Rewrites, Infighting and No "Urgency": Behind Sony's Lackluster 'Men in Black' Relaunch

Men in Black: International London Photocall-Getty-H 2019
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Director F. Gary Gray nearly exited as producer Walter Parkes attempted to remake the script on the fly while the studio tried to limit its own financial exposure. "The movie needed a greater reason to be," says a Sony exec.

In 2016, Sony Pictures’ top executives, including chief Tom Rothman, faced a dilemma: Should they greenlight a reboot of Men in Black or pursue a Men in Black crossover with a second franchise, 21 Jump Street? The stakes were high. A misstep could kill a franchise. Or two.

Initially, Sony tried to make deals for the crossover route. That plan was ambitious, requiring names such as Steven Spielberg and Walter Parkes on the Black side, and Chris Miller and Phil Lord on the Jump Street side to forgo rich producing deals. But when Jump Street producer Neal Moritz refused to compromise on his customary first-dollar pact, according to several sources with knowledge of the talks and development of both projects, the studio pivoted to the straight Men in Black reboot.

That Sony would attempt to relaunch the franchise without Will Smith was a roll of the dice. The studio was already trying to cut a deal with the megastar for Bad Boys 3 and, internally, getting the actor along with original trilogy co-star Tommy Lee Jones for a fourth MIB film was seen as both expensive and not a forward-looking proposition, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter.

That choice, to relaunch the franchise with new stars, would lead to a battle between director and producer and, ultimately, a crash landing at the box office. Men in Black: International — a hoped-for relaunch of a franchise whose three previous films, released in 1997, 2002 and 2012, grossed over $1.6 billion — opened to only $30.1 million stateside. It was, if not a franchise killer, a franchise freezer.

The Smith-Jones MIB films all bowed in the low-to-mid-$50 million range. In the months prior to International's release, Sony and industry experts had given up on the pic debuting near those numbers, with some anticipating a low $30 million debut and high-end estimates coming in at $38 million. Sony was hoping to bring in a new fan base for MIB, thinking that International would be able to capitalize on Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth’s combined star power following their team-up in the critically and commercially successful Marvel Studios sequel Thor: Ragnarok.

The studio was also initially high on the screenplay by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway. “The script was good,” says one insider. “You don’t attract Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson if the script isn’t good.” It’s a sentiment echoed by several insiders familiar with the development of International who spoke to THR on condition of anonymity.

But when the Sony executive overseeing the project, exec vp production David Beaubaire, exited the studio in summer 2018 and was never replaced, a tug-of-war began. Director F. Gary Gray, who helmed Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious, and Walter Parkes, the veteran producer and Spielberg confidant who helped make the original movie, clashed on the vision for the film, a source says. Parkes produced the movie with his wife and longtime business partner, Laurie MacDonald.

Early drafts of the script were described as being edgier and more timely, tying the story to the current debate surrounding immigration. At one point, a music group a la The Beatles were to be the bad guys, with four people merging into one villain. Multiple sources describe Parkes, who had final cut on the film and who had written movies such as the 1983 classic WarGames and the 1992 Robert Redford thriller Sneakers, as having a heavy hand in overseeing rewrites not only during the preproduction process but during production as well.

One source says new pages arrived daily for the actors, causing a certain amount of confusion, as well as stripping away what some considered the more modern sensibilities. Thompson and Hemsworth then hired their own dialogue writers. (Both Marcum and Holloway were on set even as Parkes looked to dictate rewrites, another source notes, seconding that multiple dialogue writers served stints on set for the actors.)

Two sources say that Parkes at times also stepped in on helming duties, although no Directors Guild of America rules were said to have been violated. Gray tried to exit the production several times but was convinced to stay by the studio, a source says.

Even color-correcting was a source of contention between the director and producer. "Walter is both the arsonist and the fireman," contends an insider.

Remarkably, the postproduction process was relatively smooth. There were no major reshoots and test screenings were mainly limited to friends and family on the lot, says one source. “It wasn’t a Dark Phoenix situation,” says the studio source, referring to the recent X-Men movie that faced reshoots and major retooling after principal photography had wrapped.

The studio tested two cuts — one by Gray, the other by Parkes — with the version by Parkes, who has final cut, being chosen. “The studio was an absentee landlord. They were nowhere to be found,” says one International insider, pointing to the lack of guidance from Sony over multiple disagreements that had broken out between Parkes and Gray. 

What Rothman did ensure, however, was that the studio’s exposure was limited. The movie cost in the $110 million range, and the executive brought in Chinese conglomerate Tencent and several other co-financiers. The marketing and publicity budget spend was said to be on the lower side due to various tie-ins.

In the end, Men in Black: International was met with a lowly 25 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a B CinemaScore, indicating that audiences — those that did show up — shrugged. “The urgency to see this was never there, and the movie needed a greater reason to be,” says a Sony exec.

Yet, in these franchise-hungry days at studios, even a failure like this won't kill the franchise, executives agree. “Aliens walking among us is at its core a great idea,” this Sony exec adds. “Men in Black will be revisited again at one point, either as a series, as streaming, or as another movie.”

June 25, 4:30 pm PST. Update: After the publication of this article, producers Laurie MacDonald and Walter Parkes provided the below statement. THR stands by the story, which is based on interviews with nine people who worked on Men in Black: International.

Recently an article appeared in The Hollywood Reporter which purportedly presented the reasons why Men In Black: International underperformed. One of the basic arguments was that we, as producers, insisted upon last minute rewrites which unwound the script. What the article failed to mention was that the script that we supposedly unwound was in fact developed by us with the writers over a nearly two year period. This was only one of many misleading or false statements that permeated the piece.

In some ways this is not surprising in that the reporter did not attribute sources and never spoke to us or other key people with actual knowledge of what occurred on set, including our writers. Had they spoken to us, we would have described what actually happened: Art Marcum and Matt Holloways excellent first draft was greenlit with a scant 17 weeks of prep time. This all but assured substantial writing would occur throughout the production. The rewrites largely dealt with three issues: production/budget constraints (including changing several major locations), punch-ups for the actors, and reconceiving our villains to accommodate the casting of Larry and Laurent Bourgeois, aka “Les Twins,” who were Gary Gray’s choice to play the antagonists of the film. A couple of other writers were brought on during this period, but ultimately everything was filtered through Art and Matt who were on set for the entire production period. Most importantly -- all final pages were then approved by the studio before shooting—which is the case on any studio franchise film.

As anyone conversant with the process knows, there is only one time in the making of a movie in which the producers and writers have complete control: during development. It’s only after a movie is greenlit that a script’s original intention is modified to respond to the legitimate needs of the various stake holders, including the studio, the director and the actors. As producers, it was our job to manage these issues as best we could – but to suggest that the very parties largely responsible for the script in the first place would somehow arbitrarily unwind that very script defies logic and is simply untrue. 

It’s important to note that when a film fails to meet expectations, it can often obscure the level of contribution made by its cast and crew. We have had the honor of having developed and produced all four Men In Black movies, and with that came the extraordinary opportunity to work with some of the most talented people in our business. No piece of inaccurate reporting can diminish the work of the artists who contributed to this movie, nor the pride and gratitude we feel for having shepherded the franchise from its inception.

– Laurie MacDonald and Walter Parkes