Columbia Pictures’ preview screening of its Close Encounters Of The Third Kind at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was over, and the young actress, deeply moved, was plainly in the grip of emotions over which she had to exercise the tightest rein. Finally, outside in the benign warmth of a Beverly Hills night, she found the words that had been failing her. “Gaaahd,” she managed, “why didn’t I sell my Columbia stock yesterday?”
The fact that she didn’t was a tribute to Columbia’s expert prerelease selling job, which has managed to place in the public mind the idea that we are not alone and that their movie about outer space’s first contact with earth is going to show why— raising the hair on our necks as it does so. “And now this,” said the actress, in an inner space of despair. “It’s going to set me back five years.”
For anyone remotely interested in Hollywood history, the success or failure of Close Encounters is a matter of importance. Founded in 1924, Columbia is one of the oldest Hollywood studios, but its film-making future may well depend on how Steven Spielberg’s $ 19.2-million movie fares at the box office. The studio has not paid a dividend since 1971—in 1973 it lost $50 million and owed the banks $165 million more—in 1974 its stock sank to a perilous $1.63. Lately matters have picked up a little. Shampoo, a surprise hit, is widely credited with saving Columbia’s bacon in 1975, and this year The Deep has been another big money-maker. But to protect its flanks in a field where too many productions tilt, Columbia recently diversified by buying the Gottlieb Pinball Company and 500,000 shares of Mattel, the toy company.
This year the stock started at $7.38 and steadily climbed into the fall. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind was not only a brilliant title—nobody knew what it meant, exactly, except that it was about them—but it also smelled good. Spielberg, it was clearly understood in movie circles, was the latest in the Hollywood genus of genius—in 1971 he had made a two-hour gem of a movie called Duel for TV, in 1974 The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called The Sugarland Express, his first feature, “one of the most phenomenal (directoral) debut films in the history of movies”—and for a time in the past two years his second feature, Jaws, made more money than any movie had in the entire history of recorded time. All that, and he was still only 29. Listen, the word went, the kid’s not only a genius, he’s commercial.
By October 31—unaffected by the resignation of its senior executive vice-president for conducting certain unauthorized financial transactions—Columbia stock reached $18.38. And then came black Tuesday—November 1, when New York magazine hit the streets with an extremely damaging report by William Flanagan, a financial reporter who had conned his way into a sneak preview of Close Encounters in Dallas. “In my humble opinion,” wrote Flanagan, the words dropping like depth charges in thousands of psychic seas, “the picture will be a colossal flop.” To ram the point home, the piece was accompanied by six line drawings depicting a UFO sweeping in to land on a mountaintop and laying a monstrous egg.
The resulting commotion was extraordinary even for febrile New York: so many investors were falling over themselves to sell that a 90-minute halt was called in trading of Columbia shares on Wall street. Two days before, Columbia had traded 78,000 shares : November 1 it traded 205,500 and the stock dropped to $15.50 before rallying slightly to $16. True, Time magazine gave the movie a rave a few days later, which may have heartened those who didn’t know that Time was a major investor in it, but by the time it opened to some 400 members of the press from Western America at the Academy, everyone connected with the film was twanging with discords.
And yet the mass press conference the day after the opening may well have soothed some of the jangled nerves up on the dais. The original plan—laid out by producers Michael and Julia Phillips, New Yorkers in their early thirties whom many
in Hollywood haven’t forgiven for striking it obscenely rich with The Sting, only their first time at bat, then striking it even richer with Taxi Driver—was to have six rooms, with one or two principal members of the production and acting team in each, the press circulating through as the spirit moved. Fifty-dollar tape recorders and six cassettes, thoughtfully color-coded, had been given each of us, the better to facilitate our duties. Alas, Julia Phillips, 33 and feisty (and nastily caricatured under another name in Erica Jong’s sequel to Fear Of Flying, How To Save Your Own Life), had fallen out with her Columbia bosses, with the result that after all the ballyhoo and all the expense of flying writers (firstclass) to Los Angeles from all over the west, all that was left was a pointless 90minute free-for-all in a single cavernous ballroom. “Programming for disaster,” Julia grumbled a couple of days afterward.
