Are we to blame for risk-free movies?

As Guillermo del Toro’s At The Mountains Of Madness fails to get a green light, should the audience take its fair share of the blame for studios playing things safe?

The news that Guillermo del Toro’s planned movie of H P Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness has hit the skids has, understandably, generated some less than positive press for Universal over the past day or so. The studio had been dithering, it had been reported, over greenlighting the $150m movie, and eventually, another project appeared that del Toro is more likely to be able to get moving. Crucially, unlike Mountains, that project is a PG-13-rated monster movie.

It’s that PG-13 rating, you’d suspect, that’s greased the wheels, here. $150m is an enormous amount to spend on one project, even in modern blockbuster times, and it won’t be far from Universal’s mind that it pumped a similar amount into last year’s Green Zone, from which it’ll have to wait a long time to break even.

One of the lessons that’s been borne out of that particular project is surely that selling a movie is tricky at the best of times. Selling one that has the odds stacked against it at the box office, that’s got a hefty price tag to boot? Especially when it’s not part of a franchise? That’s even trickier. Throw in that the R-rating alone that At The Mountains Of Madness would attract in the States would hurt its box office chances further, and Universal, perhaps understandably, got the wobbles.

Even the presence of James Cameron as producer seems not to have settled the studio. But then, Sanctum 3D hardly set the tills ringing either (that was Universal, too), so perhaps his name in this instance was little comfort.

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Count us amongst the gutted that At The Mountains Of Madness won’t be shooting anytime soon. The union of Guillermo del Toro and H P Lovecraft seemed too good to be true. Sadly, that may have been the case.

Universal has attracted a lot of criticism for its decision not to commit to the film (which, as we understand it, is as far as it’s got. It’s not said no to the project, unless someone can tell us different). But maybe it’s not the studio’s fault.

Appreciating that it’s been languishing behind the takings of the likes of Warner Bros and Disney these past few years, at the very least you have to acknowledge that Universal has been trying things. It backed Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, for starters. It took a punt on Kick-Ass in the UK. It’s got the fascinating looking Ayrton Senna movie coming up later this year.

Universal, in recent times, also took a gamble on Judd Apatow’s Funny People. On The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. It put money into Inglourious Basterds, Public Enemies, Paul and State Of Play. Even this year’s The Adjustment Bureau has a greater than expected level of risk to it.

In short, Universal has been trying interesting projects for the past couple of years. And its takings have, whether we like it or not, come up short as a result. How many of those films we’ve just listed have underperformed? While other studios have thrived with safer pictures?

You can count me as depressed as any that Universal has retreated to the relative safety of Johnny English 2, which is nearing completion. But can I blame it for taking some safe shots when its attempts to do otherwise have failed? No, not really. If it was your money and your business, what would you do?

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Because Universal might not be the issue here. Instead, we might be the problem. For at the very heart of the movie business, as it is with many others, is supply and demand. Studios supply us with films and it’s up to us to choose what to see.

A look across the top 10 films of 2010 at the US box office gives an idea of what we, as a collective audience, has been demanding. It reveals that five came from franchises and that two of the remaining top ten have already had sequels announced. In 2009, it was five and three, and in 2008, it was four and four. Looking further down the list offers little extra comfort.

2011, meanwhile, will apparently see a record 27 sequels hitting screens throughout the year. Why? Well, it’s obvious. They come with a built-in audience. They’re easier to sell. And, crucially, chances are we’ll all turn out in droves to watch them.

After all, the rule of thumb of sequels used to be that they’d do sixty-five percent of the business of their predecessor. Just look back to the likes of Batman Returns and Hot Shots! Part Deux for proof of that.

However, that rule has changed. Films such as Shrek 2, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Dark Knight, The Bourne Ultimatum and Toy Story 3 are just a few examples of how franchises now have the potential to simply get more lucrative. Even weaker entries in franchises, such as Spider-Man 3, Iron Man 2 and Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, bathe in the kind of cash they wouldn’t get anywhere near had they not been sequels.

Universal avoided this trend and is likely to feel that it’s been punished for it. For the problem is that we, the audience, love franchises. There’s no way around it. We go and see bad films based on existing properties (The Last Airbender). We go and see lazy sequels (pick a Rush Hour movie of your choice). We follow unambitious, star name-driven projects (right back to the likes of Wild Wild West). But increasingly rarely do many of us take a risk with our own cinema entrance fee. Thus, how can we expect the studios to do the same with their multi-million dollar budgets? (we should note that we’re not aiming this at Den Of Geek readers, rather the cinema-going audience at large)

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There are, of course, glimmers of light. Inception was original and daring, whether you liked it or not. The outstanding True Grit had box office dud written all over it, but ended up outgrossing Clash Of The Titans, Megamind, Salt, Robin Hood and more. But as things stand, our money is too often rewarding films that don’t necessarily deserve it.

It’s not always that straightforward, of course. The distribution system is weighted towards major releases (it’s ironic how much ire Kevin Smith is getting at the moment, for trying to do something about that), and if your local cinema isn’t showing a smaller, more interesting release, then it’s hard to support such films. But the onus is on us, as an audience, to ultimately prove that studios can back risky films and be rewarded for doing so, should the end product turn out well.

If we don’t? Johnny English 2 may just be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. And At The Mountains Of Madness may never get made. Both of those would be tragedies.

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