Mega Movies + New Directors = Big Drama

6:00 AM PST 01/17/2012 by Kim Masters
© 2011 Disney

Problems plague "John Carter" and "47 Ronin" as studios place $200 million-plus bets on untested auteurs.

In these tough times, it's understandable why first-time directors appeal to Hollywood studios: They can bring fresh ideas, work more cheaply than veterans and presumably are more open to "guidance" from the suits. But a couple of high-profile projects illustrate how entrusting major effects-driven movies to inexperienced directors adds an extra layer of risk to an already risky business.

For 47 Ronin, a samurai revenge story starring Keanu Reeves, Universal turned to Carl Rinsch, a director known for stylish Heineken and Mercedes-Benz commercials and the well-received 2010 short The Gift. Rinsch, 35, had never made a feature, and what followed was a tense, combative shoot. Industry sources say the studio belatedly took steps to impose greater control on the project, which started with a budget of $175 million and is said to have soared far beyond that. Universal is considering whether it should spend more money to film additional scenes to help the movie — its first in 3D — before a planned November release.

In the case of Disney's March space fantasy John Carter, there was clear allure to taking a chance on director Andrew Stanton. He wrote and directed Pixar's Finding Nemo and WALL-E, which together grossed about $1.3 billion worldwide. But the 3D extravaganza has undergone a complete re-engineering, and the budget, originally $200 million, is widely rumored to have ballooned to $300 million. Industry sources with links to the project believe it might lead to a staggering write-down.

Given the success of Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, it's clear a first-time live-action director can succeed on an event movie. But Bird, another Pixar veteran, was working with producer J.J. Abrams, who had directed the previous Mission, star-producer Tom Cruise was intimately familiar with the material, and Paramount hired Dan Bradley, a giant in the field, as second-unit director to assist on action sequences. Although Paramount sources say Bird directed Ghost Protocol from beginning to end, others with ties to the project say Bradley was instrumental.

Neither 47 Ronin nor John Carter was made with comparable levels of experienced support. Universal's film posed obvious challenges: It's a period piece set in Japan and starring Reeves, who hasn't carried a $100 million domestic grosser since 2003's The Matrix Revolutions. And producer Scott Stuber's résumé is slim on big effects movies. Universal insisted that Rinsch work with experienced second-unit director Phil Neilson (Iron Man), but Rinsch balked, preferring to shoot every frame himself.

"Universal wants a big event movie, [but] Carl did everything he could to hijack it, to make it into a drama," says a source close to the project. "Keanu was so along for the ride." Meanwhile, he says, executives on the project "placated Carl and Keanu extensively until it was too late," allowing them to film sequences that will end up on the cutting-room floor. Representatives for Rinsch and Reeves declined comment.

Stuber's colleague Pamela Abdy was dispatched to the set to push Rinsch back on track. But while Abdy is said to have come down hard on the director, she too lacks experience with big event projects. Universal also embedded a production executive on the set to monitor Rinsch's progress.

The studio now has tough choices to make. Rinsch is said to want (or need) several additional weeks to shoot martial-arts sequences. Universal is looking at a cut he assembled to determine what additional shooting, if any, might be necessary. The studio also is bringing in a new editor.

Still, some who have seen footage say it is impressive. "Keanu looks the way he's supposed to look," says one. "He's that half-blood guy." One source says Universal is hoping to recoup much of its costs in Asia alone. But that would require huge grosses, and 47 Ronin is based on and specific to Japanese culture, which doesn't usually translate into appeal in, say, China.

Universal might yet have a better chance of succeeding with 47 Ronin than Disney does with John Carter. According to several sources close to the project, the issues plaguing the film also result from a lack of experienced support for the director. One source associated with talent on John Carter says Stanton, 46, initially was allowed to pursue his vision with "no checks and balances, no star, no producer, nobody to keep him in check." In December 2010, when he showed a 170-minute cut to executives at Pixar and Disney, they found the story unclear and the characters not engaging. Stanton then began to re-engineer a film that already had been shot, creating storyboards of new sequences and cutting them into the footage. A few months later, he embarked on extensive and costly reshoots. Disney, which had anticipated John Carter as a trilogy, held off on discussing the next installment.

A Disney spokesman says Stanton "has an incredibly strong production team around him in key positions, each with strong and impressive credentials." Among those he cites are line producer Colin Wilson (Avatar), production designer Nathan Crowley (The Dark Knight) and costume designer Mayes Rubeo (Avatar).

But a longtime Disney observer says Stanton has had issues that naturally would arise when a director accustomed to computer animation confronts the real world. "This was a guy who was used to saying, 'This is what I've ordered,' and handing it to his animators to deliver," says this person. Meanwhile, Stanton's second-unit director was Mark Andrews, a Pixar associate who also lacks live-action experience.

Disney, led by former TV executive Rich Ross, is giving John Carter a big tentpole push — it is said to be committing $3 million, for example, to advertise during the Super Bowl. The perception among those involved with the film is that should it falter, Disney will blame the previous executive regime, which launched the project but has been gone for two years. Others say that it's far too soon to write a John Carter obituary. "I've got a lot of faith in this guy," one former Disney insider says of Stanton. "Remember: Finding Nemo was supposed to be the first Pixar flop."

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