Warner Bros and The Disastrous Movie Summer of 1997

Warner Bros has struggled with its blockbusters of late. But back in summer 1997, the year of Batman & Robin, it faced similar problems.

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Last year, Warner Bros. announced that following a string of costly movies that hadn’t hit box office gold (Pan, Jupiter Ascending, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., In The Heart of the Sea) that it was restructuring its blockbuster movie business. Fewer films, fewer risks, more franchises, and more centered around movie universes seems to be the new approach, and the appointment of a new corporate team to oversee the Harry Potter franchise last week was one part of that.

In some ways, it marks the end of an era. While it retains its relationships with key directing talent (Ben Affleck, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan, for instance), Warner Bros. was the studio that the others were trying to mimic, particularly during the 1990s. It worked with the same stars and filmmakers time and time again, and under then-chiefs Terry Semel and Robert Daly, relationships with key talent were paramount.

Furthermore, the studio knew when to leave talent to do its job, and was also ahead of the pack in developing franchises that it could rely on to give it a string of hits.

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However, while Warner Bros. is having troubles now, its way of doing business was first seriously challenged by the failure of its slate in the summer of 1997. Once again during that time, it seemed to have a line-up that others could be envious about. But as film by film failed to click, every facet of WB’s blockbuster strategy suddenly came under scrutiny, and would ultimately change, fairly dramatically. Just two summers later, the studio released The Matrix, and blockbuster cinema changed again.

But come the start of summer 1997? These are the movies that Warner Bros. had lined up, and this is what happened…

February

National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation

Things actually had gotten off to a decent enough start for the studio earlier in the year, so it’s worth kicking off there. It brought Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo back together for the fourth National Lampoon movie, and the first since 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Interestingly, it dropped the National Lampoon moniker in the U.S. and instead released the eventual movie as Vegas Vacation. It was a belated sequel, back when belated sequels weren’t that big a thing.

The film was quickly pulled apart by reviewers, but it still just about clawed a profit. The production budget of $25 million was eclipsed by the U.S. gross of $36 million, and the movie would do comfortable business on video/DVD. Not a massive hit, it was still hardly a project that had a sense of foreboding about it.

Yet the problems were not far away.

May

Father’s Day

Warner Bros. had a mix of movies released in the U.S. in March and April 1997, including the modest Wesley Snipes-headlined thriller, Murder At 1600, and family flick Shiloh. But it launched its summer season with Father’s Day, an expensive packaged comedy from director Ivan Reitman and starring Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. It had hit written all over it.

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Father’s Day was one of the movies packaged by the CAA agency and its then-head Mike Ovitz (listed regularly by Premiere magazine in the 1990s as one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, if not the most powerful man). That he brought together the stars, the director, and the project gave the film a steep price tag, and the studio duly paid it. Given WB’s devotion to star talent (Mel Gibson, then one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and a major Warner Bros. talent, was persuaded to film a cameo), it was a natural home for the film. It quickly did the deal, few questions asked.

That package, and CAA’s fees for putting it together brought the budget for a fairly straightforward comedy to a then-staggering $85 million. The problem though was that the film simply wasn’t very good. It’s one of those projects that looks great on paper, less great when exposed on a great big screen. Warner Bros. had snapped it up, without – it seems – even properly reading the script. 

Premiere magazine quoted a Warner Bros. insider back in November 1997 as saying, “When [CAA] calls and says, ‘We have a package, Father’s Day, with Williams and Crystal, and Reitman, we say ‘great.’” He added, “We don’t scrutinize the production. When we saw the movie, it took the wind out of us. We kept reshooting and enhancing, but you can’t fix something that’s bad.”

And it was bad.

The movie would prove to be the first big misfire of the summer, grossing just $35 million in the U.S., and not adding a fat lot more elsewhere in the world. WB’s first film of the summer was a certified flop. More would soon follow.

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May

Addicted To Love

A more modestly priced project was Addicted To Love, a romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick. Just over a year later, Warner Bros. would hit big when Meg Ryan reunited with Tom Hanks for Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail. But here? The film was a modest success at best.

Directed by Griffin Dunne (making his directorial debut) and put together in partnership with Miramax, Addicted To Love was based around the Robert Palmer song of the same name. But while it was sold as a rom-com, the muddled final cut was actually a fair bit darker. There was an underlying nastiness to some moments in the film, and when the final box office was tallied, it came in lower than the usual returns for pictures from Ryan or Broderick. Counter-programming it against the release of The Lost World: Jurassic Park didn’t massively help in this instance either, especially as the Jurassic Park sequel would smash opening weekend records.

