Box office receipts have become largely meaningless in today’s economy. Once upon a time, studios had to rely on their output to stay afloat. Even then, however, there were ways deal from the sleeve.
The 1927 film Metropolis is now widely considered a masterpiece. When it was released, however, it received scathing reviews.
Metropolis is often credited with ruining the company which made it, Universum Film A.G., or UFA. There is little doubt that the film strained UFA’s finances. Its original budget of four million reichsmarks was unprecedented, and the fact that the film’s director, Fritz Lang, managed to spend another million on top of that didn’t help. But, UFA’s financial problems began before Metropolis even went into production.
In 1925, UFA entered into an agreement with Paramount Pictures and Metro Goldwyn-Mayer designed to bolster their capital. Paramount and M-G-M would get exclusive rights to release UFA films in the US – along with the ability to alter the films in any way they deemed necessary. Meanwhile, UFA had to agree to release Paramount’s and M-G-M’s films in Germany, to the tune of reserving most of their theater capacity exclusively for American films. The deal was, to put it lightly, a bit one-sided. But, UFA desperately needed the cash.
The reception of Metropolis just made a bad situation worse.
In the US, Paramount decided to chop nearly an hour from the film’s running time, making the complicated plot impossible to follow. Adding insult to injury, the person responsible for the American edit then went on to give the film an unfavorable review.
Metropolis definitely contributed to UFA’s eventual downfall. But blaming Metropolis is putting the cart before the horse. UFA sowed the seeds of its own destruction long before Metropolis came along to reap the rewards.
Likewise, the 1980 film Heaven’s Gate is known as a perfect example of directorial excess and was directly responsible for the demise of United Artists, a studio which had been founded in 1919. The film’s director, Michael Cimino, was out of control on the set, demanding costly retakes and set revisions. Before he turned in a finished film, he had overspent by a staggering 30 million dollars.
Except, none of that is true. Cimino has stated that he brought the movie in on time and under budget and has cited his contract as proof. The script featured a lengthy introductory sequence set at Oxford University, and Cimino’s agreement stipulated that he could not film these scenes unless the rest of the film was completed in accordance to the original schedule and budget.
As the Oxford introduction was clearly filmed, and is in the final cut of the film, Cimino must have had some sort of self control on set. Furthermore, while it is true the film only made about a tenth of its reported budget back at the box office, that didn’t matter at all. United Artists had stopped being simply a film studio long before. In 1967, UA was purchased by insurance company Transamerica, which used Heaven’s Gate as an excuse to take a very lucrative write off on their taxes before the film was even released.
In a very real sense, Heaven’s Gate never lost a dime. It certainly didn’t hurt Transamerica’s profit margins at all. But the story of the film’s failure was very powerful, indeed. It created the notion of directors who could destroy companies on a whim, which gave the studios the ability to more tightly control their talent.
In an industry which had long been known for the excessive eccentricities of its directors, this was seen as a very good thing.
Erich Von Stroheim once famously waited for a flock of geese to spontaneously take off in flight in precisely the manner he wanted in the finished film. While the geese just sat there, so, too, did the crew. For weeks. This tale (if true – and having lived with geese, I can tell you they are perfectly capable of just sitting there and staring at you) was used by studio executive Irving Thalberg as an excuse to cut Stroheim’s epic film Greed from eight hours to a paltry two and a half hours.
And who could blame him? An eight-hour movie? How could that possibly work? Stroheim suggested a two-day viewing experience. The price of one ticket would allow someone to see the first half one night and the second half the next. Thalberg disagreed and not only cut the film, but he then ordered the excised material destroyed.
That is less the actions of a responsible manager than it is an act of revenge.
The complete Greed is a lost film thanks to studio control. And, ultimately, the revenge might have been Stroheim’s. The extant version was declared the greatest movie ever made by critics in the 1940s. And later, the idea of two-day screening was used to great success by the French epic Children of Paradise.
A company which also owns AOL, Time publications, HBO and DC Comics isn’t going to fail simply because Jupiter Ascending crashed after take off. In fact, a well-placed flop can go a long way towards bolstering the failures of other aspects of the company business. But, never does it go in the opposite direction. And if box office returns have little bearing on company finances, they certainly don’t have any relevance to the overall quality of a film.
If critics hate it, or ticket sales are spectacularly low, remember that more is going on than meets the eye. Citizen Kane and Fantasia both did very poorly at the box office, yet went on to be considered classics.
Hollywood magic extends beyond what one sees on the screen; it bleeds into the real world, too, creating a narrative in which the biggest hits of all time have never made a dime, while some of the biggest failures of all time should have.
We are, all of us, unwitting character actors in the story Hollywood is telling to justify their practices and standards.
You are under no obligation accept the overall wisdom that Vertigo is the best thing ever produced within the Hollywood system, or that John Carter was terrible. John Carter was just fine. And no one was forcing Disney to spend hundreds of millions on a movie based on a pulp novel that featured full frontal nudity on almost every page. But changing the focus of attention onto the box office, or onto the excesses of the director makes for a powerful smokescreen.
Hits, flops, box office receipts or budgets are all irrelevant.
That movie you love? It is probably just fine. You don’t have to accept the Hollywood story. Follow along, and you’ll have more than enough knowledge to see through the hype and experience film in an entirely new way — which is to say, entirely on your own terms.