Suddenly, volcanoes make hot scripts Steaming: There's been an eruption, with four films in development at the same time. Why?

January 08, 1996|By Josh Young | Josh Young,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

It was decades ago that David O. Selznick told a screenwriter, "Write whatever you want, as long as there's a love scene and the girl jumps in the volcano at the end."

Over the years, audiences have been given such movies as "The Last Days of Pompeii" (about the eruption of Vesuvius), "The rTC Devil at 4 O'Clock" (in which leper children are endangered by a volcano) and "Joe Versus the Volcano" (in which Meg Ryan comes very close to fulfilling Mr. Selznick's dictum).

But even the Selznick rule can't explain why four volcano scripts are in various stages of development. The one farthest along is "Dante's Peak," a movie being produced by Universal Pictures about a volcano that threatens a small town near Seattle.

Touchstone Pictures, at the Walt Disney Studio, is proceeding ,, with "Ring of Fire," a futuristic thriller in which most of the action is set inside a volcanic ring. Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox, has bought a script called "Volcano," an Irwin Allen-style disaster story about a volcano erupting in Los Angeles.

And producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, at Paramount, hired a screenwriter to prepare a script called "Caldera," which centers on a volcanic explosion. The Kennedy-Marshall production company moves to Disney this month, though "Caldera" may stay at Paramount.

Needless to say, not all these scripts will become movies. Last year, a production of "Crisis in the Hot Zone" fell apart after another studio began filming a similar movie, "Outbreak."

In years past, there have been dueling "Three Musketeers" and "Robin Hood" scripts, with only one film making it into theaters.

Still, how did four screenplays about volcanoes simultaneously become hot projects?

One answer is that audiences like high-quality special effects, and the new digital production companies make it possible to shoot volcano movies without fricasseeing actors and cameras. ("Joe Versus the Volcano" was made with the help of Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas's special-effects company.)

Another answer is that all of Hollywood took notice when a Paramount cameraman crashed into Kilauea Volcano crater in Hawaii in 1992 while working on the movie "Sliver."

But most important, in Hollywood, if one studio considers making a volcano movie, every studio suddenly wants one.

"It is similar thinking to why everyone wants to remake films," explained Nick Reed, an agent at International Creative Management. "If something has been done before, it is perceived as being more valuable.

"So if someone else has bought a volcano project, then they are perceived as being more valuable. Each studio thinks theirs is better."

Jerome Armstrong, the screenwriter on "Volcano," has always understood Hollywood's herd mentality. Unfortunately, until now, he has been just slightly behind the curve. Within days of finishing a script for a family comedy narrated by a baby, he learned that "Look Who's Talking," based on the identical premise, was going into production; when he had nearly completed a script about dinosaurs in Africa, Michael Crichton's novel "Jurassic Park" arrived in bookstores.

Mr. Armstrong has yet to have a screenplay produced. He knew about the Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991, and, loving apocalyptic disaster stories, thought about what might threaten cities besides earthquakes and floods. "I had this fantasy that nobody else was onto this volcano thing," he said.

He was wrong. Days before Mr. Armstrong and producer Neal Moritz were to take "Volcano" to the studios, Universal announced that it had signed Roger Donaldson, director of "Species," to make "Dante's Peak."

Leslie Bohem, the screenwriter on "Dante's Peak," also thought he had been upstaged by a volcano movie. "I was on page 95 the day Disney announced their volcano movie ['Ring of Fire'] in the trades," he said. "This stuff gets in the air like volcanic ash."

Despite the fact that Disney had already announced it had Tony Scott, whose credits include "Crimson Tide," lined up to direct "Ring of Fire," Universal paid Mr. Bohem $1 million for "Dante's Peak." He has just finished rewriting the script.

During all this well-publicized maneuvering, Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Marshall, who were executive producers on "Joe Versus the Volcano," were dreaming up "Caldera." The idea came while Mr. Marshall was working near volcanoes during the filming of "Congo," which they also produced. They say they will have the first draft of a script in a few months.

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