It’s there in capital letters on page 39 of William Goldman’s Adventures In The Screen Trade: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. It is, Goldman writes, “the single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry.”
Before a single frame of footage can be shot, a Hollywood executive has to give a project the greenlight. And the reasons for pressing the ‘go’ button on a movie can vary wildly. Does the film have a bankable star attached? Is the premise something that, so far as anyone can tell, people will pay to go and see?
Predicting the tastes of moviegoers three years hence is, perhaps, the bit Hollywood – and everyone else – finds perennially difficult. The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man were huge hits this year, but will superhero movies still be hot property in 2015? R-rated comedies such as The Hangover may be popular now, but will audiences have grown weary of them in three years?
Spare a thought, then, for the Hollywood types who turned down the movies on this list. Literary agents once wrote a rejection letter to Rudyard Kipling to tell him that he had no grasp of the English language, proving that people can make mistakes in that particular line of work, too.
So how could anyone have known, back in the early 70s, that George Lucas’s silly space opera concept would eventually become a hit…?
American Graffiti (1973)
Before the galactic success of Star Wars, George Lucas was just another hungry young filmmaker trying to make his way in Hollywood. Having finished his debut feature, the dystopian sci-fi THX-1138, Lucas began work on what would become American Graffiti, a low-budget, semi-autobiographical drama about teenage life in the early 1960s.
The studio United Artists funded Lucas during his early scriptwriting (dissatisfied by another writer’s attempt at the story, Lucas took on the scribbling duties himself), but later withdrew from the project – Lucas’ idea of using rock and roll tunes for American Graffiti’s soundtrack left UA nonplussed, with one executive describing the script as little more than a ‘musical montage’.
Lucas spent the best part of a year hawking American Graffiti around Hollywood’s most prominent studios, including Fox, Warner, MGM and Paramount. Lucas eventually found favour with Universal, who agreed to finance the movie as long as the director kept to a strict budget. Even then, there were quibbles over the title; Coppola’s Rock Around The Block (name checking the name of the film’s bankable producer) was but one awful name suggested by executives. Fortunately, Lucas was tenacious enough to not be dissuaded, and his film was released in August 1973 under the title he originally intended.
American Graffiti was a huge hit, its $140 million box office (on a paltry $775,000 budget) immediately launching Lucas’ mainstream career. It was then that Lucas returned to another idea he’d had sitting in his drawer – a rather strange sci-fi adventure which, at one point, began as a two-page outline called The Journal of the Whills…
Star Wars (1977)
As American Graffiti was based on George Lucas’ teenage love of fast cars and rock and roll, so Star Wars would delve further back into the filmmaker’s childhood memories of space opera serials such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.
The huge success of American Graffiti put Lucas on the Hollywood map, and suddenly, the idea of getting a movie about space pilots and galactic empires made didn’t seem so far fetched. But unfortunately for Lucas, most studio executives failed to see the potential in the Star Wars concept; Lucas’ plans for the movie in 1973 were rather hazy, and both United Artists and Universal passed on the project due to budgetary concerns.
Lucas eventually found a home for Star Wars at 20th Century Fox, but even here, studio boss Alan Ladd found himself unable to grasp exactly what the movie would entail. The boss had, Lucas later admitted, chosen to invest in Lucas rather than the concept itself.
Under Fox’s wing, Lucas spent the next two years honing the Star Wars concept into something more tangible; between 1973 and 1975, the concept developed from a sci-fi reworking of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress to a draft called The Star Wars: From The Adventures Of Luke Starkiller.
By the summer of 1977, the Star Wars phenomenon was inescapable. While its path to the screen was by no means a smooth one – Fox executives were, at one point, convinced they had a horrifying flop on their hands – Alan Ladd was no doubt pleased at his choice of investment. Bosses at Universal and United Artists, meanwhile, probably stared in horror at Star Wars’ soaring financial success, and wondered what might have been.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
With their combined box office success in the late 70s, you might think a joint venture between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would have Hollywood studios tripping over each other in the rush to finance it. After all, Raiders Of The Lost Ark appeared to have everything going for it, at least on paper; like Star Wars, it drew its inspiration from the cliffhanger serials of the 30s and 40s, and featured the same kind of crowd-pleasing mix of action and light-hearted humour.
The problem, perhaps, was that Spielberg had already made a movie set during World War II – the comedy drama 1941 (1979), then unfairly categorised as a flop. At any rate, studios weren’t particularly interested in Lucas and Spielberg’s idea of an archaeologist hunting for relics in the Second World War, and it’s said that Raiders was turned down by practically every major studio in Hollywood – like Star Wars, its concept was deemed too expensive.
Paramount eventually agreed to finance Raiders, and production began on a relatively slim $18 million. To keep costs down, Spielberg shot the movie at Elstree (also the home of Star Wars), made extensive use of storyboards, and kept the number of takes down to a minimum. The resulting film benefited from Spielberg’s pared-back approach, and Raiders is widely regarded as a genre masterpiece.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Following the success of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind for Columbia Pictures in 1977 (and its extended reissue in 1979), Spielberg began work on something called Night Skies. A semi-sequel to Close Encounters, it was to be a dark sci-fi about a family defending their remote farmhouse from alien creatures.
