Classic Films Everyone Expected to Fail
It’s easy to forget that the all-time classic best movies of the last one hundred years didn’t arrive fully formed on our screens. Most went through a disastrous production, earned the ire of the industry and become a target for mean-spirited tabloids. Here are a collection of legendary movies that were expected to be massive failures.
In the lead up to the release of James Cameron’s Titanic, a movie showcasing Hollywood teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio and rising star Kate Winslet, was forecast to fail to recoup its ballooning production costs. This was mostly due to trashy gossip magazines that make it their business to tear down anything popular with young girls, and Leo was the Justin Bieber of the decade following Romeo + Juliet. With the production being beset by delays and other issues – including the cast dinner being spiked with LSD – it became a running joke in the industry. The LA Times even had a weekly column dedicated to charting the film’s decline.
The eventual box-office take for Titanic made it the most successful film in history, a record it would hold for more than a decade before being supplanted by Cameron’s next film.
Although it wasn’t the centre of tabloid bullshit like Titanic, the seminal space opera was also a deeply troubled production. George Lucas was a relatively new film-maker and very much a rogue who rallied against the profit driven, business minded studio system (yes, it’s the same George Lucas). It was entering into a crowded sci-fi market and Lucas’ antagonistic attitude wasn’t helping, leaving only a 40 screens booking for opening weekend.
Studios were so unimpressed by Lucas’ original cut that they had a replacement editor fix the plodding mess he’d delivered. Good thing they did, as Star Wars is the widest reaching franchise to emerge from cinema.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Whilst the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an unstoppable juggernaut that has more than earned the trust of the audience, this wasn’t always the case. The Avengers had a plenty of doubt stacked up against it, mostly because such a complex logistical undertaking had never been successfully attempted before (in the scale of the subsequent movies, that’s hard to believe). Once doubters had been silenced with the brand name heroes, Marvel took a sharp turn with the oddball and largely unknown Guardians of the Galaxy. With a sitcom actor as the lead action hero and a talking tree, many commentators predicted Marvel’s first major flop. Instead it was the movie that reinforced the power of the franchise and the value of branching out into less known titles such as Ant-Man and Black Panther. It also launched Chris Pratt into superstardom and he remains a Hollywood A-Lister to this day.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN
When screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio concocted a pirate adventure with a supernatural bent, Hollywood let out a yawn. Since the disaster Cutthroat Island, pirate movies were very much considered box-office poison. Combine that with the movie being based on a theme park ride and nobody was interested in Disney’s first PG rated movie. This lack of faith meant that Disney intended to make it a straight-to-video release until Jerry Bruckheimer got involved. Whilst he kept pushing for a large enough budget to make a competitive blockbuster, legendary kill-joy Michael Eisner fought to shut the project down. Things soured further once production started, with a fire breaking out and accidents causing injuries. When dailies were delivered to Disney, the execs complained that Johnny Depp appeared to be ‘drunk or gay’.
Pirates would go on to briefly reinvigorate the adventure genre, launch one of Disney’s most profitable film franchises and turn Depp’s ‘drunk or gay’ performance into a fan favourite.
There’s very little reason to think that The Matrix would have achieved any form of success. The Wachowski sisters had only put out one very small movie, the strangely cobbled together ‘lesbian thriller’ Bound. It was a moderately successful indie film, but these two film-makers were pitching a complex blend of Eastern martial arts, cyberpunk and philosophy employing developing, untested computer effects. What sane person would green light such a concept? The director’s were also pushing for Keanu Reeves to lead the cast, an actor whose career was effectively over at that point, whilst the studio wanted the more bankable Will Smith, who considers turning down the role his biggest mistake.
With a smartly thought out comic book presentation and a slick marketing campaign, The Matrix peaked some interest and word of mouth did the rest. Keanu Reeves achieved a higher level of fame than ever before and The Matrix is a benchmark in science fiction action.
We’re not all about genre blockbuster here…we’re also snobs! Akira Kurosawa’s epic started small, being a day in the life of a samurai. Then it became something much grander and Kurosawa, known as ‘The Emperor’ for his intense control of the set, initiated a gruelling year long period of filming. Innovative lighting techniques damaged actor’s eyes, fire stunts raged out of control and the costs exploded to four times the budget. All of these was gleefully reported on by the press, especially when Toho Studios shut production down not once but twice.
Each time they did, Kurosawa went fishing while he waited for the execs to come to their senses. Turns out he was right to make this grandiose claim, as Seven Samurai is rightly considered one of the greatest works of cinema art ever created.
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES
Whilst on the subject of innovators, everybody thought Walt Disney was digging his own grave with his first animated feature. Already a household name for his animated shorts, household name characters and advances in the field of cinema and sound, the public weren’t yet ready for the idea of a full length animated feature. Dubbed ‘Disney’s folly’ by the press, the idea of sitting down in a cinema and watching a cartoon for an hour and a half was thought to be a joke. Walt’s brother Roy and his wife Lillian both tried to talk him out of it, but nobody believes in Walt’s vision as much as Walt. He mortgaged his house to fund the project and pushed ahead.
Snow White was the biggest box-office hit of the year, collected a bundle of Oscars and created a new form of entertainment, of which the Disney company is still the industry leader. Soon to be world leader of everything.
Replace everything said about full length animation in the previous entry with CGI and you’ve got history repeating itself. As before, the public couldn’t get their head around the idea of an entire movie created entirely with computer graphics, mostly in part to the state of video game graphics of the era. Again, Disney and Pixar pushed ahead (with Pixar keeping the ship steered straight when Eisner pushed for an ‘edgier’ tone) and Toy Story is a beloved modern classic.
In the same way that Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic is the definitive crime drama, the tale of its production is the definitive story of director vs studio. Puzo’s novel was the best selling book in history at the time and Coppola was determined to do things right. After a prolonged and expensive period of screen testing actors, the fading star Marlon Brando was cast in a major role and between this and the success of the source material, the eyes of the public and press were on the film.
Paramount were down on their luck at the time, with a string of failures on their hands. They wanted to cut costs by shooting on a backlot with the story set in modern day Kansas. Coppola pushed back against this, and had to face an ongoing scrutiny from the studio. He expected to be replaced as director at any moment, but stuck to his guns to deliver his vision. Expecting to be a failure, The Godfather stunned all involved by becoming the all-American classic and an important part of the cultural zeitgeist.
The very film that created the concept of blockbusters was also expected to sink quickly. Steven Spielberg is the most successful film-maker of all time but even he had to start somewhere, and that somewhere was off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard with a malfunctioning shark prop. Like The Godfather, Jaws was a bestselling novel, bringing much more attention to the production. The robotic shark props intended to play a central role in the movie infamously failed to function convincingly. Not that Spielberg wanted to be there in the first place – he tried to jump ship and work on prohibition crime drama Lucky Lady until he got tied down by contract stipulations. Robert Shaw also become notoriously difficult to work with, intimidating the young director. All of this added up to a film that had not sparked much in the way of audience anticipation.
In the end it was Spielberg’s dedication to his craft that made Jaws what it was. In the face of all the production problems he was determined to make the best movie possible. When text screening the severed head reveal didn’t garner a strong enough reaction from viewers, Spielberg defied demands from the studio to let it be and filmed the shot again and again in film editor Verna Fields’ swimming pool, and then recut it over and over until it was perfect.
Like The Godfather and Star Wars, Jaws is the kind of movie you know all about even if you haven’t seen the movie. It’s achieved a level of fame that transcends an outing to cinema. Everyone thought it would fail and instead it changed the entire structure of the studio system.