2011: The Year The Big Projects Died & Studios Discovered (A Little) Fiscal Responsibility

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by Oliver Lyttelton
December 28, 2011 12:39 PM
4 Comments
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The giant financial crisis that began in 2008 is probably the single event that's had the most wide-reaching ramifications since 9/11, but, as ever, it's taken a few years for the film industry to reflect that, barring the occasional handy coincidence, like "Up in the Air," for the most part, 2011 was the year in which cinematic storytellers began to deal with the mess, from surprise hit "Margin Call" and HBO drama "Too Big To Fail" to the barely-able-to-make-rent lead in "Bridesmaids" and New Depression-era setting of "Real Steel." Even "Tower Heist," dealt with financial inequity and films like "Warrior" dealt with characters struggling to make due.

It was also finally the year where the reckless spending of Hollywood seemed to finally slow and the bean-counters took charge. In a year with high-profile flops like "Mars Needs Moms" and "Cowboys And Aliens," when the domestic box office provided few smash hits, most of the major studios started to get cold feet about some of their most riskiest, most expensive projects, and more importantly, the dwindling possibility of the return on their investment. It was, seemingly, the year when Hollywood stopped spending like there was no tomorrow and put on the breaks to some big-time projects, with almost every major studio rethinking their in-development pictures to some degree or another. Who were the biggest spend-thrifts in Hollywood in 2011?

Universal

No one trimmed more fat this year than Universal, who've famously taken a bath on a number of expensive pictures in recent years. Few other companies would have backed a stoner comedy take on "Land of the Lost," Michael Mann's hugely expensive digital gangster epic "Public Enemies," an R-rated period horror flick starring Benicio Del Toro, an Iraq war drama from Paul Greengrass, or the unlike-anything-else "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," with all but the last costing well over $100 million, and none doing gangbusters at the box office; some might have drawn even eventually, but not all. With "Your Highness," "Dream House" and "Cowboys & Aliens" continuing the trend in 2011 by tanking, and tanking hard, the studio has clearly rethought their plans. as the year developed. It began in March, when despite Tom Cruise in the lead role, one of the most highly sought-after directors in town, and King Midas James Cameron in the producer's chair, Universal pulled the plug on Guillermo Del Toro's $150 million dream project, H.P. Lovecraft adaptation "At The Mountains Of Madness," after the filmmaker refused to budge on his desired R-rating. A disappointment for film fans? Absolutely. The smart move for the studio to take? Absolutely; given "The Wolf Man" failed to make its budget back despite much better-known source material, why would Universal make the same mistake twice?

And it seemingly gave them lack of confidence across the year, with several giant projects falling under the axe at the company. Paul Greengrass' "Memphis," following the last days of Martin Luther King's life, was gearing up for a shoot in the early summer, with a February 2012 release planned, but in April, the film was scrapped, the public line blaming a lack of approval from the King estate, who were very critical of depictions of infidelity in the Greengrass script. We're sure that didn't help, but we imagine that the idea of Universal getting back into bed with the man who went wildly over schedule and budget on "Green Zone" was never the most appealing for the company. It wasn't just auteurs who got screwed; commercially-minded helmer McG was set to adapt board game "Ouija" into a family-friendly tentpole, but the studio elected to pay a whopping $5 million penalty to Hasbro rather than actually make the damn thing.

Perhaps especially notable was "The Dark Tower," a hugely ambitious adaptation of Stephen King's magnum opus fantasy saga that would have spanned both a trilogy of movies and several TV series. Ron Howard got as far as casting Javier Bardem in the lead, with a summer 2013 release date set, but Universal balked at the last minute, delaying the start date several months to try and bring the budget down, and eventually scrapping it altogether. Howard was free to take it elsewhere, but no other studio bit; likely indicative of the thinking all around town. In its place, the company's slate for the next few years includes two more "Fast & Furious" movies, Hasbro's "Battleship," "Snow White and the Huntsman" and sequels to 'Bourne' and "Bridget Jones' Diary."

Disney

In all fairness, everyone's been tightening their belts in the last twelve months. Despite "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" making over a billion dollars worldwide, the company flinched when it came to greenlighting "The Lone Ranger," which came from the producer, director, writers and star of the first three 'Pirates' movies, at a $250 million budget. With Westerns not especially popular, and Disney hurting from the under-performing "Tron: Legacy," the outright disaster of "Mars Needs Moms" and the spiraling costs on "John Carter," the company shut down pre-production on the Johnny Depp/Armie Hammer vehicle. Unlike the films above, however, it did move on forward; producer Jerry Bruckheimer trimmed the budget by about $35 million, managed to keep director Gore Verbinski and all the original cast, on board, but it's another sign that, short of "Avatar 2," no single project or talent is above the cost-cutting that's becoming more and more commonplace.

