"A lot of people think movies emerge full blown"

It's a rite of February as inevitable as Groundhog Day. In a pre-dawn ceremony in Los Angeles, Jack Valenti, the granite-jawed CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, appears before a battery of TV cameras and unveils the nominations for the Academy Awards. In the green room of a TV studio in New York, Variety editor-in-chief and Hollywood savant Peter Bart waits on the sidelines, like a sportscaster on Super bowl Sunday, ready to decipher the results, handicap the nominees and help spread the Oscar fever sweeping the country.

This spring, however, Bart's enthusiasm for the blockbusters of 1998 is tempered by darker premonitions about the business that produced them. Despite the unprecedented hoopla, surprise hits, great performances and soaring box office revenues, Bart declares in his new book, The Gross: The Hits, the Flops -- The Summer That Ate Hollywood, just out from St. Martin's (Forecasts, Jan. 25), all is not well in Tinseltown. In the age of special effects-driven global mega-hits and spiraling production and marketing costs, studio bosses are less likely than ever to support risky ideas and the CEOs of giant transnational corporations have grown queasy about investing in motion pictures altogether. "The single most important fact about Hollywood today is that the economics of filmmaking don't work," Bart tells PW in the suite of a midtown hotel on the evening before a marathon day on the talk show circuit, where he'll flog both the Oscars and his new book.

It's a statement that may come as bitter medicine to the executives, stars and screenwriters who granted Bart almost unlimited access during the writing of The Gross. But Bart has always maintained a complex symbiotic relationship with the business he covers, magisterially inserting himself into the power struggles of the Hollywood elite while showering its members with enough publicity to flatter even the most outsized ego. Bart isn't one to shy away from a fight, but he also has a keen nose for the publicity a public spat can generate. His contention in The Gross, for instance, that Warren Beatty neither conceived nor wrote the entire Bulworth script that earned him an Oscar nomination left Beatty fulminating in "Page Six" of the New York Post two weeks ago. "Warren and I go way back," Bart says with a sly smile. "He's used to me causing him anxiety." More provocative was the column in Variety last year, following a series of firings at Universal, in which Bart advised chief executive Edgar Bronfman Jr., "If you hear a curious whirring in your ears, Edgar, it's the sound of the town turning against you." Bart and his editor, Robert Wallace, chose not to include an index in The Gross, "so people can't see on what page they are blasphemed; they actually have to read the book. That's what I call a dirty trick."

Bart d sn't hesitate to take aim at a sacred cow or two during a conversation that traverses his three-decade career in Hollywood and his own writing life (in addition to his columns in Variety and GQ, which will be issued in a collection from the Renaissance Press imprint of St. Martin's next fall, he has published two novels, Destinies and Thy Kingdom Come, and a nonfiction book, Fade Out, chronicling the downfall of MGM, a studio where Bart served as senior v-p, following stints at Paramount and Lorimar). Bart also paces the length of the room several times, though it's unclear if his restlessness is due to the phone calls announcing the last-minute scheduling conflicts complicating his East Coast publicity tour or to the intense energy that seems to reside just below the surface of his personality. Bart has a genial, straight-shooting manner, although he is famous for his temper (he once ended a disagreement with a Variety reporter by dumping the contents of a garbage pail on the reporter's head). He plays his cards like an expert gambler, divulging just enough information about himself to fill out the rudimentary details of his rise to the top of the business whose trade paper he now edits.

The Journalist as Executive

One might trace Bart's contrarian streak to his years growing up as "a Manhattan brat," attending Friends Seminary on East 16th St. ("we called it Friends Cemetery") and Swarthmore, where he edited the college newspaper. He wasn't even a film buff at the time, he says. "Writing was always my primary interest, but economics always fascinated me." After taking an M.A. at the London School of Economics, he became a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and then at the New York Times, which sent him to Los Angeles to cover the movie business, the Watts riots, the Esalen movement and other assorted events ("It was like doing the science fiction beat," he has said).

Then in 1967, in a career turnaround that most journalists only dream of, Bart was hired away from the Times by Gulf &Western CEO Charles Bludhorn to be a corporate executive, running production at Paramount under the direction of Robert Evans. During their seven-year partnership at Paramount, Evans and Bart put together a succession of films -- The Godfather, Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby -- that helped define the 1970s as one of the great periods in American cinema. It was a different Hollywood, Bart recalls, one that was just beginning to recover from a deep economic recession brought on by TV, where a group of brilliant, young directors, weaned on the artistic ferment of the 1960s, collaborated with producers who were given the leeway to take chances on films that defied convention and genre. "In those days there were no committees," Bart says. "If you called a meeting to discuss whether we should acquire The Godfather, the people who showed up were Evans and me. Today the room would be filled with people who had opinions."

Nowadays, Bart says, "not only are pictures terribly expensive, not only do you want a big star, but you want a co-financier and McDonald's as a marketing partner. It's a different industry. It's not any better or worse, it's just different. I was around at a time when the main interest was in the picture."

