“World War Z” will in all likelihood be looked back on as an important turning point in the narrative of bad buzz prematurely equating to a flop. It's an interesting case study for studios trying to turn back the tide on troubled productions. These days, with transparency and information as available as it is, bad buzz can severely hurt a film. Look at “Gangster Squad” (delayed and then had its ending reshot), “Battleship” (delayed, looked like Michael Bay at sea) or “John Carter” (delayed, had a title changes, suffered from a terrible marketing campaign). These are three recent films that only reinforced the traditional narrative -- these movies are troubled, therefore they’re going to suck.
But Brad Pitt’s intense, thinking man’s zombie movie proved to be a big hit this weekend, becoming the star’s biggest box-office opening to date and coming in second only after the four-quadrant friendly “Monsters University.” Yet, somehow, “World War Z,” with its whispers of director/actor fights, rewrites, reshoots and a generally cursed production, managed to outlive its snakebitten reputation. By following the conventional wisdom of the Hollywood narrative, “World War Z,” should have been, by all rights, a huge and expensive, colossal flop. Instead, it’s already over $100 million worldwide, looking like it will have strong legs and while it’s doubtful it will recoup, Paramount is already looking at potential sequels.
Part of the film’s rehabilitation was a canny transparency job. Letting in reporters like Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly was part of allowing the media in early, and this made for good, juicy copy and high awareness. Secondly, Paramount held early screenings for critics and pop-up screenings with Brad Pitt all over the country which started good word of mouth buzz. With the film defying the odds, we thought we’d look back at five movies that survived their bad buzz and another five that followed their trajectories right into the bottom of the box-office dumpster. Keep in mind, this isn’t simply movies that endured a difficult production, but rather those whose difficulties spilled over into the public and had to overcome the odds or simply pay the piper.
5 Troubled Film Productions That Overcame Bad Buzz
“Apocalypse Now” (1979)
How Did It Begin: Way back during Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rain People,” George Lucas and Steven Spielberg encouraged their friend and filmmaker John Milius to write a Vietnam War film. This turned into an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Hearts of Darkness.” At one point called, "The Psychedelic Soldier" and a project Lucas toyed with directing, Milius actually approached the screenplay as a dark comedy. Lucas would go on to make his green lit "Star Wars" and Coppola was eventually bitten by the "Apocalypse Now" bug. A Coppola fresh off “The Godfather II,” could make anything he wanted and was determined to make the film.
What Went Wrong? Everything. Perhaps the granddaddy of cursed productions, "Apocalypse Now" went off the rails fast and its troubles are now legendary. A film ostensibly about madness, arguably the crew went down the same river into hell that the story did. “We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane," Coppola said. First he had to recast his lead Harvey Keitel after just a few weeks of filming with Martin Sheen, essentially forcing him to start over. Several mistakes were made along the way, including heavily rewriting Milius' script day-by-day during the production and keeping faith in the mercurial Marlon Brando, who was paid an exorbitant $3.5 million for a month's work (and showed up shockingly overweight). More troubles came when hard-partying Sheen suffered a heart attack, and inclement weather and difficulties with the Philippine government, who took back the attack helicopters they loaned, mid-shoot, to go and fight an actual war. All this exacerbated an already bad situation. What was intended to be a 14-week shoot, spiralled on for months and on May 21, 1977, the film wrapped principal photography, five days short of a year after they started. Coppola who had invested several millions of his own funds was on the precipice of complete financial ruin, and contemplating suicide.
When The Press Got Hold Of It: Rumors of “Apocalypse Now” has spiraled into the press to the point that it was becoming a well-known public joke, with even cartoons in major U.S. papers mocking the film and asking, would it ever finish filming?
What Happened In The End? Despite the mountain of bad press and being the butt of all jokes, “Apocalypse Now” bounced off the ropes and rallied hard. A three-hour, work-in-progress screening at Cannes was the first salvo in helping salvage the film's reputation and this was cemented when "Apocalypse Now" won the coveted Palme d'Or prize. Coppola’s film earned itself 8 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor In A Supporting Role (Robert Duvall) and Best Adapted Screenplay although it would only go on to win Best Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro) and Best Sound (Walter Murch). But history has more than validated the picture; while “Kramer Vs. Kramer” is a fine picture and took most of the major awards that year, “Apocalypse Now” is regarded as a defining masterpiece of the golden ‘70s of filmmaking, seen as an all-time classic of cinema up there with “Jaws,” “2001” and the likes. If you want whole down and dirty story, Eleanor Coppola’s “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse” is a must watch documentary.
How Did It Begin: Having already directed "The Terminator" parts 1 and 2, "Aliens," "The Abyss" and "True Lies," James Cameron’s films were becoming bigger and bigger and a challenge was something the hubristic director could never live down. Seeing the “Titanic” story as the Mount Everest of shipwrecks, Cameron was soon hooked, writing a screenplay and making this romance disaster his next project.
What Went Wrong? Cameron’s always been the proto-Michael Bay of directors, loud and demanding. And while directing the epic scope of “Titanic,” Cameron lost his cool more than once. While effects were important, massive sets were built (one costing $40 million) with thousands of extras making for an extremely big operation to manage. But Cameron even had to film the infamous Kate Winslet nude scene first because many of these massive sets weren’t ready when filming began. Water played a huge and dangerous part as well, with actors fearing for their lives during the long and labored sequences when the Titanic sank. Cameron ran an “militaresque” operation to keep the movie on schedule and production, but the film’s budget still ballooned to over $200 million -- the most expensive film ever made at that time (this was also minus the marketing and promotion). While Cameron was unapologetic about his demanding style, his tactics backfired and one evening an angry crew member put PCP into the soup that Cameron and several other crewmembers ate, sending several people to the hospital.
When The Press Got Hold Of It: With a release pushed from July to December, it didn’t take long for the press to get ahold of the disaster-in-the-making production of Titanic. Entertainment Weekly did a cover story on its various woes in November of 1997 and much of Hollywood was seemingly just waiting for the film to fail. Cameron battled with Fox over the spiraling budgets and running time and struggled to get it down to a manageable 3 hours (3 hrs 14 minutes was the final cut). Even the press in 1997 knew the film had to be a megahit just to break even. Cameron threatened to quit if Fox changed a hair on the film’s head and then said they’d have to kill him if they wanted to see that happen. Rumor had it there was a razor blade taped to the editing suite with a note attached that read, “only use if film sucks.” "There's no other way to look at it. It's a great battle. A battle between Business and Aesthetics," Cameron told EW.
What Happened In The End? Defying the odds and then some, the David and Goliath story of Cameron vs. the studio vs. the skeptical media world couldn’t have been written any bigger and better. “Titanic” went on to become the highest grossing film of all time and it held that record for 12 years until it was finally bested by Cameron’s next epic, “Avatar.” "Titanic" would sweep the Oscars the following year, earning 14 nominations, winning 11 including Best Picture and Best Director. Cameron’s unwavering vision had been validated to the hilt, but it he would wait almost 10 years before he began working on “Avatar” in earnest.