Monday, February 16, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Vestron Pictures

A couple years after I graduated from the University of Bridgeport with a BFA in cinema I worked for a post production facility in Stamford, CT called Postworks. I held a few positions at Postworks; as a production assistant on myriad corporate and industrial videos, and later, as an office assistant. This included a surreal stint as a PA on a string of music videos produced for the WWF, each featuring one of their wrestlers. This is where I got to witness Hulk Hogan lip synch next to Rick Derringer on Derringer’s remake of his classic Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.

The WWF was based in Stamford. Another entertainment company based in Stamford in the mid- to late-eighties was Vestron Pictures. You may or may not remember Vestron. They were a motion picture distributor that struck oil when they produced and distributed Dirty Dancing in 1986. Overnight, they went from a tiny home video distributor to a (relatively) major player in motion picture production and distribution. In other words, Dirty Dancing made them buckets of money. And they figured they must know what they were doing and decided to make a bunch more movies. With bigtime actors and budgets much bigger than Dirty Dancing’s.

My first brush with Vestron greatness was when I made a delivery to their offices. They had rented one or more floors of a downtown Stamford building and populated it with a troop of happy, well-adjusted young people. I wondered how they got their jobs. Working for a movie company in Connecticut. That’s what I wanted. I don’t know what they were doing up there, amid the Dirty Dancing posters that lined the walls or the cardboard cutouts of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Marketing? Talking budgets and locations? Distribution deals and foreign rights? The guys who I worked for knew the guy who started Vestron back in the day (early eighties) and the guy threw them a little work. It was my job to pick up and drop off parts of this work.

After hitting it big, Vestron was throwing money as fast as it was deposited into their gold-lined, Dirty Dancing coffers at filmmakers, crews, writers, big names actors, and actual directors, cranking out what ended up being one of the strangest, unbalanced, miscalculated attempts at decent American moviemaking ever. All apologies to those involved. But, let’s face it; Criterion ain’t knocking themselves out raiding the film canisters of history to do a complete restoration of, say, Anthony Michael Hall’s curio known as A Gnome Named Gnorm (aka Upworld).

In those video dubs that I struck, I witnessed Vestron’s catalogue of films made during their brief but tasty tenure of 1986 (or so) to 1991. There was the rough cut (no music, no sound effects, lots of dead air on the soundtrack) of the Dennis Hopper directed, Jodie Foster starring dud Backtrack (aka Catchfire, aka Do it the Hard Way). Long, boring, silly, faux noir. Poor Jodie Foster and her co-stars Dean Stockwell, John Turturro, and Vincent Price (?!?!). Out in the desert (New Mexico?) enacting Hopper’s own little Apocalypse Now. Released in theaters? Maybe, but I don’t remember it. On IMDB there are two directors listed, Hopper and Alan Smithee

How about the Class of 1999. “It's 1999. School is a warzone. The latest in automatic weapons are the teachers.” Hey, this one looked pretty good. Total exploitation, lots of gratuitous violence, and some decent actors like Malcolm McDowell, Stacey Keach, and Pam Grier. This was a sequel to Mark Lester’s Class of 1984 (much more fun and prescient) and here was Lester back to do it all over again. The movie looked dark and skuzzy, but I figure that’s the look they were going for.

There was Dream a Little Dream. Starring Coreys Feldman and Haim. Silly story, lame special effects. And God Created Woman, the Roger Vadim-directed remake of his iconic sixties movie, now starring Rebecca De Mornay (!?!?). Steel Dawn, which reunited Swayze with the distributor that made him world-wide famous. But this time he played a character named Nomad in “…a post-apocalyptic world, where a warrior wandering through the desert comes upon a group of settlers who are being menaced by a murderous gang…”

The movies weren’t all clunkers. Actually, looking through their IMDB page, I’m pretty impressed with some of the movies Vestron was associated with. They distributed foreign-made films in the U.S., including a few late-eighties Ken Russell flicks. There were independent-style movies like the low-key, character study Anna, with Sally Kirkland, who was nominated for best actress. Sincere dramas like Michael Hoffman’s Promised Land, John Huston’s The Dead, and Love Hurts with Jeff Daniels. Quirky comedies like Parents, Earth Girls Are Easy, and something called Twister, starring Harry Dean Stanton, Crispin Glover, and William S Burroughs (!?!?). Let’s not forget the money-draining machines like C.H.U.D. II - Bud the C.H.U.D., Slaughter High, Little Monsters (the Fred Savage/Howie Mandel thing, sold off to UA when Vestron started going downhill), and Nightforce, with Linda Blair, Chad McQueen, and James Van Patten.

