The Behind the Scenes Issues of The 1st Tomb Raider Movie

The first Tomb Raider movie was made against the clock - and a contractual need to keep moving, and moving fast...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Next summer, the eternal battle to make a compelling, successful movie adaptation of a videogame continues, with a new take on Tomb Raider. This time, it’s Alicia Vikander who’ll be bringing Lara Croft to the big screen, in an origin story that has inevitable eyes on developing into a long-running movie franchise.

It’s the best part of 20 years since we were first down this particular road before, though, and in the intervening period, the Tomb Raider videogames have been rebooted to impressive effect. But there’s nothing that can quite match the cultural impact when Lara Croft first arrived on the scene.

The first Tomb Raider title was the right game at the right time. Sony’s PlayStation console – the original one – was booming, and Tomb Raider brought a fresh lead character to videogaming. Not a particularly anatomically-proportional one, it should be noted. But here was a gaming character that infiltrated the mainstream, appearing on magazine covers that had nothing to do with games. Lara Croft broke into the mainstream, where Miner Willy (look him up) had not.

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Anyway: the games sold, and the ensuing sequels became huge blockbusters in their own right, until the procession of follow-ups drained the franchise of impact and ideas (see also: Assassin’s Creed). It seemed inevitable, not least given the series’ clear Indiana Jones influences, that Tomb Raider – and Lara Croft – would go to the movies.

The movie rights

It was 1996 when Tomb Raider was first released, and the battle for film rights commenced quickly. Core Design and its parent, Eidos, knew it had something special, and knew it could play hardball. After a fierce fight, it thus inked a deal in conjunction with producer Lawrence Gordon and Paramount Pictures. The Tomb Raider movie was set to happen.

However, a tough bargain was negotiated. Core and Eidos clearly didn’t want the project languishing and left unmade, and thus it inserted a clause into the deal: if no work was done by the studio on a Tomb Raider movie for 45 days, the option to make the film would be lost. Paramount had to move, and move quickly.

Scripts were thus commissioned, and plenty of writers had a go. Brett V Friedman (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation) came up with a screenplay that wasn’t used. Steven E De Souza, of Die Hard and Street Fighter: The Movie fame, also put together a draft. Scripts went backwards and forwards, and by 1999, eleven writers at least had given the screenplay a shot. But to no avail. There was precious little sign of the film going before the cameras.

Enter the director

Working alongside this, though, Paramount was seeking a director. It had been working with Simon West on the John Travolta-headlined The General’s Daughter, which would be a solid hit for the studio when it was released in late summer 1999. West had sought something different from a flat-out blockbuster after breaking through with the immortal 1996 hit, Con Air. But with The General’s Daughter scratching his itch to make a thriller, he felt comfortable taking on a tentpole feature again. He was open to a big film to make, and Paramount had one that needed making.

It didn’t have a script, but at least Tomb Raider had a director.

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When he came aboard, it fell to West to work his way through the collection of drafts that had been penned to that point. De Souza, quoted in the book Leading Lady (which I’ll come back to again shortly), wasn’t taken with West’s approach. “He comes in and almost immediately says ‘this script is shit,’ even though it’s budget- and schedule-approved,” de Souza recalled. “He hires four writers to do four or five different drafts. At the end he declares ‘they’re all shit; I’m going to have to write the script’, and insists the studio pay him a very big number to write it.”

For West’s part, he recalled that “the script was in fluidity… it was very hard for me to prep, because it was never a stationary target.” Crucially, “the risk of losing the rights meant there was no time to stand back and think.”

West thus worked on the screenplay, and he’d eventually share writing credits with Sara B. Cooper, Mike Werb, Michael Colleary, Patrick Massett and John Zinman.

The $7 million franchise-launcher

Whilst West was sorting that out, then-Paramount boss Sherry Lansing was limiting the studio’s exposure. Because Tomb Raider was the beneficiary of a scheme that saw Paramount liable for just $7 million of the film’s $94 million cost. The scheme involved a German tax shelter, that Paramount got access to by selling the copyright to the movie to a German company. Said German company then leased said copyright back to Paramount (with a re-purchase option), and thus it appeared that it’s a German firm that owns the movie. But that firm also signs agreements that makes their ownership of the film a temporary one.

And you wondered why accountants all drove flashy cars.

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Tomb Raider then also filmed sequences in Britain, taking advantage of tax relief schemes in the UK for doing so. It then pre-sold the rights to the film in six countries before the movie had been shot. Across all of these schemes, Paramount could launch a movie franchise with just $7 million leaving its coffers to do so. Slate breaks down the scheme in more detail, here (and also looks at why a smaller, much better film – Sideways – couldn’t benefit from such a system). 

Further hurdles

The story of casting the role of Lara Croft has been well told. It was a debate that covered drug testing, breast size, and studio confidence. Angelina Jolie won out, and quickly got to work on the six months of intensive training to bring her take on Lara to the screen.

To get to this stage had been a relentless process, with the script suffering from the need to keep pushing forward, else risk losing the rights. It would not be unfair to say you could tell. When the first preview screening of the film took place, “it was terrible,” Sherry Lansing recalled. “I was in this screening room, and I was so disappointed. It was well shot and well-acted, but it was completely disjointed. The story made no sense.”

A week of additional shooting was greenlit, and another editor brought in to help shape the film (Stuart Baird). It papered over some of the cracks, but more pertinently, so did the film’s marketing. It was a turning point for Lansing’s tenure at Paramount. As the book Leading Lady notes, “she knew it was a triumph of marketing over content, hype over reality.”

Author Stephen Galloway writes that “she had been bothered for some time by her growing awareness that the quality of pictures no longer seemed essential, that clever sales strategies could redeem all but the most abysmal of movies.” But it was Tomb Raider that cemented that, when she spoke to a colleague at Paramount who wasn’t bothered about the poor quality of the film itself. “I don’t have a clue what the movie’s about,” Lansing confided in him. “I can still sell it,” he assured her. “You can spend all this money to improve the picture, but it won’t make the tiniest difference to how much it brings in.”

And he was correct. A blanket marketing campaign led to a $275 million worldwide gross – high by 2001 standards – and enough in the kitty to warrant a sequel. Unfortunately, Paramount couldn’t pull it out the bag a second time, and when the second film – presumably made under similar contractual restrictions – once again took a critical hit, this time audiences opted to stay away.

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But still: the original film’s success saw Paramount start to edge away from the smaller, and mid-budget bets that the studio had been making, in favor of a heavy blockbuster-driven approach. And Lansing herself would leave her long-standing Paramount job just a few years after.

As for Lara? We’ll see how she fares when Alicia Vikander brings the character to the screen next year…

The book Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing And The Making Of A Hollywood Groundbreaker is available now.