The opening of “Harry Potter VIII” this weekend, along with “Transformers III” and “X-Men: First Class,” reminds me of a story.
It was the mid-‘80s and I was still covering the industry for Newsweek. I was having lunch with David Matalon, boss of the upstart studio Tri-Star, discussing the surprising tracking for the upcoming film “Rambo: First Blood, Part II.” Predictions were for it to be the hit of the summer, which it turned out to be.
That surprised me. After all, outside “Rocky,” which by that point had run its course, Stallone had never shown pop at the box office. Don’t believe me? Let’s see: “F.I.S.T.,” “Paradise Alley,” “Victory,” “Rhinestone.”
“You’re missing the story,” Matalon corrected. “The success of ’Rambo’ isn’t Stallone. It’s the next big trend in movies — the sequel. The sequel is going to be the biggest star in Hollywood, bigger than Stallone, Newman, Harrison Ford …”
It took a couple of years, but as the surfeit of sequels this summer shows, he was prescient — the sequel has become the biggest star in the firmament. While there’d always been sequels — think of James Bond — structural changes were making sequels more valuable than ever.
Prior to the ‘80s, for example, sequels were either based on book franchises like Bond or hugely successful movies like “Star Wars.” “Rambo” was something new — a sequel based on a largely unheralded film. In the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s, far from spawning a sequel “First Blood” would have been consigned to the dust bin of a studio’s library. What changed was the addition of new platforms for the exploitation of movies, things like the then-new cable networks, home video and the promise of almost instantaneous pay-per-view.
That meant an arty film like “First Blood” (by the Canadian director of “Duddy Kravitz”) and which barely lit up the box office (its $47 million gross was mediocre even for those days) could be discovered later by a bigger audience than ever saw it in theaters.
I discovered the truth of that maxim myself almost exactly two decades ago from another legendary studio mogul, Jon Dolgen. By then I had moved to Sony’s Columbia Pictures, where Dolgen was studio chairman and I worked as an executive for Academy Award-winner Michael Douglas’ and former HBO head Rick Bieber’s Stonebridge Entertainment.
I’ve written earlier how Stonebridge had forged an unlikely hit called “Flatliners” from a script by an unknown writer, a modest budget ($15.9 million) and a cast of up-and-comers and comeback kids (TheWrap, 11/9/2009.) For instance, when we cast Julia Roberts “Pretty Woman” hadn’t yet come out — she was best known for her breakthrough role in the indie “Mystic Pizza.” And Kevin Bacon had made one bomb after another following “Footloose” including “The Big Picture” and “Quicksilver” (about bicycle messengers!)
Yet, “Flatliners” opened #1 and finished with a box office total of some $150 million — in the days when $150 million was still a big hit and not just the first days’ gross!.
Anyway, a couple of months after it came out, Bieber and I were summoned to Dolgen’s office in the penthouse of the Thalberg Building at Sony. Now, Dolgen could be rough—as Joel Schumacher once said of Mike Ovitz, even if he was on your side when you got that summons you always kind of nervously wondered what you’d done wrong.
Rick and I found out. Sitting behind his desk wearing his gruffest visage, Dolgen almost spit out: What’s wrong with you guys? Rick and I looked at each other quizzically. What he was talking about? “Where is the sequel to ‘Flatliners’?”
I have to tell you it had never occurred to us that there was a sequel to “Flatliners.” As one of us said — I think it was Rick — if you saw the movie you knew that, well, when it ends, it ends. Kiefer Sutherland braves the underworld to rescue Roberts, the rest agree they’ve gone too far, swear they’ll forget the experiment ever happened and go their separate ways.
Dolgen wasnt having it. Looking at us like we were idiots, he sputtered: “Hell, ‘Flatliners’ is the most profitable movie this studio has had since ‘Karate Kid’ six years ago. There will be a sequel — I don’t care if it’s another medical school where five new kids hear about it and do it again, there will be a sequel!” And with that we were dismissed.
In the end, it worked out fairly well. Our deal with Columbia was expiring and Rick was moving on to head up a new division for Barry Diller’s Fox (where we reunited later on another movie.) By default, it was left to me to pull much of it together. The good news? Dolgen had given us a virtual blank check to develop the script, making us among the most popular execs in town — I had carte blanche to solicit the biggest writers in the business to write for us.
The downside? We had no idea what we wanted. I was basically running a small lottery — Academy Award winners, top TV writers, hot young USC kids just off selling their first spec … all lined up outside our door, hoping for the million-dollar prize. It was a two-step process — we’d meet and explain the problem; then they’d come back with whatever they thought the answer was.
Actually, it turned out disheartening — no one came up with an idea that lit anyone’s fire. Then one dark-and-stormy evening (literally — by now it was nearly Christmas and a ghostly rain was beating down), Dennis Feldman walked into our offices with an idea that knocked our socks off.
Now, you have to remember that, at the time, Dennis was hot as a pistol — he’d written a script called “The Golden Child” that became an Eddie Murphy hit. Having gotten to know Dennis, I’m sure his original script was hardly a comedy — he was a spiritual person, not at all caught up in the Hollywood hype, and had in fact traveled in the ethereal circles depicted in “Child.” I’ll never forget his pitch that eerie, darkening night, though. “What was ‘Flatliners’ about? Simple. Karma, your past coming back to haunt you. The only thing scarier? Being able to see the future — and not be able to do anything about it!”
I want to say we bought it on the spot, but nothing in Tinsel Town is ever that easy. Still, Dennis eventually got the job. Unfortunately, I left to start my own company before he finished and no movie ever got made. But a friendly insider slipped me his script and it was all I’d hoped for — to the point where whenever someone new like Lisa Henson took over the studio and asked if I knew of any great scripts lying around that could be quickly put into production, I always told them “Flatliners II.”
By the late ‘90s, though, I stopped — someone invited me to the premiere of “Final Destination” and there it was, “Flatliners II”! Five kids who know they’re doomed but cheat death! I don’t mean New Line ripped anyone off — they didn’t know there was a “Flatliners II.” But a good idea is a good idea — and if you don’t think it was a good one just look at the final sequel coming down the pike this summer. Not “Flatliners II” but …”Final Destination 5”!