Hollywood Calling

FEATURE by Willard Manus

In the old days, that message rang out all the time in theatrical producers' offices. Hollywood regularly followed and bid for the work of such playwrights as Robert Sherwood, Moss Hart, George Kaufman, Lindsay & Crouse, Noel Coward, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, and many others. Dramas, comedies and musicals were the fuel powering the movie machine, right up into the late 70s when high-tech, spectacle films like "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters Of the Third Kind" became gigantic box office hits and provided the main impetus for the market. With their tight-knit stories, literate dialogue and limited settings, plays were deemed old-fashioned and non-commercial, even an anathema.

In the last decade or so, however, plays have been making a comeback. "Six Degrees of Separation," "A Few Good Men," "Dancing at Lughnasa," "Little Voice" and "Hurly-Burly" are just a few of the works which have made the transition from Broadway to L.A. Does that signify a trend or is it simply a temporary blip on Hollywood's radar screen?

After interviewing playwrights, movie and theatre producers, agents and development people, the consensus seems to be that in Hollywood's estimation theatre is alive but not so well. While "Six Degrees" and "A Few Good Men" did well at the box office, the other films named above flopped, and rather badly.

Does that mean we won't see any of our favorite plays on the big screen in the near future? People like Dick Dotterer and Dan Luria don't think so. Dotterer, co-chairman of the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, points to Hollywood's indifference where the theatre is concerned. "In the past, Hollywood drew its personnel from the theatre or literature," he said. "Today they come to the industry from film schools. It's a generation only interested in tv and movies, and that goes for the writers as well. Playwrights are a dying breed."

Luria, an actor ("The Wonder Years") and the artistic director of PKE Theatre, backs Dotterer up. "For eight years now, PKE has been running a Monday-night new-play reading series. We get backing from Patchett-Kaufman Entertainment and Showtime, which gives us $25,000 a year. We send Showtime the plays we think really work and even offer to bring the actors to their office and put on a private reading, but never once have we got back an expression of interest," he said. "In my opinion, the only way a play in this town will attract Hollywood's attention is if the reviewer says something like 'this will make a helluva movie.'"

Luria quickly amended his statement. "There is another way, actually. If a major star wants to turn a play into a movie, the studio will listen. That was the case with 'Hurly-Burly,' which got made because Kevin Spacey pushed like hell for it. The same goes for 'Lughnasa,' which had Meryl Street behind it. But look what happened with it; even with Streep in it, no major distributor would touch it."

Theatre people are waiting to see if the same fate will befall "A Doll's House." Janet McTeer, who starred in the Ibsen play in London and New York, brought the play to veteran screenwriter Larry ("48 Hours") Gross, who opened up the play but did not tamper with the time period. His adaptation tweaked the interest of Hollywood producer/packager Billy Dietrich, who is now working with another producer, Gerald Rafshoon, in raising $10 million to shoot the story in Canada.

"We have an exciting script, but because McTeer isn't a movie star, this still might be a hard project to get launched," Dietrich said. "It's always difficult with plays today, but that hasn't stopped me from becoming involved in two other stage projects--'One Eyed King' (adapted from the Off-Broadway hit 'Half Deserted Streets') and 'A Confederacy of Dunces,' which was a novel and then a New Orleans theatre production."

Ironically, it would appear that contemporary, offbeat plays have a better chance of being turned into films than older plays like Ibsen's. Los Angeles playwright Shem Bitterman, for example, has seen three of his plays get made by independent producers in recent years. "Plays with a traditional structure are harder to adapt," he pointed out. "But newly constructed things like mine can be done more easily, if only because they have short scenes, move fast, and have cinematic plotting."

Bitterman's 1990 play "Self Storage" was done first at the 99-seat Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles. Adapted by Bitterman and Tony Spiridakis, the play was acquired by Samuel Goldwyn Films and was released under the title of "Tinseltown," starring Joe Pantoliano and Ron Perlman. "It takes various factors to attract the attention of the film community. You need to have a show that is enjoying a long run, which gives you the time to work at inviting guests. Good reviews help, of course, but more important is the effort you put into cajoling producers and development people into seeing your play. Even if they don't buy it, they might hire you to do an original screenplay. That's how I got to write 'Halloween IV & V.'"

Stephen Sachs is another L.A. playwright who has had some success with Hollywood. "One of my plays, 'Sweet Nothing in my Ear,' about a deaf and hearing family, was done in a small theatre but attracted an amazing amount of attention," he recalled. "The studios kept sending scouts over and inquiring about the rights. For a few months it was a wild ride; I kept taking meetings and lunches every day and having my expectations built up. In the end, though, all my hopes were shattered. Nothing came of the big promises and I have had to settle for an offer from Barbra Streisand, whose company optioned the play for a tv movie."

Sachs feels that Hollywood will always be knocking at the theatre's door, but that the courtship will rarely lead to marriage. "Movies are about making money. Theatre is about telling a story, enlightening minds, touching souls. The two goals are diametrically opposed."

Producer and theatreowner Jeff Murray concurs. "Of all the hundreds of plays I've been involved in, only half a dozen have been optioned for films," he said, "and of those only three got made. The big interest is mainly in plays headed for Broadway with potential stars attached. When you come to think of it, most Hollywood people are more interested in the actors than the plays. They are always looking for the next screen star. It's only in New York that a new play will be vetted by agencies like William Morris and ICM. Here when an agent shows up, chances are he's only there to check out the ingenue."