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The Pitch

Before he died of congestive heart failure in March 1992, Richard Brooks, director of The Blackboard Jungle and In Cold Blood, used to tell this story. It takes place sometime in the late 1940s, when Brooks was ascending royalty in Hollywood; after all, he'd written John Huston's Key Largo, starring Bogie and Bacall, and for his labors he had a suite of offices on the Columbia Pictures lot and a stable of secretaries. He was leaving the lot one night when he spied an old, maybe homeless man loitering about. The man approached Brooks and spoke to him in a gruff voice.

"You're Richard Brooks, you're Richard Brooks," he kept saying. "I got ideas for stories. I got ideas." He demanded Brooks get him an office. Something about the badgering codger struck him as familiar.

"Are you David Wark Griffith?" Brooks asked, and indeed, standing before him hand out was D.W. Griffith, director of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance and some 540 other features and one-reelers that dated back to 1908.

"Yes, goddamnit, and I can make contributions!" Griffith told Brooks. "All I want is an office!" Some 40 years after his first film, this is what had become of the man who co-founded United Artists in 1919, the visionary about whom Cecil B. DeMille once said, "He taught us how to photograph thought." He had been reduced to begging for work, and Brooks was eager to oblige. He went to the head of the studio and demanded another office and secretary. The boss asked whom it was for, and Brooks told him.

"Absolutely not," he answered. "He's nothing but a pain in the ass, that old man." Griffith was turned out and thrown away.

"And he started the movie business," says Ron Shelton, writer and director of such films as Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump and Tin Cup and an old friend of Brooks', who once told Shelton this very tale. "Is that an unbelievable story? If D.W. Griffith can't get an office..."

Shelton's voice trails off, as though still flabbergasted and insulted. Over dinners before his death, Brooks used to teach Shelton lots of things--including how disposable the director was and remains in Hollywood. The difference is, back in the '40s there were studio heads to reckon with; today, the studio boss is some bookkeeping dilettante, and he's likely based overseas. Back then, studios were in the movie business; today, studios are small parts of giant multinationals that sell everything from CDs to cable-network programming to elementary-school textbooks--and they're messy parts, at that. Warner Bros. made money for AOL Time Warner last year, and still that company's stock plummets. Last May, AOL Time Warner's stock sold for $58.51; today, it's worth less than half that. "The film division of Warner Brothers is a pain in the ass for AOL Time Warner," Shelton says, with a roaring laugh.

"I can't figure out how anything gets made these days," the writer-director continues. "It's a mind-blower out here, dealing with the new corporatization. The studios, as recently as a few years ago, were run by kinda wonderful, crazy characters who were entrepreneurs and gamblers and larger than life and lived and died by their own whims. Now, it's all so corporate and formulaic that it's very hard to get a picture through that isn't pre-processed and isn't a connect-the-dots kinda thing. That's why you go to these movies and go, 'Why did they make that?'"

Or, why didn't they make that? The 56-year-old Shelton has in his desk three scripts he is dying to get made; that he can't find a studio, big or small, interested in them speaks volumes about the current state of the movie business. If Shelton, a visionary in a world of near-sighted accountants and attorneys playing Thalberg, can't get his pictures made, what hope is there for the bright comer trying to crash the golden gates of a studio system designed to keep out such dreamers?

Next week, MGM's home-video division will release a special-edition DVD of Shelton's directorial debut, Bull Durham, still the best sports film ever made. In 1988, the movie almost didn't get made: Shelton, a former minor-league ballplayer and novice screenwriter (he penned 1983's Under Fire, starring Nick Nolte as a combat photojournalist), shopped the script around to every studio--twice--before finally persuading producer Thom Mount to fork over the meager $7 million he needed. (In the United States, the film grossed $50 million at the box office and $22 million more on video). Shelton also had trouble convincing the money people he had the right cast: Kevin Costner wasn't yet a bankable leading man; Susan Sarandon, who started making movies in 1970, was considered over-the-hill, and Tim Robbins' biggest role to that point had been as the lead in Howard the Duck.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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