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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Guillermo del Toro blames R rating for 'Madness' project biting the dust

March 9, 2011 | 12:47 pm

Guillermo_delToro In Hollywood, they don't kill you with assault rifles. They kill you with enthusiasm. When the New Yorker was following Guillermo del Toro around for a recent, epic-length profile of the charismatic Mexican director, Del Toro met with Universal executives about greenlighting his passion project, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's horror fantasy "At the Mountains of Madness." Things were looking up for the project, which Del Toro had been working on ever since the early 1990s, in large part because Del Toro had the blessing of James Cameron, who had signed on to help produce the ambitious $150-million undertaking.

When Del Toro and Cameron met with Universal execs, they sounded hugely impressed by his presentation, with studio chief Adam Fogelson, saying "the sense of scope, the sense of danger, and just the sheer popcorn commercial appeal of the creatures that he was presenting to us were a sight to behold." Ah, but now Del Toro's dream project, which was slated to star Tom Cruise, is dead, mortally wounded, says Del Toro, by the film's projected R rating. As he told the New Yorker: "Madness has gone dark. The 'R' did us in."

It's a big blow for Del Toro, who hasn't directed a film since 2008's disappointing "Hellboy 2" and had already dropped out of "The Hobbit" after a series of interminable delays. For me, the fascinating question is this: Why do studios, which happily make all sorts of outrageous R-rated comedies, get cold feet when it comes to an R-rated horror thriller? After all, if the same teens who are wooed by an R-rated comedy's nasty language and smutty antics can somehow get into the theaters to see it, why wouldn't they find a way to see a R-rated thriller as well? 

Studios say that teens can find a way to see any film, if they try hard enough. The real difference between an R-rated horror thriller and a comedy comes down not to accessibility but sticker shock. Studios can make an R-rated comedy like "The Hangover" or "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" for peanuts --meaning less than $50 million -- so there's a lot less risk involved than in, say, making a $150-million horror thriller.

Pointing to the involvement of Del Toro and Cameron, two less-than-budget-conscious perfectionists, Universal figures that $150-million sum could have ballooned into something much higher. And while "Mountains of Madness" was the brainchild of a beloved filmmaker with a loyal fan base, it could also be described as a period monster movie, set in a snowbound landscape, that would be a tough sell for a broader popcorn audience.

The movies with similar intensity that have enjoyed the biggest breakout success have been films like "Avatar" and "Inception," which were able to woo audiences with dazzling dreamscapes and didn't have to contend with the hurdle of an R rating. There are other factors as well. It's always tough to persuade the studio brass to take a big gamble on a risky film idea, especially when the studio involved has spent the last several years struggling to find its footing at the box office. This shouldn't come as any surprise to Del Toro, who has called Hollywood "the Land of the Slow No."

It looks like Del Toro has gotten Legendary to greenlight another one of his favorite monster movie ideas, a project called "Pacific Rim." And guess what? It's projected to get a safe-as-milk PG-13 rating.

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Guillermo del Toro. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

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