We're All In This Together: How Critics Can Make A Difference
By Collin Souter
Posted 01/06/02 15:17:34
This feature is actually a research paper I wrote for a Cinema History class. Since the subject deals with film critics and their impact on the fate/destiny of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," I felt it would be appropriate to post it here to show, if nothing else, that sometimes film critics can make a difference for the better. Enjoy...
Sometimes, the fate of artistic expression lies with the critics. A grim thought, to be sure, but that’s the way it played out for Terry Gilliam’s futuristic black comedy, “Brazil.” On Saturday, December 14, 1985, after Gilliam’s lengthy battle with Universal Pictures over creative control, the Los Angeles Film Critics Society screened his cut of “Brazil.” Jack Matthews, a member of the organization, chronicled the feud that took place between Gilliam and the CEO of Universal, Sid Sheinberg. The battle between the artistic David and the corporate Goliath made headlines throughout the industry. On that Saturday evening, however, as Gilliam sat in a London movie theater watching another Universal film “Back To The Future,” the Los Angeles Film Critics awarded “Brazil” with the top honors.
The LA Critics’ vote for “Brazil” ended up being the most crucial maneuver in Gilliam’s “war” with Universal. For almost an entire year, Gilliam fought to release “Brazil” his way: Surreal, densely layered and with a downbeat ending. Gilliam set out to make a movie where the main character goes mad, and it’s a happy ending. Universal, who had changed CEO’s during the film’s production, felt that Gilliam had made an “unreleasable” film with zero commercial potential.
Gilliam’s “Brazil” tells the story of a lowly middle-aged bureaucrat named Sam Lowlry (Jonathan Pryce) who has Walter Mitty-like daydreams of flying through clouds with his dream girl. He finally meets the girl of his dreams in real life, a rebellious truck driver named Jill (Kim Griest). Sam, against his better wishes, accepts a promotion at his place of working, The Ministry of Information, so that he may find out more about her. But he uses unlawful methods of doing so, which results in his arrest and subsequent termination.
To describe the entire story of “Brazil” would take up a few more pages, but there you have it in the tiniest nutshell possible. Gilliam’s bleak film falls in many categories: Science fiction (futuristic, yet primitive), comedy (of the British variety), satire (on government and bureaucrasy), romance and the Christmas sprit. Hardly the ingredients of a box office hit (as if such a sure-fire formula existed). Universal felt sure, as did Gilliam, that “Brazil” had limited appeal. Universal also felt that even discriminating arthouse audiences wouldn’t know what to make of it.
Universal CEO Sidney Sheinberg had an idea. Cut the film from 142 minutes to a mere 97 minutes, play down the surrealism and the satire, play up the romance and have Sam and Jill wind up together at the end. This became known as the “Love Conquers All” version, which Sheinberg felt had more commercial viability. Gilliam refused to participate in the circumcision of his work.
The results of a test screening made up of psychology and philosophy majors and professors from UCLA indicated a disaster in Universal’s minds. After the film, everyone in the audience filled out questionnaires. The over-all reception ended up being about 50/50, with half liking and understanding the film and the other half condemning the film as too confusing and too long. Gilliam had grown used to 50/50 test scores, as Monty Python films had usually done. He had already been asked to trim his film down 10 minutes so that they could show it twice in an evening. Gilliam eventually agreed, but not without a fight.
Sheinberg still felt, even at 132 minutes, that the film would fail. After a shouting match between Gilliam and Sheinberg regarding the film’s unreleasable ending, Sheinberg pressed ahead with creating his “Love Conquers All” version. Much to Gilliam’s surprise, the editors called him at his London home asking for his input on the new version. Gilliam had no input. He knew they had a crap film, because Gilliam sent the crap himself. He kept his cut of the film and shipped all the outtakes, blooper reels, and unusable footage to Sheinberg’s editors. In the documentary The Battle of ‘BRAZIL:’ A Video History, Gilliam reflects: “I would get calls from the editors wanting my input. I said, ‘What do you mean you want my input?’ ‘We’ll we’re saving your film.’ ‘No, you’re not saving my film. You’re killing my film. You’re destroying my film. You’re holding my child and you’re asking which limb do you want cut off. His left leg, his right leg…come on.’”
The “war,” in Gilliam’s words, had begun. The themes of “Brazil” had taken on a whole new life. It served as a metaphor for Gilliam’s own struggle for creative freedom against a bureaucratic corporate machine. He made a detrimental move in making the war public. In the summer of 1985, Gilliam placed an ad in Variety. With a single black border and a plain white background taking up the entire page, a notice read: “Dear Sid Sheinberg. When are you going to release my film ‘BRAZIL?’ Terry Gilliam.”
