10 dark edgy blockbusters that got through the studio system

Top 10 Simon Brew 21 Mar 2014 - 06:55

Movie studios like their films to be pretty safe. But every now and then, an expensive, dark and edgy project comes through the system...

The cliche goes that when a big movie goes through the studio system, it has its wings clipped, the filmmakers live under constant scrutiny, and the resultant film is designed for the broadest appeal.

But every now and then, for differing reasons, something quite extraordinary gets through what's supposed to be the most creatively sterile system by which to make a movie.

In this piece, we've looked at ten different films that feel like they should be independent films, each of which somewhere along the line had a studio signing a hefty cheque for them. Without further ado...

Fight Club

We may as well kick this article off with perhaps the most puzzling project to ever get through the major studio system. Not that the film was puzzling, rather that a Hollywood major would invest nearly $70m just to get the film made in the first place.

Fight Club was a film that, even at the time, seemed more in keeping with the tone of American independent cinema, and yet it was backed effectively by Rupert Murdoch (he hated the film). Based on the 1996 book by Chuck Palahniuk, it first came to the attention of 20th Century Fox via its 'art house' subdivision, Fox 2000. It was Fox 2000 that paid $10,000 for the rights to the book, but that was a long, long way away from getting the film itself a green light. That said, Jim Uhls was eventually picked to adapt the novel to the script, and once Danny Boyle and Peter Jackson had passed on the project, it landed in the lap of David Fincher. The same David Fincher who had been through exhaustive battles with 20th Century Fox on his debut feature, Alien 3.

How did it get through the system?

Ultimately, thanks to a man called Bill Mechanic. Mechanic was chairman and chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment at the time, and on his watch, the studio had enjoyed hits such as Die Hard 3, Independence Day and Titanic, with the likes of There's Something About Mary just around the corner.

David Fincher had joined the project by 1997, and had worked for many months with Jim Uhls and subsequently Andrew Kevin Walker to shape a screenplay. This exhaustive process left a shooting script that had originally been planned at $23m to make, but was then estimated at closer to $50m. In fact, before Fight Club was done, the bill would be up to $63m before marketing costs.

Fincher himself was amazed that Mechanic gave such a daring, unconventional film a green light with as hefty a price tag, but would argue - successfully - in future battles over the final cut that Fox had signed on for the script that was shot, and that was that. Fincher would change very little about the film this time as a result of studio input. The lessons of Alien 3 were fully registered.

Crucially, throughout pivotal moments in Fight Club's development, Bill Mechanic stayed with it, and ultimately held his nerve. Under pressure from his bosses, not least when rumours of just what Fincher was shooting came to light, Mechanic took a bold risk with Fight Club. He would ultimately pay for it with his job.

So what happened?

When he first saw Fight Club, Fox owner Rupert Murdoch hated it, and made his feelings known. Far more comfortable with films such as Titanic, Fight Club was the film that ultimately broke down relations between Murdoch and Mechanic. Perhaps that wasn't surprising: Fight Club is ultimately a satire about people such as Murdoch, one funded by Fox.

What could have saved Mechanic would have been if Fight Club had hit big. It didn't. Scraping $100m worldwide in cinemas, it didn't cover Fox's production and marketing costs, and Mechanic's days were numbered. While it was never said explicitly that Fight Club was the reason he left Fox, it wasn't a tricky link to make.

The irony, of course, is that Fight Club is now one of Fox's most lucrative modern movies in home markets, shifting no shortage of DVDs and Blu-rays. It's also regarded in many quarters, certainly these ones, as a modern classic. The person who's not really reaped the reward of that is the man who committed nearly $70m of his budget to pay for it...

Eyes Wide Shut

At first glance, you'd probably argue - with some justification - that Eyes Wide Shut wasn't intended as a blockbuster movie. However, it certainly become one, with the bill to make the film over $60m. Starring the man who at the time was the biggest movie star on the planet, Mr Tom Cruise, along with his then wife, Nicole Kidman, it was this pair who were front and centre of the aggressive marketing campaign for the film.

That said, there was another major reason Eyes Wide Shut was on people's radar: Stanley Kubrick. Just his name attached to the film raised interest, but the combination of that, the near-two year shoot, and his eventual death just as the feature was finished, raised the project's profile enormously.

How did it get through the system?

Thanks to Kubrick's long-standing relationship with Warner Bros. The famously fussy director made the vast bulk of his films with the studio, including what would be his penultimate film, Full Metal Jacket.

