This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
It would be fair to say that the top five movies at the US box office in 1990 didn’t follow the rule book. In fact, 1990 saw Hollywood’s blockbuster formula falter, to the point that conversations were rife about whether a sea change was coming. Dramtic changes in blockbuster mentality were certainly on the way, as it happened, but not for a decade or so. Yet the seed was planted in 1990 that sure-fire blockbuster hits weren’t always, well, sure-fire blockbuster hits.
Not that many people saw it coming, Off the back of 1989’s blockbuster business, Hollywood was bullish. Batman, Lethal Weapon 2 and Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade topped the US box office charts for that year, with a couple of surprise hits – Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and Look Who’s Talking broke through, and inspired sequels – rounding out the top five. Sequels to Back To The Future and Ghostbusters also hit, and business was pretty much as usual.
Going into 1990, confidence was high. 20th Century Fox was investing in the-then most expensive movie of all time – Die Hard 2: Die Harder – while growing box office presence Arnold Schwarzenegger was set to topline Total Recall. Throw in sequels to Gremlins, 48 Hrs and Back To The Future, and it seemed an array of sure-fire hits were lining up to make everyone concerned very rich.
The two big bustling blockbusters, though, deemed in advance the two films to beat, were Dick Tracy and Days Of Thunder.
Neither was a cheap bet. Disney, buoyed by the box office of Batman the summer before, had hopes that Dick Tracy would tap into new comic book movie enthusiasm and deliver a massive hit. Uncharacteristically for the time – Disney back then was a penny-pinching studio – the company had invested heavily in the film. Starring by and directed by Warren Beatty, Dick Tracy was promoted heavily, and rivals steered clear of its release date. With the exception of Warner Bros with Gremlins 2, a film that would be bruised for the direct encounter.
But it’s easy to overlook that Days Of Thunder was expected to be the big film of the summer. Yet in 1990, this looked a sure-fire bet. Uber-producer Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer reunited the Top Gun team, and the Top Gun formula. This time, Tom Cruise played Cole Trickle (chortle), a racing car driver. A pretty good racing car driver, but one who has a crisis of confidence, finds the love of a good woman, and becomes a good racing car driver again. Check out Rich Hall’s dissection of Tom Cruise’s movies on YouTube, incidentally. Comedy gold, and eerily true.
Days Of Thunder certainly had big money behind it, and it also had Top Gun director Tony Scott, a big ballad lined up to storm the charts, and the key ingredients for a major blockbuster hit. Few would have given you a puzzled look had you predicted that Dick Tracy and Days Of Thunder would walk off with the bulk of the summer box office. Indeed, that’s what many were actively predicting.
It was a rivalry that was stoked up by key personnel behind the films, too. Never mind that the production of Days Of Thunder was going off schedule and over budget. Wildly over, as it happened. Behind the scenes, money was being splurged on huge parties, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were reportedly at loggerheads, and a key finale scene was even forgotten about until well after shooting had finished. But that notwithstanding, the promotion was substantive, and confidence was high. A June 27th, 1990 release date had been earmarked, and the competition stayed clear.
For Dick Tracy, it had long set its stall out for June 15th, 1990, and Disney was spending megabucks to get that message across. The studio knew that it had 12 days to rake in cash, before the expected Thunder juggernaut rolled into town. It was set to be a brutal clash of two movie titans, one stoked by the trade press, and a brief, high profile exchange of faxes.
As was widely reported at the time, Don Simpson started it, faxing Katzenberg with a note saying “you can’t escape the Thunder.” Katzenberg sent a fax in return, boasting “you won’t believe how big my dick is.” Neither, ultimately, came out of the confrontation well, but the fax wars added lots of column inches to films that were already receiving heavy coverage.
And then the films themselves were finally released.
Dick Tracy was first out of the gate, and early signs were good. While it became quickly clear that it wasn’t going to do the Batman-levels of business that Disney was hoping for (to the point where it strongly followed the template of the Batman marketing campaign), it opened to over $22 million in the US (a number the studio was reportedly more than content with). A strong sum in its own right, and a high for a Disney project at that point. The problem was that the repeat business didn’t really arrive. By the time Dick Tracy left cinemas, the film would gross in total just north of $160 million worldwide (off a production budget just below $50 million). Katzenberg, for one, didn’t feel that was the kind of reward Disney needed for the amount of time and financial investment it had put into the project. Given that working with Warren Beatty on the film had tested Katzenberg’s patience too, a sequel was quickly taken off the table.
But Dick Tracy still had a better landing than Days Of Thunder (a film that cost some 20 percent more to make). Powered by Tom Cruise’s name, the film certainly had an opening. It grossed $15.4 million on its US opening weekend, and again, in the context of 1990, that was a good number. Films had longer periods in cinemas in which to rake in their cash, and weren’t being ushered out within a couple of weeks to the same degree. But whereas Top Gun played from May to December in 1986, earning Paramount over $350 million worldwide, Days Of Thunder quickly fell short. Reviews were okay, but the film was clearly a bit of a mess. It topped out in America with $82 million in the bank, adding another $75 million overseas. It was off multiplex screens before the summer was out.
The $157 million take certainly saw it into profit, but conversely, nobody was asking for a sequel to that one either.
Where two juggernauts struggled in 1990, others thrived. The hit movies of the year were not predicted ones. Home Alone came out of nowhere at Christmas to take $285 million in America alone. Ghost, Dances With Wolves, Pretty Woman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the latter then the most successful independent movie of all time) would round out the top five of the year. The closest to conventional blockbusters in the chart could be found at six and seven, with The Hunt For Red October and Total Recall both proving to be solid hits. Both outgrossed the hugely expensive Die Hard 2, albeit that sequel still did good business.
The Days Of Thunder vs Dick Tracy battle would have ramifications. Simpson wouldn’t produce another film for several years (his relationship with Bruckheimer was heavily strained following Days Of Thunder), eventually getting Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, and Dangerous Minds off the ground for cinema release five years later. But by then, his life was spiralling out of control, eventually succumbing to drug-related heart failure in January 1996. His final slate of projects, initiated following Days Of Thunder, were said to be more Bruckheimer than Simpson productions. Ironically, they would go on to be huge successes.
As for Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg would dramatically change tack following his experience with Dick Tracy. As he wrote in a now-legendary memo back in January 1991 – the same memo that inspired the film Jerry Maguire, and that we dissected here – “I strongly believe we are entering a period of great danger and even greater uncertainty. Events are unfolding within and without the movie industry that are extremely threatening to our studio.”
“It was particularly interesting to see what happened when the blockbuster mentality got its true test last year,” he added. Back To The Future Part III, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Another 48 HRS, Days of Thunder, Rocky V, Havana and Bonfire Of The Vanities are just some of the major releases that, as Variety reported, were headed for miniscule profits at best.”
Disney would thus about-turn. Not until Katzenberg had left the firm would it again fully embrace the expensive tentpole blockbuster movie mentality. Ironically, nearly three decades later, nobody is better at it, and Disney’s is the model that most studios are furiously trying to copy.
There’s something quite quaint now, looking back, at how two non-sequels were earmarked as the huge films of the summer, and it’d be remiss to say that lessons were learned from their fallout quickly. The following summer saw even more expensive films duking it out, headlined by movie stars being paid astronomical sums. But one thing did quickly change. The people behind the competing movies in the years that followed would be a lot more judicious in the use of their respective fax machines…