Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Thursday, March 24, 2005
Behind the Scenes Machinations with Steve?
thanks to the ever-alert KMT
THE BIG PICTURE PATRICK GOLDSTEIN
Simonds' choice: his, theirs or both?
March 22, 2005
WHEN it comes to doing the right thing, don't look for any cues from the entertainment business, not when Warner Music's top brass rakes in $21 million in salary and bonuses while firing 1,600 employees, and ex-con Martha Stewart gets a big payday for a new installment of "The Apprentice" while still under house arrest.
If you want to test your Showbiz Ethics IQ, try answering the following question:
You've produced a huge hit family comedy for Studio A about two parents coping with 12 kids, but the studio has been slow to get the sequel going. Meanwhile, you sign a producing deal at Studio B, which immediately asks you to remake a family comedy about two single parents who marry and find themselves with a family of 18 kids. What do you do?
• Tell Studio B that it would be a conflict to produce a movie that would clearly be seen as a rival film by Studio A?
• Tell Studio A to get someone else to oversee the sequel since you think Studio B's movie is more likely to get made?
• Proceed with both films.
As you've probably guessed, this isn't really a hypothetical. It's a true Hollywood story, the kind of shades-of-gray saga that illustrates why it's often so hard in showbiz to distinguish the swamp of venality from the moral high ground. The man in the middle is producer Robert Simonds, who produced "Cheaper by the Dozen," a remake that grossed $140 million in its U.S. theatrical run and even more in home video for 20th Century Fox after its Christmas 2003 release.
Simonds, a top comedy producer who's made a slew of Adam Sandler hits, had been developing a sequel to the original hit at Fox. But he also signed a new production deal to make comedies at MGM last July. The first film the studio gave him was "Yours, Mine and Ours," a remake of a 1968 comedy with Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball as a widower and a widow with 18 kids.
What happened next is subject to a considerable difference of opinion, though it is no secret in industry circles that Fox is upset with Simonds for producing a rival movie that could be in theaters as early as Thanksgiving, putting it comfortably ahead of Fox's "Cheaper" sequel. By the time Simonds was assigned the MGM film, Fox had made little progress with its sequel. Simonds and Shawn Levy, who'd directed the first "Cheaper" film, had pitched several short ideas to the studio at the beginning of the year but never received a go-ahead for a script. It was only in August, after Simonds' involvement with "Yours, Mine and Ours" was announced in the trades, that Fox moved ahead on a screenplay with Sam Harper, who'd written the original film.
Fox President Hutch Parker says the studio didn't dawdle. "I thought we actually had a quick turnaround for this kind of film. We really wanted the sequel to stand on its own and take us to a place we hadn't gone in the original."
Simonds says that when he first told Fox about his role in the rival project, the studio did nothing to stop him, though Parker told him he would "eventually" have to choose one or the other. As a seasoned producer, Simonds was accustomed to juggling a lot of projects, knowing most of them would collapse along the way. So he viewed his decision to work on both movies as a pragmatic choice.
"Based on my experience of making 30 movies at various studios over the years, I always thought that the likelihood of both movies actually happening was an impossibility," he says. "I never felt there was a conflict. There were so many uncertainties, with Fox not having made a deal with Steve Martin [who starred in 2003's "Cheaper"] and MGM in the process of being sold, that I never believed both movies would get made."
Simonds put more stock in "Yours, Mine and Ours" not only because it had a finished script long before Fox did but also because he suspected Martin was still on the fence about committing to make Fox's sequel. Simonds was in a position to know. All through last fall, when the rivalry between the two films was heating up, Simonds was producing "The Pink Panther" at MGM, with Martin in the starring role. It's possible that Fox didn't deliver an ultimatum to Simonds during that period because the studio didn't want to alienate the producer, knowing he had the star's ear at a time when Fox needed Martin's commitment to move ahead with its sequel.
Simonds and Martin spent more time together than they'd initially imagined, because early "Pink Panther" research screenings did not go well, forcing MGM to push back the movie's release date and return to Canada in January for reshoots. At roughly the same time, Simonds tried one last time to extricate himself from his sticky predicament by saying he would leave the MGM project and devote himself to the Fox sequel. But MGM balked, saying he was too far down the road with their film, which by then had a director, Raja Gosnell, and two stars, Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo (who'd ironically been Fox's original choice to costar in "Cheaper by the Dozen"). MGM chief Chris McGurk says reports that the studio threatened to sue Simonds for breach of contract were exaggerated.
"We said we'd be really unhappy if he left a movie that we'd already green-lit," McGurk explains. "We let Bob know that if he had a moral dilemma about his obligations to Fox, he had an even greater moral dilemma at MGM, where he had his deal and where we'd brought him onto 'The Pink Panther,' one of our most cherished properties."
With no room left to maneuver, Simonds told Fox he was staying on the MGM project. The decision did not endear him to the Fox brass, who took him off their film. It was shortly afterward, at a test screening for "Rebound," a Martin Lawrence comedy Simonds was also producing for Fox, that Fox Co-Chairman Tom Rothman confronted Simonds, saying he was unhappy over how the producer had handled the situation.
Fox's Parker says the studio's conflict with Simonds has been blown out of proportion. "There's no bad blood," he says. "But to have the same guy on both movies seemed like a bad idea."
He also downplays the similarities between the two films. "Overlap in content happens all the time," he says. "In  we had 'Master and Commander' and Disney had 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' which both have fighting men and ships on the seas, and they both did very well."
Having finally signed Martin to return in the starring role, Fox is now moving ahead with its sequel, with "Bringing Down the House" director Adam Shankman at the helm and Levy, the director of the first film, assuming Simonds' role as producer. The studio says it is "optimistic" that the rest of the original cast will return as well. But "Yours, Mine and Ours" has a sizable head start. It begins shooting in two weeks, its script having been recently rewritten by Paul and Chris Weitz, the filmmakers who made "About a Boy."
The picture, which is being released here by Paramount (which owns half the film), will probably be marketed under Paramount's kid-friendly Nickelodeon banner, with some of the younger roles filled by actors from Nickelodeon shows.
Fox's "Cheaper" sequel won't start until June at the earliest, meaning the studio will either have to follow "Yours" at Christmas or hold the film until next summer.
For Simonds, the outcome is bittersweet. By leaving the "Cheaper" sequel, he gives up a big payday. But while he may suffer a few bruises to his reputation, if he has a hit with the rival film, he should escape relatively unscathed.
Far worse offenses have been forgiven the minute the opening-weekend numbers arrived. In showbiz, success is the balm that heals all wounds. If Simonds finds himself with a hot new script next month, it would hardly be a surprise to see him back on the Fox lot, greeted with open arms.
Simonds even seems to half-realize he should have seen what a messy mosh pit lay ahead. "I tried to do the right thing," he says. "If there was a mistake, it was that I got caught in a place where there was no simple solution."
Maybe I'm letting Simonds off easy, but in Hollywood, when it comes to doing the right thing, you have to grade on a curve. It's a business devoted to the fine art of justifying all sorts of preposterous contradictions. Stars want gobs of good publicity and total privacy — all at the same time. Studios endlessly pursue the hippest new filmmakers only to put them to work remaking junky old TV shows.
Why should Simonds be any different? He lives in the land where everybody wants to have it all.