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Does 'Dark Tower' collapse suggest end of Hollywood's ambition?

July 20, 2011 |  4:23 pm

Pretty much any time one discusses a Hollywood studio, a certain phrase seems to come up: "Oh, them -- they need franchises." And why not? Saying a large-scale production and distribution entity needs franchises is like saying an Italian restaurant needs tomato sauce. You can never have too much.

That would seem to make the cancellation of "The Dark Tower," the ambitious film and television adaptation of Stephen King's opus (it was to be turned into three movies and two limited-run TV series), more than a little surprising. In "Tower," Universal and NBC had a project that couldn't be more appealing: The fantasy-western was a property fans salivated for; it was a story of vast critical and commercial ambition; and it had some of the best elements money can buy, such as Javier Bardem (he was to play gunslinger Roland Deschain) and director Ron Howard. And NBCUniversal also had the broadcast, cable and studio platforms to release it.

But the we-need-franchises mantra these days usually comes with a second phrase: "Can we make it for a price?" For all of its interest in big-canvas, big-budget filmmaking a la Harry Potter, Hollywood is of course governed by conglomerates. And conglomerates, along with the people who run them (and the Wall Street perceptions that run them) don't like risk, which is pretty much exactly what you get when you decide to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the basis of a few contracts and some dialogue on a page. Wall Street loves sure things. In moviedom, a sure thing is only that way in retrospect.

There are many reasons why "The Dark Tower" collapsed. A general industry skittishness was compounded by Universal-specific reasons -- the company is under new ownership in Comcast, and also has some pretty big bets coming up, like "Battleship." To hear the scuttlebutt, the studio was willing to greenlight only a single "Dark Tower" film, and the filmmakers said no go; they didn't want to start down the road of a seven-book series if they could make it only to the first signpost.

The losers in all this are -- who else? -- fans, who don't get a chance to see a beloved property given the treatment it deserves. (There is still a chance "The Dark Tower" could be set up somewhere else, but the odds are long.) As Hollywood clenches into conservatism, the one exception was supposed to be properties with big names and built-in fan bases. It turns out those aren't immune either. Unless a Peter Jackson or James Cameron gets involved -- and sometimes even if they do -- the properties can't get off the ground.
In following the drama surrounding "Tower," it was hard not to at least think of the discussion about a very different shelved project: the space-shuttle program. Like the U.S. government, it wasn't that long ago that Hollywood was willing to spend a lot of money to execute big ideas. But increasingly, the pragmatic takes priority. That makes a certain amount of financial sense. But each time it happens, we get a little further away from launching something great.


The Dark Tower: Ron Howard's plans and passion for Stephen King's epic

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-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Cover art from the "Dark Tower" book series. Credit: Simon & Schuster

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