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Category: May 2010

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Finance and fan boys: How the Wall Street crisis hit Guillermo del Toro's 'The Hobbit'

May 31, 2010 |  9:35 am

If there's one message that "Inside Job," Charles Ferguson's new documentary about the financial crisis, imparts to audiences, it's that even the most far-flung factors can give rise to serious real-world consequences.

On Sunday an object lesson in that truism hit the film world, as fan boys and the rest of us suddenly found ourselves the unexpected victims of Wall Street woolliness.

For the last two years, Guillermo del Toro had been keen to direct "The Hobbit," the much salivated-over two-picture adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's mystical epic -- so keen that he uprooted his family and life for it. Del Toro turned down every other film and spent nearly two years prepping a shoot that was to begin later in 2010, for a pair of movies that would be released over the holidays in 2012 and 2013.

On Sunday, that all changed -- or, rather, a change that had been brewing for months finally bubbled to the surface. What seemed like so much doomsday speculation last year, back when it first became apparent that co-financier/co-producer MGM was hitting the rocks, became a very tangible reality. It didn't happen with high drama -- MGM didn't pull the plug on a "Hobbit" movie the way venture-capital projects were suddenly stopped in their tracks by the credit and investment freeze. It didn't have to.

The current incarnation of MGM was formed six years ago thanks to an influx of Wall Street money and lending that was rampant at the time. Several private equity groups, along with Sony and Comcast, sank in hundreds of millions of dollars, and rich credit facilities with the likes of J.P. Morgan Chase were set up.

But six years later, MGM now labors under nearly $4 billion in debt, which has both hampered its ability to finance new productions as well as made the company unattractive to prospective buyers. (For a complete examination of where the situation at MGM currently stands, check out this excellent story from my colleagues Claudia Eller and Ben Fritz.) So deep is the uncertainty (and the debt) that the studio's production schedule has been significantly slowed -- so much so that, on Sunday, it finally caused del Toro to walk away.

“In light of ongoing delays in the setting of a start date for filming ‘The Hobbit,’ I am faced with the hardest decision of my life. After nearly two years of living, breathing and designing a world as rich as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, I must, with great regret, take leave from helming these wonderful pictures," del Toro said in a posting on Tolkien fan site TheOneRing.net.

It shouldn't have been a complete surprise. MGM has been clinging to "The Hobbit" like a last-ditch lifeline even as its other projects have skittered away. The 23rd James Bond movie went from an MGM-centric enterprise with a big directorial name (Sam Mendes) to a film that was indefinitely on ice. A movie that had already been completed and earning high test scores, "The Zookeeper," was handed over to Sony. Several other development projects were frozen in place. It was only a matter of time before some kind of unfortunate fate hit "The Hobbit." And while technically neither MGM nor co-financier and co-producer New Line was shutting down production, few could blame del Toro, watching all of this happen and feeling like his own production schedule was clouding up to the point of murkiness.

The world of independent-film financing has until now born the brunt of the crisis, as those less expensive, one-off pictures are, paradoxically, the ones that needed the cash from this more slippery world. With this news, one of the most anticipated and reliable franchises -- a Tolkien adaptation from an A-list group of creators -- is getting hit too.

Some would say that it's all a little unfair. MGM's business plan was a long-term one, a plan that required the development of franchises; the "Hot Tub Time Machine's" and "Valkyrie's" of the world were never going to be enough. If it was to succeed, it would need to take control of James Bond and, especially, "The Hobbit." There's truth to that, but there's also a kind of karmic fairness to how this all has gone down. MGM was created as part of the financial froth of the mid-2000s. And if there's one thing the last sobering 18 months has taught us, it's that if you live by the bubble, you die by the bubble.

No one knows what kind of "Hobbit" del Toro would have made, or if the years the eminently talented director dedicated to it would have been worth the films he wasn't working on during this time. What we do know now is that we'll get a chance to see the other side of that coin. There could be some significant del Toro output over the next few years. The "Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth" director, after all, has plenty of options -- he's kept some development irons in the fire and pretty much every studio is chomping to get him. (More on his possible new directions in a later post.)

