Inside the Fight to Bring 'Les Mis' to the Screen
This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The road to Hollywood hell is paved with fallen musicals. Since Chicago won the Oscar for best picture in 2003, they’ve landed with Richter-level thuds — from 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera, which earned $51 million, less than its production cost; to 2007’s Sweeney Todd, one of the few failed collaborations between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton; to the Daniel Day-Lewis starrer Nine (2009), which positively flatlined.
So it was with some trepidation that Working Title Films, the London-based production company headed by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, took on the near-legendary stage musical Les Miserables.
Making an entirely-sung $61 million period piece (it would have cost a lot more without Britain’s hefty tax credits) was daunting enough that Fellner did extensive computerized research — something he has been doing on each Working Title production since 1997 — before he and Universal went ahead. “We have an in-house person in charge of that,” he notes.
The staffer put the adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel through proprietary computer simulations to estimate box office, examining data from 5,000 other films, including period pieces, movies with the same potential lead actors and other musicals. In other words, he tried to Nate Silver the movie’s chances of success.
While Fellner won’t reveal what the computer predicted, he argues: “What’s the point of spending $1 million of development money on something that will never get made? We use our experience and knowledge, and everything else gets generated on an algorithm model. But this is probability; none of it is fact.”
And as every film executive knows, at some point you have to trust your gut. “Sure, there was discussion,” says Universal Pictures co-chairman Donna Langley, who backed one of the rare recent musical successes, 2008’s Mamma Mia!, which earned $610 million worldwide. “But the title comes with great pre-awareness, and combined with an incredible cast, the package ended up being really exciting.”
Langley’s conviction will be put to the test Christmas Day, when Les Mis opens on more than 2,800 screens domestically, following a marketing blitz that has lasted for months.
A late entry into the Oscar race, the movie was screened at full capacity, first in New York at the 1,110- seat Alice Tully Hall, then in Los Angeles for six guild presentations. Since then, there have been premieres in Seoul, South Korea and Tokyo, with another scheduled to take place Dec. 5 in London.
Those screenings drew rapturous responses, with THR’s Scott Feinberg noting “the raucous standing ovation that the film and its key talent received” in New York. Several pundits even speculated that the film might beat Titanic and All About Eve’s record 14 Oscar nominations.
Still, a two-hour, 38-minute drama about a hardened French convict who is pursued by a ferocious police inspector and who then finds redemption while caring for the child of a prostitute is nothing if not a challenge.
“It was a big risk,” says director Tom Hooper, describing his first movie since 2010’s Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. “Hopefully, it seems like less of a risk now.”
Universal did everything to ensure that. Even during the audition process, executives examined audio from the cast, which includes Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. One, newcomer Samantha Barks, had to endure as many as 15 meetings.
Early in the summer, the studio struck a deal with Regal Cinemas to run a 4½-minute trailer explaining how this musical would be different from others, with all the songs shot live rather than prerecorded. Universal also has worked with Cameron Mackintosh (who produced the stage version and is one of the producers of the film) to target devotees and has created a Facebook page that now has 1 million fans.
To reach beyond the millions who have seen the stage version, the studio has bought commercials on such female-skewing TV shows as Dancing With the Stars and Grey’s Anatomy, along with male-oriented programming including NFL and NBA games.
That’s in addition to a publicity campaign highlighting tales of Hathaway existing on scant servings of oatmeal to lose 25 pounds while playing the fallen Fantine and how her castmates sang their throats ragged by performing every song live on set. Now it’s showtime.
The current rendition of Les Miserables appears 150 years after Victor Hugo wrote his 1,900- page novel and nearly 30 years since Mackintosh first became involved.
In 1983, theater director Peter Farago approached him with a recording of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s work, three years after they had staged a semi-concert version in Paris.
Realizing he would need a proper English-language text, Mackintosh (Cats, Phantom of the Opera) contacted poet James Fenton to rework the lyrics — just before Fenton set off on a trip into the jungles of Borneo.
“He took the novel with him, and because it was so heavy, he tore out the chapters one by one as he read them and fed them to the crocodiles,” recalls Mackintosh, perhaps with a touch of theatrical license.
When his English-language show debuted in October 1985, it met with decidedly mixed results. One critic disparaged it as “a witless and synthetic entertainment.” And yet audiences flocked to the theater — where the production has been performed in 43 countries, sung in 21 languages and seen by more than 60 million theatergoers — making it prime fodder for Hollywood.
During the late 1980s, TriStar Pictures tried to get the movie made, with directors including Alan Parker (Midnight Express), Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies) and Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) all expressing interest. But TriStar’s attempts failed, and when its option lapsed, the rights reverted to Mackintosh.