Addicted To Love ended up with $34.6 million at the U.S. box office. It would eke out a small profit.

June

Batman & Robin

And this is when the alarm bells started to ring very, very loudly. Summer 1997 was supposed to be about a trio of sure-fire hit sequels: Batman 4, Jurassic Park 2, and Speed 2. Only one of those would ultimately bring home the box office bacon, the others being destroyed by critics and ultimately leaving far more empty seats than anticipated in multiplexes.

Batman & Robin, it’s easy to forget, came off the back of 1995’s Joel Schumacher-steered Batman reboot, Batman Forever (that year’s biggest movie). It had one of the fastest-growing stars in the world in the Batsuit (George Clooney), and the fast food deals were signed even before the script was typed up. You don’t need us to tell you that you could tell there were problems, something of a theme already in WB’s summer of ’97.

That said, Batman & Robin still gave Warner Bros. a big opening, but in the infancy of the internet as we know it, poisonous word of mouth was already beginning to spread. The film’s production cost Warner Bros. up to $140 million, before marketing and distribution costs, and it opened in the U.S. to a hardly sniffy $42 million of business (although that was down from previous Batman movies).

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But that word of mouth still accelerated its departure from theaters. It was then very rare for a film to make over 40 percent of its U.S. gross in its first weekend. But that’s just what Batman & Robin did, taking $107.3 million in America, part of a worldwide total of $238.2 million. This was the worst return for a Batman movie to date, and Warner Bros. had to swiftly put the brakes on plans to get Batman Triumphant moving.

It wouldn’t be for eight years until Batman returned to the big screen in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Warner Bros. would undergo big changes in the intervening period.

As for the immediate aftermath of Batman & Robin? Warner Bros co-chief Robert Daly would note at the end of ’97 that “we’d have been better off with more action in the picture. The movie had to service too many characters.” He also added, “The next Batman we do, in three years – and we have a deal with George Clooney to do it – will have one villain.”

Fortunately, WB’s one solid hit of the summer was just around the corner…

July

Contact

And breathe out.

Warner Bros. bet heavily again on expensive talent here with Robert Zemeckis bringing his adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact to the studio for his first film post-Forrest Gump. Warner Bros. duly footed the $90 million bill (back when that was still seen as a lot of money for a movie), a good chunk of which went to Jodie Foster. It invested heavily in special effects and gave Zemeckis licence to make the film that he wanted.

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The studio was rewarded with the most intelligent and arguably the best blockbuster of the summer. It remains a fascinating film that’s stood the test of time (and arguably influenced Christopher Nolan’s more recent Interstellar).

Reviews were strong, it looked terrific, and the initial box office was good.

But then the problem hit. While Contact was a solid hit for Warner Bros., it wasn’t a massively profitable one. Had Father’s Day and Batman & Robin shouldered the box office load there were supposed to, it perhaps wouldn’t have been a problem. But when they failed to take off, the pressure shifted to Contact.

The movie would gross $100.9 million in the U.S. and added another $70 million overseas (this being an era were international box office rarely had the importance of today). But once Warner Bros. had paid its bills, there wasn’t a fat lot over for itself. Fortunately, the film still sells on disc and on-demand. Yet it wasn’t to be the massive hit the studio needed back in 1997.

One Eight Seven

From director Kevin Reynolds, the man who helmed Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, came the modestly-priced drama 187, starring Samuel L. Jackson (in a strong performance). Warner Bros. wouldn’t have had massive box office expectations for the film (although it can’t have been unaware that the inspirational teacher subgenre was always worth a few bucks), and it shared production duties on the $20 million movie with Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions. But still, it would have had its eye on a modest success. What it got in return was red ink.

The film’s not a bad one, and certainly worth seeking out. But poor reviews gave the movie an uphill struggle from the off – smaller productions arriving mid-summer really needed critics on their side, as they arguably still do – and it opened to just $2.2 million of business (the less edgy, Michelle Pfeiffer-headlined school drama Dangerous Minds had been a surprise hit not two years before).

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By the time its run was done, 187 hadn’t even come close to covering its production costs with just under $6 million banked.

WB’s summer slate was running out of films. But at least it had one of its most reliable movie stars around the corner…

August

Conspiracy Theory

What could go wrong? Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts were two of the biggest movie stars in the world in 1997 and at a time when movie stars still equated to box office gold. Director Richard Donner, one of WB’s favorite directors, had delivered the Lethal Weapons, Maverick, Superman, The Goonies, and more for the studio. Put them altogether with Patrick Stewart (coming to wider public consciousness at the time off the back of his Star Trek: The Next Generation work) as a villain, and it should have been a big hit.

