Warner Bros. Faces Big Challenge With 'Jack the Giant Slayer'
This story first appeared in the March 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Even as Warner Bros. savors Argo's Oscar victory, a less palatable dish seems to be simmering on the stove. With tracking on the soft side, top executives at the studio and its New Line label fear that Jack the Giant Slayer will not kill when it opens March 1.
The studio and Legendary Pictures spent nearly $300 million to make and market -- including the $195 million production budget -- the darker take on Jack and the Beanstalk that was conceived as a summer popcorn movie to be released in June 2012. Insiders have blamed the delay on difficulty completing the extensive visual effects, but sources also say that the tone of the movie wasn't hitting the mark. With the project pushed, the studio took the opportunity to do some reshoots. The film was "too fanboy and not enough family," as one insider puts it, adding, "It's a very hard needle to thread when you hire [director] Bryan Singer to do a take on a fairy tale."
Warners head of domestic distribution Dan Fellman says the final product (the original title, Jack the Giant Killer, was softened) is a family play, even if it's rated PG-13. "We've toned this down," he says. "I wouldn't take a 5-year-old, but if you have a 10- or 11-year-old boy who likes looking at giants, what more do you want?"
Fellman takes heart in improved tracking in the week leading up to the release, though the numbers still point to a soft domestic opening in light of the film's cost and hefty ad spend. He's hoping Jack can bow to more than $30 million in North America, but competitors are skeptical.
Singer (X-Men) is said to be unhappy with the March release date because he does not want to be anywhere near Disney's strongly tracking Oz the Great and Powerful, which opens March 8 and is more family-friendly with its PG rating. But with spring and summer chockablock with movies, Warners decided its best shot was now.
A source with knowledge of the situation acknowledges, "Nobody's excited about this date," and anticipates plenty of second-guessing. Another option would have been to open the movie March 22, but Warners thought the earlier date might work better internationally and also was worried about losing the family audience to DreamWorks Animation's The Croods if it went head-to-head with that movie.
Warners has had plenty of success with spring releases Clash of the Titans (2010) and its 2012 sequel. Its 300 debuted at $70.9 million in early March 2007 on its way to $456.1 million worldwide. That film, along with Disney's Alice in Wonderland reboot (which grossed $1 billion in 2010), proved that summerlike event pics could work in late winter and early spring.
The hope for Jack is that the international business will be strong enough to ensure that it will break even -- someday. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, a PG adventure pic from New Line, opened to a so-so $27.3 million domestically in February 2012, then pulled in about $326 million worldwide, more than two-thirds of that coming from overseas. "You've got to remember that this movie will be a big international play," says Fellman. "Clash of the Titans grossed $300 million [overseas], and this is right up the same alley."
When Jack was cast in early 2011, Hollywood was in the throes of fairy-tale fever. In the quest to build all-audience franchises, studios decided to put a darker, more adult take on stories once reserved for the family arena. But it was fraught from the start. CBS Films' Beastly, a take on Beauty and the Beast, grossed only $28.8 million worldwide in March 2011. Red Riding Hood fared better with $89.2 million but still was a disappointment.
Universal's big-budget Snow White and the Huntsman grossed a solid $396.6 million in summer 2012, though a sequel has not been greenlighted. Last year's other Snow White movie, Mirror Mirror, took in only $166.2 million worldwide. And January's R-rated Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has grossed only $53 million domestic (plus $110 million overseas).
"I think it may be a tough genre," says box-office expert Paul Dergarabedian. "If you mess around with the formula, it's neither fish nor fowl. It's not a fairy tale, and it's not a fanboy movie. And movie audiences want definition."
By contrast, television is seeing more success with dark fairy tales. ABC's Once Upon a Time and NBC's Grimm are solid if not spectacular performers.
But with mixed film results, Hollywood seems to be returning to family-friendly and female-skewing fare. Consider Disney's 2014 tentpole Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie, which is sure to be rated PG and skew female. And Oz, tracking to open in the $75 million-to-$100 million range, could be the one doing the real slaying in March.