By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist June 24, 2013 at 3:51PM
How Did It Begin: After years of deep-sea diving, and directing undersea exploratory documentaries like "Aliens of the Deep," and "Ghosts of the Abyss,” “Avatar” was announced in 2005, then known as “Project 880” -- and Cameron was envisioning a trilogy almost from the beginning. Melding his love for science fiction, environmentalism and technology, Cameron saw "Avatar" as a digital revolutionary step forward, but delayed the film for several years so technology would catch up.
What Went Wrong? Not that much, as the press or public wasn't really concerned other than the fact that “Avatar” shot in 2007 and wouldn’t arrive in theaters until the end of December 2009. Buy even so the press and even the public were largely kept in the dark, and there was nary a set photo or any indication of how the film's production was going until very late in the game. And this perhaps was by design after Cameron’s “Titanic” experience.
When The Press Got Hold Of It: Similarly delayed (due in the summer, eventually released at Christmas), as the media is wont to do whispers began with the impatient speculation of “what could be wrong here?” “Avatar” was held under lock and key for months, but when the first trailer arrived -- concurrent with a 15 minute sizzle reel at a specially ticketed event on giant Imax screens around the planet to build buzz -- much of the press was dismayed, asking, “We waited two years for this?” The New York Times wrote an article about the mixed press reception and even quoted The Playlist, with our post saying: “This is supposed to be the game changer this year? Maybe it does look astonishing in 3D and on the big screen, but it practically looks comical in this Internet-trailer form.” Various movie websites likened it to disasters like “Delgo” and “Dungeons & Dragons” and the bad buzz began, even spawning Hitler’s infamous reaction to the “bad trailer” news.
What Happened In The End? “Avatar” went on to become the highest grossing film of all time. $2.8 billion and counting and it doesn’t look like that record’s going to be eclipsed any time soon, though Cameron is working on two sequels simultaneously. Nominated for 9 Academy Awards (including Picture and Director), the narrative shifted to Cameron and his ex wife Kathryn Bigelow's awards season film, “The Hurt Locker.” Suffice to say that little Iraq war indie took the big prizes and “Avatar” had to be satisfied with three technical awards.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)
How Did It Begin: Disney begins developing a script based on their Pirates theme park ride, despite the fact that the box office failure of “The Country Bears” makes CEO Michael Eisner deeply skeptical of all Disney films based on theme park rides. Jerry Bruckheimer originally rejects the script in the early aughts, but brings screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio on board who institute a supernatural element that gets him and everyone else excited.
What Went Wrong? Disney worred and second guessed almost every aspect of the film, and the subtitle “The Curse of the Black Pearl” was only added at the the eleventh hour, because Disney finally grew to have confidence in the movie and that it would spawn a series of successful sequels. Though some say they only added the title to distance the project from the theme park ride it was based upon. As recounted in James B. Stewart’s “Disney War,” Disney head Michael Eisner was unhappy with the project from the beginning, and his doubts didn’t cease once superstar producer Jerry Bruckheimer and talented director Gore Verbinski became attached, insisting that the budget be slashed and references to the ride be toned down or removed altogether. Moreover, Johnny Depp was an untested box-office star and his fey, feral and overly adorned take on Captain Jack Sparrow infamously made Disney very nervous (the star to his credit said, “This is my take on the character, if you don’t like it, fire me” and the studio let him have his way). The project was also one of Disney’s first PG-13 films in many years and this also made the conservative studio anxious.
When The Press Got Hold Of It: Based off a theme park ride and a genre that had not been successful in forever (1995's "Cutthroat Island" was a huge flop at the time), the press didn't need to hear of production troubles and were skeptical about the film from the get-go.
What Happened In The End? ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl’ became a huge hit with even critics unexpectedly liking the film and it became the 4th highest grossing film of 2003, spawned even successful sequels and with a fifth coming in 2015, the ‘Pirates’ series has grossed $3.7 billion worldwide. It also turned Johnny Depp from oddball character actor into bonafide international A-list star.
“The Bourne Identity” (2002)
How Did It Begin: Movie studios had been trying to make “The Bourne” series into a franchise for decades (one version with Burt Reynolds almost happened in the ‘80s) and indeed a Richard Chamberlain-lead TV version happened in the late '80s (watch it here). This version started as a passion project for "Swingers" director Doug Liman who spent two years securing rights from Warner Bros. In fact, he was so impassioned, that when he was tipped off about the rights about to lapse, Liman optioned them from Ludlum himself, flying to the author’s home in Montana to secure them just days after he had earned his aviation license.
What Went Wrong? Everything. ‘Identity’ was a textbook example of a production gone haywire. “Oh man, nobody was more surprised than me,” screenwriter Tony Gilroy told us about the troubled production last year. “It really was a very dire situation, the key participants in the film were the people who were most shocked at its success.” So what happened exactly? Liman fighting with Universal every step of the way, going rogue several time and shooting extra scenes he was told he had no budget for. "Universal hated me,” Liman said. “I had an archenemy in the studio. They were trying to shut me down. The producers were bad guys.” Hampered with daily rewrites that Gilroy had to fax into an indecisive Liman, the project was doubly hurt by the fallout of 9/11. Delayed nine months (the film was originally due September 7, 2011), the nature of political spy movies with action changed after that fateful day and the producers decided one of the major explosion sequences in the ending had to be dropped. This meant more extensive reshoots and rewrites and rumors that Liman had been fired and Frank Marshall took over the reshoots (all of the movie’s troubles are much more deeply detailed in this 10th Anniversary piece we did last year).
When The Press Got Hold Of It: Almost all of the above was well known to the press as this 2002 Wall Street Journal review attests.
What Happened In The End? It became a massive worldwide hit and spawned three sequels with more in the works. "The word on Bourne was that it was supposed to be a turkey," Damon said in a GQ interview a few years ago. "It's very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and it's good."