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Bob Shaye is the most reckless man in Hollywood. True or false?

Saturday | November 24, 2007   open printable version open printable version
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Kristin here–

As a writer and even more as a reader, I am frequently baffled when an author with a fascinating, innately dramatic story to tell feels it necessary to ratchet up its appeal with hype. I’m an amateur Egyptologist and sometimes watch the documentaries made by the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and the other educational TV outlets. Now, a great many people are fascinated by ancient Egypt in a way that they aren’t by virtually any other period of history. So many events and aspects of that society are at least intriguing, at most amazing. The building of the pyramids, the process of mummification, the distinctive artworks–all of these could sustain straightforward presentation.

Instead, the filmmakers responsible for these documentaries feel it necessary to beef up their ancient subject matter. The factual scenes are interspersed with shots of actors dressed in pharaonic costumes driving chariots across the desert, accompanied by overblown music. Archaeologists hover outside supposedly sealed tombs or chambers, speculating breathlessly as to what might be inside. Artificial mysteries are overly prolonged, when all along the filmmakers know the answers. Since the channels producing these documentaries are often subsidizing the archaeologists’ work, there is pressure for these scholars to make more glorious claims for their findings than the facts warrant.

Similarly, film history contains innumerable stories that are both educational and entertaining, if told in a straightforward, factual way. Any major film’s making yields many facts and anecdotes that are in themselves interesting. Yet here, too, many authors—especially journalistic ones—seem to feel the need to inject an artificial drama into their tale. This can be harmless, but if an author tries too hard, the facts get obscured or distorted.

In the case of big box-office successes, journalists tend to find one over-arching claim that can seem to explain a film while giving it an extra dose of drama. There was one such concerning The Lord of the Rings that I encountered over and over when I was researching The Frodo Franchise. Despite all the twists and turns that the progress of the film took—the unlikely move from Miramax to New Line, the last-minute casting of Viggo Mortensen, the struggles to reach remote filming locations, the third part’s winning eleven Oscars, and many, many more—somehow there wasn’t enough drama. In this case, the big claim was that Rings was an immense gamble on the part of New Line’s founder and co-president, Bob Shaye. Some have believed, both before and after the trilogy’s release, that its failure would have meant the end of New Line. The independent firm would have been absorbed into parent company Time Warner, and Shaye would have been stripped of power.

My book was written after all three parts of Rings had gone into the box-office record books. New Line had grown considerably and was in no danger. During my research I questioned people involved in the film’s production and people in the industry who would have reason to know whether New Line really stood in such a precarious position in 2001. Opinions were divided, but few thought that New Line would have disappeared had the trilogy flopped. A gamble, yes, but ones where the stakes were lower and the odds more in New Line’s favor than most accounts would suggest.

Boffo! by Bart

I can see why journalists, even in trade papers like Variety and Hollywood Reporter, would find it convenient to fall back on this gamble motif when writing copy on a short deadline. Now, however, the familiar claim has reappeared in Peter Bart’s book, Boffo! How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb (Miramax Books, 2006). Bart deals with extremely successful films, plays, and TV shows. The Lord of the Rings occupies one chapter.

When the first anniversary of this blog rolled around, David wrote about some of our goals as film scholars and bloggers. One of them was this:

We’ve tried to deflate some clichés of mainstream film journalism. Writers of feature articles are pressed to hit deadlines and fill column inches, so they sometimes reiterate ideas that don’t rest on much evidence. Again and again we hear that sequels are crowding out quality films, action movies are terrible, people are no longer going to the movies, the industry is falling on hard times, audiences want escape, New Media are killing traditional media, indie films are worthwhile because they’re edgy, some day all movies will be available on the Internet, and so on. Too many writers fall back on received wisdom. If the coverage of film in the popular press is ever to be as solid as, say, science journalism or even the best arts journalism, writers have to be pushed to think more originally and skeptically.

The same goes, only more so, for books written in the same spirit. Journalistic writing is at least somewhat ephemeral. Books, though, stay on the shelf, and they automatically command a certain respect.

