”Nobody knows what it is. Nobody knows where it comes from. Nobody can figure it out. It’s just this thing, this strange ether that hangs over Hollywood.”
Barry Sonnenfeld speaking. And he isn’t talking about any special effect; the Wild Wild West director is referring to that mysterious and ephemeral showbiz phenomenon called buzz. Part rumor, part speculation, part fabrication — and sometimes entirely true — it’s that whirlwind of watercooler whispers, gossip-column dish, and e-mail scuttle that can blow through Hollywood like one of those twisters in that tornado movie that was supposed to be a big bomb a few years ago. It may be impossible to define — let alone predict or control — but everybody knows it when they hear it.
And Sonnenfeld has been hearing nothing but lately. For reasons he can’t quite fathom, his latest film — a big-screen adaptation of the loopy sci-fi Western that ran on CBS from 1965 to 1970, with Will Smith as 19th-century secret agent James West; Kevin Kline as gadget-crazed sidekick Artemus Gordon; Salma Hayek as their love interest; and Kenneth Branagh as the evil (and legless) Dr. Loveless — has been swarmed by bad buzz all year. Among the worst of it: that the movie’s budget had bloated to $200 million, that production snafus had pushed it way behind schedule, that expensive reshoots had been required, and that its first test screening went so poorly the audience actually booed.
How much of the above is true and how much isn’t? We’ll get to that in a minute. In Hollywood, where what people believe is always more important than what they know, there are much more pressing questions. Like, Where does all this buzz come from? How is it spread? And, most pointed of all, What sort of effect will it have on a big summer movie like Wild Wild West?
Sonnenfeld would certainly like to know. ”I just can’t figure it out,” he says, puffing a cigar on the balcony of the lavish Long Island beach house he shares with his wife and three kids. ”I don’t know of any other field where people review your work while you’re still creating it. Nobody spread rumors about Picasso’s paintings while he was still painting them. Nobody looked at I.M. Pei’s blueprints for the CAA building and said, ‘I’m not seeing windows!’ Only in Hollywood.”
Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1999: ”The buzz in Hollywood has been deafening: Wild Wild West is way, way over budget.”
Sonnenfeld: ”I told [the L.A. Times reporter] that if he saw the movie he’d know there was no way it cost $200 million. In retrospect, that doesn’t make my movie sound so good, but it’s true. It cost about half that much.”
Of course, not all buzz is bad buzz. positive murmurs about Sonnenfeld’s last movie, 1997’s Men in Black, helped prime that picture to become the 15th biggest hit in history — and solidified Smith’s reputation as the actor America most wants to see on screen on the nation’s birthday (the ninth- biggest hit being Smith’s Independence Day). Still, even good buzz can have its downside.