It took a while, but the new Hollywood austerity has finally hit Carolco, the small, scrappy movie company known for its inflated star salaries, big budgets, and huge hits. After making its mark with such blockbusters as the Rambo series and Terminator 2, Carolco recently pulled the plug on Gale Force, a $40 million hurricane epic set to star Sylvester Stallone.
The origin of Hollywood's latest big-spending blooper dates back to 1989, the height of the script-auction frenzy, when large-scale action adventures were hot properties. Outbidding his competitors, Carolco producer Daniel Melnick bought screenwriter David Chappe's Gale Force, a tale about a lone man defending a seacoast town from a band of marauders during a hurricane. The price: $500,000, plus a $200,000 bonus if the movie got made. The logic behind paying such major-league sums was to lure stars and directors and to make a movie so costly it simply had to go forward.
Before long, Melnick felt he needed a fresh direction, Chappe was taken off the movie, and a succession of new writers came in, including top-paid screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (who sold the thriller Basic Instinct to Carolco for $3 million in 1990). He scrapped the Chappe story in favor of one of his own. ''The whole thing didn't work for me,'' says Eszterhas. ''I said I'd do an original screenplay with a hurricane in it the only similarity. (Mine) was a film noir mood piece.''
Director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2), who signed on to make Gale Force for $3 million, says he loved the Eszterhas script. But the writer's arty love triangle wasn't the movie Carolco wanted to sell to foreign distributors. After a few months, Eszterhas accepted a $500,000 fee and dropped out, and Carolco hired two more teams of writers, each contributing a new perspective on the story.
Meanwhile, Stallone, who has a long-term deal with Carolco, visited other studios to star in two comedies. The star, however, never had a problem with Gale Force. ''All Stallone cared about,'' says one writer, ''was on what page did he start getting wet.''
But Harlin, more finicky, rejected the next wave of drafts. Finally, earlier this year a writer turned in one based almost directly on the original script the idea had come full circle. By this time, the company had already invested an estimated $1.75 million on scripts alone. Carolco then pushed Gale Force aside in favor of a brand-new action script, Cliffhanger, which has been declared almost ready to roll. Harlin will direct. And, yes, Stallone will star. ''Gale Force was a rich action/special-effects picture,'' says Melnick. ''It was a prudent move for us not to go ahead at this point based on cost.''
Not that the movie won't ever come back to life. Harlin still wants to make the Eszterhas script. Melnick plans to make a cheaper Gale Force, what he calls, ''a polished version of the original script.'' And Carolco, after many a buck blown, has finally decided to learn Hollywood's new math.