Conspiracy Theory proved to be one of the more ambitious summer blockbusters of the era. It lacks a good first act, which would be really useful in actually setting up more of what’s going on. But Gibson played an edgy cab driver who believes in deep government conspiracies and finds himself getting closer to the truth than those around him sometimes give him credit for.

Warner Bros. was probably expecting another Lethal Weapon with the reunion of Gibson (who had to be persuaded to take Conspiracy Theory on) and Donner (it’s pretty much what it got with the hugely enjoyable Maverick a few years earlier), but instead it received a darker drama with an uneasy central character that didn’t exactly play to the summer box office crowd.

The bigger problem, however, was that the film never quite worked as well as you might hope. Yet star power did have advantages. While no juggernaut, the film did decent business, grossing $137 million worldwide off the back of an $80 million budget ($40 million of which was spent on the salaries for the talent before a single roll of film was loaded into a camera). That said, in the U.S. it knocked a genuine smash hit, Air Force One, off the top spot. Mind you in hindsight, that was probably the film that the studio wished it had made (the cockpit set of WB’s own Executive Decision was repurposed for Air Force Onefact fans).

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Still: Warner Bros. did get Lethal Weapon 4 off Gibson and Donner a year later…

Free Willy 3: The Rescue

Yeah.

Warner Bros. opened its third Free Willy film on the same day as Conspiracy Theory (can you imagine a studio opening two big films on the same day now?), but it was clear that this was a franchise long past its best days (and its best days hardly bring back the fondest of memories).

Still, Free Willy movies were relatively modest in cost to put together, and Warner Bros. presumably felt this was a simple cashpoint project. But in a year when lots of family movies did less business than expected (Disney’s Hercules, Fox’s Home Alone 3, Disney’s Mr. Magoo), Free Willy 3 barely troubled the box office. It took in just over $3 million in total, and Willy would not be seen on the inside of a cinema again.

Steel

Not much was expected from Steel, a superhero movie headlined by Shaquille O’Neal. Which was fortunate, because not much was had.

It had a mid-August release date in the U.S. at a point when a mid-August release date was more of a dumping ground than anything else. And even though the budget was set at a relatively low $16 million, the film bombed. It took $1.7 million at the U.S. box office and given that its appeal hinged on a major American sports star whose fame hardly transcended the globe, its international takings did not save it (it went straight to video in many territories).

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It was a miserable end to what, for WB, had been a thoroughly miserable summer.

So what did hit big in summer 1997?

Summer 1997 was infamous for big films failing to take off in the way that had been expected – Hercules, Speed 2, and the aforementioned Warner Bros. movies – but there were several bright spots. The big winner would be Barry Sonnenfeld’s light and sprightly sci-fi comedy, Men in Black, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Star power too helped score big hits for Harrison Ford (Air Force One), Julia Roberts (My Best Friend’s Wedding), and John Travolta (Face/Off).

This was also the summer that Nicolas Cage cemented his action movie credentials with Face/Off and Con Air. Crucially though, the star movies that hit were the ones that veered on the side of “good.” For the first of many years, the internet was blamed for this.

Oh, and later in the year, incidentally, Titanic would redefine just what constituted a box office hit…

What came next for Warner Bros.?

In the rest of 1997, Warner Bros. had a mix of projects that again enjoyed mixed fortunes. The standout was Curtis Hanson’s stunning adaptation of L.A. Confidential, that also proved to be a surprise box office success. The Devil’s Advocate didn’t do too badly either.

However, two of the studio’s key filmmakers failed to really deliver come the end of 1997. Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in thee Garden of Good and Evil failed to ignite (although many felt he was always in trouble for trying to adapt that for the screen), and Kevin Costner’s The Postman would prove arguably the most expensive box office disappointment of the year. No wonder the studio rushed Lethal Weapon 4 into production for summer 1998. Oh, and it had The Avengers underway too (not that one), that would prove to be a 1998 disappointment.

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The studio would eventually take action. The Daly-Semel management team that had reigned for 15 years would break up at the end of 1999, as its traditional way of doing business became less successful. The pair had already future projects that were director driven to an extent (Eyes Wide Shut), and it would still invest in movies with stars (Wild Wild West).

But the immediate plan of action following the disappointment of summer 1997 – to get Batman 5 and Superman Lives made – would falter. It wouldn’t be until 1999’s The Matrix (a film that Daly and Semel struggled to get) and – crucially – 2001’s Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone that the studio would really get its swagger back…

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