In 1995, two stars with 13 Oscar nominations between them paired up for an R-rated crime drama. The actors, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and the movie, Heat, received a glitzy, year-end push from a major studio and breathless media coverage. The New York Times likened Pa-Niro's six minutes of shared screen time to "Ben Hur sitting down and acting with Spartacus."
Thirteen years later, the same two actors have paired up for another R-rated crime drama, Righteous Kill, this time sharing almost every scene as veteran police partners pursuing a serial killer. But instead of a major studio, a young company called Overture Films is releasing the movie. And rather than giddy anticipation, advance press has included references to "How the mighty have fallen" (Los Angeles Times) and "Grumpy old cops" (MSNBC). (Read Richard Corliss' review here)
What Hollywood and the press who cover it once would have treated as an unmissable cinematic moment a pairing of two of the greatest actors of their generation is instead being greeted around town with a shrug. "It's like Ali and Frazier are about to fight," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking firm Media By Numbers. "And people are weirdly indifferent."
The industry's apathy toward Righteous Kill reveals both how badly the reputations of Pacino and De Niro have suffered in the past 13 years, and how fully the studios have abandoned the kind of pictures that made them stars. Righteous Kill is not a classic like The Godfather a or critical darling like Heat. It's a workaday crime thriller, opening in more than 3,100 theaters. But it's likely to be profitable for Overture, which is almost certain to recoup the more than $10 million investment it made in Righteous Kill at the Cannes Film Festival last year. "If it does $25 million lifetime, we'll be happy," says Chris McGurk, CEO of Overture, a division of Liberty Media that launched in January.
Those economics are very different from the ones now governing the major studios, including Warner Bros. Pictures, which made $67 million off the domestic box office of Heat. (TIME and Warner Bros. are both subsidiaries of Time Warner). Warner Bros. Pictures Group President Jeff Robinov told the Wall Street Journal recently that the studio is "focusing on bigger films that require a bigger commitment." Translation: they're making fewer under-$50 million movies starring men with Oscars and more over-$200 million movies starring men with capes. This summer Warners closed its specialty divisions that handle smaller-budget films, Picturehouse and Warner Independent, and absorbed New Line Cinema into the larger company. Meanwhile Paramount Pictures' prestige label, Vantage, is restructuring. "The studios are very focused on the tentpoles," says McGurk. "And there's a lot of turmoil in the indie marketplace. So there's more product available." That means fewer takers for a cop movie starring a couple of sixtysomething actors, Oscars nothwithstanding.
It's not just Hollywood that has changed since Heat. Its leading men have a lot more road under their feet. "Thirteen years ago they were beautiful lean and muscular and in their middle-aged prime with great haircuts," says Jeffrey Wells, of the blog Hollywood Elsewhere. "Today they're softer, grayer, saggier, less cool. It's a hard pill to swallow, but they're just not top-dog machismo types any more." Beyond the indignities of aging that all actors inevitably face, Pacino and De Niro have both appeared in a string of bad films that damaged their personal brands. For Pacino, now 68, dogs like Gigli, The Recruit and 88 Minutes are fresher in audiences' minds than his career-making performances in The Godfather and Scarface. And the money-making but vapid comedies De Niro, 65, has turned in, like Meet the Fockers and Analyze That, feel a lot more than a generation removed from the actor's iconic turns in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Nevertheless Overture, which had one of the year's few arthouse hits in The Visitor, is counting on viewers' nostalgia for De Niro and Pacino 1.0. "In this movie, audiences are gonna see them the way they want to see them," says McGurk. "Not in a comedy or a fantasy, but as two detectives in New York City." Overture is hoping to lure men, older women and the urban and Latino audiences who have helped make Scarface an enduring cult hit. To do so, they're marketing with a campaign that emphasizes the actors' histories. In one TV ad McGurk refers to as the "prestige spot," De Niro and Pacino's '70s and '80s films are listed off. McGurk says: "It's meant to remind audiences who they were."