Independence Day

The good news: A major studio turned his book into a movie. The bad news: Hardly anyone will ever see it.

Imagine this: You write a successful novel, and soon thereafter some Hollywood types show up with an enticing offer. Even better, the people in question have talent, track records, and a major studio behind them. So you sell the rights and the movie gets made, after the requisite couple of years. Then, when it's time to rev up the publicity machine and make prints and put the film in theaters all across this fine land, the studio gets cold feet. Your movie opens on two screens (that is, two theaters in the entire country) before being summarily dispatched to a video rental chain's bottom shelf.

This scenario takes place on a semiregular basis, of course, and local writer Po Bronson is merely the latest to feel its sting. The studio, 20th Century Fox, opened his Silicon Valley ensemble comedy, The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, last Friday at the AMC Beverly Connection in Southern California and the AMC Empire 25 in Manhattan, with no plans to expand the release further. "I haven't seen it, but I hear it's good," Bronson says with a wry chuckle, citing a friend who caught a focus-group screening in beautiful downtown Thousand Oaks.

Although writers are advised to detach themselves emotionally when their books are adapted for another medium, Bronson says, "I didn't try to distance myself from this project. But they were never interested in my notes on the script. 'You're wasting five or 10 minutes at the beginning.' 'We don't care. The studio likes it.'" Bronson spent a day on the set last April, and wouldn't mind seeing if his nonspeaking cameo made the final cut. But his main focus is on his new, nonfiction book, What Should I Do With My Life?, coming out next January. "I'm secretly relieved," he says about the movie's mayfly life span. "There won't be this wide release that will bomb."

The American FriendRobert Redford wore a beige sport coat, a white open-collar shirt, and bluejeans for his casual-bordering-on-offhand address to the closing session of the annual PBS convention last week at the Hilton. Alternately mocking and working his movie-star allure, he declared his unequivocal support for public TV. In my favorite aside, he took a gentle dig at film schools and the polished but superficial work their grads typically produce: "I have a firm belief in having life be a key part of your research, education, training, what have you," declared the man they call "Bob."

Yankee Doodle DandyWhat is it about American film history that fascinates us? I'd suggest that from a contemporary vantage point we can readily see the talent and vision of Hollywood heroes of an earlier era, but not their egos and mendacity. Or perhaps we get a kick out of discovering how much -- or how little -- our culture has changed. That last urge is well served by a new book from University of California Press, Hollywood Quarterly: Film Culture in Postwar America 1945-1957. The compendium unearths fascinating essays from the likes of animation pioneer John Hubley, documentarist John Grierson, actor John Houseman, and designer Edith Head that originally ran in Hollywood Quarterly, the eminently readable forerunner of Film Quarterly, the fine Berkeley academic journal. Here's the 1951 advice of a critic named Jay E. Gordon, who also had some experience with distribution and exhibition: "Modern merchandising methods can still save motion pictures, if given a chance." Give that man a Will Smith action figure.

 
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