Wednesday, April 16, 2014

You Have *Potential*!

From 2009...

In the remake update post (about HOUSE which starred William Katt) we talked about this crazy idea that the director they love is hotter than the one I know because their guy’s film hasn’t been released yet. That gives him *potential*, where the director I have a connection to has just made a film that was released and got great reviews.

Ages ago when my friend Jim and I were doing our Russian film we ran into the *potential* thing when we were casting our lead. This project began when Jim and I were wandering around Location Expo (an event that no longer exists) and stopped by the booth for the St. Petersburg Studios. Communism had just fallen in Russia, and after decades of government run film industry, the studios were scrambling to make money. We had a meeting with them, and discovered that we could make a movie in Russia for very little money. I put together a treatment for a RED HEAT type film in reverse - starting in Texas and going to Russia - with the cool idea that the “hero” would be killed on page 10 and the comedy-relief sidekick would be thrust into the hero position and have to track down the killer. That’s when we got a call from Mosfilm, who heard we were thinking about shooting a movie in Russia and wondered if we would like to meet with them before we signed any contracts with St. Petersburg. They had a brand new office in Los Angeles to try and attract movies to Russia - even though only a couple of indie films had shot there so far.

Mosfilm made us an offer we could not refuse. They had Panavision cameras and an onsite Kodak approved lab and an onsite hotel and undercut the other guy’s prices and, the clincher, had access to some buildings set for demolition (we could blow them up) and some military equipment we could have access to (helicopter chase for cost of fuel) and could use their connections to get us locations like Red Square.

Oh, and they had a couple of conditions - they wanted to be co-producers and cast Russian stars in the Russian roles. That’s a condition? We loved it! They had head shots and video of some stars, and the ones they were pushing were great. They had an actress who had been in a recent Russian film that had played in the USA, and had done a Playboy spread to promote the film. Yes! They had Russia’s biggest rock star, who wanted to get into acting, and showed us his music video. Yes! Everyone they showed us was someone who would add to the film. Their motivation was to make sure the film was a big hit in Russia and some ex-Soviet countries that they would keep as part of the deal. These were places that US distribs didn’t have a foot hold in, yet, so giving them away cost us nothing.

I wrote the script, taking place in Moscow and using all of the materials we now had access to... and the result was a film we could make for a budget of around $1 million that would look like LETHAL WEAPON - we had a helicopter chase! We blew up an apartment building! We had a big dock-side action sequence!

What we didn’t have was an American star.

Jim was (and is) a clever guy. He had bought the mailing list from one of the trades, and had the home addresses of a bunch of movie stars and famous folks. And he had begun looking for our American star - bypassing agents and managers and going directly to their home address. Our financial contacts might get us around $1 million, but not that much more, so we weren’t targeting Tom Cruise... we were looking at B movie stars. We already had the late, great, Steve James as our villain. Steve and I had been trying to put together a movie for a while - he was a great actor (from John Sayles films) who was usually the side kick to Chuck Norris or Michael Dudikoff and had starred in a couple of low budget films. The problem with most of the stuff he was in was that it never showed what an amazing actor he was. This guy had done theatre in New York. I didn’t think we could get the money for our film with him as the star, but villains are always big juicy roles... and Steve said yes. I wrote a part for him that would make him the star he should have been. A great villain with some big juicy acting scenes.

But for our star... We came up with a list, and the guy we really liked was Thomas F. Wilson. Who? The guy who played various versions of Biff in all of the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies. He was a stand up comedian, great for the comic relief role (which turned into the lead on page 11). And if you watch the three B2TF movies, he’s an amazing actor. I honestly think that’s why his career didn’t really take off after the trilogy - you can’t tell it’s the same guy playing Biff in all those films! He’s the teen Biff, the fat Biff, the handsome Biff, the cowboy Biff, the loser Biff, the billionaire Biff... he’s completely different in each role - even *physically* different (losing or gaining weight). So, we had a meeting with him... and he brought along a team of managers and agents and lawyers and gardeners. A half dozen people! After getting through all of their BS, we finally got a chance to talk with Tom, who was a very nice, very funny guy, who was interested.

We took our package to our #1 distrib/money source. We had put together a sheet that showed all of the movies Tom had been in, what their domestic and worldwide grosses were. Beside the B2TF movies, he’s been in ACTION JACKSON and a handful of other movies that made a bunch of money. So, we are looking at a guy who seems like an easy sell...

But he was not. They didn’t know him by name. They said, you put his name on the poster, and nobody knows who that is. Find us the name that everybody already knows.

They didn’t care that his films had made a ton of money, they didn’t care that this film would cost them $1 million and look like a huge studio action film... they wanted a name they knew.

Every other distrib/money source we had a contact with told us the same thing.

Lesson learned: Just because someone is a great actor who has been in movies that everybody in the world has seen does not make them a bankable star.

