Backdraft Premiere: Studio Throws Cold Water on City Hall’s Hot Idea

The city’s hopes for a glitzy benefit premiere of Backdraft, Universal Pictures’ $40 million summer picture about Chicago fire fighters, appear to be going up in flames. With $20 million of its production budget spent in Chicago, Backdraft is the costliest film ever shot here. (The Untouchables, which spent about $11 million here in 1986, comes in second.) But the city’s efforts to convince Universal to underwrite a Chicago premiere of Backdraft have so far proved fruitless, perhaps an indication that the Windy City remains a backwater in the eyes of most Hollywood honchos. With each day that passes bringing no word from Backdraft’s distributor, the likelihood of a premiere here grows slimmer.

Director Ron Howard filmed Backdraft, which stars Robert De Niro, Kurt Russell, and Scott Glenn and depicts the lives of fire fighters in gritty detail, between July and December of last year. The movie has already generated considerable media attention (it’s scheduled to be released nationally May 24) and promises to spotlight the city as a major filming site. “The movie has Chicago all over it” says Charles Geocaris, director of the Chicago Film Office; he worked closely with Howard on the myriad day-to-day details of the shoot, including a funeral sequence for which the city closed a portion of Michigan Avenue one Sunday morning.

Last January Geocaris and staffers in Kathy Osterman’s special events office drew up a proposal for a Chicago premiere of Backdraft. “This was the first time we ever went after a film premiere,” says Geocaris. The proposal, which suggested a star-studded screening to benefit the widows and orphans of Chicago fire fighters, was dispatched to Imagine Entertainment, Howard’s California-based production company. Several weeks ago, Geocaris and Illinois Film Office staffers met in California with Imagine executives, who reportedly were noncommittal about the chances of a Chicago premiere. Earlier this week, Geocaris still was awaiting an answer to the city’s proposal. One contributing factor appears to be Howard’s own commitments to a film he is shooting in Ireland.

A source in Chicago’s Universal office said the Backdraft proposal still was under consideration but implied that the cost of flying in stars and setting up the premiere may be a consideration. “The city wants us to pay for [the premiere],” said the source. Universal, however, is coming off of a bad Christmas season (Havana was among the costliest of the big holiday bombs) and may be in a penny-pinching mood.

Some local film industry executives admit they are not surprised by Universal’s stance on Backdraft. Neither Touchstone Pictures’ The Color of Money nor Paramount’s The Untouchables, two big pictures with major Chicago connections, opted to hold premieres here. Noted one local film executive: “The studios open the movies where they think they can get the maximum exposure, and that usually means Los Angeles.”

Ravinia Expanding

Zarin Mehta, the Ravinia Festival’s new executive director, is displaying a decidedly aggressive streak in his debut season. Ravinia’s 1991 program lineup includes 102 performance dates, an increase of 43 percent over last year’s 71, with an operating budget of $10.5 million, up more than 25 percent over last season’s $8 million-plus in operating expenditures. Whether Mehta can realize an increase in revenues to cover the added costs will depend in part, as always, on the weather; Ravinia earns as much as 25 percent of its income from the sale of lawn tickets. Chief among Mehta’s additions this year is a ten-day “Jazz in June” series scheduled to start June 7. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which traditionally has opened the season, doesn’t perform until June 21. Mehta believes the additional jazz concerts are a smart way to lengthen Ravinia’s season, maximize revenues, and make better use of the existing facilities. A new series of programs for kids has also been added, and Mehta has programmed several big orchestral events designed to spark attendance, including concert presentations of Handel’s Messiah and Prokofiev’s score from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky. The tradition of presenting dance at the season’s end will continue with two companies this year: the Martha Graham Dance Company and Hubbard Street Dance Company. But legitimate theater, which has appeared on the Ravinia lineup from time to time, isn’t likely to return anytime soon. “We just don’t have the proper facilities for theater,” says Mehta.

Cheap Music

Jeffrey Lewis, the industrious musical director for Wisdom Bridge Theatre’s upcoming dramatic adaptation of The Great Gatsby, is earning his keep. He recently visited the Chatfield Brass Band Library in Chatfield, Minnesota, to look for sheet music for some of the nine tunes from the 1920s and ’30s that he has chosen for the production, including “Ain’t We Got Fun,” “Deep Night,” and “Together.” He also plans to do most of the orchestral arrangements himself, unusual for a project that reportedly has a budget approaching $250,000. At $1,000, Lewis’s budget for musical arrangements is a fraction of what he would normally have, he Says, but doing the show also has its advantages: “You have so much more leeway as an artist because it’s a brand-new project.” The Great Gatsby will also feature original music by local composer Evan Chen.

Psycho Sells Out

Though it’s still too early to tell how popular Bret Easton Ellis’s much-talked-about novel American Psycho will be in Chicago, so far the grisly tale about a serial killer is selling better than was expected. Unabridged Books sold out of its initial ten-copy order within a week and has been unable to reorder because both of its distributors are out of stock. “I’m a little surprised that there’s that much interest in the book,” says Unabridged’s Chris Kennelly. Barbara’s Bookstores co-owner Pat Peterson says each of her three stores has sold six copies of the book (their entire stock), but she has noted a falling off in requests for the book in recent days. Many reviews have slammed the work for poor writing and the absence of a moral framework.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.