Meanwhile, Peter Jackson and the others developing the tale of Bilbo Baggins say that it will continue to move forward. It's hard to imagine how that happens with the same intensity. Even if the financial and scheduling issues somehow begin to clear up -- almost overnight, like a mystery rash -- there's still the small matter of getting a top-flight director who isn't spooked by the same things that scared del Toro. And then there's the question of whether said director picks up where del Toro left off (unlikely for anyone of a certain stature) or starts over from scratch. That could take even more time, enough time for MGM to have found its way out of trouble -- or for a new bubble to burst.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Guillermo del Toro. Credit: Miguel Villagran / Associated Press

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Dennis Hopper's on-screen tribute, coming this fall

May 30, 2010 |  4:18 pm

Posthumous screen appearances can be a little eerie, like hearing a phone message from someone after they passed away. But they can also be touching reminders of an actor's legacy -- and because the person is acting, a chance to see them in a guise far different from their frail final days.

With its lag between production and release, moviedom has a long history of posthumous roles. Heath Ledger gave us creepy villainy in "The Dark Knight," which came out six months after he died. Massimo Troisi conveyed poetic beauty in "Il Postino."

We probably won't get those tour de force moments in Dennis Hopper's posthumous turn. But the prolific actor will bring his spirit to a movie screen one last time with "Alpha and Omega," an independently made 3-D animated film that Lionsgate will release in September.

The movie itself will probably break little creative ground; judging by the trailer, the story of a dominant female wolf (Hayden Panettiere) and timid male one (Justin Long) who form a bond when transplanted to Idaho to repopulate the species will feature all the familiar wisecracking animals and easy life lessons common to "Madagascar," "Bolt" and other awards-worthy fare.

But the appearance of Hopper as a wolf named Tony will, at the very least, give it a poignant touch. There's talk that the film will be dedicated to him, and if Lionsgate can hit the right marketing note (a studio representative said Sunday it was too early to comment on plans), the film can take on the feel of a celebration of Hopper's diverse career. (Of course the challenge will be to get the more grown-up Hopper fans to see a film about young cartoon wolves in love.)

It's worth noting that in the annals of posthumous screen appearances, no one did it with as much force or spectral presence as James Dean, who appeared on the screen in the oil drama "Giant" despite his death in a motor accident before the movie was even edited. Dean's co-star in the film? A young actor named Dennis Hopper. The cycle continues.

-- Steven Zeitchik


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Hopper: My complicated relationship with James Dean

May 30, 2010 | 12:25 pm

  James Dean Rebel
When the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre kicks off its "Widescreen Wednesdays" series this week with a terrific James Dean double bill, 1955's "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause," it will take on more poignancy because of the death of Dennis Hopper, who made his big-screen debut in "Rebel Without a Cause." 

Hopper, then 18, had received nice reviews in early 1955 after playing a young epileptic in the medical series “Medic" and was cast as one of the high school gang members who plagued Dean in “Rebel.” (As soon as “Rebel” wrapped, Hopper landed a much bigger role in “Giant,” Dean’s final film before this death.)

Although I never met Hopper, I talked to him on the phone a few times, including a decade ago when six surviving stars of "Rebel" reunited for a screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Hopper told me he thought he was “the best young actor around” until he saw Dean on the set of “Rebel. He told Dean: “I don’t have a clue what you are doing, but I know how great you are. What should I do? Should I stop my contract [at Warner Bros.] and go study with Lee Strasberg in New York?”

Dean took him aside and gave him advice: “He said you have got to start doing things and not showing them. He said don’t have any preconceived ideas about how the scene is going to play. Just go on a moment-to-moment reality level, and don’t presuppose anything.”

Hopper also related that Dean was standoffish toward him on “Rebel.” It wasn’t until “Giant” that they became friends.

"He was really into his work and acting,” Hopper recalled. “I was 18, and he was five years older. That is really a big difference. His whole life was acting. Some days, he would come in, and you would say ‘hello’ to him, and he’d walk right by you. He was totally concentrated on what he was doing. Other days, he was open and gracious."

-- Susan King

Photo: James Dean's knife-fight scene from "Rebel Without a Cause," with a young Dennis Hopper at the far right. Credit: Warner Bros. Inc.

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Los Angeles Times week in Hollywood (May 28, 2010)

May 29, 2010 |  2:02 pm

Hollywood is often said to cater to distinct audiences. It doesn't get more distinct than "Sex and the City 2" and "Prince of Persia," which are about as different from one another as a seaweed wrap and a boxing match. The Times' John Horn and Steven Zeitchik look at the prospects for these two films in the cleansing spa of journalism that we call the Week in Hollywood.


