Monday, April 27, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: Polygram Filmed Entertainment

by Jason

Last time I tackled ITC, based in Britain. Today I’m staying on that side of the pond for another mini-major, and this group made an even bigger impact in the States with a bigger and richer film library. Like other indie companies, Polygram didn’t carry the load by itself, but instead co-produced a lot of its titles with major studios and relied on them (or Gramercy in the 1990s, a company Polygram co-owned) to distribute them to theaters. This company was responsible for bringing us Hugh Grant, Bryan Singer, and…The Dude?

Who Were They?

PolyGram Filmed Entertainment was created in 1980 by its parent company, Polygram (a music outfit). They had some success with filmmaking prior, so they decided to create their own film studio. Early going was rocky, and some of their earlier pictures were not a success. But Polygram the music company had tons of cash to invest, and kept pumping Polygram with lots of money. The effort paid off in the 1990s, when Polygram struck gold a roster of critically acclaimed and commercial hits.

What Were They Known For?

Hugh Grant, a pregnant policewoman in snowy North Dakota, and being one of the first studios to make a movie from a board game (Clue), making it waaaay ahead of its time.

The Studio’s Peak Moment

The release of Fargo in 1996. Factor in Dead Man Walking and other assorted hits, and the mid-nineties were very good to Polygram.

The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie

The winner is likely Pamela Anderson’s attempt at movie stardom in the comic book adaptation (and pseudo-remake of Casablanca, believe it or not!) Barb Wire. Though some, including yours truly, find it a guilty pleasure. Actually, 1996 overall featured some of Polygram’s most notorious titles. In addition to Barb Wire, this year also released the bombs Eddie (a movie that gave Whoopi Goldberg a Razzi nomination), Kazaam (Shaquille O'Neal as a rapping genie) and the star-studded but somewhat controversial hit Sleepers.

The 1997 dark comedy Very Bad Things is a runner-up, though some do appreciate its dark humor.

And then there’s the 1997 Spice Girls flick Spice World. I’m already having flashbacks to the late 90s.

Finally, the 1994 Jodie Foster drama Nell is considered by some to be overly overt Oscar bait, though it has its admirers.

The Studio’s Up and Comers

For Flashdance (co-produced by Paramount), a lot of the behind-the-scenes folks. The director Adrian Lyne, the producer duo of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, and its star, Jennifer Beals.

Tom Cruise made his film debut in Endless Love, while James Spader took his second film role here.

Hugh Grant. Four Weddings and a Funeral catapulted him to big success, and the studio gave him another big hit with Notting Hill.

New Zealand director Vincent Ward got major exposure with Map of the Human Heart. Polygram would later make the Robin Williams fantasy What Dreams May Come with Ward in the director’s chair.

Speaking of Map of the Human Heart, this was a breakthrough role for its star Jason Scott Lee, who would later play Bruce Lee in the biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story for Universal.

Director Bryan Singer with The Usual Suspects. Remember when Singer was just known for Keyser Söze?

British action hero Jason Statham got his big break on the international stage with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

The Coen brothers directed The Hudsucker Proxy here before making two of their most famous films to date, also for Polygram: Fargo and The Big Lebowski.

Polygram was just the international distributor (Miramax distributed in America), but it’s worth noting the British 1996 flick Trainspotting for basically introducing Ewan McGregor to a wide audience.

And finally, Vin Diesel’s gravel-throated Riddick made its debut in one of the studio’s last films, Pitch Black.

Notable Movies.

Six Weeks, Endless Love, Clue, An American Werewolf in London, Flashdance, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Hudsucker Proxy, Romeo Is Bleeding, Wild at Heart, Kalifornia, Terminal Velocity, Ruby, Candyman I and II, Home for the Holidays, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Dead Man Walking, Fargo, Nell, Mr. Holland's Opus, When We Were Kings, What Dreams May Come, Notting Hill, Sleepers, The Game, The Relic, Very Bad Things, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Pitch Black, The Borrowers, Hard Rain, The Portrait of a Lady, Arlington Road, Elizabeth, and The Big Lebowski.

And I’ll throw in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, even though it wasn’t produced by Polygram, but it was distributed by Gramercy.

What Killed the Studio?

It got sold to a beer corporation that had no interest in using it to make movies and ended up selling its film library.

Of the studios I’ve covered that went under, I cannot find anything to suggest Polygram was having financial trouble. This was a simple case of a company being sold off. In this case, the company that acquired Polygram, Seagram, was only interested in its vast music library, and since it already owned Universal studios, it did not see a need to maintain a second studio, so it folded most its operations into Universal, and sold the bulk of its pre-1996 library to MGM.


