“Flyboys” makers defy Hollywood
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – It is a box office gamble befitting the daring aviators who star in the movie “Flyboys,” which opens on Friday.
A group of filmmakers and investors including producer Dean Devlin and ace pilot David Ellison, son of Oracle Corp. founder Larry Ellison, spent more than $60 million of their own money to make and market a film no major studio would touch.
Not even Mel Gibson with his smash hit “The Passion of the Christ” spent $60 million. “Passion” cost $25 million, and independent films typically cost less than $5 million. Hollywood studios did not want to back “Flyboys” because they worried it wouldn’t draw a big enough audience to make money.
But Devlin, whose hits include big budget “Independence Day,” was passionate about “Flyboys” a tale of fighter pilots in World War I who risked their lives flying in rickety biplanes.
Devlin contends passion is lacking in studio moviemaking and says that if Hollywood wants to excite audiences, it must break away from box office-safe sequels, prequels, formulaic comedies and the same old dramas.
Hollywood’s history is filled with independent producers who took big financial risks and came out on top.
Their stories go back to the origins of movies and include billionaire Howard Hughes’ 1930 World War I flying film “Hell’s Angels,” which at the time cost around $3 million to make and was the most expensive movie ever made.
Like “Hell’s Angels,” “Flyboys” tells of the first young men to face aerial dogfights. Their biplanes were made of wood and wire. Guns often jammed; engines frequently caught fire. The pilots’ life expectancy was a mere six weeks.
“Flyboys” follows members of the Lafayette Escadrille who were U.S. pilots that flew for the French before the United States entered the war. Their tale is one of high-risk adventure in the air and human frailty on the ground.
“This was a story I never heard before, and it was in a unique story in a genre I wanted to see revived,” Devlin said. He added that the last time a World War I flying movie was made by Hollywood was 1966’s “The Blue Max” from 20th Century Fox.
In modern times, the cost of reproducing biplanes was too high for studio executives who questioned whether young men — the key audience for action movies — would care about old biplanes in place of their usual “Star Wars” fare.
MODERN-DAY FLYING ACE
New computer graphic imagery reduced the cost of making “Flyboys” because only a few real biplanes had to be made. The rest were digital creations.
Still, the movie’s financing came together and fell apart “maybe 16 times” over several years, Devlin said, owing to the fact that few financiers had the same passion as Devlin.
Enter aspiring filmmaker David Ellison, 23, whom Devlin met through his lawyer. Ellison’s father is No. 5 on the list of the richest men in the United States with a net worth estimated at $17 billion by Forbes magazine.
Observers might conclude Larry Ellison bought the movie role for his son, but David Ellison said that is wrong. The junior Ellison has distinguished himself as a top aerobatic pilot and he was passionate about the movie.
“I got involved with this on my own. I was like, dad, I’m doing this by myself,” Ellison said. And on his role as one of the “flyboys,” Ellison insisted he never wanted to take it.
Devlin said “Flyboys” director Tony Bill played a game of brinkmanship and argued the only way he would allow Ellison to invest was if the young pilot took a part in the movie.
Bill knew Ellison was a star among a core audience of aviators, and the film’s backers have traveled to air shows to promote what they consider to be a family film that lacks the foul language, sex and nudity of many Hollywood studio flicks.
“Flyboys” debuts alongside major studio films “All the Kings Men,” a remake of a 1949 hit and “Jackass 2,” a sequel to a 2002 movie about people doing stupid stunts.
Whether a World War I tale can beat them in the weekly box office battle remains to be seen. But two things are certain, the story is fresh and the filmmakers fearless.
“If you want a safe investment, get a Treasury bill,” said Devlin.
“Flyboys” makers defy Hollywood