Cover Story

Little Big Movie

The unexpected success of ''Dances With Wolves'' -- How Kevin Costner's long Western defied the negative predictions of Hollywood

The projector showing the final reel of Kevin Costner's rough cut of Dances With Wolves sputtered to a stop in Orion's L.A. screening room one day last March. First-time director Costner and first-time producer Jim Wilson sat expectantly as the lights came up, waiting for the verdict from the Orion executives who had given the green light to this unlikely team of filmmakers. There was an awkward silence.

''We knew it was going to be a long movie,'' recalls one executive who was there, ''but we had no idea just how long.''

If a team of Hollywood producers had tried to concoct the ideal recipe for a box office bomb, they couldn't have done much better than the movie that (unspooled before Orion's nervous managers that long spring afternoon. Aside from its prodigious running time (over three hours), the movie was a Western (a genre that hadn't been popular at the box office in 20 years), starred an actor with an erratic track record (Costner's most recent release, Revenge, had been a $16 million flop), and paired him with a cast of unknowns (many of them Native Americans with no acting experience). As if that weren't enough, much of the dialogue was spoken in the Lakota Sioux dialect and reproduced in subtitles. For Orion — a small, financially fragile studio deeply in need of a hit — the movie that Hollywood snipers were already calling ''Costner's Last Stand'' looked like more bad news. The executives present could be forgiven if they occupied their minds during the screening by mentally composing their résumés.

Today, those same executives are happily feasting on crow pie. Since its release last November, Costner's $18.5 million epic has grossed more than $117 million, been nominated for 12 Academy Awards (the most since Reds in 1981), and helped stave off disaster for its studio. The saga of a Civil War lieutenant who befriends a tribe of Plains Indians even received kudos from Native Americans. The Sioux nation, a group seldom thrilled with its portrayal on-screen, has adopted Costner as an honorary member.

How did Costner do it? How did a Hollywood pretty boy better known for his baby blues than for his cinematic vision mastermind the sleeper hit of the season? ''It's a miracle,'' says Wilson, chuckling. ''That's the only way to explain it. This movie is the least likely hit you can imagine. Its success defies all Hollywood logic. Kevin deserves a lot of credit.''

Costner's low-key charm (on display in such hits as No Way Out, Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams) may have been the 36-year-old actor's secret weapon in convincing Orion to go ahead with the project. ''He's a very persuasive guy,'' one studio executive says. ''He made intelligent arguments.'' Passing up some of the juiciest offers of his career — the leads in The Hunt for Red October, Presumed Innocent, and The Bonfire of the Vanities — Costner oversaw virtually every detail of the five-month-long production. He helped arrange financing (partly from overseas investors), worked on script revisions, and fussed over wardrobe details. He even learned to ride bareback and to speak rudimentary Lakota.

Shooting Dances would have been a logistical nightmare even for the most seasoned director, let alone a novice. Costner took charge of 3,500 buffalo, 300 horses, two wolves, 42 wagons, 36 tepees, 130 crew members, and 500 extras. Workdays lasted 16 hours. Temperatures during filming at 27 South Dakota locations (from July to November '89) ranged from over 100 degrees in summer to 20 degrees in winter. ''But Kevin never fumbled,'' recalls Dances' Oscar-nominated cinematographer, Dean Semler. ''He knew exactly what he wanted for every scene. He had a real strong sense of what the movie should look like. I've worked with a lot more experienced directors who weren't nearly as confident.''

Costner faced even bigger production headaches back in Hollywood, where Dances had been redubbed ''Kevin's Gate'' by resident skeptics. ''There's always a lot of speculation when you hear a movie is longer than two hours,'' explains Lynda Obst, coproducer of The Fisher King, the Robin Williams comedy due out this spring. ''Most studios are terrified of long movies. They don't think audiences want them. And since you can't screen them as often as a short movie, you can't make as much money.'' There was lots of speculation about Orion, as well. The studio was reeling from a recent string of duds — She-Devil, Valmont, and Great Balls of Fire!, to name a few. Its stock price had plummeted 50 percent in the five months before Dances' release, earnings had dropped almost 15 percent in a year, and debt had risen to $500 million. And now it was faced with peddling an overlong message movie about racial injustice in the Old West.

''We needed a hit,'' admits David Forbes, Orion's president of marketing and distribution. ''We hadn't had luck on our side for a long time. Emotionally, psychologically, and especially at the bank, we needed a boost.''

The temptation to trim the movie must have been tremendous, but the artist-friendly studio (home to such finicky filmmakers as Woody Allen and Jonathan Demme) never asked Costner to snip a single frame. Instead, it released the film in an eight-city run, and found funds to launch an innovative marketing campaign targeting different demographic groups with different ads. To attract women, Orion made spots focusing on Dances' romantic elements; to attract men, it made ads emphasizing action.

''We knew there were things we had to avoid,'' says Forbes. ''We didn't want anyone to know about the subtitles. We didn't want anyone to know it was a Western. So we sold it as a movie about Everyman, as a tale about a man who was seeking new frontiers and new challenges.''

It wasn't the ads that made Dances a smash — it was the word-of-mouth buzz that began immediately after its release. ''People started talking about it the way they talked about Chariots of Fire,'' recalls Joe Roth, the powerhouse chairman of 20th Century Fox. ''They said you had to throw away all the rules with this one, that nothing would stop it.''

''It became the darling of the industry,'' says David Friendly, a senior vice president at Imagine Entertainment, Ron Howard's production house. ''People started comparing it to Lawrence of Arabia.''

Since its release, Dances has spread from eight theaters to more than 1,000, and (along with Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs) has helped pull Orion back from the brink.

On March 25, when Costner steps out of his limo and walks into L.A.'s Shrine Civic Auditorium for the Academy Awards, he'll be the closest thing to a hero Hollywood has to offer — a champion to all the actors who've always wanted to direct, a champion to directors who've always wanted to make big, important movies, and, most of all, a champion to millions of moviegoers.

Costner will no doubt use his vastly enhanced creative clout to push for other risky projects. Meanwhile he is turning his attention to a much more conventional screen hero; he'll be starring in this summer's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He also recently signed on to star in Oliver Stone's new film about the Kennedy assassination.

That's not to say Costner has quite finished with Dances, however. For those who didn't think the movie was long enough, he plans to release an expanded version on video in December. The new edition is likely to retrieve from the cutting-room floor several love scenes and a visit to Indian burial grounds. It should clock in at four hours plus.


Oscar Roster
Costner is only the fifth Best Actor candidate to be nominated for directing his own performance. Dances' 12 Oscar nominations:

Best Picture Kevin Costner, Jim Wilson

Director Kevin Costner

Actor Kevin Costner

Supporting Actor Graham Greene

Supporting Actress Mary McDonnell

Screenplay Michael Blake

Original Score John Barry

Cinematography Dean Semler

Film Editing Neil Travis

Art Direction Jeffrey Beecroft, Lisa Dean

Costume Design Elsa Zamparelli

Sound Russell Williams II, Jeffrey Perkins, Bill W. Benton, Greg Watkins

Originally posted Mar 08, 1991 Published in issue #56 Mar 08, 1991 Order article reprints