Hollywood Flashback: In 1990, 'Flatliners' Resuscitated Columbia Pictures

Columbia Pictures/Photofest
From left: Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and Kiefer Sutherland in 1990's 'Flatliners.'

Despite THR's negative review, the film (with a sequel hitting theaters Friday) became the first big hit for the studio after Coca-Cola sold it to Sony.

As far as The Hollywood Reporter was concerned, 1990's Flatliners was dead on arrival. The Joel Schumacher film's title comes from ER slang for someone whose absence of vital signs produces a straight line on the EKG — i.e., they're a goner. In the movie, a group of medical students (Kiefer Sutherland, then 23; William Baldwin, 27; Kevin Bacon, 32; Oliver Platt, 30; and Julia Roberts, 22, who'd just had a massive hit with Pretty Woman) perform experiments where they stop one another's hearts, rendering themselves technically dead. After being resuscitated, they have memories of the experience.

Schumacher once explained the film this way: "The movie's about atonement and sins from the past." THR, however, was unmoved. "If you hooked this script up to a dramatic life indicator, it would also register a flat line," went one line in the review. Columbia itself had pretty much flatlined as a studio during its last few years of Coca-Cola ownership (Ishtar tanking in 1987 was the last straw for the soft drink company), and Flatliners was the first big hit after Sony's 1989 purchase. "It was an excellent way to kick off the new regime," says then-Columbia president Frank Price.

The $26 million production ($77 million today) grossed $61 million domestically ($182 million currently) and opened at No. 1. Besides making money, the film produced one massive flare of gossip: Co-stars Roberts and Sutherland, who was married, fell in love during filming. Then on June 14, 1991, they were set to wed on 20th Century Fox's Soundstage 14. But three days before (after the four bridesmaids had bought their seafoam green dresses and dyed-to-match $425 Manolo Blahnik shoes), Roberts canceled — and ran off with Sutherland's friend Jason Patric.

Though filmed with nowhere near this amount of underlying romantic drama, a sequel, also titled Flatliners and featuring Sutherland, is set to open Sept. 29. 

This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.