For 'Godzilla,' size was all that mattered The most monstrous thing about the heavily hyped flop was its makers' greed and cynicism.

June 07, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

The critics have ranted against it, the filmgoers have flamed it, it's tanking at theaters as we speak. But even though "Godzilla" seems to be getting its due out there in the world, something more is in order.

Something like, well, moral outrage.

Because even though it looks as though justice is being served in the marketplace, it's not. After all, the film's stars were handsomely paid to stand in front of a blue screen and pretend to be scared. Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, who co-produced and co-wrote "Godzilla," took their money and will live to make movies another day. Sony Entertainment, the parent company of the film's distributor, Tristar Pictures, will most likely break even on its investment, albeit after a few sleepless nights (they just sold the broadcast rights of "Godzilla" to NBC for a piddling $25 million, at least $10 million less than they had planned).

Who's left holding the bag? Theater owners, for starters.

In May, it was reported that Sony had originally demanded that exhibitors - who opened "Godzilla" on a record 7,363 screens - cough up an extra 10 percent of their box office receipts during the film's first week out. Although the big multiplex chains were able to negotiate Sony back down to the usual cut (a common arrangement is for the studio to get 70 percent of the take the first week, 60 percent the second week, 50 percent the third week and so on), many independently owned theaters were stuck forking over 80 percent of that first week's take to Sony.

In other words, Sony - knowing it had a sub-par performer on its hands and knowing that attendance would fall off precipitously after word got out - tried to cut its losses on the backs of the theater owners, who had nothing else to play because no other film would compete with such a highly hyped movie.

Then there are the 220 companies that signed expensive licensing agreements to make "Godzilla" merchandise, and the thousands of retailers committed to sell it.

It's difficult to find sympathy for people who make jogging pants out of petroleum-based fabrics, but this is an exception: First they had to promise not to bring out any products before "Godzilla" opened (Tristar's marketing campaign was to keep the lizard under wraps until show time), kissing between 20 percent and 30 percent of their profits goodbye.

Now, they're faced with warehouses full of backpacks, Koosh balls, motorized lollipop holders (don't ask) and thousands of other "Godzilla" tie-ins that they have to sell while "Godzilla" is still in theaters - a tiny window of time.

It's true that merchandisers know the risks of hitching their names - and economic fate - to the fickle entertainment market. But something about "Godzilla" smells different. It cost $120 million to make "Godzilla." Between Sony's $50 million marketing campaign for the movie and the $150 million spent in cross-promotions, it cost $200 million to promote it. In other words, the filmmakers socked more money into hyping the movie than into making it. (Marketing budgets are usually half the amount of production budgets.)

We live in an era when the trailers for movies have the same entertainment value as the movies themselves. The same thing happened with "Independence Day," Devlin and Emmerich's last outing, in which they employed many of the same hype strategies they brought to bear on "Godzilla" - a marvelous trailer that played early and often, a canny billboard campaign and ingenious television advertising.

The difference is, with "Independence Day" they delivered. With "Godzilla" they were content to type some dialogue, warm over a few scenes from "Jurassic Park" and rely on the computer guys to create the emotional heat they were too lazy to create themselves. Their "brilliant" campaign to keep the monster a secret turned out to conceal the fact that Godzilla was kind of dull. In early May those computer guys were working around the clock to make the monster look better than a lizard in a T. Rex costume.

The scenario recalls another big-budgeted disaster movie that looked as if it was going to sink last year. But rather than rush "Titanic" to make its opening date, that film's director, James Cameron, put his own paycheck on the line to buy six extra months of shooting.

Maybe if the filmmakers had been more interested in movies than in motorized lollipop holders, "Godzilla" wouldn't be limping so badly on its big, webbed feet. As Martin Brochstein, executive editor of the New York-based trade newsletter the Licensing Letter, points out, the movies that have made the most money at the box office recently - "Men In Black," "Independence Day" and "Titanic" - did not entail huge licensing tie-ins.

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