10 dark edgy blockbusters that got through the studio system

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Given the length of this article, we’d had to put it across two pages. We do this rarely, and apologies for doing so: we’re not trying to cheat our traffic numbers by getting you to click more. It just seems seems wiser to split very long articles over two pages…

Babe: Pig In The City

“I don’t see Babe and Mad Max as very different. They’re both individuals wandering in unknown landscapes trying to find meaning, overcome a number of obstacles, reach the moment their essence is tested and through courage effect change in the world they inhabit. It’s essentially the hero story told again.” – George Miller, The L.A. Times, 1996 

Babe proved just the kind of breakout hit that movie studios love. An adaptation of Dick King-Smith’s book The Sheep-Pig, Universal backed the movie, which took a good seven years from start to finish to reach the screen. Made in Australia, it was co-written and produced by Mad Max‘s George Miller. Chris Noonan would direct, co-authoring the screenplay too. Babe opened to rave reviews, took over $250m at cinemas worldwide (before becoming a big video hit), and was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. A sequel? One of the easiest decisions Universal ever had to make.

How did it get through the system?

There’s a simple answer to this question: Universal desperately wanted that sequel.

The first film had been made and crafted out of the glare of the studio on another continent, and there was little reason to think that the magic formula wouldn’t work again.

But then there was a key change in personnel. Chris Noonan had no interest in making Babe 2, arguing that he couldn’t really see any place for a sequel to go. George Miller thus took on directing duties this time, and Noonan wouldn’t be involved in the script either. It would be fair to say that you could tell.

As the story goes, Universal pretty much left Miller to his own devices on the film that would become Babe: Pig In The City, and it only got a full flavour of what it’d had let itself in for at a screening of an early cut. The studio realised it had a problem, and not a small one.

Whilst the first Babe movie has hints of darkness – the opening shot is a truck backing up, ready to take animals to the slaughterhouse – the sequel proved to be bathed in it. More than once, an animal is taken to the edge of death and brought back at the last minute, yet Miller gets all this across in a manner that just about squeezed the movie a G rating in the US. The screening of the film we attended was accompanied by the sound of young children sobbing, one or two of whom left early. As beautiful as the film was and is to look at, it still feels far more Mad Max than Babe flavoured.

So what happened next?

Well, lots of critics liked it. Gene Siskel would go on to name it as his film of 1998. Audiences, however, deserted the movie, with poisonous word of mouth suggesting that it was the last film you wanted to take your kids out to for a nice weekend trip to the movies. Far more expensive to make ($90m apparently), the movie would go on to take less than $70m at the worldwide box office. That’s less than a third of the original’s haul.

This naturally enough killed the Babe series stone dead. What’s happened since though is a reappraisal in some quarters as to the qualities of the film itself. That it’s a dark, challenging piece of cinema, from someone with an untempered voice. It’s just perhaps not, er, the film that its audience – or studio – was quite expecting…

Batman Returns

If The Matrix demonstrated how Warner Bros had to leave its comfort zone to try something different, Batman Returns is arguably the other way around: it was so true to its desire to work with key talent, that it let a markedly different film through its system. You could argue it did it again with Conspiracy Theory a few years later.

1989’s Batman was a turning point for the studio, and for the movie business as a whole. Accompanied by a hype machine that was unparalleled at the time, Batman had a then-huge opening weekend, and would go on to prove a substantive hit. Warner Bros was thus keen to get a sequel moving quickly, with the plan being to use the same sets and return to Pinewood Studios in the UK.

The sticking point was Tim Burton. The director, as he’s freely admitted, didn’t have the best of times making Batman. Stuck in London, and under pressure from the studio, his 1989 film had lots of his hallmarks, but it was never fully a Tim Burton film.

He never ruled out making Batman 2 though, yet he elected to go and do Edward Scissorhands rather than stick to the schedule Warner Bros had in mind.

How did it get through the system?

Warner Bros was ultimately so keen to get Tim Burton back for the Batman sequel, and to reunite the team that had delivered the studio such a massive hit, that it gave him more autonomy on what would become Batman Returns. Burton thus brought in Heathers scribe Daniel Waters, and ultimately shaped a far darker piece of work than the hardly light-soaked Batman.

Batman Returns has moments such as Danny DeVito’s Penguin biting off someone’s nose, a far more sexual villain in the shape of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, and a tone pretty much as removed as you can get of that required to sell Happy Meals at McDonald’s. Naturally enough, the McDonald’s Happy Meal tie-in wasn’t as successful as hoped.

Furthermore, its ambitions are very different from the usual here is the villain, now we must defeat them approach. As muddled as the eventual film was – and we say that as fans of Batman Returns – it makes points about who the real villains actually are (arguably the key one in the film wears a suit, something Christopher Nolan would pick up. Joel Schumacher, er, wouldn’t), about politics, and about big business. Not always very well, but it does make them. These were what sat in place of the poster-friendly screen-gobbling Jack Nicholson performance of the earlier film.