In what these days may seem an extraordinary coup, Evans and Bart acquired film rights to The Godfather from Mario Puzo for what Bart terms "a modest sum," based on a 60-page excerpt that a scout had managed to sneak out of Putnam in 1969. But Bart is quick to contrast the book scouts of the 1960s with the crackerjack studio spies operating today, who seek out much talked-about manuscripts, and in the case of a novel like The Horse Whisperer, create feeding frenzies that can send the cost of a book into the stratosphere. "There weren't that many [book] trackers around at the end of the '60s. It was a relatively unsophisticated thing. It wasn't that uncommon for someone to have a spy at say, PW, who would slip them something they liked if you gave them a very nice Christmas present. It was unruly in those days and disorganized," he notes.

Asked how Hollywood's relation to the publishing business has changed since his days at Paramount, Bart points to forces that have brought the two industries together and driven them apart. "A lot of the people [in publishing] -- agents, editors, executives -- think and act more like movie people," Bart says. "It's star-driven, and hot editors and agents are those people who control the stars. I never expected Hollywood to become a role model for publishing, but to a degree it's happened, and I'm not sure I'm happy with it, as someone who's straddled both."

But Bart can also be withering about the lack of interest Hollywood executives take in reading scripts or books. "I once did a column for GQ in which I talked about the fact that it was one of the great ironies of history to see all these people on Friday nights loading their cars with screenplays when the last thing they want to do on the weekend is read 14 scripts. You should see the tortured look on their faces. People in Hollywood are very hyper and they love to make deals, love to socialize. They don't like to close the door and read."

That antipathy, at a time when a multiplicity of media compete for the attention of the movie-going public, has proven a stumbling block even for major books that are optioned upon publication, then sit in turnaround for years without getting made. "A generation ago, if you had a really hot book, there was more of a carry-over into movies," he says. Memoirs of a Geisha, which was recently optioned by Steven Spielberg but is presently stuck in development limbo is a case in point, Bart says. "I think [Spielberg] will make the picture but he d sn't feel compelled to take advantage of the heat for the book. Implicit in that decision is the fact that he d sn't feel it's that germane. It helps to buy a bestseller but it surely isn't the ticket that it used to be to an instant audience."

$100 Million Hits and Flops

The Gross chronicles the rise of a new corporate Hollywood whose burned-out studio heads are happy just to have survived the summer with their jobs intact. Taking its premise from The Season, William Goldman's classic 1969 behind-the-scenes portrait of a single Broadway season, The Gross looks back at 1998 and tracks the major movies of the summer, a period that accounts for roughly 40% of Hollywood's annual box-office revenues. Peering into the halls of power, the sound stages and four-star restaurants where motion pictures are launched, the book offers a gossipy, nuts-and-bolts report on the development, marketing, distribution and gross earnings of a slew of hits and flops.

Bart takes the reader deep into the process, recounting pivotal decisions -- like Twentieth-Century Fox's idea to make Something About Mary a summer release or erstwhile Universal chairman Casey Silver's decision to open Out of Sight opposite Armageddon -- that helped make these films catch fire and fall flat, respectively. "A lot of people think movies emerge full blown," Bart says. "There are a lot of false stops and inadvertencies. I wanted to write about all of the inadvertencies and all of the wrong moves, too."

Bart has long been a friend of Goldman and has kept up a running dialogue on publishing and movies with both he and Random House editor-at-large Peter Gethers, who, as a Bantam editor in the late 1970s, edited Bart's first novel, Destinies, with Joni Evans, as part of a hard/soft deal with Simon &Schuster. The idea that someone should update The Season emerged from these conversations, and who better to commit the idea to the page than the quintessential Hollywood insider?

"You didn't have a lot of time to gather information," says Bart. "You had to do the reporting quickly. So I thought, logistically, if anybody could get away with doing it, it would be me, since I know most of the principals involved in these pictures and go back with many of them for years," he says.

"The big problem with books about entertainment," he adds, is that "the media and entertainment business is dominated by multinational corporations. As with any big corporation, there tends to be a secrecy that's imposed. In the days when the studios were relatively simple companies that made movies and, later, made TV, it was much more open to inquiry -- people were available.

"When I first came to L.A. in the late '60s, everybody was so accessible and candid to me. It was delicious. Now, most people have to go through echelons of corporate functionaries in order to elicit any information. I am lucky in the sense that I have a history with so many of the players that it's easier for me to skip all of those steps."

Repairing to the bar in the hotel lobby, sipping a Ketel One martini on the rocks with a twist, Bart grows expansive on the subject of Variety, which he has edited since 1989. Since taking charge of the paper, Bart has redesigned it, expanded its foreign coverage, introduced home delivery on both coasts and injected a rough-and-tumble, aggressive attitude into stories about talent agencies, business deals and high-priced screenplays, some written by Bart himself in his often avuncular, often acerbic, biweekly columns. Bart oversees both the 10 daily and one weekly editions on both coasts, though the workload d sn't seem to have slowed him down or declawed him. "It's a tough-minded paper," Bart says. "While we try to be objective and fair, we're not pussycats."