When a 90s romcom by the name of Broadway Brawler fell apart, Bruce Willis was facing a very big bill – and opted to make three movies for Disney instead.

In the current issue of Film Stories magazine – subtle plug, it’s on sale now – we’ve got a big article looking at the murky world of the film contract. Of the little clauses that sometimes allow people to wriggle out, and vice versa.

Infamously, in the case of someone like Edward Norton, he found himself contracted to make a feature for Paramount Pictures, and stalled and stalled until he was compelled – against his wishes – to feature in The Italian Job remake.

But he wasn’t alone in being directed towards other movies as a consequence of a contract. For Bruce Willis – albeit less reluctantly – found himself in the same boat.

In 1997, Willis found himself on the set of what was set to be a major new production. The film was Broadway Brawler, a family romcom in which he was to play a retired hockey player having a romance with a character played by Maura Tierney. It was being directed by Lee Grant, an Oscar-winner for Best Supporting Actress in the classic movie Shampoo. She had a directorial career stretching back to the 70s, although this new movie was to be her highest profile.

But it didn’t go to plan.

The $28m movie – being backed by Disney and Cinergi, who had enjoyed a hit two years earlier with Willis, thanks to Die Hard With A Vengrance – was ultimately a fractious production. And 20 days into filming, Willis – who was also a producer on the film – called halt. He wasn’t happy with how things were going, and Grant, producer Joe Feury and cinematographer William Fraker were given the heave-ho. Several other members of the crew got their marching orders, and in came Problem Child director Dennis Dugan to try and rescue the film.

He couldn’t. After looking at the available footage, and with around $15m of the budget reportedly already spent, the decision was made to abandon the film. A very rare move for a big movie star production that was already three weeks into production.

As the Los Angeles Times reported at the time Broadway Brawler fell apart, Grant was not happy. “It was our project. We went to [Willis] because we knew he would be perfect for it. He was marvelous in it but he was cursed with not being able to see how marvelous he was”, she told the outlet.

The report also quoted cinematographer William Fraker as saying that “Lee was doing a great job. Bruce was telling other actors how to act. It was a great script and Lee’s vision was a love story about two people with the background of hockey. But Bruce just took over”.

Willis’ publicist denied all of this. The report is here.

Willis had cut his fee for the movie, but even so, Disney and Cinergi were out of pocket due to him calling halt. An agreement needed to be reached, as The Walt Disney Company was said to be considering taking legal action against the actor to recoup its costs.

But studio boss Joe Roth had a brainwave. Willis at this stage was a star, albeit not quite at the peak of his powers. That said, the third Die Hard had hit big, and Pulp Fiction had given his career a much-needed shot in the arm. It made sense for Disney to keep working with him.

Roth put a proposal to Willis. If he would commit to making three more movies for the studio, it’d offset his salary against Disney’s losses on Brawler, and the actor wouldn’t be out of pocket. Willis, perhaps fearing that he may be on the wrong side of a near-$20m ruling, agreed. And it was a case of fingers crossed that three hit movies would ensue.

As it came to pass, that’s exactly what happened.

The first of the three was Michael Bay’s quietly subtle Armageddon. On that particular project, Disney knew it was in a race with DreamWorks and Paramount’s Deep Impact, and it figured some movie star firepower wouldn’t hurt. Willis duly took the lead role of Harry Stamper, and Armageddon won that particular box office duel.

The second of the three films, meanwhile, would turn out to be the biggest hit of Willis’ career.

An up and coming writer/director by the name of M Night Shyamalan was making a film called The Sixth Sense with Disney, and thanks to the deal that had been brokered, Willis was available to star in it. It’d prove a lucrative role for him too, and a couple of films into the three picture deal, Willis had repaid the Disney losses from Broadway Brawler and was eight figures up. To ice this particular cake, the third of the three films that Willis was all-but-compelled to make was a remake of The Kid, and that proved to be a bigger-than-you-may-remember hit as well, returning a sizeable profit for a very happy Disney. In fact, Willis would sign up to make Unbreakable with the studio not long after.

The three films that Willis made as part of his deal grossed a total of over $1.2bn worldwide, at a point where that was an awful lot of money for a movie (billion dollar grosses weren’t quite a thing, outside of Titanic). It was the best commercial purple patch of his career.

There was a loser in all of this, of course.

Lee Grant, after earning an Academy Award nomination in 1986 for directing the documentary Down And Out In America would primarily director TV movies and television in the aftermath of her high-profile removal from Broadway Brawler. That said, she did score some quality acting work, notably as Louise Bonner in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

But still, a project she wanted to direct, and utterly believed in, was taken away from her.

The winners, though? They were obvious. Firstly, Bruce Willis, who seems to pick better films when backed into a corner. And Disney, in its pre-Marvel and Star Wars days, that picked up a trio of sizeable hits for its trouble…

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