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Hollywood relationships foster bad film ideas

In Hollywood, everyone is in the relationship business. Studios woo auteurs. Directors schmooze stars. Writers cozy up to producers. Agents and managers zealously court the bankable filmmakers and actors who can get movies off the ground.

The relationships pay off in a million different ways. Will Smith, who just finished shooting "Men in Black 3," has now made eight of his last 10 live-action movies at Sony, thanks largely to a close relationship with studio co-chairman Amy Pascal. Warner Bros. is skin-tight with director Christopher Nolan. 20th Century Fox is James Cameron's home court. Ditto for Paramount with J.J. Abrams and Universal with Judd Apatow.

But if you look at the recent crop of movies that have crashed and burned at the multiplex, something striking stands out: Many of the duds would never have passed the studios' standard box-office smell test. They were made because they were Relationship Movies.

Studios these days are notoriously averse to risk. So why would Sony make a $30 million film based on the preposterous idea that the Earl of Oxford was the secret author of Shakespeare's most popular plays? Why would 20th Century Fox spend $40 million bankrolling "The Big Year," a comedy about bird enthusiasts? Why would Warner Bros. spend $35 million making "J. Edgar," about the long-dead head of the FBI?

And speaking of puzzlements, why would indie producer Graham King shell out a reported $50 million to make "The Rum Diary," a story about an alcohol-imbibing journalist based on an obscure novel by Hunter S. Thompson?

None of the films had much luck with moviegoers. Despite the presence of Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, "The Big Year" grossed a paltry $7.1 million in the United States. The Shakespeare story "Anonymous" did even worse, barely eking out $4.3 million. Even though "Rum Diary" had Johnny Depp in the lead role, it has taken in only $13.1 million. Even with mega-watt star Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead, "J. Edgar" has so far brought in only about $36 million. Its Oscar best picture prospects are now rated as somewhere between slim and none.

So why did everyone spend so much money on such commercially questionable subject matter? That's where relationships come in. No one at Sony had a burning desire to make a thriller about who wrote "Romeo and Juliet." But the director of "Anonymous," Roland Emmerich, has filled Sony's coffers to the brim with box-office loot from such hits as "2012," "Godzilla" and "The Patriot."

After all, Sony is built on relationships. The studio has made a string of immensely profitable Adam Sandler comedies. It has also made two consecutive films with the iconic David Fincher ("The Social Network" and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"). To hear Pascal tell it, to attract gifted stars and filmmakers, you have to back their vision, whether it's clear or cloudy.

"You have to believe in your talent," she said. "I'm certainly not going to make a film that I don't like. But when you have a relationship, something special comes out of that trust that you've built up over years of working together."

Pascal hedged her bets financially with "Anonymous," which was co-financed by Relativity Media. But she says she has no regrets. "I believed in what Roland wanted to do. He had something fresh and entertaining to say, which is all you can ask for from a filmmaker."

In other words, Emmerich had enough money in the Sony bank to get the benefit of the doubt. You could say the same thing for David Frankel, the director of "The Big Year." He ended up making a film that was virtually impossible to market, despite its star talent -- bird watching being about as exciting to watch as, well, curling. But even though Fox is not known for developing cozy talent relationships, Frankel was a rare exception, having earned tons of money with his previous two films, "Marley & Me" and "The Devil Wears Prada," both made for Fox.