The wondrous thing was that so many writers should have spent the scant time available leaping to their feet to compliment all concerned on making, variously, “a profoundly meaningful movie,” “a religious experience,” “a masterpiece,” “a shining beacon of optimism for anyone who’s into middle-age,” and “a film that left me lost in a glorious glow of veneration.” Had their minds always been founded in such sycophantic mush? Aghast, I wondered darkly if a first-class round trip, one night’s lodging and a $50 tape recorder were all it took—and if so, would my acceptance of the tape recorder cause the scales eventually to fall from my eyes?
Happily, as the official part of the meeting broke up and the avid gathered around the people still on the dais, some sort of status quo was restored. “And what are you
going to do next, Julia?” asked one newshen from the Midwest, mouth smiling, eyes hard and devouring. “Pm going to relax and enjoy what most people think are my ill-gotten gains,” replied Julia Phillips in her nasal New York twang. “Hear, hear!” said the newshen, looking as if she’d like to mince Phillips into steak tartare. “Absolutely, Julia, you’ve earned it.” Turning away a few minutes later, eyes sated after some private orgasm of envy, the newshen muttered to a colleague: “Jesus, what a bitch!”
Later still, back home and with rather more directness, Julia Phillips asked why Maclean’s was disappointed by the movie. Too much accent on special effects, was the answer, not enough involvement with character. That was the fault of Star Wars, Phillips suggested (the George Lucas movie has recently outgrossed Spielberg’s Jaws to become the latest all-time top money-maker). “Steven was absolutely wiped out by the success of that film. I mean, he became catatonic. Finally he scrapped large parts of the beginning of Close Encounters, family scenes and so on, and went out and shot more special effects.” Spielberg was still shooting them three weeks before the film finally opened.
The 2'/4-hour result is a chaotic, often absurd, utterly unengaging mishmash whose last half-hour of particularly special effects—the climactic moment when the aliens land and welcome earthlings aboard their spaceship for an endless flight through space and the time warp—made me long to pass through the time warp myself and return younger than the movie was making me. Whatever energy the film has derives from Richard Dreyfuss as the power repairman in Muncie, Indiana, who sees and experiences UFOS near his home, is hindered by a governmental cover-up in his endeavors to find out what they’re all about, gets deserted by his wife and family
who think he’s crazy, and finally goes to his rendezvous with spatial destiny on Devils Tower in Wyoming.
The only others to register in the movie are François Truffaut, the French director, who plays, with more charm than the part can bear, a space-phenomena expert who is trying to hush it all up, and Teri Garr, an interesting actress with a manic edge, who probably did something with the role of Dreyfuss’ wife before most of it was junked, thus making her departure from the film brusque, her part meaningless. A measure of the movie’s sloppiness is that the grabby title is never explained. For the record: encounters of the first kind mean UFO sightings, of the second kind mean physical evidence, of the third kind mean actual contact.
The film, of course, has opened to enormous business in L.A., where it has broken the kind of box office records that are always being broken. After the sales campaign, and the publicity it has had in the L.A. press, the wonder would be if it hadn’t. Spielberg’s novel from his screenplay is already out. The book about the making of the movie is due early next year. “All Columbia needs,” says one Hollywood hand, “is for all the 16 million North Americans who say they’ve seen a UFO to go see the movie—and take a friend with them.” Or will the movie be a Nashville— open strongly, then die? Warpless time will tell all. Meanwhile, the actress who wanted so badly to sell stock after seeing the L.A. preview is no happier today. She sold; since then the stock has steadily inched higher to above $ 19. Proof, if needed, that brains are being baffled once again by what Hollywood fashions best. DAVID COBB
MACLEAN’S BEST-SELLER LIST
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( ) Position last issue Prepared with the aid of the Canadian Booksellers Association
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