Who's to Blame for the 'Tower Heist'-Oscar Debacle? (Analysis)

 Wilson Webb/Universal Studios; David Lee/Universal Studios; iStock.com

This article first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Tower Heist almost seems to have been born under a bad sign. Its softer-than-expected $24 million opening was tough news for all involved: Universal, stars Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy and hit-hungry producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment. Then there's the Academy, which lost director Brett Ratner as producer of the Oscar show thanks to unseemly remarks he made as the film opened Nov. 4. Murphy departed as host shortly thereafter.

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Theories abound as to why Heist, which Universal had hoped would open north of $30 million, instead succumbed to Puss in Boots in its second weekend:

YOUNG PEOPLE LIKED IT -- BUT FEW CAME

Universal and Imagine hardly needed another dud after Cowboys & Aliens and The Dilemma. According to the studio, the lesson is one that should send chills throughout the business: Younger audiences aren't showing up in force for movies.

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Despite Stiller's family following from the Night at the Museum and Meet the Parents franchises, 73 percent of the audience for the PG-13 Heist was over age 25. The largest segment -- 27 percent -- was over 50. Those under 18 made up only 15 percent of moviegoers, but they liked the movie most, giving it an A- CinemaScore (overall, the picture received a B). Heist wasn't the only victim that weekend: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, with a passionate young fan base, scraped up only $13 million in its opening weekend, less than the previous Harold & Kumar despite heavy 3D premium charges.

IT WAS MURPHY

This film was supposed to rescue Murphy from the ghost of Norbit and bad comedies and bring him back to the kind of action-caper role that worked so memorably in Beverly Hills Cop. But a leading agent, citing such flops as Meet Dave and Imagine That, postulates harshly, "Eddie no longer matters."

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"Universal probably should have cast an ingenue in the part, like Paramount did with Eddie in 48 Hrs.," says a veteran producer.

"I know Eddie is proud of the movie, as evidenced by how hard he worked to promote it," says his publicist, Arnold Robinson. (Murphy did his first print interview in years for Rolling Stone and appeared on a number of talk shows.) "From the reporting that I've read, people went to see the movie to see Eddie, and the exit polls, from what I understand, were all very positive."

Murphy might have been a good partner in promoting the film, but he proved difficult when the studio wanted a new scene to round out the ending. The idea was to reunite him with Stiller, in the vein of the Ocean's Eleven final sequence with Brad Pitt and George Clooney. But sources say Murphy declined to shoot it unless Universal paid him an additional $500,000 (on top of his $7.5 million payday), which the studio elected not to do.

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A producer not involved with Heist says he finds Murphy's demand especially appalling considering Murphy was a producer on the film.

IT WAS STILLER -- AT LEAST IN THIS ROLE

For Stiller, the heist/caper film represented a move away from his most successful shtick: playing the hapless victim who prevails, as in Museum and Meet the Parents. "Some movie stars are movie stars only in their genre," says a source with ties to the production. "Angelina Jolie without a gun -- not a movie star. Adam Sandler in a drama -- not a movie star. … Ben Stiller is a movie star in comedies, but is Tower Heist a comedy? The story is markedly more dramatic than Stiller's hits, and the title itself suggests a genre that isn't in Stiller's wheelhouse."

Heist put Stiller in a different type of role, but "it's not a U-turn," says a source close to the film. "And if you're talking about comparisons for Ben in PG-13 or R-rated comedies, this opening is not out of left field at all." (Tropic Thunder opened to $26 million, for example, while Along Came Polly bowed to $28 million.)

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WHAT ABOUT RATNER?

Industry observers aren't pointing the finger at Ratner for the film's opening, but he didn't do the movie -- or the Academy -- any favors during promotional appearances. On Heist's opening day, Ratner went on Howard Stern's radio show, boasting of his skill at oral sex and of sleeping with a then-very-young Lindsay Lohan. He followed up at a screening of the film that night with his costly remark, "Rehearsals are for fags."

Although Ratner apologized (for the "fag" remark), the rest is history. He resigned -- undoubtedly under pressure -- as Oscar producer Nov. 8. "Boy, was Brett stupid," says a source connected to Heist. "When you're already a controversial choice, try keeping your mouth shut."

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