Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman made an often quoted statement about Hollywood that it’s a business in which “Nobody knows anything.”
Hits can’t be manufactured by computers and focus groups and many films that have been written off as failures by studio brass have turned out to be very popular.
It was Francis Coppola, coming off “The Godfather,” who scared Universal Pictures into releasing his protege George Lucas’ film “American Graffiti” when the executives were about to dump it into drive-ins or put together a direct-to-TV sale.
Universal hated the unusual look and sound of the movie, but when Coppola offered to buy the low-budget film from the studio, the execs took a second look at the film, and it turned out to be one of the biggest hits of 1973.
The release history of Barry Levinson’s 1982 debut film “Diner” isn’t as dramatic as the Lucas story, but it too illustrates how the moneymen can be clueless when it comes to the movies they finance.
Perhaps because the filmmaker had worked as a writer on a couple of Mel Brooks comedies, the studio expected a yockfest about the sexual adventures of horny young men, ala the blockbuster hit of that period “Porky’s.”
“Diner”s portrait of guys hanging out and shooting the breeze, as a way of postponing a move forward into “real life,” was closer in tone to a European film than the teen comedies that were about to dominate multiplexes in the 1980s.
MGM was planning to shelve the movie when producer Jerry Weintraub decided to show “Diner” to select film critics. The producer knew that The New Yorker’s influential critic Pauline Kael had helped save his 1975 Robert Altman film “Nashville” from pre-release editing by Paramount with her decision to review an early cut months before the planned release date.
Weintraub was willing to gamble that Kael would like the Levinson film and she did. The critic informed MGM that she planned to review “Diner” favorably in The New Yorker whether or not they gave it a theatrical release.
The studio put the picture into a few theaters, and it proved to be modestly profitable and one of the best reviewed films of 1982. “Diner” never became a box office blockbuster, but it played for months in some urban locations and quickly built a fervent cult audience.
Earlier this year, Vanity Fair ran a long piece on “Diner,” calling it one of the most influential movies of the last 30 years due to the way its style and content have filtered down to everything from “Seinfeld” to the Judd Apatow hits.
Why am I telling you all of this?
Well, tonight the Avon Theatre in Stamford is hosting a 30th anniversary screening of Levinson’s classic after which it will be my pleasure to host a Q&A with star Steve Guttenberg.
The actor will also be talking about his engaging new memoir “The Guttenberg Bible” in which he gives a full account of the Baltimore location filming of this modern classic.
(The “Diner” screening will start at 7 p.m. For ticket information, call 203-967-3660 or visit www.avontheatre.org)