November 28, 1997 in Features, Seven

In Hollywood, A Box-Office Flop Is Ultimate, Unforgivable Failure

Bernard Weinraub New York Times

It’s the dark side of the Hollywood dream, the subject no one wants to talk about.


With studios unleashing a flood of high-profile holiday films this week, it’s inevitable that some of them will fail at the box office. But nothing is worse in the movie industry.

Although Hollywood often tolerates the worst kind of behavior among filmmakers, actors and executives - spousal abuse, theft and addictions of all kinds - a failed film is even more devastating to a reputation. And a string of failures can seriously damage even the most formidable careers.

“The stakes are so high, and failure affects everyone,” said Joe Roth, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. “It becomes a vicious cycle: movies cost so much to make, so you rely on stars. Stars often rely on sure things for themselves.” The danger, he added, is that the movie gets stale and audiences don’t show up.

A film can now lose $50 million, $75 million or more with the snap of a finger, because every movie is essentially a high-stakes roll of the dice. So the movie business - as opposed to, say, the automobile or insurance industries - seems to operate on a note of irrationality. No one knows precisely why films, or actors, fail or succeed. This unpredictability has left careers in tatters. And it’s hardly a new phenomenon.

In 1928, Erich von Stroheim, the director, was dismissed halfway through “Queen Kelly,” a lavish melodrama starring Gloria Swanson as a convent girl who moves to East Africa, where her aunt runs a sleazy brothel. The silent film - late, over budget and steeped in a sordid “naturalism” that Swanson objected to - destroyed his directing career.

More recently, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of the most acclaimed directors of the ‘40s and ‘50s, never quite recovered after the 1963 extravaganza “Cleopatra,” a flop that didn’t hurt (and probably helped) the careers of its stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, whose love affair made headlines.

Despite Taylor-Burton, actors are the ones most often affected by failure.

Take the case of “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” the biggest disaster of last summer, an action-adventure sequel to “Speed,” the 1994 smash starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.

“Speed 2,” about a runaway cruise ship, may have cost more than $145 million to make, as well an additional $15 million to $20 million to promote, and grossed only $47.7 million. (The film’s strong box office overseas has eased the pain for its studio, 20th Century Fox.)

As in the case of several other Hollywood failures, “Speed 2” seems to have hurt the actors far more than the studio executives who approved it (Peter Chernin and William Mechanic), the producers who oversaw it (Jan De Bont, Steve Perry, Michael Peyser and Mark Gordon) and even the director who controlled it (Mr. De Bont).

By all accounts, the prospect of stardom for Jason Patric, the actor who took on the role after Reeves turned it down, was seriously damaged by the film’s failure. Similarly, Ms. Bullock’s star has dimmed, perhaps momentarily, because she had been cast to carry the film.

But the top Fox executives remained unaffected by the disaster, which also had scant impact on the career of De Bont, largely because “Speed,” his first feature, was followed by “Twister,” another significant hit.

It’s rare for one flop to unhinge careers, although “Howard the Duck,” a 1986 catastrophe, set back the directorial career of Willard Huyck and his writing partner, Gloria Katz.

Even for actors, it takes three or four failures to send a career into a tailspin. Two of the biggest stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s, for example, were Burt Reynolds and John Travolta.

Travolta’s career was, until recently, dormant after flops like “Staying Alive,” “Two of a Kind” and “Perfect.” Although movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Get Shorty” put his career back on track, his current film, “Mad City,” in which he stars with Dustin Hoffman, is one of the season’s biggest failures.

Julia Roberts, after a string of flops like “I Love Trouble” and “Mary Reilly,” reinvigorated her career with a successful comedy, “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” But her last film, “Conspiracy Theory,” was another setback. (Her co-star, Mel Gibson, however, is one of a handful of actors who seem impervious to failure.)

And Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman managed to emerge unscathed from “Ishtar,” one of the biggest flops of the ‘80s, but the film certainly derailed the directorial career of Elaine May.

Even Barbra Streisand, a top star, probably damaged her directorial prospects, temporarily at least, after the disappointing critical and box office reaction to her last film, “The Mirror Has Two Faces.”

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