The Mighty Duds
by Mark Dinning
How The Replacements, a $50 million movie starring Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves, ended up going straight-to-video.
NOVEMBER, 1999. THE PSINET STADIUM, BALTIMORE
Keanu Reeves strolls around a vast American football pitch, idly fiddling with his $15-million-a-movie fringe and scuffing his feet aimlessly into the turf. To his right, a troupe of cheerleaders - sporting sequined hotpants so tight they can only be trying to reverse the digestive process - gaze on lovingly. Meanwhile, in a far corner, Jon Favreau, Rhys Ifans and Orlando Jones are rehearsing for an imminent scene, pausing only to smile and nod respectfully as Gene Hackman meanders by, en route to make-up.
In short, Empire is in the presence of bona fide, big-budget moviemaking. Cameras and cables litter the playing surface. Forty-odd extras, each kitted out in $300 outfits, wander through the melee. Hell, even the on-set catering (usually a rum prospect at best) looks like something Egon Ronay might have thrown together. "What you're looking at here," says director Howard Deutch (Pretty In Pink, The Odd Couple II), as he surveys the scene, "is the culmination of more than a little hard work."
Based on a true story, the movie focuses on the infamous NFL strike of 1987, in which the vast majority of professional football players downed helmets over a pay dispute. Being mid-season, teams were forced to recruit amateurs, average Joes who had long since abandoned hope of their touchdown in the limelight. "I mean, what an opportunity," says Deutch. "These guys were given a second chance to shine." Enter, then, Reeves, Favreau, Jones and Ifans ("Just call me the Brit part") as the more notable names in the line-up, as well as Hackman as McGinty, the retired coach enlisted to knock the ragbag bunch into some sort of shape.
"I haven't played football myself since my days in the navy," ponders Hackman later, during a post-wrap debrief in a humid locker room. "I played as an 'end'. And I was pretty good, too." There's a short burst of laughter from the seat next to him. "An 'end'?" asks Reeves. "I guess they didn't have the term 'wide receiver' in those days." The pair are an intriguing sight - almost father and son in their mannerisms - as they chat amiably about their respective experiences, now some three weeks into shooting what they claim will be a "hugely entertaining" end product. "Oh, absolutely," says Reeves. "You can be rest assured that we've already got some great stuff and have plenty more to do. I'm telling you, this movie is going to be a whole lot of fun. Just you wait and see..."
THE PRESENT DAY
Well, Keanu, here's the thing: we waited and we waited, and then we waited some more. And, sadly, this month's video release is the first time that anyone, anywhere in this country has been privy to The Replacements' debatable charms. No trailers. No posters. No cinema run. Nothing.
"What?" producer Dylan Sellers yells down the phone from his office in LA. "It didn't get a release at all? Are you serious?" An awkward pause. "I mean, I know that in certain places outside of the US, there's just no interest in football... But you'd have at least thought that the Hackman and Keanu factor would have come into play." Especially considering Reeves' post-Matrix box office status. Yet The Replacements is just one of a recent line of American football movies to suffer from a law of diminishing returns when travelling across the Atlantic. Both Remember The Titans, Jerry Bruckheimer's true-life interracial drama, and Any Given Sunday, Oliver Stone's furious assault on the senses, have seen their respective box office fortunes plummet on crossing the water (Titans from a US scoop of $110 million to approximately '500,000 UK, and Sunday, in turn, from $70 million to around '1 million).
Nonetheless, the question that still remains is why did the 'Hackman and Keanu factor' fail, where Sunday's 'Pacino and Cameron' and Titans' 'Washington and, well, Denzel' factors at least guaranteed a release this side of the water?
"Fundamentally, there was a huge disagreement over how to market the movie," admits Sellers. "You know, this kind of thing happens all the time. You spend years on a movie - one, by the way, that I made within both budget and time restraints, and that made back its negative cost of $5O million at the [US] box office - and it gets pitched at the wrong people. Instead of concentrating on the football, and therefore attracting some of the beer-drinking guys it could have been aimed at, there was a worry that women wouldn't like it. Sure, sometimes a shift of focus works, but what we ended up with were trailers which focused too much on the singing and dancing and Orlando Jones craziness, as opposed to what the movie was really about." He sighs. "And fine, so I think it could have been a little grittier and a little more real, but c'mon, it was what it was."
What it was, also, was dropped from Warner Bros' summer releases slate like the proverbial hot potato, (while intriguingly, Hardball, a similarly-themed Reeves sports release later this year). Of course, this is hardly the first time that big players have trodden the straight-to-video path. Just ask Sylvester Stallone, who has recently seen Get Carter and, most probably, the forever-in-limbo Eye See You disappear down the theatrical plughole. Likewise, Monkeybone, Henry Selick's Brendan Fraser- starring dark comedy-fantasy, which, regardless of some state of the art effects and an $80 million budget, will also make an ignominious debut in your local Blockbuster later in the year.
"But I guess that's just the business we're in," says Sellers, philosophically. "Increasingly, there's more and more pressure on filmmakers, and more and more competition out there... Which reminds me, if there's nothing else, I really must get back to work."
*The Replacements is released (on video) on June 4.