And I don’t understand why they aren’t involved in other pictures.

JEFFREY KAYE: But Anne Taylor Fleming told us that the average cost of a major film is $60 million. Why so much?

SAUL ZAENTZ: I don’t think that’s the average cost to make the film. It might be counting marketing and everything else.


SAUL ZAENTZ: Overhead and all that. But 60 is a lot of money to me.

JEFFREY KAYE: Why does it cost so much?

SAUL ZAENTZ: I have no idea. I think maybe their development and the people they have working for them who are not producing things. It’s not to denigrate their operation, because I don’t know what it is. But I don’t understand why it costs that much, why an average picture should be 40. But I just read someplace, and Kenny might be able–that there are 10 pictures that cost over $100 million being made. I don’t know if this–

KENNETH TURAN: There are a lot. I mean, again, it’s this–it’s kind of a mania to break the bank. I think you have to understand that many of the people who run these studios who make these decisions are gamblers by nature. They want to push all the chips in the middle of the table. They want to go for it. They want to know that they had the chance at all the money in the world. And this doesn’t make sense on a rational level. But when you live here, you see this is what is going on.

JEFFREY KAYE: But now they’re looking at the success, at least in nominations, of some of these independent films. Is that going to make a difference, do you think?

KENNETH TURAN: I think the only difference it might make is they may do what Disney did, which was to buy Miramax. They may set up entities that will make these kinds of films because they know they’re in a different game now. They can’t really day in and day out make these films. Every once in a while they’ll still make Oscar type films. “Courage Under Fire” was an Oscar type film. “The Crucible” was an Oscar type film. The Academy didn’t embrace them. So they’re still trying, but the brunt of their energy is towards these multi-million dollar, billion dollar films.

JEFFREY KAYE: How do you feel about that? Do you think this might change anything this year?

KENNETH TURAN: I don’t think it’ll change anything on the upper level that he was talking about, but if they do start, and they are starting smaller divisions and not use it just to make pictures cheaper, which some of them do, get actors, cheaper directors, cheaper–and not worry about quality. They’re still worried about money. And if they do it that way, they’re not going to succeed with them. They’ve tried it in years past and failed because they don’t have the mind set of the independent film maker, whether producer, director, or whoever.

JEFFREY KAYE: In that mind set–

KENNETH TURAN: The picture, only the picture. It’s all about making that picture. It’s not about the money. They want to get paid. They want to break even, but that’s all they’re thinking about. They’re thinking about the picture.

JEFFREY KAYE: All right, gentlemen. We’ll have to leave it there. Thank you both very much for joining us.