At the box office, 2019 ended much as 2020 began: Studios are in crisis mode as they try to figure out how to get moviegoers into theaters. This is how Universal came to back two disastrous movies like the $95 million “Cats,” Tom Hooper’s movie version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical blockbuster, and the $175 million “Dolittle,” Stephen Gaghan’s adaptation of the children’s book classic “Dr. Dolittle.”
It’s easy to armchair quarterback. What were they thinking? What was it about these two costly projects that propelled them forward? Didn’t the risks seem obvious?
Here are the reasons why smart people at studios come to back such boneheaded movies.
1. They have global slates to fill.
This is the primary impetus for someone like Donna Langley, a veteran executive who champions edgy movies like “Get Out,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Fifty Shades of Gray,” and “Queen & Slim,” to push forward two movies with potential appeal to viewers all over the globe. Domestic hits are one thing. And Universal’s go-to franchises — “Jurassic Park,” “The Mummy,” “Jason Bourne,” “Despicable Me,” “Fast and Furious” — are no-brainers. But a studio’s international film and TV pipeline is a hungry maw that must be fed with wide-appeal movies that have franchise potential. When they work, they drive international TV deals, theme-park opportunities, and sequels.
That’s how Universal’s much-maligned domestic belly-flops such as Hasbro’s “Battleship” ($248 million foreign), orc adventure “Warcraft” ($391 million foreign), and Matt Damon actioner “The Great Wall” ($289 million foreign) came into being. As these trains gain momentum, and tens of millions of dollars are invested, it becomes difficult to maneuver them, much less apply the brakes. Studios often forget that what makes a successful franchise is not a name or title, but an immersive world and characters that people care about.
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“Cats” had none of those things. After many VFX delays, the musical finally opened on December 20, 2019, to 32 on Metacritic. Its box-office tally is at $26.8 million domestic and counting, with $61.8 worldwide.
“Dolittle,” which had similar conceptual failings, will do better, but it cost almost twice as much. Originally scheduled for spring 2019, it was pushed to December 2019 before a final move to January 2020. In retrospect, “Dolittle” could have used the holiday box office to boost its fortunes: It opened January 17 to 27 on Metacritic. Its take so far is $22 million domestic and $27.3 million foreign, so it could build to an estimated $65 million domestic, $185 foreign. With $115 million in reported global marketing costs, it’s a box-office loser.
2. They over-rely on established IP.
Webber’s unconventional sung-through musical “Cats” was a global musical phenomenon — based on a 1939 T.S. Eliot poetry collection — that has passed the test of time, running in theaters all over the world long since Trevor Nunn’s first London production in 1981. The show’s global gross as of 2012 was $3.5 billion. Steven Spielberg scrapped an animated adaptation at DreamWorks years ago; the musical has no discernible plot.
“Doctor Dolittle,” on the other hand, the British children’s book series by Hugh Lofting, yielded the notorious 1967 “Doctor Dolittle” musical flop from director Richard Fleischer that almost bankrupted the Fox studio (although it won Oscars for the song “Talk to the Animals” and for Visual Effects) as well as the 1998 non-musical version starring Eddie Murphy, which did well enough at $294.2 million worldwide) to spawn the less-successful “Dr. Dolittle 2” and four DVD sequels. Universal jumped at the chance to jump-start a new franchise when the book went into the public domain.
3. They are seduced by number crunching.
Universal saw unexpected box office bonanzas from both “Mamma Mia!,” a mediocre Abba musical that grossed $615.8 million worldwide, and its better sequel “Here We Go Again!” ($395.4 million worldwide), as well as “The King’s Speech” Oscar-winner Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables,” which grabbed $441 million worldwide as well as three Oscars.
4. They cede too much power to talent.
The success of “Les Miserables,” and his Best Picture Oscar for “The King’s Speech,” gave Hooper the leverage to direct another challenging musical project. He sold Working Title and Universal on a period sung-through movie relying on ambitious visual effects that would turn actors in form-fitting body stockings into fur-covered creatures with flicking ears and tails. Universal bought into the premise that something new would draw an audience.
As for “Dolittle,” Universal believed that “Iron Man” and “Sherlock” star Robert Downey, Jr. could carry a fantasy world. He wanted a quality writer/director on board, but Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”) seems like a strange choice to direct a VFX-driven kids’ movie. Gaghan commandeered a script based on “The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle” from five credited writers, including himself. Downey based his character on William Price, a real-life Welsh neo-druidist physician, but his accent fluctuated wildly. The studio sent the film back for three weeks of reshoots last spring to beef up the comedy, under the supervision of director Jonathan Liebesman and writer Chris McKay, after poor test screenings.
5. Directors and studios believe in eye-popping visual effects.
In the case of “Cats,” Hooper was in over his head, not realizing the sheer scale and degree of difficulty he was taking on, even with VFX masters like ILM and MPC on board. After moviegoers reacted scathingly to the first trailer, critics eviscerated the movie. Some were thrown out of the picture as they checked out Rebel Wilson popping tiny human cockroaches into her mouth, Jason Derulo’s missing package, and other fuzzed-over body parts. The film’s original release had unfinished cats and CGI errors, such as scenes showing Judi Dench and Jennifer Hudson’s human hands instead of cat paws.
Hooper not only offered one version of the movie to the studio for screenings very late (missing various awards group deadlines), but at the December 16 New York world premiere, admitted that he had finished the film “at 8 am the previous day after 36 hours in a row.”
Another late-December musical, 2017’s “The Greatest Showman,” grew into a sleeper hit on word of mouth despite mixed reviews — but earned an A Cinemascore. “Cats” got a C+ Cinemascore. Hooper later forced the studio to replace the opening release prints with new DCPs that included enhanced VFX. Awards consideration was never in the cards, and the VFX fixes didn’t seem to help. The movie is expected to lose $70 million, and theater chain Alamo Drafthouse is selling out special “rowdy” screenings where audiences get to cosplay and yell at the screen.
With “Dolittle,” the glorious VFX animals — especially a lumbering polar bear — are its greatest asset. But the flimsy story about a young boy (Harry Collett) wanting to apprentice with the country doctor (Downey) who lives only with his menagerie of talking animals, but pulls himself out of grieving the loss of his wife in order to attend to his ailing benefactor Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), finally pulls it down. No cohesive or immersive world here.