Clapton Rebuffed | Brando Broke? | Miramax Downsizing

Clapton Rebuffed: Denied Blues Legend's Songs

Rocker Eric Clapton's album, "Me and Mr. Johnson," has been an unlikely hit, selling nearly 500,000 copies.

The album consists of 14 songs by blues legend Robert Johnson, who died at age 27 in 1938. Johnson left behind only 29 songs that were verifiably his, so the Clapton album represents a large part of his estate.

But now Clapton's attorney, Michael Eaton, confirms for me that the rocker wanted to buy at least half the catalog of 29 Johnson songs right before the album came out. John Massa, administrator for the catalog, also confirmed that queries were made on behalf of Clapton to buy in.

"A price was named," said Eaton, "but the administrators said they had something bigger brewing and they were going after that." The price, Eaton recalled, was "far less" than $10 million.

"It was manageable," he said.

Buying the Johnson catalog would have been a smart move for Clapton, a Johnson devotee who had already recorded many of the 29 songs before the new album. But Massa says, "We don't want a partner or an investor."

Eaton said, "I assume they made whatever deal they had in mind."

The Johnson catalog is co-owned by Massa's West Hollywood-based company, Lessem, and Johnson's recently discovered 72-year-old long-lost son, Claud Johnson of Mississippi.

For many years, the Johnson estate's heirs consisted of two other non-blood relatives. But when a search was finally commenced by the probate court to find Robert Johnson's blood relatives, Claud, a Mississippi laborer who hauled gravel for a living, was able to provide proof that his mother had had an affair with Robert Johnson a few years before the blues man died in 1938.

Clapton's next album, by the way, will be all his own material and should be ready for release early next year. I'll bet the folks at the new Warner Music Group are crazy with anticipation.

On a year-to-year basis, Clapton is pretty much WMG's only consistent bestseller, whether it's original rock or blues. He's the only recording artist in his age group who can lay claim to that.

Brando Broke? Jacko Gave Him $1 Million, Remember?

Apparently there's a book coming out claiming that Marlon Brando is broke and living in a cardboard box or something. Since Brando doesn't talk to the press, you can say anything about him, so someone has. Brilliant.

I did tell you last year that Michael Jackson paid Brando $1 million to appear at his 30th anniversary concert on Sept. 7, 2001. That was no small change.

Plus, Brando is far from living in a sad condition. His house is part of a compound on top of Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills. His neighbors are Jack Nicholson, who moved in with Brando temporarily when Rebecca Broussard was moving out, and Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine. We should all live so badly.

I'm sure the book will portray Brando as a nut and eccentric who doesn't know what time of day it is. But listen: I spoke to him last year, and he sounded fine. Marlon Brando's crazy like a fox, and don't you forget it.

Miramax's Downsizing After Upsizing

Most likely on Tuesday, from what I've heard, Miramax will lay off somewhere around 75 staffers.

These layoffs will include lots of people who all of the New York columnists and entertainment writers know and appreciate. It's hard sometimes for people who read the columns to think of studio layoffs in terms of human beings. But we will be sorry to see them go.

Ironically, Miramax went through a deep staff cut right after Sept. 11, 2001, bringing its total staff size down to around 375.

About a year or more later, the company had upsized again, adding even more employees to cover major releases such as "Gangs of New York," "Chicago," "Cold Mountain," "Amélie," "In the Bedroom," "Frida," the "Spy Kids" series, and others. One source at the company says the staff count is up to around 450, the highest it's ever been.

Miramax notoriously releases few movies during the spring and summer, saving its big guns for the fall Oscar season. This year is no exception.

"Finding Neverland," starring Johnny Depp, will be the sleeper entry in the awards race. Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in "The Aviator" will be the big showy number. In all likelihood, the two young actors will be vying for Best Actor against each other. (And joining them, most definitely, will be Jamie Foxx, said to be "amazing" as Ray Charles in the Taylor Hackford-directed feature about the late legend.)

There will also be Oscar campaigns for Morgan Freeman and Robert Redford, from Lasse Hallström's said-to-be-charming "An Unfinished Life."

Ironically, if Miramax had been allowed to release "Fahrenheit 9/11" as planned, both it and Disney, its parent company, would be sitting pretty right now. "F9/11" took in 9 percent more than its estimate on Sunday, putting its weekend take, as this column predicted, at almost $24 million.

On Monday night the documentary did another $4.5 million in 838 theatres. There is no sign of waning interest in the Michael Moore film.

But don't think that merely releasing the documentary would have saved Miramax its 75 jobs. Besides the hits, it had some duds that proved a drain on the small company's resources.

"Jersey Girl" was one, but still unreleased, and not scheduled to hit theatres anytime soon, is a big World War II epic called "The Great Raid" that will probably go straight to video.

Some recent releases were good ideas that didn't work ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") and some were rotten ideas to begin with ("Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights").

And then there was "Duplex" — starring sure-fire box-office attractions Drew Barrymore and Ben Stiller — which turned out to be a costly gamble on the kind of broad, dopey Hollywood studio picture Miramax would be better off avoiding in the future.

"Duplex" took in around $14 million. Just a few months later, a similar Ben Stiller comedy, the TV-ish "Along Came Polly," co-starring Jennifer Aniston, did $89 million in business.

My guess is Miramax will pare back to its roots and stick to the smart stuff. Leave the airplane movies to the experts.