Is Hollywood ready to change its tentpole strategy? I’m hearing that yes, studio heads are realizing that placing too many big bets on too few potential tentpoles–which when they work, do return the most money–is a foolish strategy. The conventional wisdom was always that you spread your risk over a diverse slate of projects, from low-budget comedies and genre fare to high-cost holiday sequels and potential blockbusters. The studios are returning to that approach.
Lessons learned from “John Carter” and “Battleship” have forced the studios to see the light. Trouble is, they forced Disney and Universal to take serious write-downs of $200 and $83 million, respectively. In neither case was there real evidence that there was a large demonstrable built-in audience for these properties. “John Carter” was a hundred-year-old fantasy tale that had spawned imitators over the years, most notably “Avatar,” upon which nothing in Andrew Stanton’s movie could improve. At least you could argue that Edgar Rice Burroughs had created a successful book series and an immersive world full of rich colorful characters. Not so with Hasbro’s “Battleship,” which looked like a “Transformers” retread. Tellingly, Universal has pulled back on another Hasbro board game, “Ouija,” giving it to “Paranormal Activity” producer Jason Blum to reinvent as a low-budget horror tale.
Another sign of trouble in Hollywood is the rash of reshoots on a number of big-budget productions in the coming months. The studios clearly would pefer to spend the money to potentially come out ahead rather than release an outright stinker. (They’re also moving the deck chairs on their release schedule to push off possible losses.) There’s Paramount’s zombie-pocalypse Brad Pitt-starrer “World War Z,” which Brad Pitt is also producing. And Universal has pushed back the Keanu Reeves 3-D Samurai epic “47 Ronin” twice, first from Thanksgiving 2012 to February 8, 2013, and now to December 25, 2013. They’re willing to carry interest on this movie for an entire year. A Christmas berth suggests they want to maximize playoff on this $200-million epic in a short time frame when moviegoers are flocking to multiplexes.
Other projects subject to reshoots include Warner Bros.’ “Gangster Squad” (which was moved to 2013 due to a major reworking following July’s Aurora shootings), Paramount’s pushed-back “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (which is re-organizing to incorporate more of 2012 breakout star Channing Tatum), Paramount/Spyglass/MGM fairy tale adventure “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” starring Jeremy Renner, and Sam Raimi’s “Alice in Wonderland”-lookalike “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” starring James Franco and a bevy of witches, which just completed 13 days of reshooting and will make its March 8 release date.
“Reshoot” can be a nebulous term, and, according to a “prominent producer” cited by The Hollywood Reporter, “reshoots are routine for nine out of 10 movies, but reshoots to pick up some shots are different from doing multiple weeks to fix a movie.” But that costs serious money, and the rash of rewrites, reshoots and release postponements bespeaks movies that were rushed into existence without enough time to line up all their ducks.The films above fit the “multiple weeks” description, which is a worry for projects that started off with huge budgets in the $100-$200 million range. One reason for the reshoot trend is studios’ unwillingness to contend with finicky and expensive directors with experience (think David Fincher or Michael Mann); they prefer to bring on relatively inexperienced (cheaper) directors who they can control. For “Ronin,” Universal selected first-time director Carl Rinsch, a choice that is now leading to an extensive reshooting of the film’s final battle scene, which Rinsch closely supervised. Universal knows that a franchise can be saved via reshoots–as long as it’s a savvy producer like Frank Marshall, who helped to turn Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity” into a lucrative winner.
Of course seasoned veterans can have problems, too. For Marc Forster’s “World War Z,” writers Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard were pulled in to re-work the film’s third act. Forster helmed 2008 Bond installment “Quantum of Solace,” so he has the wherewithall to pull off a big production, but a major seven-week reshoot is in the works for “World War.” And a major star’s career is at stake: Brad Pitt may be willing to take a flyer on a small indie film he does for cred–but not a big-studio movie intended to burnish his marquee value. The other question is whether Pitt is even speaking to Forster.