Why Disney said no to Russell Crowe's ''Alamo''
This year’s summer movies are shooting down records faster than Vin Diesel can drop villains, with studios on pace to break 2001’s all-time-high $3 billion haul for the season. But box office barriers aren’t the only things collapsing in the sweltering heat. Just days after the Mel Gibson thriller ”Signs” debuted with more than $60 million, Disney’s share price dipped to an eight-year low. The company is hardly alone. The stock price of nearly every studio’s parent company is approaching rock bottom, and as a result, the unthinkable is happening: In dealing with A-list filmmakers seeking ever-bigger budgets and richer back-end deals, moguls are saying no.
Someday historians of the new economics of Hollywood will look back at a single, epochal moment, one blessed with a memorable catchphrase: Remember ”The Alamo”! We’re talking about Disney’s $135 million retelling of the epic 1836 battle for the independence of Texas with star Russell Crowe, director Ron Howard, and producer Brian Grazer. The one you won’t be seeing at a theater near you.
The reason? Money. Fresh from ”A Beautiful Mind,” the Oscar-winning drama that grossed $171 million domestically, the trio made some pretty hefty demands, according to sources involved in the deal. They included salary guarantees of $20 million for Crowe, $10 million for Howard, and $7 million for Howard and Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment — or 37 cents of every dollar that Disney collected from theaters, whichever was greater. (The studio declined to comment for this story.) While many stars command a share of so-called first-dollar gross, few companies have been willing to part with such a high percentage of a film’s earnings — particularly one without sequel potential.
Disney apparently balked at both the production budget, which it hoped to slash to $105 million, and at forfeiting a whopping 37 percent of the first-dollar gross before recouping its investment. The studio also fretted about the international appeal of such a uniquely American story and Howard’s desire to shoot bloody R-rated fighting sequences. Meanwhile, the ”Mind” team held its ground. ”Russell and Ron were wed together as an entity and as a loyal unit,” explains Grazer. Translation: Without Howard in the director’s chair, there’d be no Crowe on the marquee.
By the time the battle lines were drawn, Disney had spent more than $10 million building sets in Austin, and paying for script rewrites — first by John Sayles (”Sunshine State”) and then by Stephen Gaghan (”Traffic”). In addition to Crowe playing Sam Houston, discussions were under way for Billy Bob Thornton and Ethan Hawke to costar as Davy Crockett and William Travis, respectively.
Still at an impasse last month, Disney and Imagine quietly and separately looked for another studio to share the cost. When there were no takers, Disney switched tactics. The Mouse House is now going forward with a $75 million, PG-13 ”Alamo” under director John Lee Hancock, whose spring drama, ”The Rookie,” was a surprise hit for the studio. Grazer and Howard will still produce, receiving a significantly smaller portion of the first-dollar gross. Shooting is now slated to begin early next year. ”Is that a better bet than the Howard-Crowe ‘Alamo’? I’m not sure,” says one prolific producer. ”I do know it has sent a message.”