LOS ANGELES — What do A-listers Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, David Milch and Andrew Stanton have in common as of late? If you said major Hollywood duds, you’ve been paying attention.
Disney on Monday said it expects to lose $200 million on Stanton’s “John Carter” — a huge disappointment from the wizard who co-wrote or directed an amazing string of Pixar hits, including the “Toy Story” films, “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo.”
HBO canceled “Luck” last week after the death of three horses during production. Making matters worse, the costly racetrack drama by the veteran TV writer Milch (“NYPD Blue,” “Deadwood”) and filmmaker Mann (“Heat,” “The Insider”) wasn’t connecting with viewers, with recent episodes drawing 500,000 viewers, barely half of what HBO gets for its unsung “Eastbound & Down” comedy series.
This follows the cancellation of Spielberg’s “Terra Nova,” the hugely ambitious Fox TV dinosaur drama — its pilot alone cost $15 million — that flamed out after one season, victim to flagging ratings.
And who can forget Scorsese’s “Hugo,” the Oscar-nominated valentine to the early days of moviemaking that cost upward of $170 million to make, but made only $73 million in the U.S., and even less overseas?
Have all these guys been drinking from the same poisoned well? Or is there something in common about all these projects that explains why they went bust?
I was a huge fan of both “Hugo” and “Luck,” less so when it came to “John Carter” and “Terra Nova.” But regardless of my own critical take, it was pretty obvious all of the shows lacked a key ingredient: a rooting interest in the central characters. Whom did we really care about? Not Dustin Hoffman in “Luck,” who barely came into focus until way too late in the season. Not “John Carter’s” title character, whom Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips called “a flat, inexpressive protagonist played by a flat, inexpressive actor.” Not anyone in “Terra Nova,” which seemed engineered to please every possible demographic known to man. Not “Hugo’s” wide-eyed young boy, who was almost as inexpressive as John Carter.
The ideas at the heart of these stories skew old in an era when audiences skew young. For all its cutting-edge visual effects, “John Carter” was based on a century-old idea of adventure from Edgar Rice Burroughs. “Hugo” was set in 1930s Paris with a story that revolved around film pioneer Georges Méliès. Set at Santa Anita racetrack, “Luck” focused on a sport that has almost no resonance with anyone under 40 (and featured two marvelous actors, Hoffman and Nick Nolte, who are in their 70s).
“Terra Nova” had younger on-screen talent, but the New York Times’ Mike Hale accurately described the show as being “without doubt the squarest, most old-fashioned series to hit TV since, well, since Spielberg’s own ‘Falling Skies.’”
So why didn’t anyone stop these guys any sooner? It isn’t as if each project didn’t come with a host of bright, pulsing warning lights. Disney got its hands on “John Carter” only after Paramount bailed on the project, having seen a string of top filmmakers, including Robert Rodriguez, Guillermo del Toro and Jon Favreau, struggle unsuccessfully to crack the story. Producer Graham King had to finance “Hugo” on his own when studio after studio passed on splitting the cost. “Terra Nova” had all sorts of writing staff shakeups and production delays. And on “Luck,” Mann and Milch were so unwilling to compromise their visions that they ended up hatching a nonaggression pact, with Milch having total control over the scripts, Mann complete autonomy when it came to the filmmaking.
Stanton’s track record was unblemished by failure, but you can’t say the same thing about Scorsese, Spielberg, Mann or Milch — they’ve all had ups and downs when it comes to commercial success. Milch, for example, was coming off of an HBO series, “John From Cincinnati,” so convoluted that even many of his biggest fans chalked it off as a head-scratcher.
But if you’re a studio executive, it’s hard to turn down an opportunity to work with a gifted filmmaker with a closet full of Oscars and Emmys. As one talent agent put it: “When you spend most of your time making Adam Sandler movies or reality TV shows, do you really want to be the one who takes a pass when Spielberg or Scorsese walks in the door?”
Several insiders I spoke to argued that today’s studio and network chiefs are more confused than ever about what their audience wants, a lack of certainty that encourages them to look for answers — and cede control — to high-powered creative minds.
“If you look at these situations, especially the one at Disney with ‘John Carter,’ you see inexperienced executives who were afraid of the people who were working for them,” said TV and film producer Gavin Polone (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Panic Room”).
Polone argued that executives with years of crisis management under their belts are more likely to make tough calls. He cited the example of “Moneyball,” which was just days away from going into production with Brad Pitt in the starring role and Steven Soderbergh at the helm when Sony studio chief Amy Pascal pulled the plug until she could hire a new director.
“There’s no way that was an easy decision, especially with a talented filmmaker and a major movie star involved,” said Polone. “But Amy clearly didn’t believe in the direction the film was going, so she put on the brakes and went in a different direction.”
Rich Ross, who ran the Disney Channel before taking charge at the studio less than two years ago, was new to the game of crossing swords with heavyweight talent, making it perhaps much harder to rein in a runaway film production. Of course, Graham King had made three previous movies with Scorsese yet still couldn’t stop him from going tens of millions of dollars over budget.
You could say this illustrates the oldest cliché in the book — no one knows anything. But it also demonstrates that betting on A-list showbiz talent doesn’t guarantee a better outcome than picking the favorite in the NCAA basketball tournament pool. Sometimes, even when you’re in the room with the most incandescent talent in the galaxy, you just have to say no.