No One In '90s Hollywood Thought A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Movie Would Work

Some might think a story about a group of discarded baby turtles who turn into kick-ass fighting ninjas might be a bit of a stretch. After all, turtles, by all accounts, are slow, so how could one ever believe they could figure out how to use nunchaku? However, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird proved that this idea is actually brilliant with the creation of their insanely popular comic about four turtles who master the art of ninjutsu and use their fighting techniques to keep New York City streets safe. Since the release of the first comic book in 1984, Donnie, Raph, Mikey, and Leo have become pop culture icons, and their story has endured through multiple generations of children. Fans have seen everything from very good television adaptations to extremely questionable movie adaptations, but perhaps one of the most memorable iterations of the Turtles came in the form of the franchise's very first foray onto the big screen.

'90s kids will no doubt remember those first TMNT films. They featured iconic full body turtle suits for the four main reptiles which, depending on who you ask, are frighteningly unforgettable. The first film, which came out in 1990, was directed by Steve Barron and features a rescue mission plot in which the gang has to save their sensei, Splinter (who is a rat, for those not in the know) from the evil Shredder. Today, the film is a classic when it comes to '90s nostalgia, but during the original pitch, there weren't very many people in Hollywood who believed in its reptilian magic.

Before superhero stories were cool

When producer Kim Dawson first started looking for a studio to make "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," everyone thought he was insane. In an oral history about the films for The Hollywood Reporter, Dawson says, "Gary [Propper] and I made the rounds to virtually every studio in Hollywood" — however, many of them weren't interested. Dawson explains that because of the recent failure of "Howard the Duck," "nobody felt like a comic book could be converted into a live-action character." The Turtles were simply too superhero-y to be convincing as a lucrative investment. "I had worked at Showtime, and one of my first calls was to Peter Chernin, who went on to run Fox for a long time," explains Dawson. "But Peter goes, "Are you guys out of your minds?"" 

Apparently they were, because they kept pitching and eventually were able to convince Golden Harvest's head of production, Tom Gray, to give the idea a chance. Gray initially wasn't convinced, though, stating, "I said, 'I don't want anything to do with this. This is not going to work.' But Bobby [Herbeck, the screenwriter] persisted over three or four months." So what finally made Gray see the potential in these heroes in a half-shell? The ability to make the film easily and cheaply. Gray told The Hollywood Reporter, "I said in a lightbulb moment, "Wait a minute. This is nothing more than four of our Chinese stuntmen in rubber suits. We can make this movie for peanuts in Hong Kong.""

Turtle power, indeed

Even though Gray thought the movie could be made with a minuscule budget, securing even a small amount of money had its challenges. When it came time for the movie to be shot, there was still the issue of finding a studio that would be willing to sign on to distribute the film when it was complete. According to director Steve Barron:

"Even 10 days before we started shooting the film, we didn't have the money to do it. We had a couple million dollars. We were about to be shut down at any moment as we were entering the film, because no studio wanted to take it. We had a deal with Fox that had been thrown off the table because the head of distribution changed."

Desperate for money, Tom Gray managed to convince New Line Cinema to give them what they needed. He recalls asking New Line Cinema's founder for six million dollars to make the film; however, the amount they eventually agreed upon was much smaller. Raymond Chow, the owner of Golden Harvest, "came up with the difference," remembers Gray. 

Despite everyone's reservations, the first live-action "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie was a huge success. Not only was it insanely popular with audiences everywhere, but it also went on to break box office records and rake in over $135 million on a budget of only $13 million. The film eventually paved the way for two more films in the original film series, and many more adaptations down the line. It just goes to show that you should never underestimate the power of pizza-loving, martial arts fighting turtles.