Prior to filming the movie Ishtar in North Africa, demanding director Elaine May sent a group of staff members to the venue to obtain a one-humped camel. The camel had to have droopy eyes and an amenable nature in order to fit the part. Luckily for the staff members, they found the perfect beast almost immediately upon their arrival. The staff members, however, did not let May know of this for fear that the perfectionist would think they did a poor job. So they whiled away their time and then went back to the first camel dealer to complete the acquisition. Unfortunately for them, though, in the meantime the dealer had eaten the camel! The staffers had to spend more time and money to get hold of an acceptable camel for May.
This was not an isolated incident in the filming of the big-budgeted disaster that was Ishtar. In James Robert Parish’s meticulously researched book, Ishtar and thirteen other costly Hollywood missteps are recounted with a combination of seriousness and humor. What comes through in the absorbing narrative is the ubiquitous ness of hubris among Hollywood decision makers and the uncanny penchant to throw good money after bad.
Management scholars use a term called “escalation of commitment” to describe a situation where the decision-maker does not accept the consequences of a poor decision by cutting the losses and abandoning the project. Rather, commitment to the wrong decision is increased in the hope that more investment will make a poor decision become a good one. In the history of Hollywood, this phenomenon is exhibited time and time again starting with Cleopatra in 1963 up to Warren Beatty’s ill-fated Town and Country in 2001. Cleopatra went through untold turmoil during its making – change of directors, a highly publicized adulterous affair between costars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and a power struggle among its many producers – all of which affected its budget. Cleopatra and the others in Parish’s exposé of Hollywood’s excesses failed to recoup their investment and caused financial damage to their backers.
The common theme that runs through the descriptions of these epic disasters is of projects gone out of control because of the pride and arrogance of either the director (Francis Ford Coppola in The Cotton Club) or the film’s star (John Travolta in Battlefield Earth). At some point in the long journey from conception to finish, they seem to lose all sense of reality and financial prudence. What results is often a laughable mess that destroys reputations and careers. The book is a must-read for those involved in the business side of filmmaking. Parish lets it all out in his searing portrayal of the downside of unfettered power.