Movie Flops: A Look at the Aftermath

Outside of the plot of The Producers, no one sets out to make a flop, of course. But at some point in the process, it starts to dawn that you've got a disaster on your hands. Hollywood writers and producers talk about the projects that gave them heartburn.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week on MORNING EDITION we've been giving you a chronicle of failure. It's a series on flops, about what happens when the next big thing isn't. Today NPR's Kim Masters reports on what happens after a big flop in the movie business.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

In many cases, the moment of reckoning seems to come at a movie's premiere. That's what happened to Laura Ziskin, producer of the 1992 film "Hero." The movie starred Dustin Hoffman as a small-time crook who reluctantly saves passengers in an airplane crash. In the aftermath, thanks to the news media, someone else gets the credit. Geena Davis plays the reporter who covers the story.

(Soundbite from "Hero")

Ms. GEENA DAVIS: (As Gale Gayley) Everybody thinks of you as a hero, Mr. Bubber. How do you see yourself?

Mr. ANDY GARCIA: (As John Bubber) I think we're all heroes if you catch us at the right moment. We all...

MASTERS: Ziskin was an experienced producer. She'd had a few hits, including the 1990 comedy "Pretty Woman." She knew "Hero" had complicated themes and might be hard to sell. She remembers trying to describe it at a lunch with two film journalists.

Ms. LAURA ZISKIN (Producer): And I was saying to them, it's about, you know, how the media can't give us a complex, full-rounded view of things, and as I was eating my salad and making a statement, I thought, `And therefore, this movie is gonna fail because the movie is actually about complex ideas.'

MASTERS: But she kept hope alive, until the premiere. The epiphany came when she spoke to the frequently disingenuous head of the studio that released the film.

Ms. ZISKIN: There was a party afterwards and he came over and he hugged me and he said, `$200 million,' and I literally describe it as my heart went into my feet, and I got in the car with my husband and I said, `We're dead.'

MASTERS: Writer-producer Judd Apatow had a similar realization at the premiere of this movie.

(Soundbite from "The Cable Guy")

Mr. JIM CARREY: (As The Cable Guy) Cable guy!

(Soundbite of crashing noises)

MASTERS: It was 1996 and the film's star, Jim Carrey, was red hot. But there was some inkling of trouble before the movie was finished. Jim Carrey got a record $20 million payday, and Apatow says that set public opinion against the film sight unseen. But Apatow believed the game wasn't over.

Mr. JUDD APATOW (Writer-Producer): I remember the premiere was at Mann's Chinese, and I still thought the reviews were gonna save the day, and someone handed me the review in Time and Newsweek, which were brutal.

MASTERS: Still, Americans had been flocking to Jim Carrey movies, until this one came along.

Mr. APATOW: I was so proud of the movie that what it does is it makes you wonder if you're crazy.

MASTERS: Laura Ziskin had a similar response after "Hero" failed.

Ms. ZISKIN: You start to obsess about what happened, and I think you think about your failures way longer and way more than you think about your successes. It's been 13 years, it still hurts.

MASTERS: Luckily for Ziskin and Apatow, both were quickly at work on other more successful projects. Ziskin went on to produce a little picture called "Spider-Man." Apatow worked on Carrey's next hit, "Liar, Liar," and this week he's making his debut as a director with "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Apatow says he learned from his experience: Don't make audiences squirm too much if you also want laughs. And as a bonus, he married Leslie Mann, the lead actress in "The Cable Guy."

Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman didn't have it so good when "Batman & Robin" fell flat in 1997. He was going through a divorce, and then the movie failed.

Mr. AKIVA GOLDSMAN (Screenwriter): There was this strange reaction, this feeling that I sort of had something dripping out of my nose that I didn't quite know about that everybody else could see.

MASTERS: Goldsman had already written films like "The Client," "A Time to Kill" and even an earlier successful "Batman" installment, the one with Val Kilmer. But "Batman & Robin" landed in theaters with a thud, and like the others, Goldsman didn't expect the worst until he went to the party after "Batman & Robin's" glitzy premiere.

Mr. GOLDSMAN: Those things are barometers sometimes. Like you get there and everybody's smiling plastically and drinking a lot.

MASTERS: Even though Goldsman knew he was carrying the stink of failure, no one wanted to talk about it.

Mr. GOLDSMAN: I had to kind of convince the people around me that it was OK to tell me that things had gone badly.

MASTERS: To Goldsman, facing the truth was imperative.

Mr. GOLDSMAN: And if everybody's telling you, `No, no, no, no, no, it's just fine,' you really are in danger of wandering blindly down an alleyway, which can lead you further and further away from, you know, the kind of success that you want.

MASTERS: While Ziskin and Apatow moved on quickly from their flops, Goldsman felt the full brunt of "Batman & Robin."

Mr. GOLDSMAN: Very quickly the opportunities available to you change. There are certain things on the horizon of your job world which suddenly aren't there anymore. They're like ships that have slipped over the horizon line.

MASTERS: Goldsman became quite depressed. Finally he reached a conclusion.

Mr. GOLDSMAN: I sort of decided right around that period in my life that the only sure bet, if there is a sure bet, is to try to write something or to try to work with material that seemed to me the kind of thing that I would do differently than anybody else.

MASTERS: And that worked.

Mr. GOLDSMAN: It was right after that there's a kind of lull in my writing credits, and then it's "Beautiful Mind."

MASTERS: Goldsman's parents were both psychotherapists. He felt a connection to the material. The film was being produced by Brian Grazer, and Goldsman made his case to him.

Mr. GOLDSMAN: I chased "Beautiful Mind" and actually begged Brian to give to me. Went into Grazer's office and really sort of said, `Please, please, please, please, I know how to do this.'

MASTERS: Goldsman did. He won an Oscar for the film. Since then he's written "I, Robot" and right now he's working on "The Da Vinci Code."

Mr. GOLDSMAN: The trick to a career is hanging on. It's just being stubborn enough to stay in the game.

MASTERS: But subsequent success doesn't make it easy to admit that something simply failed. Even today, Laura Ziskin finds it hard to concede that "Hero" didn't make it.

Ms. ZISKIN: It wasn't a complete disaster. This is producers, you know, you say talk about your flops, and I say, `Well, I had this flop, but it wasn't really a flop, you know. It actually did really well in Europe, you know. They loved it.'

MASTERS: Apatow remembers a consoling conversation that took place after "Cable Guy" fizzled.

Mr. APATOW: I remember at the time I was somewhere that Warren Beatty was at and he said to me, `You know, you never really know if you made a good movie for 10 years. You have to wait 10 years, and then look back and then you know how you did.'

MASTERS: It's been nine years since "The Cable Guy" was released. Maybe next year, Apatow says, he'll have some perspective on it.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

INSKEEP: OK, this series is about to turn the corner. Tomorrow, in our final installment, two books that began as flops and went on to become classics.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

SUSAN STAMBERG (Host): And I'm Susan Stamberg.

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