Universal hopes 'Death Becomes Her' will reverse a not-so-hot summer

July 22, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

On the cocktail table in Tom Pollock's airy Universal City, Calif., office sits a battered book entitled "How to Make Good Movies." It is a subject on which, not too long ago, the chairman of the MCA Motion Picture Group was considered an expert. Riding high on a mix of prestige and mass-appeal films such as "Field of Dreams," "Born on the Fourth of July" and Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," the entertainment lawyer-turned-studio chief could seemingly do no wrong.

These days, Mr. Pollock and Universal are riding out an 18-month dry spell. Between December 1990, when "Havana" failed miserably at the box office, and the success of the $79 million-grossing "Cape Fear" in November 1991, last summer's "Backdraft" was the studio's only moderately successful film. This year's hits -- "Fried Green Tomatoes" and "Beethoven" -- have been overshadowed by a string of commercial disappointments that include "Kuffs," "The Babe" and "Leaving Normal." Since Ron Howard's "Far and Away" with its superstar Tom Cruise failed to lift the studio out of the box office doldrums this summer, the task now falls to Bob Zemeckis' quirky black comedy "Death Becomes Her," to be released by Universal July 31.

The film's fortunes could affect more than the studio's balance sheet for, nearly six years after Mr. Pollock assumed his post, there is speculation that he may be on his way out. Universal's dry spell, observers say, is trying the patience -- and the pocketbook -- of Matsushita, the Japanese electronics giant that paid more than $6.6 billion for Universal's parent company MCA in January 1991. The studio is third in market share. Box office is up more than 20 percent over last year. But those $100 million pictures that make for sequels -- and peace of mind -- have been elusive.

Nevertheless, MCA President Sidney J. Sheinberg insists that Mr. Pollock is in it for the long run.

"There's not one scintilla of truth to reports that he's out," he says. "We haven't had one conversation with one human being about changing the management of Universal Pictures. Hollywood's 'kick 'em and beat 'em' approach to Tom reminds me of the way America has dealt with [Democratic presidential candidate Bill] Clinton."

The scuttlebutt surrounding Mr. Pollock -- and Universal production chief Casey Silver -- illustrates the curiosity about -- and fear of -- the Japanese, whose corporate culture is so at odds with the way Hollywood is run. It is a situation that highlights the cyclical nature of the movie business and the short shelf-life of studio chiefs who are at the mercy of it.

In the last five years, says Mr. Pollock, the challenges -- and frustrations -- have intensified. "The rising cost of making and marketing movies has far outstripped the rise in revenues -- putting an incredible squeeze on the profit margins," he observes. "Here, as in the rest of the nation, people are angry and afraid. There's a feeling the bubble has burst."

Still, he maintains, he's not packing his bags -- just revising his game plan. The studio has cut its production budget 25 percent. Though certain high-end projects will get off the ground, fewer middle-range and more low-budget features will be released. "Better to be consistent and avoid the big losses than to swing for home runs and strike out," he notes. "Profitability, not market share, is what counts."

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, he argues, Universal is enjoying a pretty good 1992. "Not every film of ours worked, of course, but all of our failures were small ones. The film division, with four films pulling in over $50 million, will make money this year."

If the sleeper-hit "Fried Green Tomatoes" was a gold mine for the studio (which paid $4 million for domestic distribution rights to the $81 million-grossing film), making money on the oversized "Far and Away" is an uphill struggle. With Mr. Cruise's reported $12 million salary and the added expense of shooting in 70 millimeter, the picture came in at between $60 million and $70 million, by industry estimates -- $50 million, by Mr. Pollock's.

Hollywood observers question the wisdom of spending so much on a romantic drama, a genre that -- "Dances With Wolves" and "Ghost" notwithstanding -- generally fails to draw the repeat business necessary for blockbuster status. Releasing a period film with accents against a heavy-duty action-adventure summer lineup, they add, did not help.

"I'd rather make three or four [$18 million] 'Beethovens' than one 'Far and Away,' " says entertainment attorney David Coldon, "It's infinitely more profitable. If executives in Osaka are trying to find an excuse to begin inserting themselves, they have one now."

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