During the course of filming Raiders Of The Lost Ark, however, Night Skies gradually evolved from its horror-tinged concept to a lighter one involving a friendly alien and a small boy. Spielberg’s collaborator Melissa Matheson then worked up this new idea into a completed script, initially called E.T. And Me.
Spielberg was much happier with this new approach, and promptly abandoned Night Skies. Bosses at Columbia, meanwhile, were far less impressed with Spielberg’s proposal, and according to the New York Times, dismissed it as “a wimpy Walt Disney movie”.
Further, William Goldman writes in Adventures In The Screentrade that Columbia “…took a survey, and discovered the audience for the movie would be too limited to make it profitable. So they let it go.”
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was eventually distributed by Universal, and made almost a billion dollars. Having passed on E.T. a year or two earlier, Columbia had instead chosen another alien visitation project – Starman, later directed by John Carpenter. Made for $24 million, it was more than twice as expensive to produce as E.T.
Starman was released in 1984, and made $28 million.
Back To The Future (1985)
E.T.wasn’t the only hit 80s film Columbia politely turned down. And remarkably, writer and producer Bob Gale had originally completed the first draft of his time-travel comedy Back To The Future way back in 1981 – a script which, in a climate where the bawdy teen comedy was king at the box office, Columbia thought too family-friendly to be a success.
“They thought it was a really nice, cute, warm film, but not sexual enough,” Gale later said, according to the book, Back To The Future: The Official Book Of The Complete Movie Trilogy. “They suggested that we take it to Disney, but we decided to see if any other of the major studios wanted a piece of us.”
The rest of Hollywood couldn’t see the potential in it, either, and various drafts of Back To The Future where summarily rejected. Ironically, Disney balked at the notion of a teenager heading back in time and fending off the amorous advances of his own mother. “They told us that a mother falling in love with her son was not appropriate for a family film under the Disney banner,” Gale later revealed.
It was only when director Robert Zemeckis scored a major hit with Romancing The Stone that Back To The Future came together, with the project now under the wing of Universal. As ever, the production wasn’t without its hitches – including a last-minute lead actor switch, as Eric Stoltz was replaced by Michael J Fox four weeks into filming – but the film was a hit, and still ranks as one of the most popular movies of the 80s.
Home Alone (1990)
Hindsight can be a terrible thing. And before the release of Home Alone, no one could have realised that a disagreement over a relatively small amount of money would result in Warner missing out on the most profitable comedy picture of all time.
Production on Home Alone began with an agreed budget of $14 million. When director Chris Columbus went back to the studio requesting an expanded budget of $17 million, Warner refused. According to a Guardian interview with Hollywood insider Roger Smith, Columbus then “called Fox and said, ‘Would you like the picture?’ and in 20 minutes they said yes.”
Home Alone and its sequels would soon make around $800 million worldwide.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
“‘This is the worst thing ever written. It makes no sense. Someone’s dead and then they’re alive. It’s too long, violent, and unfilmable.’ So I thought, That’s that!”
According to co-writer Roger Avary, this was what Columbia TriStar thought of the script for Quentin Tarantino’s multi-part crime movie, Pulp Fiction. For Columbia boss Mike Medavoy, Tarantino’s violent, fitfully funny concept was simply “too demented” to risk, and he promptly put the script in turnaround – meaning that it could be sold off to another studio.
Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein was far less perturbed by the script’s depiction of heroin use and sundry acts of violence, however, and Pulp Fiction became the company’s first deal after its acquisition by Disney.
Pulp Fiction would presently reward almost everyone who took a risk on it; Miramax scored a hefty $214 million on its $8 million investment, actors John Travolta, Samuel L Jackson and Bruce Willis received a major career boost, while Tarantino’s reputation as a wayward darling of US filmmaking was assured.
The Blind Side (2009)
An uplifting drama based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis, The Blind Side was a critical and financial hit, earning Sandra Bullock numerous awards for her starring turn as a wealthy woman who befriends a boy with a troubled past.
Although eventually put together by Alcon Entertainment (and distributed by Warner), The Blind Side was originally a 20th Century Fox movie, with executives hoping to convince Julia Roberts to take up the lead. When she turned it down, Fox apparently tried to have the script rewritten, with the real-life character Leigh Anne Tuohy recast as a male.
As the project fell apart, the relatively small Alcon steeped in, and Bullock was ultimately convinced to take on the lead, waiving her usual upfront fee for a share of the back-end profits – this, it turned out, was a shrewd move, since The Blind Side gradually grew into a sizeable financial success.
Seth MacFarlane may have scored a TV hit for Fox with Family Guy, but that didn’t necessarily mean that his success as a feature film director was a given. This might explain why, when Ted was in the early stages of development, Fox narrowly lost out in the bid for the $50 million budget MacFarlane was looking for, with the comedy passing to Universal instead.
Admittedly, Fox didn’t reject Ted, so much as lose out on the project in a moment of caution. Nevertheless, the $193 million box office of MacFarlane’s movie must smart a little, particularly when Fox’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which cost slightly more than Ted, did so poorly at the box office that same month.
Fox’s executives can at least take comfort in the fact that, for every big film that slips through the net, another project’s sure to eventually float along to make up for the shortfall; Universal passed on Star Wars, but eventually scored a hit with E.T., the movie Columbia turned down.
As the studio executive David Picker once told William Goldman, “If I had said yes to all the projects I turned down, and no to all the ones I took, it would have worked out about the same.”
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