Hollywood failed Bruce Willis
Far from the glamor of Hollywood and the Academy Awards, there’s a world of low-budget action and horror movies, where producers scramble to find investors and distributors.
It’s a world that needed a big name like Bruce Willis to raise funds, a world that placed the actor in front of the camera, even as his mental health declined. The announcement last week that Willis was “stepping away” from acting to deal with the cognitive disease aphasia shed a stark light on this little-known corner of the film business.
Aphasia strips away a person’s ability to communicate and understand. It can sometimes come on quickly, but just as often develops over several years, like a dementia that slowly emerges.
According to reports, many filmmakers now say they were “concerned” for years about Willis’s health — and struggled to meet the demands of his handlers. Directors were asked to keep the star’s dialogue short and his days on set to a minimum. Even that reportedly was sometimes challenging for the actor.
Despite all this, film roles kept coming: 21 movies in just the last four years. Sources quoted in the Los Angeles Times and New York Post say the last two years were especially difficult for the actor — but Willis still starred in at least 15 films during that time. The majority were low budget efforts, often $10 million or less, compared to an average $65 million budget for a mainstream studio production. The movies were typically violent action stories that sell well internationally.
It seems unlikely that producers were completely unaware of Willis’s difficulties. But acknowledging those problems to investors, and perhaps to themselves, may have carried too high a cost for some.
This is how that world works: Film producers and distributors know there is a hard-core global base of fans for genre films like violent action and horror. These are productions where the storylines are simple and dialogue matters less than following along with the visuals. Language and culture are, in essence, no barrier for audiences. Independent producers — working outside the big studio system — have to raise the money on their own for these films. The most important sales tool they have is the movie’s poster.
Before a frame of film is shot, producers create a poster. That poster is taken to various international film markets, where would-be investors decide which projects to support. It’s far easier to get backing if your poster includes the face of a well-known actor — even one that may be past his or her prime, even if the role is just a few lines and a couple of scenes.
They needed Bruce Willis … and Willis may have needed them. There may have been a sincere effort on the part of his agents and managers to keep him busy and engaged, as a way to delay the worst of what his disease would eventually bring. However, at a certain point, most likely sometime in the last two years if reports are correct, a health line seems to have been crossed.
But the work continued. Rumors swirled and stories were swapped — but posters still got made and investors signed checks. Directors and fellow actors reportedly worked hard to protect Willis, to keep the production going and make sure he looked good in the final cut.
Now that’s over.
And Hollywood will have to examine its role in all this — and maybe examine the whole movie-making eco-system. It’s an infrastructure where each actor works with a “team” of agents, managers, producers and personal assistants. Their focus: keep the star out there in the public, still relevant, still working. Keep the gigs — and the money — coming.
A production supervisor who worked with Willis recently told the Los Angeles Times that the actor struggled to get through the day, but never gave up. “He just looked so lost and he would say ‘I’ll do my best,’ ” the supervisor said. “He always tried his best.”
The same can’t be said of Hollywood. It needs to do better.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.