Scientology? No, thanks!
By David Thomson
21 May 2000
A few days before Battlefield Earth was due to open, worried word began to circulate that the movie was based on a "novel" by L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology; that it had been made only because of the commitment of John Travolta, another Scientologist; and that, for all anyone knew, there were subliminal messages implanted in the picture that might be slipping insidious Hubbardisms into the hitherto unsullied American mind. I smelt a rat, and the rat was the usual kind where the picture business is concerned, the guys in sleek suits who can enter a room without opening the door. (That is not subliminal, but it is a nasty joke that has to do with the capacity of slippery suits to imitate the action of a worm.)
I have seen Battlefield Earth and it is slovenly, noisy, half-hearted, crepuscular, and supports only one message or creed--that you have wasted your time in entering the cinema. Whether it was the subliminals or the conventionally wretched liminals, my head was filled with "Do you realise the Lakers and the Phoenix Suns are on TV now?", or even, "What a woeful life it is to be a film critic".
The notion that anyone has loaded this film with single-frame messages seems to me approximately as stupid as the myth that sprang up under the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, that American films of the 1930s and 1940s, thanks to the employment of wicked writers, had been conveying a stalwartly Communist point of view. How tender we are about the stories told to us, how we long for them to have outer and inner meanings to revel over. And what dunces we are in reaching the conclusion that the worm does nothing except for the buck.
The worm in this case is Eli Samaha, the head of Franchise Pictures, who actually made Battlefield Earth. Mr Samaha was a bouncer at Studio 54, and then spent years in the dry-cleaning business. Thus raised to cherish celebrities and shiny suits, he naturally aspired to the picture business. Like all of us, he was encouraged by the plain evidence of how many idiots had flourished there. So why not Eli?
Mr Samaha heard that John Travolta, the John that everybody loved, the one who had come back from the dead with Pulp Fiction, $20m John Travolta, was very hot for L Ron Hubbard's sci-fi novel. Always had been--like for 15 years. Without ever getting anywhere, because the novel was junk, and expensive to film. Evidently not Travolta, who had grown plump, happy, smiley in his second career, with a fleet of private planes, and houses all over the world.
But Eli Samaha said, how about we film it, John? John said he was too old now to play the hero. So play the villain, said Eli. Play him English with terrific hair. Really? Said John. Gee, that would be fun. Of course, added Eli, seeing as how it was a labour of love, John would have to take a little less than his usual $20m. How much less, Eli? It was negotiated. They hired Roger Christian to direct--he had done second-unit work on The Phantom Menace. They would shoot in Canada. Travolta would settle for around $12m, with a bigger bite of the profits. With all of that, they could do the picture for $65m, instead of $90m.
Then, last Sunday, in the New York Times, there was Eli, saying that with all the foreign deals he'd made, if the movie did $15m its first weekend, he would be OK. Now, if he said $15m, he wanted $17.5m. The film did $12.3m. It will fall off fast.
Which reminds me to report that Friends has been saved for two more years. And since I find it regularly one of the most entertaining works on any American screen now, I offer thanks. But Friends has always risked being the victim of its own concept--that all six people are of the same importance. And so the six have always been paid the same. Which meant that in recent negotiations they sought $1m each per episode, for a 24-episode series.
Wise heads had headaches. Was the show viable with above-the-line charges of $6m per episode? Hard negotiations took place. And the friends agreed to settle for $750,000 per episode (so long as their deal was sweetened with a little more long-term syndication money). Each performer will now make $18m a series. It reminds me of "share and share alike", a line from one of those wartime team-spirit movies that was enough to get its screenwriter blacklisted. You get into that level of sharing, and soon you're talking serious money.
'Battlefield Earth' opens 2 June; 'Friends' returns to Channel 4 in the autumn.