As I said, the story of Rings, told straightforwardly, is immensely dramatic. What better story could a film historian possibly have to tell? All through the researching and writing processes, I tried simply to discover, convey, and interpret that story without adding hype.

Bart adds the hype. His chapter on Rings not only revives the old gamble angle but goes further, asking, “What was the bravest gamble in the history of filmmaking?” Arguably, he answers, the trilogy.

Why? First, it was risky to make all three films at once. Granted, though as Bart acknowledges, there were enormous cost benefits from doing so. Second, the initial budget of $130 million, according to Bart, ballooned to $330 million. Now the problems start. $130 million was the budget when Rings was still a two-part project at Miramax. Taking over the film, New Line provisionally kept the existing budget until a three-part script could be written and the costs estimated on a firm basis. The estimate then grew to $270 million, which we should count as the budget the studio was really working from. The success of Fellowship of the Ring led New Line to agree to requests for more money in making the second and third parts. Costs did not run wildly over expectations.

What else was so risky? According to Bart, New Line earmarked “virtually its entire production budget to support the effort.” If Bart has evidence for this claim, he doesn’t share it. Without access to New Line’s accounts, we can’t be absolutely certain. Still, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. New Line executives have consistently pointed out that, spread over the three years of the trilogy’s release, their own annual investment was relatively small. Co-president Michael Lynne has said in a number of interviews that most of the budget was covered by other companies. In a recent issue of Screen International, he declared, “The foreign distribution rights alone were responsible for close to 70%” (Mike Goodridge, “The Ringleaders,” October 26, 2007, p. 23).

There were 26 foreign distributors, several of whom paid visits to the Wellington facilities during the production. I have talked with some of the filmmakers who took those distributors on tours. My book includes a case study of the Danish distribution company based on a two-hour interview with one of its executives (Chapter 9). During the years of the trilogy’s release, the trade journals, including Variety, ran stories about these distributors. The 70% figure, by the way, doesn’t count the merchandising licenses, many of which had been sold in 2000, helping to finance the trilogy. New Line was gambling, but largely with other people’s money.

Further, Bart declares, Shaye’s decision was a gamble because the narrative of Tolkien’s novel was so complex that it had previously scared off Spielberg, Kubrick, Harvey Weinstein, Saul Zaentz, and the Beatles (p. 51). Again, my research points in other directions. I have never heard that Spielberg was in the running to make Rings at any point. Stanley Kubrick was approached by Apple, the Beatles’ company, back in the late 1960s, when the Fab Four were interested in starring in a film adaptation of Rings. I suspect that it wasn’t the novel’s complexity that made Kubrick decline. (The Beatles got interested in transcendental meditation and went off to the Far East.) Bart says that Saul Zaentz “did little” with the production rights once he acquired them (p. 54). But in 1978 Zaentz produced an unsuccessful animated version of the first half of the book and decided not to make the sequel. Harvey Weinstein very much wanted to keep the Rings project at Miramax, but he was forced by parent company Disney’s head, Michael Eisner, to scale it back to a single two-hour feature. Peter Jackson refused to accept that condition and took the project to New Line.

Finally, Bart points out that Jackson was then a little-known director with not a hit to his name. True, but as I point out in my book, for the short time the Rings was in turnaround from Miramax, Jackson alone had the power to bring the project to New Line. Shaye undoubtedly wanted the rights to Rings, believing that it would make a successful franchise. Jackson came along with those rights.

Late in the chapter, Bart offers another reason why taking on the trilogy flew in the face of conventional wisdom: New Zealand is very remote from Hollywood (p. 63). Perhaps the distance caused some troubles, but it saved a huge amount of money—enough to make the difference between the trilogy getting made or not. In The Frodo Franchise I calculate (based on costs for a comparable effects-heavy epic, Titanic) that Rings might have cost roughly $544 million if made in North America (or $700 million if one includes the 120 minutes of extended-edition footage). Jackson undertook a similar estimate based on Pearl Harbor and came up with a figure of $180 million for Fellowship—and three times that is $540 million. The difference between those figures and $330 million pays for a lot of airline tickets.