Gilliam: “When the idea came up, I just decided to leap in and do it. And the minute I got my Variety and opened it and saw it, that was the moment. I just went, ‘Oh fuck, what have I done? Oh shit, oh no. And that lasted about five minutes and then it was ‘Okay, it’s done.’”
He didn’t get an answer from Sheinberg right away. He did get a letter from Robert DeNiro, who in the film plays an outlaw freelance repairman named Harry Tuttle. The letter made reference to Tuttle’s gung-ho philosophy. DeNiro’s letter read: “Dear Terry. We’re all in this together. Harry Tuttle. P.S. Watch out for all the paperwork.”
On Friday, October 18, 1985, Arthur Knight’s Cinema 466 Theatrical Film Symposium at the University of Southern California would host a special screening of “Brazil,” but under one condition: They couldn’t tell anybody. It would have to rely on word-of-mouth. In spite of that rule, staff and students made up fliers anyway and posted them all over campus. Gilliam showed up with his print and did a Q&A session with the packed house of students and faculty. In between questions, Gilliam received phone calls from his lawyer telling him that only Universal, who caught wind of the screening, could grant permission to show the film. Phone calls bounced back and forth between Universal, Gilliam’s lawyer and Gilliam, who delighted the audience with his summations of the situation. Gilliam didn’t hold anything back from the audience.
Gilliam: “Brazil is about this very thing, about a huge bureaucracy and people’s positions within it…It’s about people who don’t want to get involved. It’s about Universal Pictures, I discovered today…It would be wonderful to get the phone hooked up to the PA system so everyone could hear.”
Finally, the studio granted Gilliam permission to show “segments” of the film. Gilliam decided to show the students at USC one segment 140 minutes long.
Gilliam used DeNiro’s support to further his campaign. Both he and the actor appeared on Maria Shriver’s CBS Morning News show to rally support.
“I wanted to be a part of the movie because I liked Terry very, very much,” DeNiro explains. “He is one of the most sincere directors I’ve ever worked with, and I thought what he was doing was worthwhile. I never thought for a minute that [Brazil] would be changed or not be accepted for what it was. That kind of movie is like putting a puzzle together. If it’s going to work, it’s going to work the way it’s intended. Changing it isn’t going to change the audience appeal.”
Sheinberg had been asked to attend, but declined. In response, Gilliam brought along an 8 x 10 glossy of Sheinberg. In the documentary, The Battle of ‘BRAZIL:’ A Video History, Gilliam talks about the incident. “(Shriver said) ‘I understand you have a problem with Universal Pictures.’ I said, ‘I don’t have a problem with the studio. I have a problem with a man named Sid Sheinberg and he looks like this, and I pulled out an 8 x 10 glossy and pointed at it on national television…That was the only thing I felt I could do was to make this battle as personal as possible.”
Sheinberg grew tired of the finger pointing and felt that the best thing to do would be to sell the film off and take a loss. David Matalon, head of Tri-Star Pictures had an enthusiasm for “Brazil” and seemed excited to release it. Gilliam stepped aside and let his partner, “Brazil” producer Arnon Milchan, do the talking. It seemed as though it might have been a done deal, but the marketing department started feeling nervous. The studio got cold feet and decided it would be best not to have anything to do with it.
The month of December usually has critics on a screening frenzy. If a movie doesn’t have a screening for the critics before the end of the month, it doesn’t qualify for award consideration and it won’t wind up on any end-of-the-year 10-best lists. When December approached in 1985, Gilliam and Milchan felt that a last-ditch effort to appeal to Universal would have to be through screenings for the critics. After screening the film to the Los Angeles film critics, the organization talked at length about whether or not “Brazil,” a movie that had not yet received an official American release, could be considered for its Best Picture award. They finally agreed that it could. “Brazil” won.
Terry, it’s Steve (Hirsch,” the answering machine message said.) “Wait till you hear this. L.A. Critics award. Best Picture: Brazil. Best Director: Terry Gilliam. Best Screenplay: Brazil! …It’s got to be three in the morning there, whatever…Watch Sheinberg shit his head off…Congratulations!…”
The Sunday morning after the Los Angeles Film Critic Awards, Sheinberg received a phone call informing him of “Brazil”’s triumphant sweep. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Sheinberg said.