The odd pairing of Mike Newell and Jerry Bruckheimer on 'Prince of Persia'

'Sex and the City' and fashion

'Sex and the City' ladies to rule over 'Prince of Persia'

R.I.P., Dennis Hopper

May 29, 2010 | 10:57 am

Dennis Hopper died Saturday morning in Southern California at the age of 74. Hopper, who had been suffering from prostate cancer for some time, was of course a screen legend who had roles in numerous films including "Rebel Without a Cause," "Apocalypse Now" and "Blue Velvet," and of course also directed, co-wrote and co-starred in the generation-defining "Easy Rider."

He'll also be heard on the big screen one more time, as he appears as one of the lead voices in Lionsgate's animated "Alpha and Omega," which comes out on September 17.

We were reminded of all of those roles, as well as his appearance receiving his star on the the Hollywood Walk of Fame, when we heard of his death. "Everything I learned in my life, I learned from you," he told the assembled group of family and friends as he received the honor. Here's The Times' obituary of Hopper's rich and at times complicated life, and, below, The Times' video of the Walk of Fame ceremony.

--Steven Zeitchik

Hollywood Star Walk

A new Times database puts readers on the sidewalks of Hollywood, using more than a century of archives to track the lives of the stars, including recent Oscar winners Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock and recent honorees Dennis Hopper and Russell Crowe.

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Gary Coleman's unlikely role on 'Bowfinger'

May 29, 2010 |  8:58 am

We noted Friday that former child star Gary Coleman had a very tenuous connection to the feature-film world. But we neglected to mention one role: as a security guard on the 1999 Hollywood parody "Bowfinger."

Like, an actual security guard.

Coleman wasn't in the film -- he was guarding the area where it was being shot. Few were more surprised to find Coleman in that position than comedian and actor Jamie Kennedy, who costarred in the movie. On Friday afternoon, when Coleman died in a Utah hospital days after suffering a brain hemorrhage, we spoke to Kennedy -- who is promoting his new film, "Finding Bliss" -- and asked him to elaborate on his encounter with the diminutive actor.

"That was like the most star-studded movie I had ever been on as a young kid, and I'll never forget getting on set and seeing Gary Coleman was our security guard," Kennedy recalled. "I was like, 'What are you doing here? You should be in the movie.' And he said, 'I need a job, man.' I was like, 'But you're Gary Coleman.' And he said, 'That don't mean [crap].'"

Kennedy said he admired Coleman, who he grew up watching on TV as a child. "It's so sad," he said. "The poor kid was tortured. He was burned by this world."

-- Amy Kaufman


Photo: Gary Coleman in 2008. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Reuters

With his new projects, Mike Newell continues to zigzag

May 28, 2010 |  6:54 pm

EXCLUSIVE: As "Prince of Persia" opens this weekend, it shines a spotlight on many things, including Jake Gyllenhaal's workout regimen (and the collective fascination therewith).

Newell But one of the most interesting stories unfolded behind the camera, as Mike Newell, director of intimate character studies like "Donnie Brasco" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral," struck out in an action-adventure direction. We stopped off in London on the way back from Cannes to talk to Newell about the latest turn in an eclectic career. The result of  that conversation — especially the dynamic with producer Jerry Bruckheimer — can be read here, but an adjunct story to all this is what Newell does next. This is, after all, a filmmaker who followed the feminist drama "Mona Lisa Smile" with a Harry Potter movie ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") and then a Gabriel Garcia Marquez adaptation ("Love in the Time of Cholera") with a Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganza ("Persia").

Newell sounded much like someone who wants to go back to his character-intensive days. He's got several films in that spirit already in the hopper. Two of them have been reported — a story about a Russian security agent caught in the cross-hairs of the Mafia, and an adaptation of a children's  fantasy called "Box of Delights" — and either could be his next movie. Not reported previously, but one that came up in our conversation and which Newell sounded enthusiastic about, is an adaptation of a Dickens novel, "Dombey & Son," an adventure-filled family drama about a shipping mogul.

Most notably, sources also say that Newell has been hired to develop "Agent Zigzag," a true story about a double agent who worked for both the British and Germans during World War II, sometimes both simultaneously (and wasn't averse to the good life, either). 

The film, which is set up at New Line, concerns Eddie Chapman, a Brit born on the wrong side of the tracks who was able to charm both the Allies and the Axis powers, even getting close enough to Hitler to potentially assassinate him. Both sides were deeply skeptical of Chapman, but he was so persuasive and so cool under pressure they couldn't help themselves, passing along highly classified information to him and bringing the agent into their inner circle anyway. Chapman, for his part, worked their respect both for espionage and self-enrichment purposes.

