April 7, 2002

2 Hollywood Titans Brawl Over a Gang Epic


HOLLYWOOD, April 6 — Three years ago, Martin Scorsese, the New York director who has made street violence one of his signature traits, teamed up with Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films and something of a street fighter himself. The goal was to make a stylized epic film about gang warfare in pre-Civil War Manhattan with enough mass appeal to score at the box office.

But the making of that movie, "Gangs of New York," has turned into an epic of its own. Stars like Robert DeNiro and Willem Dafoe have come and gone. Costs have overshot the original budget by about 25 percent to soar above $100 million. Mr. Weinstein has fought for a streamlined, more commercial version. All the while, Mr. Scorsese has tried to stick to his artistic guns as the two have battled over taste and length.

With hopes of promoting the film next month at Cannes, Miramax executives are pushing to have the final editing completed in the next few weeks so the complex task of mixing sound with film can begin. But Mr. Scorsese is still not satisfied with the ending. He has been considering reshooting it, some people involved in the film say. The film was initially supposed to hit theaters last December, but now is expected to be released later this year.

In Hollywood, a town that loves a good story — better yet, the story behind the story — the backstage drama is being followed closely, and not just because of the power battles or the big-name stars in the movie like Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. For many here, the project's fate could foretell the future appetite of executives for big-budget artistic gambles in an industry increasingly focused on profitability.

Hollywood studios these days are obsessed with youthful demographics, family fare, blockbuster sequels and cross-promotional marketing strategies. But Mr. Scorsese is one of a handful of directors — among them Michael Mann, whose recent "Ali" was a hit with critics but not with moviegoers — who are allowed to flout those rules. The question is for how long. Mr. Scorsese has not had a box-office smash since "Cape Fear," which earned $79 million domestically in 1991.

Mr. Weinstein, a domineering personality who, by his own admission, is spurned in Hollywood despite championing eclectic hits like "The English Patient" and "Good Will Hunting," has come under financial pressure of his own.

In January he shut Talk magazine and more recently he shed 75 Miramax employees and contract workers to trim costs. "Some people see this as his comeuppance," one competitor said of his recent troubles.

Conflicts arise any time a director's vision collides with pressures to make a commercial hit. But Saul Zaentz, the producer who battled with Mr. Weinstein over money after working with him on the Academy Award-winning "The English Patient," said it was especially true with such strong-willed personalities.

"Marty is only interested in making the right picture," Mr. Zaentz said. "He will make it no matter what he has to do. And he is strong enough to fight for what he believes in. Harvey's interest, on the other hand, is not the same as Marty's. It is about making money."

The budget for "Gangs" has ballooned to more than $103 million from the original $83 million — some of which is being paid for by Mr. Scorsese and Mr. DiCaprio, who plays the lead character, according to two people involved in the film. At that price — high even by today's standards — it would be the most expensive movie in Miramax's 22-year history.

Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Scorsese declined to be interviewed but released this statement: "As the only two decision makers on `Gangs of New York' we would be happy to discuss this film in the context of an art versus commerce article when the story is an informed one, which clearly hinges on the final film being screened."

Further, they said, they have a "terrific working relationship" and the experience was "fun."

Clearly, said a Miramax spokeswoman, the two have a lot riding on this movie. They are so concerned that they called in Pat Kingsley, one of Hollywood's most influential spin doctors, to help handle the media.

That the movie, based on a 1927 book by Herbert Asbury, a cult favorite, got made at all is something of a feat. For nearly 30 years, Mr. Scorsese had been captivated by "The Gangs of New York" story. He first thought about making a movie in the late 1970's. A script was written then, but it was not until 1991 that "Gangs" was in development, at Universal Studios.

But Mr. Scorsese had no luck getting the movie made until 1997 when Joe Roth, who was then chairman of Walt Disney Studios, championed it, approving an $83 million budget and agreeing to put up $18 million, Mr. Roth recalled recently. For the rest, Mr. Roth, who now heads his own company, Revolution Studios, said Disney needed a partner.

But many studio executives thought the movie would be too hard to produce. For one, at a time when studios were beginning to lean toward more family fare to bring in larger audiences, the story was extremely violent. The film takes place in New York's notorious "Five Points" slum and explores the brutality and rising influence of gangs as immigration exploded in the mid-1800's. In the film, an Irish gang member, played by Mr. DiCaprio, avenges his father's death at the hands of a native-born American. That character is Bill (The Butcher) Cutting, played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

To add to that, Mr. Scorsese had a reputation for taking a long time to finish movies. In the end, Disney agreed to sell the foreign rights to the movie to the Initial Entertainment Group for about $65 million, Mr. Roth recalled. At that same time, he said, he began to have second thoughts about whether "Gangs" was an appropriate Disney-themed movie. "I thought it made better sense for Harvey then for us," Mr. Roth said.

