It's always a bad omen when Alan Smithee directs a movie. But what about one directed by Thomas Lee?
As every student of show-biz minutiae knows, "Smithee" is the pseudonym
Hollywood typically uses when a filmmaker wants his or her real name removed from the final credits.
"Thomas Lee," on the other hand, is a newcomer. Lee makes his first appearance as an Alan Smithee type on MGM's "Supernova," a $70 million sci-fi disaster flick starring James Spader and Angela Bassett as outer-space medical rescue workers.
In reality, Lee is veteran filmmaker Walter Hill ("48 Hours"). Hill, whose last film under his own name was 1996's "Last Man Standing," was booted from the project in February 1999.
Today, Lee's/Hill's orphaned film hits theaters - and the question is: Is "Supernova" about to implode?
"Generally speaking, it's not a good sign," says Paul Dergarabedian, of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "It's never good to have a director have his name removed voluntarily. Or involuntarily."
Sources say the Lee pseudonym was agreed upon by the studio and the director.
Industry watchers say the name is intended to distract audiences (and, if they're lucky, the media) from the fact that the movie is an Alan Smithee-esque production - a typically troubled Alan Smithee-esque production.
Hill, who himself replaced Aussie filmmaker Geoffrey Wright shortly before the shoot began, was removed from "Supernova" after a dispute with MGM over (what else?) money. Hill wanted an additional $1.5 million to shoot more footage. MGM balked, and tested his rough cut anyway. That was the final back-breaker - it was Hill's turn to balk. A final cut was the result of some major re-jiggering by a MGM board member by the name of Francis Coppola.
Last August, Variety reported that Hill might keep his name on the film if he approved of Coppola's version. But that cut - an 88-minute brief pared down to garner a PG-13 rating -- fared no better with test audiences. Most importantly, Hill never saw it, and the rest became credits history. "Thomas Lee" was called into service.
While "Alan Smithee" is most commonly deployed when a directors wants their names off projects, it's not necessarily the name that's used. The Directors Guild of America declined to comment on the pseudonym process, but "Thomas Lee" apparently passed its fake-name standards.
MGM can only hope "Thomas Lee" brings better luck at the box office than "Alan Smithee." Films bearing the Smithee trademark have traditionally bombed, including: "Let's Get Harry" (1986), "Morgan Stewart's Coming Home" (1987), "Ghost Fever" (1987), and the infamous "An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn" (1997), a would-be joke on the Smithee problem that ended up being credited to Smithee when director Arthur Hiller bailed.
Not one of those films grossed more than $1 million at the box office. ("Morgan Stewart's Coming Home" came the closest - taking in a whooping $799,400 during its initial run.)
"Supernova" has a few distinct advantages over its director-less predecessors. For one thing, the studio's not dumping it, opening the film in more than 2,000 theaters. Its January release date is another blessing. With many screens filled up by Oscar-oriented flicks leftover from the holidays, this is a time that welcomes second-hand schlock for the kiddies. Last year, the top grossers of the month were the arguably direction-free teen hits "Varsity Blues" and "She's All That". Even "Supernova's" story line is a plus -- it's a PG-13-rated sci-fi flick, a genre not generally made or broken by a headlining filmmaker.
"You never want to have the director change, but I think this is the right time to release it," says Dergarabedian of "Supernova." "Kids are looking for a kind of movie. They're not necessarily looking at the director. And right now, there's nothing else like it out there."
Of course, there's still a potential problem out there. Unlike the unlikely Alan Smithee moniker, "Supernova's" pseudonym begs a follow-up query: What happens when a real Thomas Lee starts directing?