So what happened next?

Batman Returns opened bigger than its predecessor, and closed smaller. Whilst Batman would take $411m worldwide, Batman Returns came in at $266m. Only Batman & Robin would fare worse.

Burton, feeling he’d said all he needed to say about Batman with Batman Returns, would not return for a third film (he has a producer credit, but nobody reports him being particularly involved), whilst Michael Keaton would turn down a bumper payday (reportedly $14m) to move on as well.

Warner Bros, stung by the backlash from parents over Batman Returns, installed Joel Schumacher, part of whose brief was to make a much more PG-friendly film. He did, and Batman Forever would prove to be a far more (commercially) successful enterprise. Burton, to date, has never made a sequel since (although he’s flirting with Beetlejuice 2).

Rango

Rango

It’s little secret that we’re huge fans of Rango. A subversive western dressed up in the promotional clothes of CG family movies, it’s a blisteringly entertaining piece of work. With tips of the hat to a bunch of movies, from Apocalypse Now and Blazing Saddles through to Chinatown and Leone’s collection of westerns, it’s also very unusual. Beautifully animated, with undertones a fair way removed from the family feature market, Rango already feels like one of a kind. Not just in its words, but from the dusty visuals upwards.

How did it get through the system?

Thanks to the way director Gore Verbinski went about making the film, and the backing of GK Films.

Verbinski started working on Rango in his house with some artists and friends, away from a studio environment, and thus keeping development costs low. Only when he was happy did he progress the project, eventually involved Nickelodeon and its parent, Paramount Pictures.

This is also one of those moments where a movie star helped. Whilst Verbinski had intended to keep the project quite contained, the budget eventually went up to $135m, with ILM contracted to do the computer animation work on the film. But then Johnny Depp had become interested, and joined the film, having made three Pirates Of The Caribbean movies with Verbinski. Depp, back with his Pirates director? Consider the cheque signed.

Throughout, Verbinski looked at differing approaches too. He got his actors together to shoot them live for 20 days. Costumes and sets were used, and whilst none of them are seen on screen, they provided invaluable reference material for ILM’s animators.

There was an another element that perhaps played into Rango‘s hands. For some time, Paramount Pictures’ animated movie output had been fulfilled by an ongoing deal to distribute DreamWorks Animation features. But that deal was coming to an end (DreamWorks subsequently did a deal with Fox instead), and Paramount was keen to have animated features of its own. Perhaps then Rango arrived at just the right time for Paramount, which put substantive resources not just into funding the film, but also promoting it.

So what happened next?

Aided by that aforementioned marketing campaign, and positive reviews, Rango did solid box office. It took just shy of $245m worldwide, and did good business on home formats too, which just about took it into profit for Paramount.

Paramount was reportedly interested in a Rango 2, but Verbinski was not, and still isn’t last we heard. Off the back of the film’s relative success, Paramount announced it was launching an animation division. The first fruits of that arrive next year, with the release of The Spongebob Squarepants Movie 2. At least three further animated projects are planned. Verbinski, meanwhile, went on to another unusual blockbuster: The Lone Ranger

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Not unlike Tim Burton with Batman, Joe Dante wasn’t enamoured with the idea of making a sequel to Gremlins. The 1984 original had been a sizeable surprise hit for Warner Bros, and inevitably, talk began fairly quickly about organising a sequel.

Dante turned the job down, having been worn down by the exhaustive production of the original film (months of stop motion work followed the original raft of filming). Warner Bros pursued the project without him, and writers duly got to work on ideas.

How did it get through the system?

The problem was that writers got to work on ideas, but none of the ideas were passing muster. Warner Bros, frustrated at the lack of progress, returned to Dante. Several years had now passed, and Dante set down his conditions, the key one being full creative control. And surprisingly, Warner Bros agreed.

Dante did not waste this chance. He’s freely admitted that one of his ambitions with Gremlins 2 was to make a film that ruled out a third movie, and as such, his film was happy to send up the first movie in a manner in which no sequel ever has since (or before). Gremlins 2 also takes aim at the merchandising, the idea of sequels, and critic Leonard Maltin (who gamefully pops up in a cameo to repeat his slating of the first film).

It would be fair to say that had Warner Bros not ceded creative control, many if not all of these ideas would not have got off the drawing board. As it happened though, Dante was able to make a hugely personal film in studio clothing.

So what happened next?

Sadly, despite delivering a wonderfully anarchic, biting sequel, Joe Dante would have to sit and watch Gremlins 2 being devoured by the heavily-promoted Dick Tracy at the box office. Dante once apparently said that Warner Bros put the film directly opposite Dick Tracy to help protect Batman‘s box office record.

Hurt by the six year gap between original and sequel, Gremlins 2 would take only $41m at the US box office. Every now and then, stories surface about Warner Bros looking to reboot the Gremlins series, but thus far, Gremlins 2 has achieved the goal that Dante intended.