If the dreaded “big one” ever arrives to shake the California coast to rubble, the movie biz really ought to decamp to Las Vegas.
You’ll never catch Peter Bart drawing exactly that conclusion in ”The Gross,” his sprightly dissection of the 1998 summer-blockbuster season in Hollywood. But this is a story so filled with compulsive gamblers throwing dice with no concept of what they’ll do if they crap out, it often feels more like it’s taking place in the MGM Grand casino than at such studios as MGM, Disney, Universal, Sony, and Twentieth Century Fox.
A former reporter, producer, and studio exec at Paramount and MGM who’s been editor in chief of Variety since 1989, Bart brings a remarkably plugged-in perspective to the movie community’s annual demolition derby. The warm-up to his racing form is a prologue entitled “Genesis,” a canny overview of the major studios as they head into Memorial Day weekend, 1998. Here Bart quickly demonstrates his insider’s ability to get major players to diagram their game plans fairly honestly and, more deliciously, to trash one another in semi-anonymous remarks. Most memorably, he quotes the gallery of shell-shocked Fox personnel still recovering from the near calamity and subsequent triumph of James Cameron’s way-late, way-over-budget ”Titanic.” “Making a movie with Cameron is like contracting a disease,” says one unidentified Fox executive. “Even after the movie is released, it still takes a long while to shake off the symptoms.”
The studio scenarios established, on we go to incisive, picture-by-picture production-saga portraits of last summer’s heavy hitters. Among the flicks whose firm-to-flimsy foundations Bart deconstructs with swift, sure hammer strokes are ”Godzilla” (the priciest to make at $150 million, plus $120 million in worldwide marketing costs), ”Armageddon” (close behind at a production cost of $140 million), and ”There’s Something About Mary” (one of the cheapest entrants at $23 million). As contestants leave the starting gate, Bart charts the shifting odds on who’ll win, place, and show in his week-by-week (sometimes day-by-day) replay.
There’s a certain yesterday’s-news quality in some of Bart’s exhaustive takedown; at times it’s like poring over old EW box office charts. But time and again, he’ll snap you awake with trenchant quotes from just the sort of bigwigs you want to hear second-guessing their own strategies.
Why, for instance, did Steven Spielberg, already a multibillionaire, set out to unleash his most ambitious summer slate ever in ’98, not only directing ”Saving Private Ryan” but also shepherding ”Deep Impact,” ”The Mask of Zorro,” and ”Small Soldiers” into theaters as a hands-on executive producer? “When I focus on one project…I tend to obsess on every scene,” Spielberg explains to Bart. “When I juggle several projects, that helps me keep a sharp sense of perspective.” On the other hand, Spielberg ruminates, it could be “that I’m simply an insecure Jew, that I always was and always will be. It may be as simple as that.”
Juicy as these firsthand encounters are, Bart’s publisher has made the questionable decision to rush ”The Gross” into print without benefit of an index, bibliography, source notes, or even that basic tool, a table of contents; a St. Martin’s rep says the paperback edition will include an index. As a result, we’ve got no clue as to what information Bart gleaned himself and what he may have recycled from Variety staffers and other writers and journalists. (Imagine my surprise on recognizing two unattributed passages about ”Deep Impact” that repeat, verbatim, material I wrote for EW, with production details that to my knowledge appeared nowhere else.) No question, Bart is a thoroughly informed tour guide, eminently qualified to steer us through Hollywood’s countdown-to-extinction landscape of ever-grander blockbuster vehicles. But without any backup provided, he’s slipping dangerously close to Matt Drudge territory.