The film project is based on a book from journalist Ben MacIntyre (for a sense of how colorful and mesmerizing a character Chapman was, check out this review) and has a nice pedigree: "Race to Witch Mountain" writer Mark Bomback has written a draft of the script and Tom Hanks' Playtone is producing.

Newell is the kind of director who could deftly handle almost any material, imbuing it with plenty of character subtlety. That may not fully come out in a Bruckheimer movie. But it did in a gem like "Brasco," and it almost certainly will in a movie filled with tension, double-crosses and a charming rogue at the center. We say bring it on.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Mike Newell at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times

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R.I.P., Gary Coleman

May 28, 2010 |  1:09 pm

He was never a big movie star, but in addition to his signature role as Arnold on TV's "Diff'rent Strokes," he did make a couple of features, including "Jimmy the Kid" and "On the Right Track," as well as TV movies such as "The Kid with the Broken Halo" and, as die-hard San Diego Padres fans will recall, "The Kid from Left Field." And of course he helped shape the tastes of any film and pop-culture fan who grew up in the 1980s. Clips and a walk down memory lane below.

-- Steven Zeitchik

'Life of Pi' suffers another blow

May 27, 2010 |  7:12 pm

EXCLUSIVE: Speaking of difficult books and the development challenges that accompany them, here comes another example, and it's a high-profile one.

Pi"Life of Pi," Yann Martel's bestselling Booker Prize winner that has had more development go-rounds than a male Bengal tiger has mates, may  be on its way back to the development cage. Eclectic director Ang Lee had been set to shoot the movie, possibly even  in 3-D, but budget concerns appear to be putting the project on hold.

Lee and producer Gil Netter have returned to Fox 2000 with a budget that sources say is too high for the studio division. (A recent Indiewire piece  put it in the $70 million range.)

The filmmakers can still reconfigure the budget, but until they do, the film isn't moving forward. (Netter didn't immediately return a call for comment.)

That the project remains active at all is at least partly thanks to the devotion of  Fox 2000 chief Elizabeth Gabler, who has been hugely keen on a “Pi” film.

Gabler has a fair amount of clout within Fox, and Fox 2000 has been highly profitable for the studio with other mid-budget book-based movies, such as "Marley & Me" and "The Devil Wears Prada." But those films, of course, had commercial hooks. This one, about a boy named Pi who finds himself trapped on a boat with a tiger after a shipwreck that sees many other animals meet their end, could be difficult to market (and, it should be noted, difficult to film).

If the Lee version doesn't work out, it wouldn't be the first time a name-brand director took on, then wound up separating from, a "Pi" adaptation.

Genre notables like M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuaron, along with French auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet, have all been on board to direct a version of the film at some point. Fox is generally cost-conscious, and the fact that this movie, despite its bestseller status, can be a tricky shoot has them especially concerned -- particularly given the high number of CG creatures, as well as the water-bound location, which tends to drive up budgets in general.  On top of all that, "Pi" is exactly the kind of specialized, non-tentpole movie that nearly all studios are staying away from these days.

The title character in "Life of Pi" survived a difficult 227 days on a raft floating through dangerous waters. The film project may have to endure even more.

-- Steven Zeitchik and John Horn



Photo: "Life of Pi" book jacket. Credit: Canongate Books

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James McAvoy will stand at the head of 'X-Men: First Class'

May 27, 2010 |  4:49 pm

EXCLUSIVE: Fox is moving at superheroic speed to begin filling out the members of "X-Men: First Class"  -- starting with the man who leads the pack.

Mcavoy The studio is hiring James McAvoy to play the role of Charles Xavier, the professor who organizes the X-Men band of mutants into a group (and force for good). Patrick Stewart played Xavier in the original set of pictures, but of course as an origin story, many of the characters in "First Class" will skew younger. 

McAvoy, who's next up in the Robert Redford post-Civil War drama "The Conspirator," has played in films with superhero themes before, primarily as a lead character in the assassin picture "Wanted."

Matthew Vaughn is directing the new "X-Men," which is set to start shooting this summer. With McAvoy's casting, get ready for a new raft of mutants to follow not far behind him.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: James McAvoy. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Clicking on Green Links will take you to a third-party e-commerce site. These sites are not operated by the Los Angeles Times. The Times Editorial staff is not involved in any way with Green Links or with these third-party sites.


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