This week, Neil Calloway looks at the recent collapse of two films, and the wider implications for Hollywood…
Imagine if you’d secured Bruce Willis, or Robert De Niro and Robert Pattinson to star in your film, sorted out financing and actually started shooting; you’d be pretty happy. You wouldn’t be guaranteed a hit – in William Goldman’s oft-repeated maxim about Hollywood “nobody knows anything”, but you’d be pretty certain that your film would get a release, and had the potential to make money.
But of course, this is Hollywood. “Nobody knows anything” is often repeated because it’s true. In November last year Idol’s Eye, starring De Niro and Pattinson, shut down production, and this week Bruce Willis, along with director John Pogue, left the film Wake after production had been “temporarily” stopped earlier in the year. Both films were to be produced by Benaroya Pictures, the company behind films such as Lawless, The Paperboy and Kill Your Darlings; films that may have got the plaudits from critics, but hardly set the box office alight. The fact that they have had two films stall in the past year does not bode well for any future offerings from the company; as Oscar Wilde didn’t quite say, to have one film closed due to financial trouble is unfortunate, to have two shut down is careless. That both these films were from the same production company also hints at a larger issue that will surely be revealed at some point, but until then we can only speculate why they might have closed up production.
Films don’t shut down mid-production that often; film companies pay for a “completion bond” that will guarantee the film is completed, but other factors can get in the way; the death of a lead actor is often the cause of a film never being finished. Dark Blood, River Phoenix’s final film, has never got a proper release, and though the advent of CGI has improved things – it’s possible to superimpose the face of a dead actor onto a body double to complete your film now – some films still languish uncompleted in the vaults, not only gathering dust but also the interest of people like me who collect trivia about uncompleted films Perhaps the most famous incomplete film is Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam’s updating of the story by Miguel Cervantes’s story. Shooting was beset by problems, including a flood, being buzzed by NATO jets, and the injury of Jean Rochefort, playing the titular character, all of this is documented in the film Lost in La Mancha, which began as a “making of” but ended as a chronicle of a collapse of a film. Gilliam and star Johnny Depp agreed to go off and make successful films before returning to the project. Depp did just that, starring in Pirates of the Caribbean, a franchise that enabled him to buy his own island. Gilliam went on to make Tideland, which made less than $1 million against a $19 million budget.
Wake, Idol’s Eye and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote all have one thing in common; they are mid budget films with no guarantee of making their money back. Pattinson’s non-Twilight movies have done well with the critics but not at the box office (Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars, his collaborations with David Cronenberg, have made less than half their budgets back). It’s been a while since either De Niro or Willis was able to carry a movie on their own, but they still do not come cheap. That makes them a risky proposition for studios to invest in their projects, and this environment – high actor costs and no guarantee of a profit – has led to what might be termed the death of the mid budget film.
There was a period when a studio could throw around $30 million at a thriller or an action movie and have a good chance of a return on their investment; now a studio are more likely to invest in a franchise with name recognition and as close as a guarantee of success as you can get. Or they go the other way and pick up a low budget indie for distribution at a festival, minimising the amount they lose if the film isn’t a success.
Twenty years ago there is no way films starring De Niro or Willis would have stalled; the fact that they have now tells us less about them than it does the industry as a whole. It’s harder than ever to get a film made that might cost a more than $20 million but isn’t a franchise. With the death of the mid-budget film, the slow polarisation of the movie industry to a choice between low budget indies and mega budget franchises continues; we’re going to see more films closing down, or being shelved after completion. It might be interesting for fans of Hollywood trivia, but it’s not good for the industry.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future installments.