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Only Ourselves to Blame: The Sad Truth about the Mountains of Madness…

The internet seems to be in mourning. There’s none of the angry fist-waving fury that we saw over the announcement of the planned sequels and prequels to Blade Runner, just a solemn sense of reflection. After it seemed that good news was on the way, word came down the wire that Guillermo Del Toro’s planned adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness would not be happening. Apparently Universal Studios have decided that instead of spending $150m on a genuinely respected classic horror story, they’d rather blow $175m on another shot at Doom. The two decisions probably aren’t directly related (in that I doubt it was an “either or” situation), but it’s fairly damning. However, I honestly don’t think we should blame the studio for any of this. And, that, my friends, is the sad madness-inspiring truth of it all: we have only ourselves to blame.

Del Toro's dream project met an icy reception...

There’s a powerful moment at the end of The Planet of the Apes. Not the Burton remake, mind you. In it, Charleton Heston has a moment of terrible realisation about the hunk of rock he has found himself stranded on. He finds something which triggers a terrible thought inside his head, something which he can’t stop – however much he may want to. Heston collapses to the ground in shock, as the origin of his plight slowly dawns upon him. He rambles to himself, the revelation having perhaps pushed him past the brink of madness. As he realises that he has nobody to blame for his predicament other than his fellow man, he screams in agony, “Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

As I read the on-line reaction to the decision not to fund Del Toro’s adaptation of the Lovecraft classic, I felt a similar sensation. The bandwagon would tell you to yell at Universal. To argue that they shouldn’t be afraid to take risks or to make brave pictures rather than continually playing it safe. They seem like the big bad villains in all this, an otherworldly abomination of which us fleeting mortals can barely perceive in the finest Lovecraftian traditions. However, that bandwagon is completely and utterly wrong. Universal certainly don’t deserve your aggression, passive or otherwise. We have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Contrary to popular belief, most studio executives do not look like this...

“Take risks!” is the mantra of on-line bloggers such as myself. “Stay away from assembly-line production models! Give us something fresh!” These aren’t idle calls into the wilderness, they are a chant repeated consciously and solemnly. We beg the studios to treat us like adults, to offer us genuinely exciting and new movies to sink our teeth into – we’re grown-ups, we don’t need a movie about a toy or fifth sequel to an original that nobody wanted to see. And, you know what? It was Universal more than any other movie studio that gave us those sorts of risks.

Look at Universal’s slate for the past few years. They’ve encourage Edgar Wright, giving him the financial backing to produce Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. When Paramount offered the conventional Iron Man 2, Universal gave us Kick-Ass. They took a huge chance on Forgetting Sarah Marshall, an original comedy with no big stars and no big director attached. Hell, their past association with Del Toro included Hell Boy and Hell Boy II – two unconventional summer films which never connected with audiences, but they threw their support behind them anyway.

No love for Lovecraft?

You might argue that none of these were major risks on their own – and you’d be right, none of the individual films broke the bank. Still, that money adds up over time and they were all still “big” films, produced on budgets that national film industries outside the United States can only really dream about. If these films had been successful, you would have undoubtedly seen Universal throwing more money at slightly quirkier and engaging properties. They provided the audience with the chance to see stuff that they wouldn’t normally see – something outside the realm of sequels, prequels and remakes.

Even this year they offer a strong slate which has its fair share of risk:

Hell, if any studio deserves to be congratulated for taking risks, it’s them.  Just this spring, we’ve got Paul and Your Highness and The Adjustment Bureau in release, and all of those are sizable films that take some real chances.  You want to send a message?  You start by supporting the risks they’ve already taken.  You buy Scott Pilgrim.  You see Paul.  You see Your Highness.  You reward them for taking a chance. Paul is an R-rated movie about two guys who meet an alien during a post Comic-Con road trip.  Your Highness is described as a really filthy comedy set in a world like Krull.  These films were made because Universal took a chance on Simon Pegg and Nick Frost or because they took a chance on David Gordon Green and Danny McBride.  Last year, Universal got the crap kicked out of it for making Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and I wouldn’t trade that film for anything.  They believed in the film.

