As a general, Colin Powell often warned his bosses in Washington against “mission creep” — the dangerous expansion of a project beyond its original goal, often after initial success. Here in Hollywood, we have “genre creep,” and recently, we saw yet again just how dangerous it can be with the failure to launch of yet another studio remake, Total Recall.
We’re not talking about mere profligacy; certainly there are plenty of films on which spending ever more cash (Titanic comes to mind) yielded an even bigger payoff. Rather, we’re talking about a pernicious and wrong-headed notion that by pouring cash over a mere genre film, something magical will happen. That instead of an un-recoupable, overly expensive lowest-common denominator picture, a magical, Timothy Green–like organism known as “the event movie” will spring from the ground, with dollar bills instead of leaves poking out of its sweat socks.
In fact, this year's Recall rehash is perhaps the single best example of genre creep in recent memory. The original 1990 film was quintessential genre filmmaking — Spies in space! A muscleman on Mars! — but was only elevated by casting an iconic global action star like Arnold Schwarzenegger. When it opened to $26.4 million in June 1990, Total Recall notched the year's biggest three-day opening, and at the time, one the top ten biggest three-day openings ever.
Twenty-two years later, the 2012 Total Recall would employ a genre director in Len Wiseman (Underworld); genre stars like Jessica Biel (star of B pictures like The A Team and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Wiseman’s spouse Kate Beckinsale (of latex suit Underworld billboard fame) and Colin Farrell, a talented character actor who’s never successfully opened a movie in North America. In other words, genre ingredients for a genre soufflé with, by definition, limited appeal.
Instead, Sony spent $150-plus million to make a movie for everyone (notably, it carried a PG-13 rating, and not an R like the three-breasted original) and soon entered a world of pain: The new Recall would open even lower than the original film ± just $25.5 million here in North America — which, adjusted for inflation, is actually ten million dollars less than the domestic opening weekend of the original Recall. In fact, even if the 2012 Recall were to have opened to $45 million, that still would have been a little less than the original film’s haul.
The summer is nearly over and it's littered with such instances of Recall-like genre creep: The $250-plus million sci-fi/fantasy/western John Carter. The $250-plus million alien action movie Battleship. The $170-plus million fairy-tale Snow White and the Huntsman.
“Perception of all those movies would be significantly different had they been made for an appropriate price,” laments one former studio chief. “But in these days of fewer franchise opportunities, a lot of these studios are talking themselves into turning genre material into event movies by throwing huge sums of money at them and hoping a new franchise emerges.”
This leads Vulture to worry about the coming crop of movies in development, some of which seem to scream “Genre creep!” just from their mere description. Here are a half-dozen that studios should possibly reconsider:
- Need for Speed. Set up at DreamWorks and based on the wildly popular Electronic Arts video game, it recently landed Act of Valor director Scott Waugh. The studio is on the hunt for a big action star, but is limited somewhat by the fact that it's already cost so much just to land the title. Explains one talent agent, “Because they spent $3 to 4 million just on the rights, and because they’re essentially doing a Fast and Furious rip-off while Fast and Furious is still going strong, it won’t be a cheap movie to make.” UPDATE: DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider has contacted us to state that DreamWorks has only paid $2.5 million for the rights, and plans to shoot the picture cheaply, without big stars.
- Daredevil. Fox already made this movie once, badly, in 2003, with Ben Affleck (and yes, Colin Farrell) and it bombed, badly. Now the clock is ticking on its rights, and the studio is determined not to lose them. Recently, news came that a deal may have been made with Marvel, giving it access to other Marvel characters like the Silver Surfer in exchange for a bit more time. Still, making a movie because you don’t want anyone else to make the movie is not actually a good reason to make any movie.
- The Equalizer. Sony wants to start shooting its planned adaptation of the eighties CBS show about a former government intelligence officer gone freelance with Denzel Washington next April, and agents tells us that it is determined to exercise fiscal discipline this time around: The film has no director yet, but the plan calls to spend $20 million on Washington’s salary, and only $30 million on the remaining production. The danger, of course, is that skimping on the production budget in an action movie will result in “unforeseeable” expenses to soup up explosions that are less-than-retina-detatching.
- The Great Wall. Legendary Pictures (the financier of The Dark Knight Rises and the forthcoming Man of Steel) recently pushed the start date of this Henry Cavill film to next spring from this fall. The film is period (Mongols!), epic (the Great Wall of China!), and sci-fi (the Wall is built to keep out monsters, not just Mongol). With a director who possesses a penchant for historical accuracy in Ed Zwick (The Last Samurai), it all suggests a film that is going to get very expensive, very quickly; more, as a “feathered fish” it neither serves the interests of genre purists nor fans of historical epics. Don’t believe us? Just ask Fox how Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter turned out. (That $70 million film has just cleared $75 million in global grosses.)*
- Jack Ryan. In theory, Tom Clancy books still have a following, but there’ve been so many Jack Ryans — Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck — that there’s hardly any reason to think audiences will automatically show up. Paramount Pictures recently kicked off Lost director Jack Bender and instead hired a safer bet: Thor’s Kenneth Brannagh, who will also double as its villain. But after the non-starter This Means War, Paramount must surely be worried about the box-office prowess of the newest Ryan, Chris Pine — likely why the studio is looking to Kevin Costner to help shore up its star power.
- Harker. Dracula from a cop’s-eye view is how you can describe Warner Bros.' planned Russell Crowe thriller. In February, we first reported Crowe’s involvement in a new take on the classic vampire story: It would be from the perspective of Jonathan Harker, who — instead of his role as a lawyer in the original novel — would now be a Scotland Yard detective investigating the Count's string of grisly murders in England. But, in classic Crowe fashion, he has lost interest in the role that first grabbed his attention and now wants to play Dracula himself. Seeing how Crowe helped turn a fascinating project like Nottingham into an utterly banal flop like Robin Hood, we are already reaching for the garlic salt.
*Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter's worldwide grosses have been updated to include this past weekend's numbers.