Posted on Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013 by Russ Fischer
The bigger they are, the harder they fall. That’s a concept that relates directly to Jack the Giant Slayer, in more ways than one. Bryan Singer‘s film, delayed from 2012 to 2013 for effects tinkering and (hopefully) a better release opportunity, opened to shrugs from audiences. Now the film is looking like it’ll be a big write-down for Warner Bros., New Line, and Legendary Pictures, to the tune of over $100m. All told, Jack might cost the companies up to $140m.
It would be a stretch to say we’re hearing about situations like this all the time, but the frequency does seem to be increasing. In the past year we watched John Carter and Rise of the Guardians falter, with Battleship also earning “bomb” status depending on who you talk to. And we’re probably going to see more of these failures in the next couple years.
(Battleship is an interesting example, and almost part of a different conversation. It did well overseas, but at home took only a few million more than Jack the Giant Slayer has currently earned in domestic showings, as THR points out along with the deficit number. The decision to open it internationally before the domestic bow suggests that Universal knew that it was going to do better overseas, without any need of momentum from a US opening. Whether it was designed that way, or Universal figured it out in time to properly release the film is open to question.)
Over the years there has been a shift from regional releases that could be marketed into national or global hits, towards the “all-in” approach of the tentpole system.
The very term “tentpole” originates from a time when such films were relatively few in number, and their very size meant that they were all but guaranteed to succeed. A solid tentpole release did exactly what the nickname implied: it supported a company’s entire release program. These movies cost more, but they would also make a lot more, and in so doing help balance the financial risk of more diverse projects.
Once upon a time, a movie like Jack the Giant Slayer would not have been a tentpole. It would have been made as a smaller film, and released accordingly. If it didn’t stick, it could be farmed out as filler; if it did find traction the studio could market more aggressively and spin it into a hit.
Now, at major studios, tentpoles crowd out the films they were originally meant to balance. There are super-tentpoles like The Hobbit to prop up films like Jack the Giant Slayer.
Under the system as it is now, the risk/reward system is massively amplified. The Dark Knight or The Avengers can generate insane revenue, but not every film can turn such coin. Studios risk a lot on a film like Jack: a couple hundred million on production and at least half that on promotion. The concept — a big effects-driven extravaganza from a recognizable filmmaker — shouts loud enough to deafen protests. The very idea that a studio would put so much into a film like Jack is meant to be a measure of quality. Why spend so much on that idea, if it isn’t going to be any good? But a lot can happen between green light and release, and the best idea — especially an unlikely good idea — can be cut down by any number of factors.
When big failures start to stack up, will we see studios change their behavior at all? We’ve seen Universal change to some extent, severing development projects and working out from the Hasbro contract that would have had the studio cranking out a bunch of Battleship-type material. Warner Bros. tends to be better than most studios about balancing tentpole development with features that appeal to older audiences, and since we’ve also seen Legendary scale back on risky and expensive projects (such as Paradise Lost) perhaps some change is already happening. If nothing else, file Jack the Giant Slayer away as another cautionary story, rather than a smashing fairy tale.