‘Flatliners’ and the Long-Forgotten Secret Woid: Profitable

We went for high concept, paid top dollar for a script and hired a fledgling cast: Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon

Last November, I wrote how the movie “Flatliners” took an unknown word and made it common parlance for everyone from sportswriters to politicians and the like. In that story, I detailed the history of the film and how it became, at the time, the most profitable film in a long time at the then-beleaguered Columbia Pictures.

Just to recap, it was written by a little-known writer named Peter Filardi and became subject of a bidding war between the company I worked for, Michael Douglas’ Stonebridge Entertainment, and producer Scott Rudin. Columbia won — for what was at the time the enormous price of $450,000 — Michael and his partner Rick Bieber produced; Joel Schumacher directed; Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland (who looks the same today in “24” as he did then!) and Julia Roberts starred.

The picture went on to open number 1 in August 1990, going on to gross a total of over $150 million at the box office alone. (That was before people even began counting things like DVD and cable sales into the gross!)

The key, though, was “profitable” — a lost word in today’s world of $100 million average budgets for studio films. As I noted, our budget was only $15.9 million, making it what they call on Wall Street a “10 bagger” — or an investment that returns 10 times its cost. Heck, even the independents have forgotten — one of the last remaining independent studios, Lionsgate, just pissed away a reported $60 million on “Killers” .. which is why feared investor Carl Ichan is making a run at the place.

Icahn knows the difference between profits and gaudy premieres that execs can take their wives to! (Truth in advertising — I’ve had a couple of deals with Lionsgate over the last several years, both with this management and the previous.)

So how were we able to make a successful picture for so little?

Part of it is, of course, is inflation — everything costs more today. But not that much more! Rather, it really has to do with producer discipline. Sure, in those days, everyone wanted Academy Award-winner Sidney Pollack (“Tootsie,” “Out of Africa”) to direct their movie and Tom Cruise to star in it which meant, just based on the law of supply and demand, their prices skyrocketed.

Instead, with “Flatliners,” we decided we would stick to the old “high concept” idea — that’s why we were willing to pay top dollar for the script. We felt (I was the vp in charge of production) that the “concept” of young medical students willing to descend into death to return and tell us about it was so strong that Manny, Moe and Jack could star in it.

Granted, Kiefer, Kevin and Julia were hardly Manny, Moe and Jack — but they were all still at the beginning stages of their career or had fallen out of favor. Following “Footloose,” for example, Bacon, a former soap star, had made two losers in a row for Columbia-based producers, “Quicksilver” (about bike messengers in San Francisco) and the “inside Hollywood” bomb “The Big Picture.” The result? His name up around the Columbia lot was, well, poison.

Still, we had a secret weapon — director Joel Schumacher. Though he was hardly unknown — he’d made four movies previously, almost all hits, including “Carwash” and “The Lost Boys,” but he was perhaps best known in the industry as the stylish New York production designer who had worked for, among others, Woody Allen.

I’ll never forget his interview. Like any producer with a hot script, we were deluged by agents seeking the job for their clients when, one morning Rick Bieber called me into his office and told me we were going to be meeting with Joel re “Flatliners.” Before I could ask “why him?” he was at the door. Now, as a production designer he was, as you can imagine, turned out to a casual “T.” As a former art student (for one week at New York’s School of Visual Arts!), I recognized his look and liked him immediately. More importantly, since so much of “Flatliners” took place in one room — the lab — it was going to be a production designer’s dream; all style!

But Rick Bieber asked the most pertinent question: Of all the movies, why did Joel want to do this? He explained that since “Lost Boys” he’d been directing a documentary on AIDS that, in 1989, was ravaging the country, so he had experience with death. But a lot of directors could say that — any Viet Nam vet like Oliver Stone had seen death close up as well.

Well, Joel responded, the difference was that he saw “Flatliners” as a metaphor for AIDS — not literally, but conceptually. As he put it,” if you f— with Mother Nature, Mother Nature is going to f— with you.” Whew. I remember Rick looking at me and me looking back. Now, here was a director with a “vision.” By the end of the day, he was our director.

Joel gets most of the credit for making the film, of course — it was he who steered us to Julia Roberts, for example. We assembled a first-rate, if relatively unknown (read: in-expensive!), production team, including Dutch director of photography, Jan de Bont, who went on to direct “Speed.”

My biggest contribution was when Joel was sitting in my office one day bemoaning finding a production designer good enough to entrust the film to. I asked him if he’d ever seen the work of the late Italian director Pier Paolo Passolini’s designer, Eugenio Zanetti. He almost shot out of his chair. “You know Zanetti,” he asked, assuming Zanetti was in Italy.

Sure, I said, he’s at my beach house as we speak. I called, they met for dinner and the next day Eugenio had his first American movie. Within five years he’d gone on to garner two Academy nominations and win one before moving into directing himself.

But the real point is this: A couple of months after the movie, Rick and I got a summons to new studio boss Jon Dolgin’s office. Dolgin, in his gruff manner, didn’t waste time. “So, where’s the sequel?” Rick and I looked at each other. Didn’t he see the movie? This is really one of those films that when it’s over, it’s over.

Dolgin would have none of that: “This is the most profitable film this studio has made since ‘Karate Kid’” nearly a decade earlier. “There will be a sequel! I don’t give a damn if it’s five different kids at a new medical school, there will be a sequel!

Dolgin gave us $1 million for a new script — and suddenly I was the most popular young executive in town. Virtually any author of note came to pitch. We finally decided on the ethereal Dennis Feldman, who had written the Eddie Murphy movie, “Golden Child.” He wowed me one dark and stormy winter night (as they say — but it was true) by asking: “If ‘Flatliners’ was about karma — your past coming back to haunt you — what’s the only scarier thing? To see the future and not be able to do anything about it!’

He was right, but by the time the script was finished, our deal at Columbia was over and Dolgin, Bieber and I had all moved on. But with “Karate Kid” now raking in big bucks for Columbia, I’m sure there’s some young exec over there frantically looking for that long-lost sequel. And if they can’t find it, I expect I’ll be getting a call before too long — I think I still have a copy in my library.