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Gloomy New Year! 

From Sundance to sinking stars

Wednesday, Jan 9 2002
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Black Sundance

As co-director of the Sundance Film Festival, Geoff Gilmore has long been accused of keeping the indie fortnight black in tone. Maybe it’s because he likes to wear black. Or maybe it‘s counterprogramming to all that snow up there. But as one indie producer wryly noted, how do you spell Sundance backward? “Depression.”

This year, Gilmore admits that he and his programming staff have cobbled together a list of “exceptionally strange” and “downright eccentric” films, including titles such as By Hook or by Crook, about a semibearded lesbian transsexual named Harriet . . . and Harry. Gilmore doesn’t want to point out any oddballs, but he thinks the darkness quotient will be well-realized this Olympics year. “It‘s a different kind of darkness,” he says.

Many believe that this year Gilmore is bringing Sundance back to its roots with grittier, more independent work; others think that the 2002 crop is filled with “unwatchable” films. Says one publicist, “We were sitting there watching these things, saying, ’What the fuck is Geoff Gilmore thinking?‘”

Of course, Gilmore maintains that the selection is simply dependent on the films submitted. But as the staff sifts through thousands of titles each year, it’s unlikely that they‘re simply not seeing lighter fare. You get to thinking that the Sundance black-hued style may have something to do with its director’s disposition.

Some Sundance moles believe that 2001 was largely successful because Gilmore was more committed to the festival, having dropped the idea of creating an art-house division at Warner Bros. And it‘s worth remembering that 2001 was an unabashed success, with such light, bright films as In the Bedroom, which should see some Oscar consideration. Next year may be darker still, with a likely onslaught of responses to 911. “I don’t think the indie world has had a chance to respond to that,” says Gilmore. “But they will.”

Sinking star salaries

Given that the box office reached record levels in 2001, it‘s hard to figure out why the studios are still so darned parsimonious. Deals are being slashed. Pay cuts and layoffs are rampant. Budgets are a fraction of what they once were. The only egregious throwback to the spendthrift days of yore is the ever-skyrocketing star salaries. Arnold Schwarzenegger just signed for $30 million for Terminator 3. And the usuals -- Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Will Smith -- are still expecting their 2020 splits ($20 million against 20 percent of the gross), if not 2525.

But are they still worth it?

The time-honored credo has always been “Stars open films, not gaffers.” Lately that has come into question. The biggest-grossing films of 2001 are star-free: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring boasts a raft of second-tier stars and may yet break $300 million in domestic receipts. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and its cast of mostly unknown Brits is on its way to box-office nirvana. Meanwhile, Carrey opened The Majestic for a full $5 million weekend gross from 2,000-plus screens, and Cruise struggled to give Vanilla Sky heft, but the numbers are sagging. Tim Allen, who secured $12 million for Joe Somebody, watched as that film took in a staggering $3.7 million in its opening salvo; it will be lucky to break $25 million. Will Smith had Sony dancing over Ali‘s first-day $10.2 million, but then saw the boxing polemic settle into also-ran status next to Rings. And how quickly did Spy Game, which suffered eight-figure salaries for stars Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, disappear?

There’s a sense that the studios are quietly celebrating the shiv-in-the-ribs to stars who are being forced into that awkward state known as humility. “We all kind of like seeing stars get some comeuppance,” says one business-affairs executive. “Of course, we don‘t like to lose money, but it’s kind of nice to see.”

I have always argued that studio executives should allow stars to participate in films on a stronger percentage basis, say, with a flat $8 million fee and a 25 percent to 30 percent of the gross. That way, the eye-popping salaries might be in line with how well the films perform. If they do perform, the stars would still enjoy their $40-million-plus paydays. But if they don‘t, no one gets stuck taking a bath. With agents unwilling to budge on such matters (after all, they do get 10 percent of those 2020 paydays), it might be hard to expect any transformation in the industry. Stars still think that films revolve around them -- until they tank. Then it’s the director‘s fault. Or the script wasn’t developed properly. Or the studio pulled the marketing. It‘s hard to expect change, but it’s always nice to dream.

Lizzie Grubman took an ax

High-end-flack-turned-demolition-driver Lizzie Grubman may be in for a judicial gift. She‘s charged with drunkenly slamming her SUV into reverse and mowing down a passel of partygoers in the Hamptons last summer. Word on the street is that she’ll bolster her criminal defense with the recent published reports about Jeep Grand Cherokees that mysteriously move from park into reverse. That may get the publicity pooh-bah off. But juries may want to note that Grubman‘s choice of vehicular transport has never been as pedestrian as a Jeep. Hers is Mercedes all the way.

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