Why so many Hollywood relationship movies are box-office duds
In Hollywood, everyone is in the relationship business. Studios woo auteurs. Directors schmooze stars. Writers cozy up to producers. Agents and managers zealously court the bankable filmmakers and actors who can get movies off the ground.
The relationships pay off in a million different ways. Will Smith, who just finished shooting “Men in Black 3,” has now made eight of his last 10 live-action movies at Sony, thanks largely to a close relationship with studio co-chairman Amy Pascal. Warner Bros. is skin-tight with director Christopher Nolan. 20th Century Fox is James Cameron’s home court. Ditto for Paramount with J.J. Abrams and Universal with Judd Apatow.
But if you look at the recent crop of movies that have crashed and burned at the multiplex, something striking stands out: Many of the duds would never have passed the studios’ standard box-office smell test. They were made because they were Relationship Movies.
Studios these days are notoriously averse to risk. So why would Sony make a $30-million film based on the preposterous idea that the Earl of Oxford was the secret author of Shakespeare’s most popular plays? Why would 20th Century Fox spend $40 million bankrolling “The Big Year,” a comedy about bird enthusiasts? Why would Warner Bros. spend $35 million making “J. Edgar,” a biopic about the long-dead head of the FBI?
And speaking of puzzlements, why would indie producer Graham King shell out a reported $50 million to make “The Rum Diary,” a story about an alcohol-imbibing journalist based on an obscure novel by Hunter S. Thompson?
None of the films had much luck with moviegoers. Despite the presence of Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, “The Big Year” made a paltry $7.1 million in the United States. The Shakespeare story “Anonymous” did even worse, barely eking out $4.3 million. Even though “Rum Diary” had Johnny Depp in the lead role, it has only made $13.1 million. Even with mega-watt star Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead, “J. Edgar” has so far only made about $36 million. Its Oscar best picture prospects are now rated as somewhere between slim and none.
After all, Sony is built on relationships. The studio has made a string of immensely profitably Adam Sandler comedies. It has also made two consecutive films with the iconic David Fincher (“The Social Network” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”). To hear Pascal tell it, to attract gifted stars and filmmakers, you have to back their vision, whether it’s clear or cloudy.
“You have to believe in your talent,” she said. “I’m certainly not going to make a film that I don’t like. But when you have a relationship, something special comes out of that trust that you’ve built up over years of working together.”
Pascal hedged her bets financially with “Anonymous,” which was co-financed by Relativity Media. But she says she has no regrets. “I believed in what Roland wanted to do. He had something fresh and entertaining to say, which is all you can ask for from a filmmaker.”
In other words, Emmerich had enough money in the Sony bank to get the benefit of the doubt. You could say the same thing for David Frankel, the director of “The Big Year.” He ended up making a film that was virtually impossible to market, despite its star talent — bird watching being about as exciting to watch as, well, curling. But even though Fox is not known for developing cozy talent relationships, Frankel was a rare exception, having earned tons of money with his previous two films, “Marley & Me” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” both made for Fox.
If Fox would indulge Frankel, imagine what Warners is willing to do for Clint Eastwood. The much-decorated “J. Edgar” director has been based at Warners so long that when he signed his first deal there Hank Aaron was still knocking home runs out of the park. Warners had doubted Eastwood once before, a mistake it wasn’t eager to make again. Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” took home four Oscars in 2005, including best picture and best director, but only after Warners initially passed on the project, forcing Eastwood to get co-financing from Lakeshore Entertainment.
So despite any concerns the studio may have had about the marketability of a period film about an American bureaucrat, once Eastwood attracted an A-list leading man, the studio felt obligated to back him.
The relationship business is especially complicated for Graham King, whose GK Films produced “Rum Diary.” King doesn’t have the luxury of spreading his bets across a 15- or 20-film studio slate. Even though he mitigates his risk by selling films’ overseas rights before beginning production, if a movie doesn’t perform, he’s in trouble. He lives and dies by his relationships, the closest ones being with Depp, Martin Scorsese (whose current film, “Hugo,” was also produced by King) and Angelina Jolie, whose Bosnian war drama, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” was also bankrolled by King.
If studios are leery of making Hunter S. Thompson movies, you can imagine how wary they are of a Jolie-directed Balkans film. But Jolie and Depp made King a king’s ransom costarring in his 2010 movie “The Tourist.” (Despite middling reviews, it took in $67 million in the U.S. and another $210 million overseas.)
Depp is slated to star next in “Dark Shadows,” also being produced by King. As for Scorsese, even though King may well end up losing money on “Hugo,” which reportedly cost close to $170 million, the director has a long history with the producer, having made two Oscar-caliber projects with him, “The Aviator” and “The Departed,” which went on to win best picture.
These are hardly the only relationships in town. Fox Searchlight has made Danny Boyle’s last six movies, including the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire.” Sony Pictures Classics has a long history of releasing Pedro Almodovar films. Harvey Weinstein has been in the Quentin Tarantino business for decades.
It’s hard to imagine where Hollywood would be if no one was willing to take a gamble on what are often complicated creative partnerships. And hey — sometimes a crazy risk can work. Just ask the folks at Warners, who made out like bandits with Nolan’s “Inception,” even though greenlighting the film was, in part, a show of support designed to ensure that the director would remain at the helm of the “Batman” franchise.
All in all, I’m guessing King wishes that instead of making “Rum Diary” he could’ve just sent Depp a fabulous fruit basket. But in Hollywood, the price of loyalty is steep. “Relationships are complicated,” Pascal said. “But you can’t run a company simply by the numbers. So if you’re going to bet on someone, you bet on someone you want to be in business with for a long time.”
Photo: Johnny Depp in a scene from the film "The Rum Diary."
Credit: Peter Mountain/Associated Press/Film District