So, Jim and I went back to the list, and cycled through a bunch of actors. Some were turned down by the distrib, some of them turned down the project. We had met with some line producers who had made one of the handful of US films to actually shoot in Russia, and they said the biggest problem we would have is that after decades of working under the Soviet model, most Russian crews worked about as fast as those people behind the counter at the DMV. We would have to double our shooting schedule because they moved so slow. We had included this in our budget and schedule... but the big problem with a star, even a B movie star, is that their time is money. We had the same amount to pay for twice the shooting time. Some stars turned us down because they didn’t want to leave home for two months, others didn’t want to work for half their rate.

Then we had a meeting with William Katt at Stanley’s on Ventura Blvd, and we found our star. First, everyone knew who he was from GREATEST AMERICAN HERO and CARRIE and a bunch of other stuff, including one of my favorite films, BIG WEDNESDAY. Second, he had a great attitude about the project - looking at this as an adventure, going to a place very few people had been to before. He wasn’t as concerned about the money, he thought just going someplace cool would be worth it. So, we had an interested star who completely fit all of the distrib/money source’s conditions.

We had a meeting with them, figured we’d walk out with a start date and a million bucks...

But a strange thing happened. They said, we love William Katt, but if you could get us Brad Pitt we’d fund this thing tomorrow. And we said, Brad who? At this point in time, Brad Pitt had done two movies - a low budget horror flick called CUTTING CLASS and an indie film called JOHNNY SUEDE. Neither film had made any money. But Pitt had *potential*. He *might be* a really big star. Word on the street was that he was the next big thing.

So, Jim and I went through our distrib/financing contacts looking for someone who would give us the money based on the people we had now. A real TV star who everyone knew who had starred in some great films (CARRIE, BIG WEDNESDAY, etc) who was more interested in the adventure of making a film in an interesting location than making a pile of money. We were pretty much ready to go... and everyone said, Get us this Brad Pitt kid and we’ll give you the money. And again, we said Brad who?

So, I rented CUTTING CLASS on VHS, a silly slasher movie where Pitt played the villain... and really didn’t understand why they would want this guy. He was okay, but he wasn’t even the star of the movie! Jim tried to track him down, but I don’t think he had a subscription to Hollywood Reporter at that time so he wasn’t on our list. After spending a lot of time, we found out that *everyone in town* had been told that Pitt was the next big thing and that everyone in town was fighting to hire him, and that there was no way in hell that he would be in a low budget film that would take two months of his life to shoot in Russia.

We went back to our first choice in distrib/financing and told them that Brad Pitt was a no-go. By now, William Katt had gone on to do another movie or two and was unavailable for a while. Thomas F. Wilson was doing a stand up comedy tour, also unavailable. Everyone else we had talked to had gone on to some other project and we would have to wait for them.

What I didn’t understand was why Tom Wilson was a “no” because the audience wouldn’t recognize his name on the poster, yet this Brad Pitt guy was so hot... when the audience would not only not recognize his name, they wouldn’t know his face or any of the movies he had been in. This distribution company did some small theatrical releases and the rest went to VHS and cable. It was common to list the star’s most popular films on the back of the VHS box. That means even if the audience doesn’t know an actor by name, if they recognized his face and wondered where they know him from they can flip over the box and discover this guy was in a bunch of films they have seen and liked... and they rent the movie. And the answer was... Tom Wilson may have been in a bunch of hit films, and he was a known quantity... but Brad Pitt was *hot* because he had *potential* - he was unknown. He hadn’t made a flop yet, or made a film that didn’t turn out, or proven that maybe he wasn’t the next big thing, yet. This makes no sense to me - but in the fear-driven film biz it's part of the way they operate. Of course, Brad Pitt really was the next big thing - even though it took him a whole bunch of movies to become a star - so maybe all of these distribs/financing sources were right. If we had been the ones to get Pitt instead of CUTTING CLASS, we’d... well, let me ask you - have you ever heard of CUTTING CLASS? Yeah, that’s what I thought. So it didn’t matter whether we had Pitt or not.



What happened while we were jumping through all of these hoops trying to find a star was that the “Russian Mafia” had begun shooting up Moscow and kidnaping Americans for ransom and all kinds of other things that made no one want to make a film in Russia right now... and our project just died. The only thing that really remains from it is the frame of the story-board that I used as an illustration on the front of my book. We had a bunch of the big action scenes story-boarded to make it easier to communicate what we wanted to our crew, and make filming a little faster and more efficient. A couple of years ago I did a rewrite on the script because I had a producer with some Russian connections interested, but the producer was... unusual... and that rewrite was lost when Fry’s repair guys wiped my hard drive to replace a plastic hinge on my laptop. I thought I had it backed up on my desk top and on a disk, but both ended up being the old version. Pisser.

The big lesson I learned from all of this is that *potential* beats experience in Hollywood. So, you have potential... I just have experience. You could be destined for greatness! I have written a movie about robot hookers from outer space for Roger Corman. Use your potential!

- Bill

4 comments:

ActionFix said...

Bill, How all these people suddenly determined or decided the *potential* of an unknown actor? This story is such a fascinating read.

wcmartell said...

Powerful agents got the word out.

- Bill

truegrit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
truegrit said...

Your story concept had me chuckling. And the Russian actress/Playboy model? What could have been!

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