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Hollywood out-did itself in misses, hits

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Research scientists across the country have gotten grants to conduct studies on all sorts of crazy subjects, but I've got one to top them all.

May I suggest a research study on production executives for the movie studios, so we can finally see what's going on in their minds?

Sure, these guys are capable sometimes of achieving an odd alchemy, converting something like cinematic lead into box-office gold (such as the "National Lampoon's Animal House"/"American Pie" rip-off "Road Trip").

But can someone — anyone — please explain to me how a movie like "Center Stage" got green-lit, much less made and released in theaters?

This teen ballet melodrama featured no big-name stars in its cast and came from a director, Nicholas Hytner, who is better-known for his Broadway work than for any box-office success (his films include the dud "The Object of My Affection").

"Center Stage" also came several yearstoo late to cash in on the "Fame" craze and is one of the summer's biggest bombs.

But that film was only one of a dozen costly missteps by the studios this year. Here are some other, recent examples of the "What Were They Thinking?" syndrome:

"Battlefield Earth" — Let's see: John Travolta in 3-foot-tall lifts and bad pseudo-Klingon get-up from the "Star Trek" series, delivering lines in an unappetizingly hammy manner that would embarrass even most Shakespeare-in-the-Park participants. Yep, that one's certainly got success written all over it.

"American Psycho" — A dark comedy about a shallow American yuppie who may or may not be a serial killer (Christian Bale), that's supposed to parody '80s materialism. Uh-huh. The very idea's got me in stitches already.

"Gone in Sixty Seconds" — This summer, usually crafty producer Jerry Bruckheimer put his stock in a big-budget action film with car thieves as the heroes. Hmm, I can't possibly think of any reason why that idea didn't take off . . . other than the fact that most people simply don't like car thieves!

"Titan A.E." — An animated science-fiction adventure aimed at 13- and 14-year-old boys, one of the audiences that was most likely to reject such a film. Why didn't they just make a "Grumpy Old Men" cartoon or an animated romantic comedy while they were at it?

"Fantasia 2000" — Um, correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't audiences reject the first "Fantasia" movie when it was originally released in 1940? And if that period's more "highbrow" audience wasn't interested, what made Disney think today's (gulp!) more shallow crowds would be interested?

"The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" — People my age may fondly remember the Saturday-morning cartoon series. But its delightfully awful puns are lost on today's video-game-addicted kids, and this live-action/animation hybrid never comes close to being as clever as its source.

"28 Days" — Sandra Bullock in a feel-good film about recovering from a dependency problem. Need I say more?

"The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas" — A cheaply made sequel with none of the original stars returning? The level of optimism here is unbelievable.

Before I forget, let me quickly say that I don't mean to denigrate research scientists, most of whom do fine, valuable work. If only the same could be said of movie-development executives.

BUT THEN AGAIN. . . .

As hackneyed as much of this summer's fare has been, some have succeeded despite their ridiculous plots.

For instance, who would have thought that a "Gladiator" movie would become one of the year's biggest successes (not Peter Graves, that's for sure), or that "Scary Movie," a parody-of-a-parody, would rack up such monstrous box-office receipts?

And then there's "X-Men," which is based on a Marvel Comics series. Considering that the company's characters have been used for such shlock as "The Punisher," "Captain America" and the not-too-fondly remembered "Spider-Man" television series, this entertaining action piece has to be considered a huge surprise. Go figure.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Wolverine, come on. Sure, (Batman's) got his gadgets, but whatever he's done to me, I can heal myself, and I lay one claw on that man, he's in trouble. That Robin guy might be a little pesky. He's very insecure, Batman is, always has to come in pairs, the two of them." — "X-Men" star Hugh Jackman, fielding questions about who would win in a fight between his character, Wolverine, and Batman.


E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com