Monday, March 4, 2013

The lesson of Jack the Giant Slayer: Delaying failure and fixing the unfix-able is expensive and often counter-productive.

As most of you know, Warner Bros. intended to release Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Killer in June of 2012 before pulling it from release, ordering reshoots and the like, and calling it a more kid-friendly Jack the Giant Slayer.  I don't know what the film's budget was prior to the date change and related reshoots, but it was probably a lot less than the $195 million that they ended up with.  And for what?  The film opened this weekend to $28 million.  If patterns hold for this kind of release, it'll likely top out at $70 million domestic at best and around $250 million worldwide as a best case scenario.  But point being, how much better of an opening could Warner Bros. expecting for a half kid-friendly/half dark-and-violent retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk starring absolutely no one of any box office worth? How much worse of an opening would Warner Bros. be looking at had it just gone ahead and opened it in June of 2012 as they intended?  Is it really worth the extra tens-of-millions of dollars that they ended up spending on the picture? Delaying the inevitable oftentimes merely gets you the same result at a greater cost.

Sometimes you have to know what to fold and just take the loss.  That's the same choice Universal should have made back in 2008. They had already spent around $90 million on their remake of The Wolfman and slotted it to open on November 12, 2008.  Then they moved the film all around the block for nearly two years, spending $60 million on reshoots and the like and eventually debuting the film on Valentine's Day weekend 2010.  In the end, The Wolfman performed about as well as an R-rated period piece horror film for grownups would do, earning a decent $142 million worldwide.  But since Universal had spent for all the date changes and reshoots, the film now cost $150 million, making the mild disappointment into a genuine flop.  The question becomes what exactly made the original cut so unwatchable and/or disastrous that Universal felt the need to spend almost enough for two Wolfman movies in order to deliver a completely mediocre B-movie that caused neither excitement nor a desire for repeat viewing among those who saw it?  Not to be dismissive, but this was a werewolf horror film.  How much better could it have been and/or how much money could it have been expected to make?

This principle even applies to films that are hits.  Warner Bros. made a pretty penny with Clash of the Titans back in April 2010, earning nearly $500 million despite the fact that few actually liked the movie.  But the film we saw in theaters is actually a vastly different film than what was intended.  Whether or not the original version would have been a better film than what we got (I'd argue it would have been), Warner Bros. apparently spent a decent chunk of change (the film's budget went from being listed at around $80 million to $125 million right before its theatrical release) on re-cutting and somewhat re-shooting what was a nearly finished picture.  Grossing $493 million on a $80 million budget surely nets you more money than grossing $493 million on a $125 million budget.  Sure, whatever extra money they spent on the quickie 3D conversion was obviously worth it in terms of box office, but what did gutting Louis Leterrier's vision and making an arguably inferior film really get them?  For another random example of the last few years, was Paramount really better off delaying the wide release of The Lovely Bones for a month, which earned them nothing but bad buzz and negative reviews prior to the January debut?  And just how much more will GI Joe: Retaliation have to gross to make up for the additional money spent delaying it nearly a year and whatever reshoots were done post-date change?

Of course not every delay equals doom.  Paramount moved Shutter Island from October 2009 to February 2010 and opened with $40 million.  Warner Bros. moved Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince from November 2008 to July 2009 (after which Universal should have moved The Wolfman right back, natch) to absolutely zero negative effect because it's Harry frigging Potter.  Heck, MGM moved GoldenEye from summer 1995 to November 1995 and not only hit pay dirt but established a new prime release period for the 007 franchise.  And of course Paramount originally intended Star Trek to open in December of 2008 before moving it to May 2009. But these are cases of seemingly solid films merely being moved around for maximum box office effect.  This isn't the case of throwing good money after bad in order to create the illusion that a derailed train can be saved.  Say what you will about Jonah Hex, but Warner Bros. kept their June 2010 release date and created a (barely) releasable product right on schedule.  Sure they lost a bundle on the $50 million picture, but would they have been better off delaying the film six months and trying to slightly tweak the finished product for the same inevitable result?

Point being, some movies just don't work and some projects just aren't destined to be mega-hits. The key is recognizing when spending more money will actually improve the financial performance by enough to justify the money you're spending.  Otherwise, you're just spending new money to arbitrarily justify previously spent old money, tantamount to keeping soldiers in an un-winnable war to arbitrarily justify the ones who've already died or been wounded in the conflict (or, a less grotesque parallel, spending hundreds of dollars on an about-to-be-replaced automobile because you already paid thousands previously).  You get the same inevitable result, but at a much higher cost.  Jack the Giant Slayer was arguably a quagmire the moment it couldn't decide to be kid-friendly or adult-skewing.  Whatever it makes now is likely no better or worse than what it would have made back in June 2012, except that now Warner Bros. doesn't have the one-two punch of The Dark Knight Rises and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to soften the blow.  But the difference is that it would have been six months ago and however many millions cheaper.  Sometimes you just have to hold your breath, rip that off that band-aid and hope for the best.

Scott Mendelson    

1 comment:

James O'Leary said...

"For another random example of the last fee years"--few?


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