And did the audience decide to respond to these invitations? They did not. The industry laughed at the commercial disappointments many of these films became, because that’s what Hollywood does – it grudging acknowledges success and gleefully mocks failure. However, we can’t blame the studios – we were the ones who made the films successes or failures. And, in these cases, we stayed away. We had the chance to be heard, to vote with our feet and to show Hollywood we didn’t need recycled blockbuster fare. Did we? We didn’t.

It's an uphill struggle...

You know what? Every time any blogger, journalist or pundit states that big studios should take risks, the studio executives can point to this trend. People like me begged for the chance to demonstrate that audiences would respond to a challenging and engaging film that didn’t speak to them like they were a bunch of morons. And what did we do? We bought tickets to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Sure, occasionally we make the right call. Every once in a while, a risky film makes a huge bonanza. Inception is the most recent example, and I can think of few others – it’s the exception rather than the rule. The Dark Knight is arguably a smarter brand of blockbuster, and one we should be demanding. However, that these garnered huge audience followings represents an extreme minority. Fast Five will appear in theatres as the fifth instalment of The Fast & The Furious, and it will undoubtedly have a larger opening than any film so far this year.

It would have been a beast of a film...

So, I can’t be angry at Universal. Hell, from their position, it’s the smartest call. They’re a studio sitting at a poker table, losing badly. They need to change their strategy, or else they will continue to lose badly. They adopted a high-risk strategy based on what people like us had assured them, and they put their money where their mouth is. We, on the other hand, didn’t. Such is life, c’est la vie. Perhaps my taste is the minority – perhaps the average cinema-goer is happy with your bland vanilla-flavour big-budget offering. Maybe I just don’t get it, and I’m missing the point by daring to ask for more. People know what they like, and who the hell am I to question it?

So, the buck has to stop somewhere and – in this case – it stops here, not with the studio. I’m getting up on my high horse. I waited for many of the above films on video, only catching some of the more recent ones in theatres. In my arrogance, I dared to assume it was a greater risk for me to buy a ticket and potentially waste two hours than it was for them to make the movie. I contributed to the box office failure of these films in some form or another, and I will ultimately pay the price. So I can’t really complain.

And that, I think, is the root of the response to the decision not to press ahead with Del Toro’s adaptation. Most of the blogs that I’ve read aren’t angry – they aren’t calling for blood or contrition. They are sad, because they realise that – in some way, shape or form – this is our own fault. “Ah, damn us! God damn us all to hell!”

8 Responses

  1. For every original, unique film that is made there is a “passion project” that bombs horribly (or at least underperforms compared to what else that money could have been spent on).

    The track record for these movies is pretty poor. Unless you’re James Cameron, the chances are good a director’s big budget passion project will bomb.

    • Yep, that’s a fair point. As nice as it is to see Scorsese produce Gangs of New York (which I also have a great fondness for) it is hardly the director’s best film. Nor his most successful.

  2. You’re exactly right. I’ve been saying this for years: the reason you keep seeing all of these awful remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, comic book/TV/toy adaptations is because they make money. If nobody went out to see those films then they wouldn’t get made. But, we turn out every time and prove the studios right by giving our cash to Transformers 2.

    • Yep. If you were the studios, you could be forgiven for thinking Transformers 3 was exactly what the audience was asking for, despite the fact the second one was just a terrible film.