Shaye’s “Gambler” Reputation

One of Bart’s conclusions is, “For those who, like Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, believed that big returns emanate from big risks, Lord of the Rings provided a unique and generous validation” (pp. 63-64). This is peculiar indeed. I don’t think either Shaye or Lynne would agree with that assessment of their approach to production. Shaye was known for running a tight fiscal ship at New Line. His company became famous for turning miniscule investments into massive hits and franchises: most notably, Nightmare on Elm Street and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Shaye has a sign on his office wall that reads “Prudent Aggression.” That, I would say, is the attitude with which he approached the Rings decision.

Neither Shaye nor Lynne has generally encouraged the notion of the Rings deal as a gamble. (See my first chapter for more on this.) In the Screen International piece cited above, the interviewer asks that very question: “Do you agree that the trilogy was the riskiest venture that any film company has tried to date?” Shaye responds, “We had hedged somewhere between 70%-80% of our investment.” Lynne adds, “If it had broken even, nobody would have been happy. The company wouldn’t have gone out of business, but it definitely would have been a problematic issue for people who had invested with us, and for Time Warner itself.” (The investors were the international distributors who had pre-bought the entire trilogy.)

In an interview on The Charlie Rose Show earlier this year, Lynne said something similar: “The problem was, if the first film didn’t work, the next two were certainly not going to work, that these films would at best break even. Well, no one at Time Warner was going to be thrilled that we invested the three hundred million dollars and just got our money back! So although we weren’t betting the ranch, we certainly were betting our credibility.”

The gambler image no doubt redounds to Shaye’s advantage in some ways. He was the only one in Hollywood willing to take on the immense project when Jackson was shopping it around the studios. He was famously the one who told the director that he should make three films, not two. Despite occasional tensions between the filmmakers and studio executives, Shaye and Lynne not only stuck with the project but acceded to requests for tens of millions in additional spending. Shaye’s resulting image is that of a savvy maverick who outguessed the heads of the other studios.

On the other hand, it can’t be to his advantage to be perceived as reckless. If people think that Rings really was the biggest gamble in the history of Hollywood and that Shaye risked $330 million of his own firm’s money, blithely taking a chance on a director of splatter films, then he risks coming across as irresponsible. Hence, I suspect, his and Lynne’s care in informing interviewers that they had found investors and licensees to cover the bulk of the trilogy’s budget. Shaye has also pointed out that the trilogy stretched over three fiscal years, as I mentioned, making the annual investment in Jackson’s film modest relative to its epic qualities.

Of course the trilogy was a gamble. As Shaye said in the Charlie Rose interview, “But every film commitment is a gamble to some extent.” The size of this particular gamble, however, has been considerably exaggerated. Shaye and Lynne knew what they were doing. They saw the savings to be had by filming in New Zealand and by committing the cast members up front to all three films—hence obviating the possibility of ballooning salary demands if the first part was successful.

I’m sure there were many moments of worry and doubt in the years between New Line’s official announcement of the project on August 24, 1998 and the triumphant preview screenings at Cannes in May, 2001—when journalists and foreign distributors alike realized that the studio had, as Harvey Weinstein put it at the time, “another ‘Star Wars’ on their hands.” Still, I would place a small bet that during those same years the disastrous Town & Country (filmed in 1998 and released in late April, 2001) was giving Shaye and Lynne at least as much anxiety. That long-delayed film cost $90 million, with a publicity budget of $15 million. It grossed $10 million worldwide.

Above all, Shaye saw the likelihood of the trilogy’s success in a way that no one else did. My favorite statement of his was quoted in a Time article in late 2002, shortly before the release of The Two Towers. Asked why he had wanted three films instead of two, Shaye replied: “It was so wonderfully presold. It was like Superman or Batman.” Juxtaposing Tolkien’s novel with those comic-book superheroes might bring a smile—but he was right. If we can just set aside the persistent notion that Rings was a huge gamble, we can see that Shaye was remarkable for his foresight, not his recklessness.

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