Mr. Weinstein, who colleagues say had always admired Mr. Scorsese, jumped at the chance. He anticipated a smooth production and hoped to produce an Academy Award-nominated movie for 2001.

Fans of the two men were giddy at the notion of the two New Yorkers telling a New York tale. Adding to the excitement was the decision, a request by Mr. Scorsese, to film at the Cinecittΰ Studio in Rome, where classics like "La Dolce Vita," "Cleopatra" and "Ben-Hur" had been filmed. The set, nearly a mile long, recreated lower Manhattan before the Civil War.

Mr. Weinstein took at least six trips to oversee production there, said one person who was working on the movie in Rome but who asked not to be identified. He huddled frequently with Mr. Scorsese, who bristled when Mr. Weinstein tried to persuade him to work more quickly.

"There was a lot of tap-dancing around Marty," said another person involved in the film. "Harvey doesn't tap-dance for many people, but he does for Marty." Still, said one crew member, "There was a lot of handwaving every time Marty and Harvey were talking."

Mr. Weinstein stopped tap-dancing last October, after Mr. Scorsese screened a 3 hour 40 minute version for Miramax executives. "It was like watching a miniseries," said one person who saw the film then. "There was so much slosh in between the things driving the story it was impossible to get through."

Mr. Weinstein confronted Mr. Scorsese at Mr. Scorsese's Park Avenue office in Midtown Manhattan, demanding that he focus on the narrative and trim the movie or it would not be released, confirmed several people involved in the production.

Mr. Scorsese chafed at how aggressively Mr. Weinstein talked to him and argued back. "He was very rude with Marty and he did not like that," said a colleague of Mr. Scorsese. A representative for Mr. Scorsese called the arguments "healthy, creative discussions."

Miramax had another issue with the film: the timing. In the film, according to people who have seen it, corrupt firemen participate in a riot. Also, a police officer is hanged from a lamppost. Such scenes could offend movie goers so soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, a Miramax executive said. So Miramax announced in October that the movie's release date had been moved back from December to July 2002.

This bought more time for Mr. Scorsese, who went back to the editing room to trim the film, at Mr. Weinstein's behest. Five people involved in editing and 12 working on the sound were put on hiatus for almost two months until he finished.

By January, said one person working on the film, expenses began piling up. For example, some editors were being paid $88 an hour in overtime during the long days they worked to finish the movie.

Aside from the approximately $65 million committed to Miramax from the Initial Entertainment Group, Miramax has spent $28 million to $31 million on the film so far, at least $10 million more than originally budgeted, according to two people. In addition, Mr. Scorsese and Mr. DiCaprio agreed to pay a combined $7 million to help defray the cost overruns, the two people said.

Representatives for Mr. Scorsese and Mr. DiCaprio declined to discuss their financial arrangements, as did Miramax. But all told, the cost for "Gangs" is estimated at about $103 million, according to three people involved in the production, and that does not include the money to market the film, which analysts say will add $30 million to $50 million.

Ken Sunshine, a publicist for Mr. DiCaprio, saw a 2 hour 40 minute version at a screening with Mr. Weinstein on Friday. "I think no one should believe the buzz," he said, referring to criticism of the delays. Mr. Sunshine added that there was talk about reshooting, although he was not privy to the discussions between Mr. Scorsese and Mr. DiCaprio. Ms. Kingsley, the publicist, said any reshooting would be minor. But others said the new filming was likely to involve a confrontation between the two main characters.

"Marty's been struggling with what the ending will be," said one of the people. "He wasn't satisfied with it."

Now, the Miramax spokeswoman said, Mr. Weinstein must decide when he will release the movie. Currently, Miramax executives are trying to ready a 25-minute preview to show at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Ultimately the angst over "Gangs" may well be forgotten if the movie is embraced by the public. But no one — not Mr. Weinstein, not Mr. Scorsese, not the phalanx of publicists hungry to hype the movie — will know until opening weekend.

"You must remember, people thought `Titanic' would be disastrous," said Sir Howard Stringer, the chief executive of the Sony Corporation of America. "But they pulled it off."

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