That said, Warner Bros' Terry Semel did have a proviso for Kubrick before he gave the project the green light. He strongly suggested - although it's unclear whether he made this conditional - that Kubrick hire a movie star for the project, something (as Time noted back in 1999) he hadn't done since he cast Jack Nicholson in The Shining. As with any project in which Tom Cruise takes a leading role, his casting in the film turned a smaller drama into a major studio feature.

For Kubrick himself, the roots of Eyes Wide Shut went back as early as the 1960s, and had he found his way into the project then, it would inevitably have been a much smaller production. But for the best part of 25 years, it'd be in his mind. When it finally came to fruition, it would cost Warner Bros $65m just for the negative, and be released in the middle of peak movie season, the summer of 1999.

It's hard to remember a director since Kubrick - outside of Christopher Nolan, and even then that took a while - who's been given such autonomy over an expensive Warner Bros project. But Eyes Wide Shut was, without doubt, A Stanley Kubrick Film. Sets were built in the UK so that he wouldn't have to fly, he was given as much time as he needed to find the picture, and his perfectionist streak was 100% indulged by the studio. Whatever your views on Eyes Wide Shut, it's very much the work of a particular cinematic author.

So what happened next?

Commercially, Eyes Wide Shut actually did the business for Warner Bros. A $162m worldwide gross justified the investment, all the more impressive given the R rating, the adult tone of the movie, and the 159 minute running time.

Critically? Well, it depends who you talk to. Some laud Eyes Wide Shut as a criminally underrated Kubrick masterpiece. Some, it would be fair to say, don't. And the number of people who list the film up there with Kubrick's finest doesn't appear to be particularly high.

Cruise and Kidman would go their separate ways once the film was complete, and Kubrick would leave behind a complex legacy, and a tremendous boxset of movies, that still resonate today.

Apocalypse Now

A film whose production history is so colourful that there's an equally brilliant making-of documentary - Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse - that's been released about it. That said, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now wasn't always going to be a major film. John Milius and George Lucas had been linked with directing it at one stage, with Lucas toying with the idea for a number of years before opting for Star Wars instead.

Eventually, off the back of the success of The Godfather and whilst making The Godfather Part II, Coppola opted to press ahead.

How did it get through the system?

A few ways. It is worth noting that 'the system' was a different beast in the 1970s for a start, although some principals remains. United Artists (which was as close to its studio peak as it got around then) stumped up a hefty $7.5m towards the film, on the understanding that Marlon Brando would star in the film. The Marlon Brando it got and the Marlon Brando it paid for were very different, however.

The other way Coppola got his money though was via his own American Zoetrope company, which sold foreign rights to the movie, raising another $8m. The fact that Coppola's own company was a part investor - a model that George Lucas would build with Lucasfilm, keeping Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom off this list - gave him some autonomy (that and his bag of Oscars). Turns out he'd need it: Harvey Keitel for a start was replaced by Martin Sheen once shooting had begun, Sheen had a heart attack, Brando was too out of shape to film some of the scenes that had been specifically written for his character, and difficulties arose over how to end the film. That said, the aforementioned Hearts Of Darkness documentary tells this story far better than us.

So what happened next?

Photography began on Apocalypse Now in March of 1976, and Coppola was still shooting chunks of the film over a year later. In fact, a wrap on filming wouldn't be called until May 1977. Coppola still did an awful lot of work on the movie in post-production, to the point where when the film made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, it was at a point where several versions of the movie were being screened (a Redux version of the film, 49 minutes longer than the final theatrical cut, would be released in 2001).

By this stage, Apocalypse Now's budget was standing at $31.5m, an enormous amount of money by 1970s' filmmaking standards. And an enormous amount of money for a war film running to over 150 minutes. As it turned out, the film proved to be a success, returning over $150m at the box office, and picking up the Palme D'Or at Cannes (although, unsurprisingly, it was hardly a unanimous choice). United Artists was rewarded on its investment, although the company in its 1970s form would be ripped apart within a year by the fallout from Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate.

Apocalypse Now, meanwhile, would arguably be the last great film that Coppola has made, at least to date. Still, four classics (don't forget The Conversation) in a career isn't bad going...

The Black Cauldron

Disney's 25th animated film was the one that nearly brought the animation side of the company to its knees. Based around the first two books of Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles Of Prydain series, it cost Disney a then-staggering $44m to make (this was 1985!), and remains one of a kind in the studio's vaults (where it's generally locked away: you don't see Black Cauldron characters at Disneyland). It also took over a decade to make, and remains one that Disney keeps well away from its theme parks.

