Boffo! Tinseltown's Bombs and Blockbusters

Cannes Film Fest 2005 (World Premiere Out-of-Competition)–Bill Couturie's entertaining documentary, “Boffo! Tinseltown's Bombs and Blockbusters,” takes Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman's (in) famous maxim about filmmaking, “Nobody knows anything,” dissecting its elements and controversies, while presenting variations on the theme.

Peter Bart (my old boss), “Variety”s smart editor-in-chief co-wrote and co-produced the docu “Boffo,” inspired by his own book. The success of this and other “inside Hollywood” docus depends to a large extent on the range of witnesses and case studies chosen. Indeed, if “Boffo” comes across as a cheerful film about flops, it's due to the colorful personalities featured in the docu: Movie Stars like George Clooney, moguls and producers like Brian Grazer, directors like Peter Bogdanovich.

There's always the problem of selection: Which interviewees are included or excluded Which movies serve as case studies, and which do not. “Boffo” is the kind of film, in which every trend and every argument can be contested and contradicted with factual evidence and counter-arguments that would dismiss the contentions made.

Take the blockbuster “Titanic,” the most commercial picture in film history (worldwide grosses are estimated at $1.6 billion). It was a turbulent production, going over budget and shooting schedule. In fact, Variety, still the Bible of Showbiz, had a column named “Titanic Watch,” which anticipated and even predicted a flop for James (“King of the World”) Cameron's romance-disaster saga; disaster in more senses than one, I might add.

For every person who wishes and prays for success, there's one who “wants you to fail,” as Peter Bogdanovich cynically confesses, “And you oblige.” He should know. After a brilliant beginning (“The Last Picture Show,” “What's Up Doc”), his career went into precipitous decline.
Producer Brian Grazer is wickedly honest about his own career, confiding about the anger he felt when his production, “Apollo 13,” lost the Oscar for best picture in 1995 to Mel Gibson's dark-horse winner “Braveheart.” Quite amusingly, he reports how Astronaut Jim Lovell, pilot of the actual Apollo 13, consoled him by saying, “I didn't get to the moon, either.”

“You have no rules,” producer and former head of Columbia Peter Guber says, “But you break them at your peril.” Kevin Costner's three hour Western, “Dances With Wolves,” was considered a risky proposition by way of genre, budget, and running timeuntil it proved everyone wrong by sweeping the 1990 Oscars, including Best Picture and Director, and becoming a mega hit at the box-office.

There are also peculiar cases of serendipity. When the big rubber shark in “Jaws” didn't function mechanically, the then young helmer Steven Spielberg was forced to shoot around the beast. As a result, the monster wasn't seen for most of the film. As “Jaws” actor Richard Dreyfuss, and producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck relate, this piece of bad news turned out to be a case of luck, since the movie managed to scare viewers much more than CGI would have done.

Then, there are real disasters, like Brian De Palma's “Bonfire of the Vanities,” and real surprises like “Driving Miss Daisy.” Actor Morgan Freeman, who appeared in both pictures, testifies to the unforeseen success of “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won Best Picture and Best Actress for Jessica Tandy, making her the unlikeliest and oldest female winner in history.

Warner's chair Alan Horn discusses industry business that's less known and often decided about behind close doors in execs suites. “Training Day,” which won Denzel Washington his second Oscar and first Best Actor Award, made $70 million in the U.S. but only $3 million abroad. Was it due to the subject matter, the fact that the lead was a black player It's a sad but known reality that, except for Will Smith, most black actors (and black-themed movies) have limited appeal internationally.

Go figure. While Wolfgang Peterson's 2004 historical saga “Troy” underperformed domestically, at around $130 million in the U.S., it grossed almost three times as much (about $360 million) abroad. Key variable here is star Bard Pitt, who's much more popular oversees than in the U.S. (which explains his big, fat paychecks)

Few of the witnesses, such as director Sydney Pollack (“Tootsie) and Sherry Lansing, head of Paramount for a long time, question William Goldmans dictum, suggesting that some people in the industry know “smoothing,” at least “some of the time.” (I deliberately simplify their argument).

One of the sober opinions is offered by actor-director George Clooney, who says, “There are so many ways to screw up. When it does go right, and a movie is actually good, you've got to regard it as a miracle. He is not kidding. The movie industry is largely a collaborative effort, a well-oiled or not so well-oiled machine, in which some parts can prove to be malfunctioning.

Director Bill Couturie's and editor Mark H. Brewer crosscut and juxtapose interviews' quotes and visual montages that turn “Boffo” into a more accessible work to outsiders, more entertaining if also more superficial. The mixed collection of clips, from such blockbusters as “The Sound of Music,” “The Godfather,” “Jaws,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Titanic” as well as such bombs as “Howard the Duck” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” is fun to watch in its own right, even without the post-factum explanations.

Ocassionally, there are vague assertions and mythic notions, such as talking about “The Movie God.” But in the end, you are left with the impression that mass commercial cinema is not easy to make. “Boffo” illuminates Hollywood's one basic, down-and-dirty reality: Filmmaking is first and foremost a business.

Cast (In alphabetical order):

Peter Bogdanovich, Pierce Brosnan, David Brown, George Clooney, Danny DeVito, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Evans, Jodie Foster, Morgan Freeman, Brian Grazer, Peter Guber, Alan Horn, Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, Sherry Lansing, Penny Marshall, Sydney Pollack, Tom Rothman, John Singleton, Charlize Theron, Nia Vardalos, Richard Zanuck.


HBO Documentary Films
Running time: 75 Minutes

Producers: Anne Sandkuhler, Bill Couturie
Executive producers: Peter Bart, Charlie Koones, Sheila Nevins
Director: Bill Couturie
Screenwriters: Peter Bart, Bill Couturie, based on Peter Bart's book “Boffo: How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb.”
Cinemtography: Stephen Lighthill
Editor: Mark H. Brewer
Music: Todd Boekelheide