It wasn't the only film the studio (who famously switched to a four-quadrant tentpole-only strategy a couple of years ago) put on the scrap heap; they'd signed their new boy wonder Joseph Kosinski up to direct a version of his own graphic novel "Oblivion" when "Tron: Legacy" was still in post-production. But after quite some development, the film was dumped by Disney in March, perhaps because it was darker than their usual remit, or perhaps because 'Tron' didn't live up to expectations, commercially or artistically. Still, there was a happy ending, with, as we've seen, the otherwise greenlight-shy Universal stepping up the $100 million budget with 'Mountains of Madness' refugee Tom Cruise in the lead.

Warner Bros.

Warners meanwhile, have been taking a slightly different tack with their new tentpoles, now that megafranchises Harry Potter and Batman are wrapping up; like everyone from Marvel to J.J. Abrams, they're mostly eschewing big stars for cheaper, rising names (with certain exceptions; Clint Eastwood's "A Star Is Born" chose to wait for Beyonce when she got pregnant, rather than recasting). "Akira" is perhaps the best example; originally set to be a $150 million+ tentpole with Albert Hughes directing, and A-listers like Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves courted for the lead, the film was shut down and retooled when it couldn't land a star, with the budget shrunk down to a mere $90 million, new director Jaume Collet-Serra put in place, and Garret Hedlund given the lead. Meanwhile, relative unknowns Joel Kinnaman and Kit Harington got the title roles in "Arthur & Lancelot," but even in that case, saving on above-the-line fees wasn't enough to get it made; only a few weeks ago, with the budget soaring to $130 million ($40 million more than originally intended), the studio put the film into turnaround, letting Dobkin take it to other suitors.

Indeed, it seems that having an A-lister on board isn't even enough to get it done at Warners. Bradley Cooper was going to play Lucifer in "Paradise Lost," but Alex Proyas' film was also postponed for budgetary reasons earlier in the month. Whether it sees the light of day again remains to be seen. And when George Clooney dropped out of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E," Steven Soderbergh and the studio couldn't agree on a star who could take on the project within the $60 million budget earmarked, so the director walked, although Warners have since hired Guy Ritchie to try and carry on the project.  

And The Rest
It seems like every studio around had similar issues about one project or another. 20th Century Fox decided that letting Darren Aronofsky get his hands on (a likely R-rated) "The Wolverine" might not be the most commercial of takes on the X-Men franchise, and mutually parted ways with the "Black Swan" director, with the much safer James Mangold stepping in, although the film still seems to be without a firm start date. Paramount were gearing up to make Doug Liman's long-in-the-offing moon-set actioner "Luna," with Andrew Garfield, Chris Evans and Zoe Saldana all involved, but the studio's financing partner Skydance (headed up by David Ellison) withdrew, and Liman moved on. Sony had it worse than anyone, arguably; they got cold feet on a film they were halfway through shooting, with a production hiatus on "Men In Black 3" extended by several months in order to sort out script problems, with at least two A-list scribes being brought on, as the budget headed towards the $250 million mark. We'd be surprised if they made the same mistakes again.

The fact is, $200 million tentpoles aren't going anywhere. But everyone in town has been burnt by something recently, and 2011 was the year when the credit crunch finally seemed to catch up to studio executives. Does this mean that the era of risk-taking in mainstream cinema is over? Well, perhaps not. Annapurna Pictures, headed up by Megan Ellison, have made a habit of stepping in to finance films once thought left for dead like John Hillcoat's "The Wettest County" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," when others have dropped out, and it's become a home for people like Kathryn Bigelow, Wong Kar-Wai, Andrew Dominik, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman and Bennett Miller. These films are likely not PG-13 tentpoles, but Ellison clearly thinks there's money to be made in backing her favorite filmmakers. With any luck, there'll be more like her, and fewer mid-budgeted versions of "Akira," on the way in 2012.

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4 Comments

  • John Brune | December 30, 2011 7:51 PMReply

    I agree with Huffy. It doesn't matter if the film is good or not. In my opinion so many crappy films did well this past year but who cares about my opinion. They made money. I don't understand it. I don't understand Universal executives publicly slamming films like Wolfman and Cowboys and Aliens and then promoting obvious trash like BATTLESHIP--an unapologetic retread of Transformers. Movie going just gets worse and worse. And 3D post conversion isn't helping either!

  • Tired | December 28, 2011 10:53 PMReply

    Too many films are just simply crap. Nothing to see here.

  • J | December 28, 2011 8:22 PMReply

    Guys, THE WOLFMAN failed to make back it's budget because it was a TERRIBLE movie. It has nothing to do with how well-known the source material was or is. AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS would have actually been good....

  • Huffy | December 29, 2011 11:07 AM

    Wolfman's quality is irrelevant. This is a market that allows films like Revenge of the Fallen to flourish. Quality means little nowadays for big, effects-driven blockbusters. It can help to build positive word of mouth in the long run but theatrical runs are so short nowadays that it often can't salvage months of misguided PR. In the case of Mountains..., I don't blame Universal one bit. Given the project's projected budget (150 million) it would have had to make over $500 million worldwide to make money. Can you name the last time an R-rated horror film has made anywhere near that amount? It probably would have been a good film but it also almost undoubtedly would have lost money. You can't blame a studio for dumping something like that, especially a studio that has struggled as much as Universal.

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