  3. I half agree. Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim— the two riskiest films mentioned in the article, and depending on who you ask the only truly risky pictures brought up– cater explicitly to the geek set and didn’t exactly blow the roof off of the box office (the former of which did 3x its budget worldwide and the latter of which didn’t even manage to break even on the same scale). There’s a lot of room to argue that neither film connected with the mainstream and thus neither film managed to hit it big, but it’s very apparent that the demographic both pictures hoped to reach didn’t damn well turn out for either of them. Doesn’t make any sense to me, though I’m sure that plenty of people who fall into that demographic were just as happy to stay at home and illegally download and watch on their computers, which is another can of worms I won’t open (other than to say that fuck them for doing so). Geeks somehow manage to be the most loyal and diehard fans a property could hope for and also the most apathetic, a balancing act that I’d care to be impressed by if it didn’t irritate me endlessly. They show up for tentpole pictures but you can’t rely on them to help support the less mainstream properties.

    At the same time, this is totally on Universal’s shoulders. I understand the apprehension over funding what would surely be one of the ultimate genre movies of our time, since Lovecraft isn’t a mainstream author known to many outside of geek circles, but there are two factors in the studio’s favor here:

    1) Mountains, without a doubt, would be one of those movies that geeks would turn out for happily. This is an iconic genre story by one of the true horror greats. But most of all,
    2) Guillermo Del Toro.

    GDT– Hellboy films aside, and you could argue that their lack of commercial success has more to do with their release dates and promotion than anything else– knows how to make a movie that appeals strongly to the geek crowd and also reaches across the divide to the mainstream; he did this with Pan’s Labyrinth without breaking a sweat, and could easily have done so with Mountains. Sure, it’s still a risk, but I think the reward would have been huge and the risk wouldn’t have been quite as large as the studio imagined.

    I look forward to seeing this picture get made someday, maybe through another studio, but in the meantime we’ll have to be satisfied with the hundred thousand other projects GDT has on his docket.

    • You know, I actually considered bringing up the whole “illegally downloading” argument in the article, but I feared I might sound preachy. I don’t download (I borrow DVDs from friends and family after the film makes it to video, which is perhaps almost the same thing – but I will buy it if I enjoy it), but I know people who do. And, without resorting to stereotypes, those who download are people who, like me, would rather a bit of spice on their meatball – while those who couldn’t be bothered to download will be happy to go to traditionally multiplex fare.

      I think you make about about the Hell Boy films – they shouldn’t have been released in blockbuster season. Being honest, part of me wonders if Universal might have been better served to follow “the Warner model”, which is considerably more conservative. Warners have traditionally allows a few high-risk properties to sneak out in March, before blockbuster season (things like Watchmen or Sucker Punch). That way, if it’s a success, the company can brand it as an early start to summer season; but if it fails… well, it’s not too humiliating to fail when no one goes to the cinema anyway.

      As for Del Toro, I love the guy, but I’m not convinced that the evidence supports giving him a budget that big for an R-rated film. That said, I’m not sure giving Doom a budget of $175m is a good idea when the last film couldn’t even recoup its budget of $60m domestically, so what do I know?

      Funny how we’re back to talking about Del Toro. I remember discussing the Hobbit between us as well. As you said, the man is enough in demand that we shouldn’t worry about it, he’ll have a great film out soon enough. I would have thought Universal would give him his Frankenstein film as a commiseration.

  4. I’d like to sit on my high horse and say “I saw Scott Pilgrim in theaters” but, while that’s true, I only ended up seeing the movie once I had heard how terribly it was failing at the box office. I, too, was going to wait until video to see it – which I’m guessing is what most of the world ended up doing.

    The truth is, we live in a world where “G.I. Joe” and “The Island” pull in respectable box-office numbers while Oscar contenders often scrap over paltry sums.

    As for the “Doom” take two – they’ve a need for some seriously strong writers to make that franchise into a decent film. Oh, and they need to avoid casting a Dwayne Johnson.

    • I don’t know. I think Doom is brilliant. Playing it in a dark room with surround sound might be one of the most frightening experiences of my life. But I don’t think that you can translate it to screen, and certainly not with a PG-13 rating. What’s wrong with acknowledging a property can’t be adapted out of the medium that it was designed for?

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