How did it get through the system?

Far from the heavily planned, more controlled organisation that Walt Disney Animation Studios has become, in the mid-1980s it was a very, very different story. That The Black Cauldron made it to the screen at all in the end was down to a few factors.

Firstly, it fell between two different management regimes at the studio. When Jeffrey Kaztenberg came in mid-production, who would be instrumental in revolutionising Disney animation and putting it back on a pedestal (leading to the era of The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King), he was reportedly aghast at what he saw. The film hadn't been closely monitored by the exiting management, and already many millions had been poured into a story that was being seen as too dark, too unmarketable, and utterly unDisney.

It was also a project that was going nowhere fast, with over five years dedicated to the production phase alone. And in that time, elements were ultimately tempered. Katzenberg ordered cuts to the film, and sizeable ones, which producer Joe Hale maintains damaged the final movie significantly. Katzenberg himself reportedly oversaw taking two to three minutes out of the final version of the film.

So how did it get through the system? Firstly, by the fact that animation at Disney wasn't taken seriously enough by the extreme high-ups. And then by the fact that when it was noticed just what tone the film took, too much had been spent and it was too far down the line to stop it.

So what happened next?

It's taken a long, long time for Disney to come to terms with The Black Cauldron. For a long time it was impossible to get on video, and then DVD. But it's now freely available, even if it's no candidate for a Blu-ray release right now.

The final cut of the film, whilst diluted, is still breathtakingly dark and sinister, and arguably one of the most interesting - if child unfriendly - Disney films of all. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame would have moments that pushed at the boundaries (and arguably overstepped them), but it looked like a soft cuddly toy next to The Black Cauldron.

Even today, with its creepy prologue, this is as sinister a major animated movie to come out of a big studio. And in this case it came from a huge studio. It made less than half of its budget back on its original release, and Katzenberg introduced sweeping changes at Walt Disney Animation Studios, partly to make sure that something like The Black Cauldron could never get through the system unchecked again. Nothing like it ever has.

The Matrix

By the middle of the 1990s, the traditional Warner Bros template - big stars, packaged movies, long term deals with talent, traditional marketing campaigns - was beginning to tire. The days of paying a star $20m to headline a movie and sit back to count the cash a year or two later were coming to an end.

Warner Bros at this stage had been presided over by bosses Robert Daly and Terry Semel for around 15 years (the pair would finally move on in 1999, after an 18 year reign), and they had brought the studio a period of prolonged success. And whilst it may look different now, Warner Bros was comfortably one of the least likely studios to back a project as edgy, unpredictable and different as The Matrix. This was a gigantic risk. The Wachowskis, after all, had first approached the studio with the script for Assassins in 1994, the year that Warner Bros put out sequels to Ace Ventura, Major League and Police Academy, along with the likes of the talent-packed Maverick, Wyatt Earp, The Specialist and Disclosure.

How did it get through the system?

The Wachowskis were championed at Warner Bros by the-then upcoming president of production, Lorenzo di Bonaventura. di Bonaventura, who has since gone on to oversee the likes of the Transformers and G.I. Joe movies, fought hard for the Wachowskis, even after their script to Assassins was effectively gutted once Sylvester Stallone and Richard Donner - two premier members of the WB talent club at the time - boarded the film.

But di Bonaventura was a real advocate for the Wachowskis, and he was the one person within Warner Bros who fought hard for The Matrix. The Wachowskis talked of a trilogy of a films, and the wish to direct them themselves, which didn't help temper Semel and Daly's fears over the film.

Yet to their credit, Semel and Daly - even when they couldn't see the strength of a project themselves (see also: Three Kings) - would sometimes back their staff on a risky call. And after the Wachowskis proved they could direct, with the taut thriller Bound (which many argue remains their best film), The Matrix moved closer. The turning point was a 600 page storyboard that the Wachowskis presented directly to the Warner Bros top brass. It was a presentation that would get them a $60m green light (back when $60m was still a lot of money for a movie).

So what happened next?

The Matrix hit big, even though Warner Bros didn't quite know how to sell something so different. Thus, they hired the usual billboards, staged the usual junkets, and ran the usual trailers. This time, though, the word of mouth on the film was spectacular. A franchise was born.

The Matrix would influence action cinema for years to follow - arguably it still does - and the Wachowskis would get to make their (not well received) sequels. Rumours continue of more Matrix movies, and Warner Bros continues to invest in the Wachowskis, on projects such as Cloud Atlas and the upcoming Jupiter Ascending...

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