- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

Variety Editor in Chief Peter Bart exposes the stories behind the best stories of the last century in his new book, “Boffo! How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb.”

The veteran journalist and former Paramount Pictures executive still can’t accurately predict the next smash hit, but he can tell us the odds against one being made are growing steeper.

Mr. Bart, in town to promote both his book and the documentary it inspired, says film economics isn’t just making actors and marketing agencies rich. It’s muffling the creative voices crying out to be heard.

“When I was a kid, you’d open a picture in four theaters and you’d hope for good word of mouth,” Mr. Bart says. “How much was at risk, a couple million in advertising? Today, if you open a picture with 80 million dollars [in its marketing budget] you can’t take risks.”

Combine that with actors walking away with as much as 20 percent of the first dollar gross, and you’re left with little appetite for risk.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Mr. Bart is no out-of-touch curmudgeon. The genial journalist clearly loves movies — he just doesn’t like how the industry has changed since the 1970s.

That decade, for all its artistic triumphs, still made its best directors leap through hoops to get their films made. It’s a shock to read just how close so many projects came to hitting the scrap heap.

The author lived through one of his book’s best yarns, the behind the scenes struggles that beset the filming of “The Godfather.”

“It was not a happy experience of my life,” says Mr. Bart, who worked at Paramount during “The Godfather’s” gestation and says everyone he spoke to about the project offered a different perspective on the behind the scenes mayhem.

“I was there, and I don’t agree with any of it,” says Mr. Bart, who writes “The Godfather” chapter with a “Rashomon” style device giving everyone his or her voice.

What he recalls about the process was how close Francis Ford Coppola came to being cast aside midfilm.

“Just about the time I realized he was going to be fired, I realized it was going to be a great movie,” he says.

If Hollywood executives couldn’t see greatness in the dailies featuring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, then imagine the challenges facing directors today when trying to break fresh ground.

Director George Lucas endured similarly aggressive scrutiny while making “American Graffiti.” “They beat the [heck] out of him while he was making it,” Mr. Bart says. “That was the last time he ever made a movie within the studio system.”

The documentary “Boffo! Tinseltown’s Bombs & Blockbusters” made its East Coast premiere June 13 at the just completed Silverdocs festival in Silver Spring, and the film airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday on HBO.

“After I started writing the book,” Mr. Bart recalls, “HBO said, ‘Wait a minute. This is a good idea for a documentary.’”

“Boffo!” director Bill Couturie, who previously earned an Oscar for the HBO documentary “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt,” says he leaned hard on Mr. Bart’s “magic Rolodex” to complete the project.

The film recounts the production travails of movie classics like “Jaws” but is far more illuminating when shedding light on megaflops.

“People in Hollywood don’t want to talk about their bombs,” Mr. Couturie says. “They’ll talk about their flops in the abstract.”

Case in point: Morgan Freeman reflecting on his supporting role in 1990’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” a colossal dud based on Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel.

“Here’s an Academy Award-winning actor talking about a movie 15 or 20 years old … and he could barely get a word out,” Mr. Couturie says. “That’s how painful these flops are.”

Mr. Bart remains hopeful that Hollywood will see the error of its ways and that audiences will still be there when it does.

“Those people predicting the imminent demise of the movies are flat out wrong,” he says. “There’s something about the moviegoing experience … They want to share the laughter or tears.”

He isn’t immune to the feeling.

“There was a time in the ‘70s when every time you saw a movie it changed the way you thought of the experience — everything was moving the needle,” he says. “You don’t feel that anymore … but it’s still a … lot of fun.”

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