‘Iron Man’ is a movie that cannot be ignored

[5 May 2008]

By Barry Koltnow

The Orange County Register (MCT)

“That movie wasn’t released; it escaped.”
—Mel Brooks

I have no idea about which movie Brooks spoke, and neither does Jon Favreau, the director of the comic-book movie “Iron Man,” which hit theaters this weekend.

The particular movie doesn’t matter; it’s the sentiment that counts.

Favreau understands the sentiment more than most. He directed the box office dud “Zathura: A Space Adventure,” which opened in theaters on Nov. 11, 2005, and was placed on life support on Nov. 12, 2005.

No, that’s not true. I’m being kind. That movie got no support at all.

When you mention “Zathura” to Favreau, he appears visible pained. He’s an excellent actor (the film “Swingers” and six episodes on the TV series “Friends” are his most memorable roles), but not good enough to hide the disappointment and sense of betrayal that linger from a studio decision to stop marketing his movie.

The studio decided that “Zathura” wasn’t worth saving, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The family adventure, which cost $65 million to make, made only $28 million at the U.S. box office.

Whatever you thought of the film (and I’m taking a leap of faith here in assuming that somebody reading this column actually saw it), it was viewed as a failure within the industry.

But the 41-year-old Favreau liked the movie. He worked hard on it, and was proud of the finished product. It still upsets him that nobody went to see it.

So he learned a bitter lesson - make sure you not only make a movie that people want to see, but one that a studio wants to promote.

Filmmakers have railed for years against a studio practice of writing off movies before they open just because the studio doesn’t think they’re going to be successful.

Studios determine future failures through a variety of methods, including tracking (asking people if they are aware of a certain movie and if they are planning to see it), test screening (at which questionnaires are distributed asking people if liked the movie) and “long-lead” reviews written by magazine critics who may or may not have seen a finished film.

Directors hate these methods, but studios insist that they are necessary to stay in business. If a studio has $100 million invested in a movie that they believe will fail at the box office, then why drop another $40 million in a marketing campaign? Chalk it up to experience, and proceed to the next project.

That’s a lot easier for a studio than a filmmaker. A studio may have more than a dozen films on its slate during the year, while a director could spend two or three years of his life on the project, only to see all that hard work tossed out the window after one weekend in theaters.

And that is why Jon Favreau directed “Iron Man.”

It has blockbuster written all over it. Opening the all-important summer movie season, it cost almost $190 million to make, and is the beneficiary of an elaborate and expensive marketing campaign.

When you look in his eyes and listen to him talk, you can tell that Favreau believes that “Zathura” could have succeeded, if only it had the support of the studio. But that’s ancient history. The director has moved on.

“After `Zathura,’ I just didn’t have the stomach to work so hard on something that just disappeared,” he explained during an early-morning chat in a hotel suite at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles.

“What’s great about `Iron Man’ is that there is an appetite for it. People are curious about it, and that means that the studio is going to stand behind it. It cost too much for them to sweep it under the rug.”

There is something else at work here, which Favreau believes will help his cause even more. “Iron Man” is the first release by the newest movie studio in Hollywood - Marvel Studios.

That’s right; the same folks who brought you endless comic books for the last 70 years, and allowed some of their biggest heroes (Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men and Blade) to be filmed by other studios, are now doing it themselves. The success or failure of “Iron Man” will determine whether that was a good idea.

“When a whole company is riding on this one release,” Favreau said, “you know that everybody is going to care as much as you do about the film.

“When you make a smaller film at a larger studio, sometimes you’re a priority and sometimes you’re not. When you’re not, it can be heartbreaking. But, on this film, I know I’m going to get a chance to step into the ring. I’m going to get my title shot.”

Or, as Mel Brooks might put it: “It’s good to be the king.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/iron-man-is-a-movie-that-cannot-be-ignored/