But, let’s get back to the case of Anthony Michael Hall and Upworld (the title when I saw the dailies). Upworld was one of the last flicks Vestron put the money up for, and is emblematic of why they lost their shirt. The movie is directed by Stan Winston, a special effects guru from Aliens, Terminator 2, and Iron Man among many others. And starred an established actor and a cute cuddly character. So, really, how could this fail? Here’s the problem with Upworld: Anthony Michael Hall plays his character (a homicide detective who teams up with a gnome named Gnorm to find a killer) straight. A noble effort, and the only way a decent actor could go with the material. So the movie’s story concerns a cute alien-looking gnome, a murder mystery, and a cop drama all in one. It works on none of these levels.

With Upworld, I sat and watched all the footage I could. I was ostensibly ‘monitoring’ the quality of the dubs. The dailies (all the uncut camera footage, most of which you never see in a finished film) are priceless. There’s poor AMH trying to act with a gnome, nothing more than a kid in a suit I’m guessing. After each take AMH broods, obviously going for that method-school of acting-with-a-gnome thing. When he screws up a line, he says he wants to go again, wants to get it right. He‘s trying so hard to make a good movie, yet he must have known this was not to be. Not only another nail in the burnished coffin of his once-sparkling movie career, but that of Vestron as well.

Toward the end of the dailies, AMH shoots a night sequence during which you can hear in the unpolished footage the constant racket of the generators they use to run lights on location. It’s a physical and emotional scene. Something’s going wrong, either technical or performance-wise, and Winston calls for take after take. I imagine Winston was more concerned about the effects and technology than the performances.

Finally, obviously exhausted from the night shoot and the strain of carrying this questionable movie, AMH snaps. Flubbing a line and stopping a take, he breaks down and shouts at anybody close enough to hear about the absurdity and degradation of having to act alongside a fucking gnome. And I’m guessing, though he doesn’t say it out loud, the pressure of working for a studio that’s going down the tubes.

I delivered the dubs of the Upworld dailies to the Vestron offices. I should have called all the Vestron employees responsible for any decisions on any level to gather in a conference room, and shown them the footage to see if they could figure out what was wrong with this picture.

In another couple years Vestron was done. They’d lost all their money, packed up house, and had a liquidation sale where they sold off all video rights to their movies to other distributors. But, Dirty Dancing lives on, with a sequel Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, and now as a musical, selling out all performances in Boston before heading to Broadway. As an old boss of mine used to say, “It’s only a movie.”


Liz's Mom said...

Elegantly written, absolutely fascinating story.

I am so glad you know all this stuff and write about it.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Where was I to miss such classics like Chud II and A Gnome Named Norm??

No wonder Vestron went down the tubes. :(

Henriette Power said...

Nice post, Dell! What a strange experience!

Robin said...

Hi Dell -- This is a fascinating look at the rise & fall of a movie production company. I'm also impressed how you put this together. The video "Rock 'n' Roll, Hootchie Koo" was a scream. Maybe will try in my next class! Thanks for the quick trip back in time.

Dell Smith said...

I don't even remember Chud II. Imagine all the thousands of movies that get made that most people have never heard of. They went straight to video, released in other countries, or never released at all.
That Rock n 'Roll video was actually not easy to find. Do a Hulk Hogan video search and you get more than a few results. Truth be told, I didn't work on the entire video, just the second day which didn't feature the kids or the teacher. Unfortunately. She seems very nice...

Anonymous said...

It was nice to read about Vestron. Thx :)

Anonymous said...

Dear Dell,

do you know which company bought the rights to Dirty Dancing?

kind regards,

Lene Andino