Behind the Lines with DR: Dealing with Box Office Bombs

I don’t talk too much about Welcome to Mooseport. Not so much because it was a box office bomb. On second thought, maybe so, because one needs to know the film actually exists before I can talk about it, right?

The movie was born late one night while the War Department and I lay in bed. We’d been watching some news stories about the end of the Clinton presidency when she wondered aloud what the former Horndog in Chief would do after departing the White House.

“I dunno,” I said. “Can’t imagine Bill Clinton not running for something. Wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up running for mayor somewhere.”

'Welcome to Mooseport'

‘Welcome to Mooseport’

The War Department laughed. And so it began. For the next twenty minutes or so, I joked aloud about a popular ex-president who retires to his Kennebunkport-like summer home to pen his memoirs. Instead, he gets wrangled into some local politics and is asked to help some town fathers out of a legal bind by filling in as mayor. Thinking the move would be good national PR for his upcoming book, the former president agrees to help out, only to discover the owner of the local hardware store had also thrown his hat into the mayoral ring. With both men having too much pride to step aside, the race is on. The story leaks and becomes national news. And when the ex-president assembles the team from his last national campaign, the majority of the country’s political media descends on the small Maine town. It’s David versus Goliath. Comedy ensues. The end.

“You’ve got to write it,” the War Department insisted.

I thought about it for a day or two. I had a definite vision for the movie. And part of that vision was putting a certain kind of funny on the page that I wasn’t sure I could pull off. But I knew who could. So I called my friend, Tom Schulman. Though he’d taken home the Oscar for his screenplay of Dead Poet’s Society, Tom was also responsible for comedies like What About Bob and Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

I pitched Tom the story.

“I love it,” he said. “But I think you should write it.”

“Thanks,” I said. “But I’m calling you because I think you should write it.”

“I’m flattered. I really love it. But I’m a firm believer that if it’s your story, you should write it.”

“I know I can write it. But with my background in politics, it’ll come off more political than comical. It needs a certain kind of funny. And you’re it.”

“Really Doug. Don’t get me wrong. I love it. But you really should write it.”

We left it there, promising to talk again soon. My next call to Tom was pretty much like the last. He thought I should write it. I thought he should write it.

Then I decided to play dirty.

“Tom,” I began my evil threat. “If you don’t say yes. I’m going to hang up and call (A-list writer/director’s name withheld) and pitch it to him.”

“You wouldn’t,” said Tom.

“I can and I will.”

“You bastard.”

“I really don’t think I’m the guy to write it,” I insisted. “I can develop it. I can produce it. But it needs to be funnier than I am.”

“Will you give me until tomorrow?” Tom eventually asked.

I agreed. The next morning, Tom phoned me and told me he was in. Even better, he had a put deal over at Disney. He owed Joe Roth a script. One pitch meeting later, we had a deal. Soon, Tom got down to writing while I read the pages and gave my notes. I was thrilled. Tom’s an amazing writer. And the tone was pitch perfect. But before Tom and I could deliver our movie, Joe Roth packed his office and left Disney.

Damn.

The Disney regime that followed had different plans. And Welcome to Mooseport wasn’t in them. Thus came turnaround (where the studio gives the project back, giving the filmmakers a chance to shop it around town). A company called Intermedia stepped in, bought the project from Disney, and eventually made a deal to co-finance the picture with Twentieth Century Fox. A couple years and a few re-writes later, we had a cast and, with some producing dexterity by yours truly, a hot comedy director in Donald Petrie, Jr.

A casting note: When penning a screenplay, writers often imagine certain actors in a particular role. All the while, knowing that the exercise is a mere writing trick. The cast you end up with is rarely—if ever—as spectacular as the one in your head. In the case of Mooseport, I’d always imagined Gene Hackman in the role of the former president with Maura Tierney playing the part of Sally, the hardware guy’s longtime girlfriend who he and the former president end up competing over. Then bingo. As if I’d chanted some casting incantation, we had Gene Hackman and Maura Tierney.

As for the hardware store everyman character of Handy Harrison? The studio dug in its heels, insisting on giving the part to sitcom and stand-up star, Ray Romano. Both Tom and I protested, certain that with Gene Hackman as the president, we’d be able to attract far more interesting casting. But Fox was sold on Ray. They made the choice simple. No Ray Romano, no green light.

At least we had a cast. A suitable location was scouted in Canada. We had a budget, a start day. All lights were green.

Unfortunately for me, by the time photography started, I’d been relegated to the producing cheap seats. Between all the producers at Intermedia and Don Petrie, Jr.’s capable crew, providing me a passport to the set would’ve been quite unnecessary. That and, as a writer, I had assignments to attend. I was plenty happy to stay back in Los Angeles and fast-forward through dailies.

Skip ahead nine months. The recruited audience tests were strong. The laughs were sustained and in all the right places. And though Ray’s performance had grown on me, neither Tom nor I were thrilled that a significant part of the studio’s marketing strategy was reliant on the popularity of Ray’s top-rated sitcom. Sure. The show was number one. But why pay to see Ray Romano in a comedy on Friday night when his loyal fans could see him on Everybody Loves Raymond for free from the comfort of their couch on Monday?

Then came the early reviews. To call them cruel would be like describing Saddam Hussein as mean-spirited. The critics were less concerned with the comedy of it all and more interested in excoriating the TV star for deigning to share screen time with the likes of Gene Hackman.

Welcome to Mooseport opened on a Friday afternoon. By Saturday AM we knew our movie would die a relatively speedy box office strangulation.

“I guess everyone doesn’t like Raymond,” I joked to Tom. I thought maybe he’d laugh. Instead, he just sadly agreed with me, still stinging from failure.

As for me, the pain of having my name on a flop was mitigated by the fact that I’d just started three months of photography on my movie, Hostage. Being super busy on a picture in production proved to be really good medicine.

Another positive was my parents had not just paid to see the movie at a theater – a millennial first – but had also loved it. My father said that because it was the first movie I’d made relatively clean of curse words, he could recommend it to his friends without being embarrassed.

On the other hand, Tom’s post-opening experience might’ve leaned closer to the old Joel Silver tack. Joel used to say that on Friday when his movie opened, he always loved it like a firstborn child. But on Monday, if the movie had tanked, he’d hate it like a malignant tumor.

Some eight months after Mooseport had crashed, burned, and faded from Hollywood’s memory, I got an early morning phone call. It was Tom. He sounded irritated.

“I’m in New York on business,” he began. “Flew overnight on a red-eye. Barely slept at all.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I said.

“You’d think that flying in First Class, I’d get some fucking peace and quiet. But no. They didn’t wanna sleep like everyone else. They wanted to have themselves a party. Laughing their asses off like nobody else was on the plane.”

I’d been there. It’s aggravating when you want to sleep and others were so rude.

“So I complained to the flight attendant,” continued Tom, “When that wouldn’t work, I said screw it. So I got up and walked back two rows. Had the mind to tell ‘em what rude assholes they were.”

“You actually got up and told ‘em off?”

“Oh, I got up alright. And when I got back there, I find out they’re not having a party. They’re just watching a funny movie.”

“What movie?” I asked. But I think I already knew the answer.

Mooseport,” laughed Tom. I joined in, so loudly my nearby family thought I’d hurt myself.

“So?” I eventually asked.

“I didn’t say anything. I just returned to my seat and made a note to call you when I got to New York.”

“Good stuff,” I said. “Worth losing a little sleep over.”

“I don’t know if I’d go that far.”

We both cracked up at that one, agreeing that Tom’s short tale of his red-eye to New York would be a fond memory with which to close the book on Welcome to Mooseport.

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