If you think Johnny Mnemonic is about a studly futuristic data messenger, guess again. The $25 million thriller is really about the byzantine process of getting a film financed these days — a harrowing odyssey involving a crazy quilt of 19 international backers, oddly motivated casting decisions, and deals put together with Scotch tape and bubble gum.
Ever since William Gibson’s best-selling 1984 novel, Neuromancer, planted the term cyberspace in the public consciousness, producers had hoped to turn his 1980 short story ”Johnny Mnemonic” into the next Blade Runner. But the project spent years in development hell at the financially strapped Carolco; when its former president, Peter Hoffman, shopped Mnemonic to other studios, he was met with blank stares. So Hoffman began to come to terms with the first rule of making a film (and making a profit) outside the Hollywood system: It has to play to more than just Americans. ”Studios are realizing they need foreign box office to increase profits,” says Suzan Ayscough, director of communications at Alliance, the Canadian company that ultimately helped Hoffman produce and broker the film’s financing. Mnemonic producer Don Carmody adds: ”This is not a strange process — it goes on every day.”
Mnemonic’s bizarre journey to multiplexes was to begin in earnest in 1993, but before shooting started, the film’s crew got word that the star, Val Kilmer, was dropping out. Feeling the heat from antsy backers, the filmmakers landed Keanu Reeves for $2 million — a bargain considering his asking price would quadruple after the release of Speed. It didn’t hurt that Reeves was from Canada, either. His nationality turned into the missing piece of an arcane financial puzzle — because the film had a Canadian lead actor and a Canadian writer (Gibson’s from Vancouver), the filmmakers could take advantage of north-of-the-border tax shelters that in turn made it easier for them to lure backers (including TriStar in the U.S.).
But Mnemonic’s huge roster of foreign distributors wanted the right to haggle for stars, too. So an international à la carte menu of smaller players like German Udo Kier and Swede Dolph Lundgren was assembled. The most extreme example was Takeshi Kitano (”the Japanese Clint Eastwood,” says Gibson), who plays the Yakuza kingpin. ”He was brought in with the Japanese market specifically in mind,” says Carmody. Adds Hoffman, ”Takeshi’s a big star in Japan, and [the Japanese distributor] wanted to see more Takeshi, so I made a deal.” The deal: Eight minutes of extra screen time showing the actor was added to the Japanese version of the film.
But as soon as Mnemonic’s bumpy road seemed behind it, along came the film’s biggest obstacle. ”TriStar thought the movie was strong enough to hold till Memorial Day weekend,” says Carmody. ”Little did we know Die Hard would open then too.” So far, the film has downloaded a mere $15.3 million. Says a disappointed Gibson, ”It feels like we built this really fast dune buggy, it looks really cool, and then we’re dropped into the Indy 500.”