Overall, Polygram had a good run in the 90s, and many of its stars and directors went on to bigger things. Exhibit A is Bryan Singer, who directed the first X-Men movie and laid the groundwork for the current Marvel movie renaissance. The importation of British leading men like Ewan McGregor and Jason Statham have also left their mark. On the other hand, romcoms like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill seem to have disappeared from movie screens.

So what is your favorite Polygram picture? What do you think of the studio? Any other thoughts?


AndrewPrice said...

Jason, Thanks again for another interesting bit of history. Looking at this list, these guys really WERE the 1990s. There are only a couple other great films from that period that aren't on this list. Amazing!

As an aside, The Usual Suspects is my favorite film ever.

Kit said...

"being one of the first studios to make a movie from a board game (Clue)"

And doing it way better than most modern attempts.

PikeBishop said...

I've always categorized "Very Bad Things" as an "Interesting Failure," like David Lynch's "Dune."

Jason said...

Thanks, Andrew.

It’s disappointing that Polygram moved off the stage. It seemed if mini-majors didn’t go under, they often got bought up by bigger companies.

As far as some of the other Polygram titles, I thought The Relic was awesome. It’s a monster flick a’la Alien and The Thing, and I enjoyed it a lot.

I was a little disappointed in What Dreams May Come. I thought it was too maudlin, where I was expecting more of a mindblowing journey through the afterlife. Some of the visuals were pretty impressive, and I always love Max Von Sydow.

As I’ve said, I find Barb Wire to be a guilty pleasure. Interesting visual look, good action, some funny moments, and Pam Anderson’s scowling performance is a hoot. She probably could have had a career as a straight-to-video action star if she played her cards right.

Haven’t seen Clue yet but it’s on my list.

Kit said...


Clue is hilarious.

Isn't Barb Wire mostly known for hurting Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie because the distributor put all their money with the former instead of the latter.

Jason said...

From checking around on the internet, it seems to be the consensus that Gramercy (the distributor) stiffed MST3K: The Movie in favor of Barb Wire . In hindsight, it seems stupid, but remember back then Pam Anderson WAS a pretty big star and seemed the better bet.

Kit said...

"From checking around on the internet, it seems to be the consensus that Gramercy (the distributor) stiffed MST3K: The Movie in favor of Barb Wire . In hindsight, it seems stupid, but remember back then Pam Anderson WAS a pretty big star and seemed the better bet."

I knew that Pam Anderson was the better bet in the mid-90s.

Kit said...

But it does not make the pain any less. :(

Kit said...

It is surprising that Rifftrax has not yet taken on Barb Wire.

Rustbelt said...

"It is surprising that Rifftrax has not yet taken on Barb Wire."

Kit, I have a theory on that. 'Barb Wire' is probably too expensive to license and release as a VOD. The guys would have to do an audio track for it. And in that case, the viewer would have to provide their own DVD or Blu-Ray copy. I think it's doubtful that many people have (or want) a copy of 'Barb Wire' on hand.
The likelihood of people already having the DVD's is why Rifftrax restricts audio tracks to really popular movies or films that have just been released. Also, Kevin Murphy said in a recent interview that they're focusing more on B-movie VOD's these days because those are more profitable.

P.S. Anyone else planning on seeing "Rifftrax Live: The Room" next week?

Rustbelt said...

Jason, I, too, have a soft spot for 'The Relic.' (However, given my age when it came out, I was probably more interested in staring at Penelope Ann Miller. :))

And, seriously, you have to see 'Clue.' Andrew did a great write-up on it a while back.

As for 'MST: The Movie'...well, it was Jim Mallon's brainchild. Let's just blame it all on him.

Jason said...

Re: Penelope Ann Miller. I was 16 back then, so entirely understandable. :)

Kit said...

Clue is very funny.

AndrewPrice said...

Clue is one of my favorite comedies. It's hilarious and super clever!

I'm just floored by the list, however. Hudsucker, Fargo, Big Lebowski, Usual Suspects, Clue, Trainspotting, Pitch Black, Four Weddings... these were HUGE films. These films defined the 1990s, with the addition of Tarantino and LA Confidential.

I remember too that they were one of the first into the DVD market and I bought all their stuff.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, The Game is great if you haven't seen it. I reviewed it here: LINK. Vastly underrated film!

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, Jason...

Since 'The Hudsucker Proxy' got mentioned, here's a terrific economic analysis of the film. Enjoy!

shawn said...

I would put in a voter for An American Werewolf in London. Best werewolf movie out there in my opinion.

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