On the heels of the disappointing performance of megabudgeted projects like John Carter and Battleship, two big-studio films — each starring an A-list leading man — have been making news for their mounting production woes. Paramount paused filming of World War Z, a zombie thriller featuring Brad Pitt, so that Prometheus co-writer Damon Lindelof could jump on board and write a new ending for the film. As a result, the studio was forced to postpone the release from this December to June 2013. And Johnny Depp‘s upcoming adaptation of The Lone Ranger, which Disney executives temporarily shut down last year to reduce its $200 million-plus price tag, is said to be over budget again. Meanwhile, a rash of pricey projects — including the Channing Tatum sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the Keanu Reeves samurai drama 47 Ronin, the family fantasy Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and the reboot Ninja Turtles — have also had their release dates pushed back because of additional shooting requirements or preproduction delays.
Of course, for every John Carter there could be an international smash like The Avengers (global box office to date: over $1.4 billion), which may explain why studios are willing to risk so much on these potential bank-breakers. ”The pipeline needs to be fed — it’s this gaping maw,” says the producer of one recent comic-book adaptation. ”If you’re a studio, you’ve got to be cranking out movies. But when [blockbusters] don’t work, the impact on the company is so dramatic.” The makers of World War Z and The Lone Ranger insist the tinkering will pay off in the end. ”World War Z is a big movie with a lot of spectacular visual effects,” Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore tells EW. ”Our number-one objective has to be making the best possible movie, and our number-two objective is figuring out when to release that movie.” As for Disney’s film, a spokesperson says: ”Everything we’ve seen so far on this film is exceeding our expectations, and we couldn’t be happier with the work we’re seeing from Jerry [Bruckheimer], Gore [Verbinski], Johnny, and the entire Lone Ranger team.”
Whether or not those two films end up overcoming their troubled histories and becoming successes, the ballooning price tag on tentpole projects — which has led to the virtual extinction of mid-budget films — hasn’t gone unnoticed. While presenting a prize at the Women In Film Crystal + Lucy Awards on June 12, Meryl Streep pointed out that ”in the last five years, five little movies aimed at women have earned over $1.6 billion: The Help, The Iron Lady — believe it or not — Bridesmaids, Mamma Mia!, and The Devil Wears Prada…. They cost a fraction of what the big tentpole failures cost…. Let’s talk about The Iron Lady. It cost $14 million to make it and brought in $114 million. Pure profit! So why [don’t studios make more films like those]? Why? Don’t they want the money?”
In addition to such head-scratching business decisions, the moviegoing public is becoming increasingly skeptical of films that are based on obscure comic books and children’s board games, no matter how many bells and whistles they can boast. ”It used to be a bragging right to say, ‘We put this amount of money in the movie,”’ says Transformers co-writer Roberto Orci, whose latest release is the much more intimate drama People Like Us. ”Somewhere along the way it became a bad, dirty thing, like, ‘Oh, it costs too much money.’ Somehow the consumer stopped seeing it as a way to impress them.”
Is there anything that could effect a course correction? Says the aforementioned comic-book-film producer: ”Hopefully, studios will be able to relax and say, ‘Okay, we should make a full complement of movies — it’s also great to make a $25 million comedy.”’ But tentpoles will always be Hollywood’s favorite gamble. Says People Like Us director (and Star Trek co-writer) Alex Kurtzman: ”I think those movies will always be around. Because when they work, they work so well.”
(Additional reporting by Nicholas White)