Your video store has a lot to answer for

Hundreds of terrible films make it to the screen every year, so the ones that go straight-to-video must be dire. Maybe not, says Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Culture

Being told by distributors that your film is a straight-to-video job must be a director's worst nightmare. But how often have you been slouched in your local multiplex, sipping flat cola and thinking how you might have found something better in the bargain bucket at the video shop? If you saw last year's Rancid Aluminium, for instance, you would have been forgiven for wondering how it ever got past the script conference. Despite its starry cast (Johnny Lee Miller, Joseph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans), it was disastrously received and now stands as a glaring example of how low cinema can go.

Being told by distributors that your film is a straight-to-video job must be a director's worst nightmare. But how often have you been slouched in your local multiplex, sipping flat cola and thinking how you might have found something better in the bargain bucket at the video shop? If you saw last year's Rancid Aluminium, for instance, you would have been forgiven for wondering how it ever got past the script conference. Despite its starry cast (Johnny Lee Miller, Joseph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans), it was disastrously received and now stands as a glaring example of how low cinema can go.

Hollywood also has a lot to answer for. Think Meet Joe Black, Mickey Blue Eyes and Stepmom. And how about The Avengers? The fact that Warner Bros refused to screen the film for critics spoke volumes (though they claimed that the public should decide first).

With horrors like these reaching the big screen, one can only wonder about the ones that the distributors deem unfit for human consumption. But, as Richard Napper, managing director of Columbia Tristar points out, the decision as to whether or not a picture will get a cinematic release in the UK is rarely based on quality.

"It's a business-based decision. The UK is expensive territory for distributors, the most expensive in the world in fact, and we have to decide whether we are going to make a profit. Basically, its the blockbusters plus a few others that make money for us. That's the market situation."

It seems that pictures with well-known names in the lead roles are just as likely to be shelved as those put together on a shoestring and starring that bloke you saw once in Brookside.

Take, for example, Crazy In Alabama, a film that follows the fortunes of a Southern belle who murders her husband and makes for Hollywood with his head in a box. It was meant to be a tour de force for actress Melanie Griffith, and was also set to boost the credibility of Griffith's husband Antonio Banderas, who was making his directorial debut. But the film reaped less than £600,000 at the US box office and the plug was pulled on a UK release. Last week, it finally made its UK appearance in the video shops.

This seems particularly unfair since Crazy In Alabama isn't at all bad. Variety deemed it "a creditable directorial debut" and it earned respectable reviews at the Venice and London film festivals. It may not be as cutting-edge as it thinks it is, but compared to, say, Rancid Aluminium, it is a masterpiece.

"With Crazy In Alabama, we had to look at the demographic interest and we saw it was small," explains Napper. "As film distributors, we show films to exhibitors and they make a decision. In this case, many said no. We decided to pass it on to video where the release costs are very low." Does he think it is a bad film? "Not at all. But it fell between being an art-house and a mainstream release, and would probably satisfy neither audience."

Last November, Griffith and her husband were whisked to London by their studio for promotional duties. Even then, Banderas seemed nervous about the film: "I suppose the left wing of America is going to support it, while the conservatives will try to ridicule it," he told me. "And in terms of being a foreigner talking about America, well, excuse me but the Americans are the ones who normally speak about us. I have the same authority doing Crazy In Alabama as Oliver Stone does when he makes Salvador.

"But I think it is weird that the studio allowed me to direct a movie like this which looks independent. They thought that I was doing a screwball comedy. In fact I think I lied to them and said we were doing something like There's Something About Mary. He-he, he-he. Are you crazy? It's too late now. The movie is already done. He-he!"

The £10m project has also signalled the demise of Green Moon Productions, set up by Griffith and Banderas four years ago. According to Banderas, it was created "so we could produce, act in and, in my case, direct projects we don't have the opportunity of doing in normal Hollywood terms".

In truth, no self-respecting Hollywood star is complete without their own production outfit these days. Sandra Bullock (Fortis Films), Sean Connery (Fountainbridge Films), Robert De Niro (Tribeca), Drew Barrymore (Flower Pictures) are among those pursuing sideline careers in production. Former Disney executive Joe Roth has just stumped up a considerable sum for Julia Roberts to set up her own company, with the proviso that she produce three movies over the next five years.

The thinking goes that it is the stars who pull in the punters, that they alone make the difference between a hit and a flop. But in turn, these stars are only as good as their last few films. Though there is little to differentiate Julia Roberts and Melanie Griffith - both like showing their teeth and have impressive levels of talent given the right vehicle. But Julia's hot and Mel is not.

Ever since she was denied her Golden Globe following Mike Nichols' 1988 comedy Working Girl, Griffith has struggled to maintain her Hollywood profile. Roberts, on the other hand, could have put an end to world debt with the box-office rewards he got back from the success of Notting Hill and Erin Brokovich. The studios are currently happy to indulge her every whim, provided that they can squeeze another few hundred million out of her.

But these same studios are coming down hard on the production projects of fading actors. Michelle Pfeiffer had to close her production company, Via Ross, following The Deep End of the Ocean, a spectacular flop which was four years in the making. Sylvester Stallone's Cop Land Ventures and Demi Moore's Moving Pictures have also both lost their homes at Universal due to diminishing returns.

"These vanity projects from America are an unknown quantity," says Napper. "Some projects are doomed from the beginning and Crazy In Alabama was one of them. It was up to us to decide what was best."

'Crazy In Alabama' is now out to rent on Columbia Tristar

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