Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Brands, Budgets, & Bankability Still Don’t Explain Why Studios Are In Crisis - Part 2

Perhaps the biggest game-changing summer flop was Cowboys & Aliens, a film that had been developed over more than a decade by some of Hollywood’s brightest minds (Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jon Favreau), and a dream pairing of the actors known as Indiana Jones and James Bond. The genre mash-up lost a fortune for DreamWorks, Universal, and Relativity Media. Audiences didn’t connect with the concept, and didn’t care about Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. That left a reported $163 million budget film (I’ve heard it was higher) with a $174 million worldwide gross. Factor in the P&A spend, then cut that revenue in half to account for the exhibition split, and this is a big fat failure. The ripples were felt as far away as India where the film is rumored to have dampened the enthusiasm of DreamWorks’ financing partner Reliance.

These kinds of huge flops happen, but it was certainly no coincidence that shortly after Cowboys & Aliens got scalped, Disney pulled the plug on another Western, The Lone Ranger. This despite the presence of the world’s most bankable star, Johnny Depp (who starred in three billion dollar grossing films for the studio), being directed by Gore Verbinski, helmer of three Pirates of the Caribbean hits, and produced by Disney’s cornerstone producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the man behind the Pirates hits. The studio halted a fall start because they feared the budget could hit $270 million. Disney refused to budge unless the cost came down to $200 million. They eventually compromised at around $215 million—costs were trimmed from the production budget and Depp and his cohorts restructured their deal and took on some of the risk.

This fiscal scrutiny became a running story in 2011. Universal jettisoned an ambitious adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series that Ron Howard was to direct with Javier Bardem starring, with three feature films and two TV series runs planned. More shocking was Universal’s decision to unplug At the Mountains of Madness, the Guillermo del Toro-directed adaptation of the HP Lovecraft tale that had Tom Cruise poised to star. Because Universal would not make a $150 million horror film without a guarantee from the director that it would be PG-13 and not R-rated. At year’s end, Legendary Pictures halted plans to begin production in January on Paradise Lost, the epic-sized Alex Proyas-directed film about the battle between good and evil inspired by the John Milton poem and starring Bradley Cooper as Lucifer. The problem: the $120 million budget already had been exceeded by 10%-15% because of the high green screen visual effects costs needed to stage the celestial battles. (Legendary is working to bring down those costs with hopes of making the film before summer.)

Warner Bros hit the brakes on Arthur & Lancelot, the David Dobkin script that the studio paid $2 million to acquire last summer so he could direct. The studio originally hoped to make the film for $90 million, then watched the budget balloon to $130 million. That’s pricey for a film that stars two up-and-comers who are not stars. Warner Bros also parted ways with Steven Soderbergh on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. over budget and casting issues after George Clooney bowed out. The studio gave the film to Sherlock Holmes director Guy Ritchie.

How is all this affecting the day-to-day business in Hollywood? For all but the biggest stars and their dealmakers, it has made an already hard job much more difficult. First dollar gross deals are a distant memory. So is the system where supporting players establish a quote from previous studio jobs. Now studios assemble lists starting at the top and then go down until they find the actor who’ll work for the discount price allotted for the role. The pendulum swing of leverage away from talent isn’t helped by the fact that studios no longer trust the star system. Beyond Angelina Jolie and a handful of male stars like Depp, Will Smith, Brad Pitt Adam Sandler and Tom Cruise, nobody is a safe bet.

Even reliable veteran Tom Hanks was hit challenged. Attempts to mint new franchise stars has been most frustrating. Despite the billion dollar success of the Twilight Saga series, neither Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, nor Taylor Lautner have proven that their audience will follow them to other films. Ryan Reynolds’ attempt to reach stardom took a serious step back with Green Lantern and The Change-Up.

That doesn’t mean studios will stop trying to create new stars. Tom Hardy is on a fast track, playing Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, and taking over the hero role in George Miller’s Mad Max series with Fury Road. These films will give Hardy global visibility. Is he a star? Hardy turned in an Oscar-caliber performance in Gavin O’Connor’s mixed martial arts drama Warrior. Nobody seemed to notice. Disney and Universal are betting big on Taylor Kitsch, who played the hard-luck fullback Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights for six seasons. Kitsch first plays the title role in John Carter, Disney’s adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel John Carter of Mars which opens March 9. And then Kitsch follows in the Peter Berg-directed Battleship, a big budget film that carries the Hasbro board game brand, an extraterrestrial storyline, and the future of the studio. Kitsch then stars in the Oliver Stone-directed adaptation of the Don Winsow novel Savages, which Universal releases September 28

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