Myers suit betrays industry objectives

Low-grade, big-budget, high-publicity movie making has, over the past two decades, become an integral part of America’s cultural identity. As much as we gripe about numbingly formulaic sequels and slipshod reincarnations of boomer sitcoms, is it now possible to imagine summertime without them? Cynical, profit-driven blockbusters have become a symbolic confirmation of the rest of the world’s “Ugly American” stereotypes. How fitting, then, that Hollywood’s right (duty?) to produce worthless films might soon be essentially protected by law.
If you, like every good American, are a regular follower of entertainment news, you know that “Austin Powers” star Mike Myers is currently being sued by Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment. It seems the studios are upset that Myers backed out on an agreement to make a movie based on his Saturday Night Live “Dieter” character. Myers claims that the script, which he co-wrote, is “unacceptable” and that he is unwilling to “cheat moviegoers who pay their hard-earned money to see [his] work.” The studios are seeking a combined $35 million to cover preproduction costs and to compensate for lost box-office profits. Myers has filed a countersuit claiming fraud and deceit, invasion of privacy and defamation.
Assuming that Myers’ motivations are as honorable as he claims, the implications of this lawsuit are startling. Imagine Entertainment seems to be suggesting that stars should be obligated to produce substandard work and that studios have the right to profit from even their most misbegotten ventures.
Chaining a star to degrading contractual obligations is nothing new nor are disgruntled responses from actors. In the 1930s, Jimmy Durante, miffed at his studio for repeatedly casting him in minor roles in B pictures, vowed not to utter his trademark “Hotcha!” until conditions improved. Kim Basinger lost a $9 million breach-of-contract lawsuit filed in 1993 by the producers of “Boxing Helena” after she pulled out of a film that wound up on most of the year’s “worst-of” lists. In its basic details, the Myers case is nothing extraordinary.
A couple of factors set this sordid little affair apart from the rest, though. To begin with, it isn’t as if Myers read the script, signed on to the project and then got cold feet. He agreed to this venture before any script existed, he wrote the screenplay himself, and he decided to hold off for awhile when he realized his own work was just not funny enough. In this instance, he is taking responsibility for his own failings and refusing to attach his name to an unsatisfactory product. The studio’s response is akin to a car company suing a designer for delaying production of an automobile he or she knows to be unsafe.
More importantly, this lawsuit represents what is probably the movie industry’s most blatant admission of its true motives to date. The studios are essentially saying, “We don’t care about making quality films. If this thing can make some money the way it is, there’s no reason to waste a second getting it onto the screen.” Of course everyone knows that in Hollywood, just like everywhere else, profits have always come first, but in the past, there was always at least a slight facade of honorable intent. Now the executives seem content to tell an audience to its face, “It sucks and we know it, but you’re going to pay to see it anyway, so what do we care?”
It is truly sad to remember that Orson Welles, even after establishing himself as one of cinematic history’s most innovative and effective directors, had to scrape the bottom of the funding barrel to get almost every one of his films made. To think of Welles’ masochistic cast and crew sitting idly around the various sets for Othello while the director flew off to all corners of the globe to beg for more cash is massively disheartening in the light of modern-day practices. Welles was jaded enough that he would probably have dismissed a case of millions of dollars being spent in an attempt to make a performer complete a film against his will as just another day in Hollywood, but the irony would certainly not have been lost on him.
These proceedings are a slap in the face, not just to Welles and the struggling impresarios of the past, but also to today’s thriving independent film community. While upwards of $55 million is swirling uncertainly around a picture that was officially decreed a hit while it was just a twinkle in a marketing rep’s eye, hundreds of aspiring filmmakers are maxing out their credit cards and stocking their shelves with Ramen in order to produce films that might get single screenings at underground festivals, if they’re lucky. While the vast majority of these people will never realize the dream of cinematic success, their projects are at least infused with the vitality and immediacy that can only be found in truly sincere undertakings. If $55 million, or even $55,000, were backing up their enthusiasm, we might just come up with something worth seeing.
There is still a chance that the “Dieter” film will eventually be completed, and it might very well be a worthwhile piece of work. Even if it turns out to be the funniest movie ever made, however, the studio has already specified that its content is of absolutely no consequence. They believe that they could attach Mike Myers’ name to 90 minutes of blank screen, and the public would still make it number one at the box office, because that is simply part of who we have become. The truly scary part is that they’re probably right.
Ira Brooker is a senior. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]