Now it can be told: The rumors about Spike Lee losing control of his ambitious epic movie, Malcolm X, are just rumors. When Los Angeles’ Completion Bond Co. threatened to stop the flow of money in March, word was that X might be shut down or snatched out of Lee’s hands.
But while the bio of the slain black leader, starring Denzel Washington, is already $5 million over budget and some two hours too long, the film is being edited for a Thanksgiving release with Lee firmly in creative control.
Lee’s standard contract with distributor Warner Bros. and with CBC — which sells guarantees that independent movies are finished on time and at an agreed cost and running time — calls for a $28 million budget and a length of 2 hours, 15 minutes. After spending hit $33 million and the rough cut screened at almost four hours, CBC sent a letter March 26 to Lee’s lawyer, stating that ”any work undertaken by the production company after March 27 is at (its) expense.” Sounds bad, yet the work has continued and everybody’s still getting paid.
So what was all the much-ado about? The fact is, no one ever seriously wanted to take X away from Lee; Warner and CBC were simply posturing to see which of them would pick up the tab for the overrun. ”The movie can’t be finished by anyone except Spike,” says Warner marketing chief Rob Friedman. ”And he’ll easily finish it on time.” When the dust settles, CBC will most likely cover the $5 million overrun, like any good insurance company, and Warner will ante up some extra money so that Lee can finish a somewhat longer film than promised. And by having the completion bond company stand up to Lee, Warner avoids having to play bad cop with a filmmaker the studio would prefer not to alienate.
”I know Warner Bros. is happy with the movie,” says X producer Marvin Worth. ”We’re not doing a four-hour movie. We’ll do whatever it’s good at.” So not only will Lee and Warner be satisfied in the end, X will have gained an added benefit: months of free publicity over the director’s battle with the barons of the bottom line. As producer Worth says, ”Spike is a media event.”