Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Never bet on breaking records: Why I wouldn't have greenlit Guillermo Del Toro's R-rated, $150m version of HP Lovecraft's At the Mountain of Madness.

Let's be honest for a second. Under normal circumstances, Inception likely would not have been greenlit in its current form at Warner Bros. While Warner Bros. until recently had a reputation for giving lots of money to notable filmmakers and more-or-less staying out of their way, even they had their limits. Had Christopher Nolan not just delivered a $1 billion-grossing and critically-acclaimed superhero sequel, and had not Warner Bros. desperately wanted to guarantee that Nolan would return for what would become The Dark Knight Rises, Inception would have been a very different movie, if it even would have existed at all. On paper, would you green-light a $200 million science-fiction film based on an original screenplay that was full of complex ideas, difficult-to-explain story elements and a distinct lack of bright colors and conventional sex appeal? There are but a handful of filmmakers who could have made Inception as it was. Chris Nolan, coming off The Dark Knight, was one of them. Other than perhaps James Cameron and Steven Spielberg (George Lucas would have just funded the thing out of his own back-pocket), I cannot think of anyone else who could have gotten the greenlight without severely slashing the budget. Guillermo del Toro isn't one of those directors either.

The film-world was thrown into a frenzy yesterday regarding Universal's cancellation of Guillermo del Toro's personal passion project, a $150 million, R-rated adaptation of HP Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness. We live in an era where even the once-brave Warner Bros. has gone from the sort of studio that would roll the dice on The Matrix to the kind of studio that will likely reboot/remake The Matrix, where Pixar seems content to become a sequel factory (Cars 2, Monsters Inc 2), where studios are so terrified of big-budget originality that they seem to merely be parading an never-ending stream of unwanted sequels (Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief: The Sea Monsters), needless remakes (Total Recall), and inexplicable 'reboots' (Tomb Raider), the news was the film-news equivalent of us lefties hearing that President Obama had caved into GOP budget demands... again. There are plenty of reasons why executives are reluctant to spend blockbuster-dollars on original ideas. But the (temporary?) death of At the Mountain of Madness isn't quite representative of the end of original thought in Hollywood. But it is a good time to stop and ask why every major studio genre picture needs to cost to bloody much?

The highest-grossing R-rated film of all-time is The Matrix Reloaded, at $742 million worldwide. After that, you get The Passion of the Christ ($611 million), Terminator 2: Judgment Day ($519 million), Troy ($497 million), Saving Private Ryan ($481 million), The Hangover ($467 million), The Matrix and Pretty Woman ( both $463 million), Gladiator ($457 million), The Last Samurai and 300 ( both $456 million), The Exorcist ($441 million), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine ($433 million), The Matrix Revolutions ($427 million), Sex and the City ($411 million), and The Bodyguard ($410 million - which is arguably why that one is getting remade). That's just sixteen films in all of modern-motion picture history that have grossed $400 million or more worldwide with an R-rating. The second-highest-grossing R-rated horror film (after The Exorcist) remains Hannibal, with $351 million. I can't even think of an insanely successful R-rated supernatural horror picture off the top of my head... can you? Point being, even with the once-surefire Tom Cruise allegedly at the helm, an R-rated $150 million supernatural horror film would basically have to become the most successful supernatural R-rated horror film of all-time just to break even.

And a movie based on an H.P. Lovecraft story doesn't exactly scream four-quadrant blockbuster. In terms of mainstream accessibility, H.P. Lovecraft makes Clive Barker look like Tim Burton. The problem with the project, as is, was the cost and the rating, plain and simple. Want to spend $150 million? Make it PG-13. Want it to keep its (likely appropriate) R-rating? Keep the budget below $100 million. Quite frankly, it is the cost of making these big pictures, and the accommodating marketing costs, that remains one of the big reasons why studios are so afraid of originality when it comes time for their 'big films'. And let's be clear, there are plenty of original films being made in the low-to-mid budget range, it's just that many of them slip under the radar and/or are held until the year-end awards season. But, when dealing with big-budget 'tent-poles', if you greenlight an original picture and it flops, the blame falls on you. But if you greenlight an adaptation of a known property or a remake/reboot of an existing property, you have the defense of 'well, it worked before, right?'.

There is arguably no real reason that a solid adaptation of a Lovecraft short-story can't be made for $70-100 million. But even if a studio wanted to bankroll a hugely risky endeavor such as this, Universal is alas not in the place to do it right now. As Drew McWeeny correctly pointed out, Universal is one of the good guys. They've had a few years filled with original and/or challenging films of varying quality, and most of them have flopped pretty hard. The Green Zone, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Funny People, The Wolfman (which accidentally became a $150 million R-rated horror film), Leatherheads, The Changeling, Duplicity, State of Play, etc. Their 2008-2010 slate is littered with original, adult fare that underperformed or outright tanked. And, as a result, their 2012 slate is being held up by The Bourne Legacy (a reboot), Ouija (a horror film based on a board game), and Battleship (an action picture based on a board game). We don't know what role (if any) that Universal's new corporate bosses at Comcast had to do with the turnaround, but the Universal of 2011 was not in a place to spend $150 million on an R-rated supernatural horror adventure picture by a director whose highest-grossing film (Hellboy II) made $160 million.

The number one issue here is cost control. If every single major movie didn't magically find a way to cost $150 million or more, than studios would arguably be more willing to take creative chances and/or cede more creative control in regards to content, casting, and MPAA rating. District 9 would not have existed in its current form as a $150 million tentpole release. The reason it got made as director Neill Blomkamp desired was because it cost just $30 million. But at $125-150 million, its $210 million worldwide take would have been underwhelming if not disastrous. Even as a film critic/pundit who fears the coming years of 1980s/1990s-rebooted, I would not as a studio executive greenlight a $150 million R-rated horror picture based on an H.P. Lovecraft story. Because, like it or not, that would mean betting on At the Mountains of Madness breaking records for an R-rated horror picture. And that's just bad business. You want studios to make better, more original, and more individualistic and idiosyncratic 'big' movies? Tell the studios, with your wallet perhaps, to stop spending Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End-money on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

Scott Mendelson


Anonymous said...

I agree 100%, the nerd masses are slamming Universal, but I think Del Toro's budget was unreasonable. Did we need this project to be 3D?
Great Clive Barker quote, speaking of R rated horror-fantasy movies, Clive is the poster boy for trying to tell ambitious stories with no budget(Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions). Those movies were not box office successes but they sure are unique visions. It's a shame to see Clive's movie involvement in the new millennium relegated to producing straight to DVD fare.
Big budget Barker movies are like the Mountains of Madness, they would be a blast to watch but I wouldn't invest my money in them. I see this as another fallout to Watchman's limited box office last year.


Anonymous said...

The way you bust Warner Bros.' chops in your opening paragraph is unfair at best. All of your qualifiers aside about why they did it, they are the ones who did spend a shitload of money on Inception, both making it and marketing it. And to act like The Matrix was some huge gamble that they'd never take today is a cheap shot -- the film cost barely over $60M and as such was not some massive crazy bet-the-farm gamble. Your arguments are good otherwise.


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