“Brazil” had also been getting rave reviews from Time and Newsweek. With only a few weeks left in the year, Gilliam and Milchan convinced Universal to show the movie to critics in New York and Chicago, to open around Christmas and to start campaigning for Oscars. Sheinberg could no longer hold out. Universal had surrendered and Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” would be booked in two theaters in Los Angeles by Christmas, qualifying it for Oscar consideration and critics awards.
Most critics did not share the enthusiasm of the Los Angeles Film Critics. Many, ironically, felt that the studio may have been right to alter Gilliam’s cut. Many found it to be too confusing, too long and over-the-top.
Gilliam: “People were stunned by it and the reaction was very polarized; there was no middle ground. They either thought it was fantastic, or terrible, awful, unwatchable.”
In limited release, “Brazil” drew huge numbers, selling out almost every show. The executives at Universal felt that perhaps they had little reason to be weary of “Brazil’s” potential for profits. They expanded the release, but with little success. In the end, “Brazil” grossed around $9 million, and garnered only two Academy Award nominations: Best Art Direction and Best Original Screenplay. Universal reserved their major Oscar campaign for Sydney Pollack’s epic “Out Of Africa,” starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. It swept.
In the end, the Battle of “Brazil” had no clear winners or losers. Gilliam won the battle to have his movie released his way, but the studio had the right instincts that it would not be a commercial success and that the critics would be split. Sheinberg quickly points out that the Los Angeles Film Critics have nobody in their corner to back up the praise for “Brazil.”
Sheinberg: “If you want my opinion of who looks the silliest—and let’s concede that anybody who participated in this ended up looking silly—I think the group that looked the silliest was the L.A. film critics. Nobody agreed with them. At least I can stand back and say the audience agreed with me. Terry Gilliam can stand back and say his friends and film students and L.A. film critics agreed with him. But who agreed with the L.A. film critics?”
But Sheinberg would still have his day. On January 9th, 1989, “Brazil” aired on National Television. Sid Sheinberg’s “Brazil,” the 97-minute cut assembled by a team of editors using Gilliam’s donation of outtakes, blooper reels and unusable footage and absent of Michael Kamen’s score. It had a far more incomprehensive plot, a muddled narrative and, yes, a happy ending. In spite of the ads that ran in the paper that day, this was certainly not the movie the L.A. critics awarded Best picture of 1985.
Ten years later, Gilliam would return to Universal to make another grim futuristic tale, “12 Monkeys.” Sheinberg continued at MCA Universal and founded The Bubble Factory, a studio specializing in turning old TV shows into major motion pictures (“Flipper” and “McHale’s Navy” among them). The two haven’t spoken to one another since the Battle of “Brazil,” but neither one of them seems to hold a grudge. “12 Monkeys” got the okay from Sheinberg after Production President Casey Silver ran the idea past him. Sheinberg gave the ‘okay,’ but gave Casey the word of caution to protect himself. Whether or not the Battle of “Brazil” had a lasting impression on the industry remains debatable.
Gilliam: “I don’t think it changed the industry. It was a glitch. I wasn’t part of the system. And it was a very unique situation…And I think for a moment it did something, but it didn’t change anything ultimately. In a way it did become about two personalities, but they represented two sides and a whole way of thinking. Sid’s is the perfect corporate view…He’s not a bad guy, it’s just his view of the system and the way it works is very conservative and establishment.”
One thing remains certain: Film critics, for better or worse, can have influence over a film’s release. Before producing Brazil, Milchan produced Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time In America,” a nearly 4-hour epic reduced to a mere 2 hours by Warner Brothers. The critics hated it. Their opinions changed, however, when they saw Leone’s original cut. They declared it a masterpiece, and now it is the only version of the film available on video. In 1994, Siskel and Ebert launched a campaign to release the documentary “Hoop Dreams,” claiming it the best film of the year. New Line released it, but failed to win any Oscar nominations.
But critics can be influenced by the plight of the artists. Prior to one of the screenings for the Los Angeles film critics, producer Robert Radnitz, who also had a heated battle with Sheinberg over the Martin Ritt film “Cross Creek,” made these comments:
“I am concerned, as are many other members of our creative community, by any attempt on the part of a studio to vastly alter, as I understand it, the conception and vision of a film to which the studio had initially given a go. To withhold from the public the artist’s conception weakens the fabric of a process that I deeply believe in. As a producer, I have encountered this attitude myself—but never, as I understand it, in so flagrant a fashion. Further, for a studio to make statements insisting a film is unreleasable is, in my opinion, only to start a chain reaction of self-fulfilling prophecy that must cause all of us who love film deep concern.”