Twentieth-Century Foxes

BRENTWOOD—Twenty-one million dollars for Leonardo DiCaprio to star in American Psycho, whose main virtue is it allows him to apply jumper cables to women’s body parts? Can you say, “I hate my young female audience?”

But it’s nice he’s getting the big payday, because after last week, you’d think this town had in it for Italians. First, of course, came Frank Sinatra, his death the beau ideal of an on-time departure, given his image’s pendulum swing over the last three decades from ultracool to camp to ultracool once more. Sinatra—the only celebrity who ever sued a journalist for writing a book that, in his view, made his life seem too boring—was pronounced dead in the same Cedars-Sinai emergency room where one week earlier a 50-year-old man collapsed and died of a Viagra overdose, his heart seizing up after taking just four of the tablets. (Coincidence? Uh, probably.)

Then came the news that Mike Piazza, the Los Angeles’ Dodgers star catcher, had been shipped off to the Florida Marlins—the first major move for the Dodgers since the baseball team was purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox. Piazza was the Dodgers’ best player on the field, its most popular with the fans, and its most expensive to keep. He and his rocket scientist of an agent had recently turned down a six-year offer from the Dodgers worth more than $80 million. Piazza publicly dissed the Dodgers’ proposal, which made the Marlins deal look like management’s up-your-nose-with-a-rubber-hose payback, especially given Piazza’s long-running romance with the SoCal lifestyle.

Baseball experts, such as the godlike Peter Gammons, have noted that the trade leaves the Dodgers with an improved team … but what’s interesting about the deal is the way it flies in the face of traditional L.A. sports-team wisdom, which holds that any team in this showbiz-savvy market needs stars—marquee players—to attract attention. Exhibit A: Jerry West’s Laker teams, now seeking a basketball title with movie and rap star Shaquille O’Neal alongside fresh-faced phenom Kobe Bryant. Exhibit B: the faceless and fan-less L.A. Clippers.

Piazza was that kind of A-list star, but Fox didn’t care—a decision in keeping with the studio’s Hollywood strategy. Fox has taken a lot of heat for being the kind of company which didn’t seem to care about shmoozing talent. When they wouldn’t pony up huge bucks for TV and film producer James L. Brooks after he brought them The Simpsons, Big, and The War of the Roses, he took still more money at Sony. Years later, Fox bid goodbye to the producing/directing team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, who’ve just made Godzilla for Sony. Last summer, Fox made Speed 2 without Keanu Reeves, and lost a bundle. Earlier this year, they took plenty of heat for not paying Jim Cameron despite reaping zillions from Titanic.

The results? Jim Brooks is still a brilliant moviemaker, but while he gave Sony Jerry Maguire and As Good as It Gets, he also saddled that studio with the $40 million non-starter I’ll Do Anything.Godzilla will open, but its legs are suspect. Jim Cameron’s pending divorce may go further toward explaining why he didn’t arrange to see a lot of money from his blockbuster right away than Fox’s greed does.

Meanwhile, Fox is doing fine. It has the X-Files movie on the way, a $60 million picture with a cult following so large, the film’ll get to $100 million without breathing hard—even though it was months after shooting had ended before the studio’s marketing head was allowed to read past Page 60 in the script. Something About Mary, a Peter Farrelly comedy, has nifty word-of-mouth. And Fox has the right to distribute George Lucas’s inevitably lucrative Star Wars prequels.

And while Hollywood struggles to find meaning in Titanic and Leo-mania, Fox’s newly-minted, longterm deal with Aussie auteur Baz Luhrmann—who directed DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet—shows that they do get it, after all. Titanic was an impossibly bold undertaking, cost $200 million, and made five times its cost worldwide. Romeo and Juliet was a slickly-shot retelling of an timeless story, cost $19 million and made more than five times its cost worldwide. Which success would appear less taxing to a studio’s resources and more easy to repeat? Fox’s star-averse approach hasn’t always made them popular–just ask all the kids still wearing Mike Piazza’s number—but it might make them Most Likely to Succeed.