Last weekend MGM/UA announced that it wouldn’t be screening the romantic drama ”Autumn in New York” for critics. The move upset its stars, Richard Gere and Winona Ryder, whose most recent releases — ”Runaway Bride” and ”Girl, Interrupted,” respectively — opened with far more advance fanfare. (”Winona and I are very proud of this film and disagree with the decision not to preview it,” Gere told USA Today). What’s more, MGM’s announcement set off speculation among industry watchers that ”Autumn” is bad enough that the studio — which hasn’t had a blockbuster hit since ”The World Is Not Enough” in late 1999 — is trying to bypass negative critical reaction.
MGM has declined to comment except to say that it wants to avoid revealing ”Autumn”’ s surprise ending. But the studio’s reported $20 million advertising campaign — including trailers (in theaters since May) and TV commercials — clearly reveals that Ryder’s character is stricken with a terminal illness. The movie’s director, though, has a different take on things. Joan Chen, the actress turned filmmaker whose Chinese language drama ”Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl” earned critical praise, last month told EW.com that she was ”grateful” for the opportunity to head a big budget American studio project. In general, she said she was happy with the way ”Autumn in New York” turned out, but she admitted that the sheer number of people involved in making the film may have hurt the final product. ”All along the way, from the script stage to the final production there [were] so many little exchanges. Sometimes you don’t even know when your vision is compromised,” Chen said.
According to Chen, when MGM screened early versions of the film for test audiences this spring, her cut garnered the highest scores from audiences. Still, she said, that didn’t stop studio execs from making changes, including revisions to the screenplay by Allison Burnett, which Chen described as ”already dialogue-y,” and the deletion of a Ryder nude scene, which would have been the first in the actress’ career. ”I think directors should have final cut,” said Chen. ” When directors don’t have final cut, it’s very hard to be responsible for anything — and to actually create good work.”
And if box office tracking polls are to be trusted, MGM’s revisions may not help. According to Reel Source, which conducts audience awareness surveys, only ”a small number” of respondents said they were planning to see ”Autumn.” ”You couldn’t pay guys to see this film,” says Reel Source president Robert Bucksbaum. ”Anything regarding romance and the death of one of the parties is not really appealing to men. Women, mostly older women, are the target audience.” And Bucksbaum worries that some of those women may be turned off by the film’s plot: an affair between an older man (Gere is 50) and a much younger woman (Ryder is 28, but frequently plays younger roles). Overall, Reel Source predicts that ”Autumn” will earn only $22 million in August.
As for Chen, she’s not making predictions. After nearly 20 years working on Asian, European, and U.S. films, she thinks that Hollywood’s eye on the bottom line makes it hard to produce meaningful work. ”It’s just business here,” she said. ”Rarely will you find good people. Nobody dares to expose their taste. They don’t say this is good, that is bad. They say what is ‘hot,’ what’s the ‘buzz.”’ At this rate, more buzz is probably the last thing MGM/UA is interested in.