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Cover Story: Thrilla in Vanilla

Road to Perdition and Gangs of New York are summer's counter-programming contenders

By TT Clinkscales · May 23rd, 2002 · Cover Story
  Gangs of New York left summer for a December release.
Gangs of New York left summer for a December release.

July 12 was supposed to be different. During the season that epitomizes the numbing effects of mindless, soulless -- what some pop-marketing wiz might call "pure" movie entertainment -- Friday, July 12, promised enough intrigue to initiate a palace coup. Imagine, in a summer crowded with Hollywood's big bombers, a weekend that promises a double dose of counter-programming: Road to Perdi-tion vs. Gangs of New York.

Road is directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and stars Tom Hanks as a dark and troubled trigger-man for the Chicago mob. Paul Newman supports Hanks, and Jude Law is in the mix. Just by the looks of its cast, Road sounds tough to beat.

It takes a heavy hitter to beat another heavy hitter, and Gangs boasts some of the biggest and best acting guns. Director Martin Scorsese's labor of love, a violent tale of immigrants in New York near the turn of the 20th century, comes complete with Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Daniel Day-Lewis. In terms of movie offerings that are distinct from summer's typical teen-friendly fare, the joint-release of Road and Gangs would be counter-programming at its best.

Road and Gang meant a chance to do something a little different. Adult thrills in a sea of vanilla storytelling. A chance to be engaged as well as entertained.

I won't bore you with banter about Hollywood marketing campaigns, the top-dog mentality surrounding blockbuster releases and their huge opening weekends. All I'll say is that a film's artistic merit and historical impact have little to do with its weekly box-office rankings. Remember: Pearl Harbor made a lot of money.

Road and Gangs, a two-prong combination of counter-programming, had undeniable potential. These projects scream prestige.

The latest news tells us that Gangs has been pulled from its July release and held back until Christmas. Audiences at the Cannes Film Festival got 20 minutes of Gangs footage. For the rest of us, summer's best shot at a double dose of adult thrills has come to a disappointing nadir.

The story of Road and Gangs is also about its studios, Dream-works (Road) vs. Miramax (Gangs). It was a second round between the show-biz heavyweights responsible for past Oscar contenders Saving Private Ryan (Dreamworks) and Shake-speare in Love (Miramax). This time, the box-office battle would be fought with Tommy guns, knives, bricks and bats brandished with murderous intent. For moviegoers interested in show-biz gossip, Road and Gangs tells the behind-the-scenes story of Dreamworks' Jeffrey Katzenberg facing off against Miramax's Harvey Weinstein for the title of New Hollywood's Godfather of Film.

But something happened on the way to this Thrilla in Vanilla. Weinstein had to face the enemy within the ranks, a perfectionist of a filmmaker who wouldn't back down. His name is Scorsese, and he's the man behind Gangs.

You see, there was another skit performed during that same party which had the eerie prescience of Nostradamus: a parody of the Ben Affleck-Matt Damon Miramax-HBO phenomenon, Project Greenlight, where an aspiring filmmaker gets the chance to film a script for $1 million. Miramax will distribute the result, and HBO captures all the behind-the-scenes drama for a weekly TV documentary. Little Marty receives words of wisdom from producers Affleck and Damon while struggling with Miramax brass to get his dream project, Gangs of New York, filmed. He needs more money, more time on location, more freedom to make the best little indie gem possible.

Miramax, in the midst of releasing 75 employees and closing up shop on Talk magazine, pushed back the release of Gangs. Word is Scorsese presented a version far longer than Weinstein wanted, and the discussions began to mirror the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.

So, Gangs moves to December, setting the stage for more complicated counter-programming issues: Gangs will face off against another Dreamworks film, Catch Me If You Can with Tom Hanks and Gangs' Leonardo DiCaprio. It's Leo vs. Leo. Which one will win? All this action makes me long for a summer respite where I can turn my brain off and suck down a tall cool one in the local multiplex.

Who needs such adult problems?



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