STAGE TO SCREEN: Mametized Frogs & Disneyfied Reductions

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREEN: Mametized Frogs & Disneyfied Reductions
Remember the deal John Cassavetes made in "Rosemary's Baby" for his "dream role"? Well, the actors depicted in "Frogs for Snakes" may not be dealing with the devil, but they're willing to do some pretty bad things to be in a Mamet play.

Remember the deal John Cassavetes made in "Rosemary's Baby" for his "dream role"? Well, the actors depicted in "Frogs for Snakes" may not be dealing with the devil, but they're willing to do some pretty bad things to be in a Mamet play.

"Frogs for Snakes," which begins a platform release on May 21, looks at a group of "out-of-work actors who just happen to be thugs," says writer/director Amos Poe. Loan shark Robbie Coltrane has always dreamed of mounting a production of American Buffalo, and he manages to cast two-thirds of the show fairly easily. The problem is finding the right guy to play Teach, the play's menacing, explosive catalyst. Several of his associates vie for the part, but only one actor offers to kill for it. Coltrane isn't crazy about his ex-wife's new boyfriend (John Leguizamo), and a deal is made. Kidnapping, additional murders and auditions ensue. Barbara Hershey plays the ex-wife; Harry Hamlin and Clarence Williams III are among the actors.

"It's sort of a hybrid of screwball and noir," Poe says of the project. "It's basically about the brutality of show business and what actors sometimes have to go through to catch a break." Poe filmed "Frogs for Snakes" two summers ago over a period of five weeks. It was scheduled to come out in 1998 but got bogged down in Poe calls a "long, annoying and really boring" set of negotiations with the MPAA before it secured an R rating.

In keeping with Poe's concept of "Frogs for Snakes" as "a movie for actors," the script has an unusual twist. Poe has interpolated monologues from other plays and movies into the screenplay; characters speak entire speeches from "The Apartment," "Repo Man," Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and American Buffalo, among others, as part of their day-to-day speech. Poe had to secure permission from the writers and estates to use these chunks -- "David Mamet really got the conceit and was very generous," he says. In fact, he envisions "Frogs for Snakes" as the first movie in a trilogy that will incorporate already existing dialogue as well as monologues.

*** If everything goes according to plan, Disney will downsize the Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast by about $100,000 a week in January. Details haven't yet been announced, but the production is most likely moving from the Palace to the smaller Lunt-Fontanne; the assumption is that some chorus roles will be phased out in the process. This follows in the heels of an announcement from Scarlet Pimpernel co-producer Cablevision Systems Corp. that Pimpernel is cutting 20 cast members as part of a similar move planned for this fall. With Warner Brothers reportedly developing a stage treatment of its "Batman" franchise and Hollywood money finding its way to both the Drama Department and Playwrights Horizons in the recent past, the age of "vertical integration" has begun. Disney is only the first studio to establish a footprint on Broadway. A look at how the theater and film worlds chart financial performance may prove instructive in determining whether Pimpernel and Beauty are anomalies or examples of the new corporate business model.

Hollywood studios routinely bank on smash opening weekends for their films and subsequent drop-offs over the following weeks. The drop varies wildly according to word of mouth and whatever new movies are opening, but a weekly drop of about 30 percent is considered fairly resilient. For example, a film that opened to $10 million in its first weekend would be expected to yield about $7 million the following weekend, $4.9 million the next and so on. Movie theaters are at a premium just as Broadway theaters are, and so the studios keep their films in an ever-dwindling number of first-run theaters as the grosses drop. Eventually, they make their way to reduced-admission houses and then on to video. The trajectory for incoming dollars is extremely different in theater. Previews mean lots of costly rehearsal time and minuscule box office grosses. If a play opens to rave reviews, the box office usually takes a pretty big upturn. Bad reviews can be combated with deep pockets; some shows run at a loss for months in the hopes of garnering strong word of mouth. To the best of my knowledge, no major Hollywood studio release has been granted two weeks, let alone two months, to build an audience.

The key here is operating expenses. With the exception of new prints and advertising, movies don't cost the studios anything once filming and post production are done. But stage shows run up bills from the first production meeting to the final performance. As long as the show exists, costs exist. Profits or losses become clear after years, not months. This rankles the studios. Unless I'm mistaken, as long as the studios try to play the Broadway game by Hollywood rules, these week-to-week costs will be under constant suspicion.

*** Cutting-Room Floor: Two black-themed plays made headlines in Hollywood recently. "Boesman and Lena," based on the Athol Fugard play, begins filming May 10 in South Africa. Adapted and directed by veteran Fugard collaborator John Berry, it will star Danny Glover and Angela Bassett. (Glover starred in an earlier filmed treatment of Fugard, the "American Playhouse" production of Master Harold ... and the boys.) And a production house has bought the rights to Flyin' West by playwright (and recent Oprah's Book Club selectee) Pearl Cleage. At this point, it is unclear whether it is being developed as a feature film or a TV movie. ... Fox Searchlight is developing a film version of Doug Wright's controversial Marquis de Sade play, Quills. The cast includes Geoffrey Rush (as de Sade), Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine. ... I uncovered an interesting interview with longtime Muppeteer and London musical theater mainstay Louise Gold (Assassins) on a Muppet-themed Web site. Earlier this year Gold finished work on an as-yet untitled Mike Leigh ("Secrets and Lies") film about the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan. Given the improvisatory nature of Leigh's films, details are fuzzy, but Gold plays a member of the D'Oyly Carte company. The film is slated to open Sept. 17. ... Look for Lea DeLaria in "The Edge of 17," yet another gay coming-of-age movie. This one is due in major cities May 14. Also opening that day is Franco Zeffirelli's autobiographical "Tea With Mussolini," featuring no fewer than three grande dames of the British stage -- Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith.

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music and a theater critic for Variety.

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