'Gotti': How John Travolta Tried — and Failed — to Save His Passion Project
The long-in-the-making biopic debuted to an underwhelming $1.7 million despite a high-profile publicity campaign piloted by Travolta himself.
From the Cannes Film Festival to a posh New York City premiere to stops in cities including Phoenix and Miami, John Travolta tirelessly promoted his new movie, Gotti. He even joined social media for the first time in order to spread the word.
The reason for his dedication? Travola believed his performance as the late John Gotti, one of the most famous mafia bosses in history, would make him a player in the next awards race, according to several insiders who have been closely involved with the biopic.
But the famous actor and his film were dealt a bruising blow when Gotti was assassinated by critics, receiving a rare zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes on the eve of its opening in 503 theaters spread across 25 cities. Over the weekend, the indie film debuted to $1.7 million. While the film is not an out-and-out bomb, Gotti's theatrical run is nevertheless endangered, save for those cinemas in seven locales where the film held its own.
Gotti became a passion project for Travolta, but although he invested both his time and celebrity to promote the project, its failure to connect with a wider audience underscores the risk that passion projects bring with them.
Travolta's commitment to Gotti was no overnight fling. The film itself was more than seven years in the making, beginning when the gangster's son, John Gotti Jr., turned down a reported offer from Sylvester Stallone and struck a deal with producer Marc Fiore for a movie about his father. Lacking Hollywood connections, Fiore turned for help to Marty Ingels, the late comedian and husband of actress Shirley Jones, who managed to secure Fiore and Gotti a meeting with Travolta, who signed on. Travolta became one of the few constants on the project as the inexperienced producers struggled to put the rest of the elements together. Eventually, Kevin Connolly took over the directing reins as the film shot in Cincinnati in 2016, with Randall Emmett's and George Furla’s Emmet/Furla/Oasis Films partnering with Fiore Films and Highland Film Group, and Lionsgate Premiere set to distribute.
Travolta became incensed last December when stories broke saying that Liongate Premiere was pulling the $10 million film from a dual release in theaters and on VOD, implying that Lionsgate didn't have faith in the biopic. In fact, Travolta had been working personally behind the scenes to extricate the film from Lionsgate. He wanted a full-scale awards compaign, and for that Gotti first needed a full-fledged theatrical release.
Needing help, Travolta and Gotti's lead producers found a new source of funding in Edward Walson, son of the late New Jersey cable pioneeer John Walson Sr. Walson had produced and helped finance a number of Broadway plays and several movies, including Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine. Travolta and Walson saw eye to eye on Gotti, with Walson agreeing to buy back the rights from Lionsgate and foot most of the bill for the film's release.
From the outset, everyone involved knew there wouldn't be enough money to wage a full-fledged marketing campaign, but with between $4 million and $5 million available, a plan was devised to rely on a mix of sponsored promotions and free publicity, as well as side investments, according to sources.
Travolta and Walson were keen on screening Gotti at Cannes, since the iconic festival can produce headlines winging their way around the globe. While the film was not selected as part of the festival's official lineup, Travolta was able to arrange with festival director Thierry Fremaux for a screening in the festival's Palais, and the star also agreed to participate in a couple of events at the fest, including a a two-hour master class and a 40th-anniversary screening of Grease. Travolta was also celebrated at a swanky party at the Hotel du Cap. The various events at Cannes cost the Gotti production more than $1 million, according to event organizers who do business at the fest.
Walson and the other Gotti producers didn't have to pay for all of the Hotel du Cap party, where Travolta danced onstage with 50 Cent. One of the event's sponsors was MoviePass, the controversial movie subscription service that took an equity stake in Gotti in late April that's valued in the low seven-figure range (a MoviePass logo promptly appeared on Travolta's private plane).
The MoviePass deal was announced the previous month in Las Vegas during CinemaCon, the annual convention of theater owners. Travolta quietly flew to Vegas to meet with exhibitors inside the MoviePass suite at Caesars Palace, where he personally extolled the film's virtues during private meetings with cinema operators.
MoviePass boasts that it can sway its 3 million subs to see a film; in the case of Gotti, it also held a contest for a chance to attend the June 14 Gotti premiere in New York City and meet Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, who co-stars in the film.
On Sunday, MoviePass said that 40 percent of those buying tickets to see Gotti were MoviePass subscribers. (Had all MoviePass customers showed up during opening weekend, Gotti would have made more than $25 million when multiplying by the average ticket price.)
The film found other partners as well. Travolta, who previously stayed away from social media, joined both Instagram and Facebook, but not Twitter, in the days leading up to Gotti's debut. Instagram and GQ signed on, promoting Gotti on their respective channels.
In New York, Gotti's premiere afterparty for some 800 guests was held at Tao Downtown, followed by an exclusive after-dinner hosted by Walson at Anthony Scaramucci's Hunt & Fish Club in midtown Manhattan. And in recent days, Travolta and Preston also traveled to Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Philadelphia and Phoenix to trumpet Gotti and do local press.
Gotti saw its business overindex in those markets, as well as in New York and Los Angeles, the two cities where expensive television spots aired. Everywhere else, Gotti fell flat.
"That shows the power of publciity. What is shocking to me is that 80 percent of audience members on Rotten Tomatoes and 4 out of 5 of them on Fandango liked the film. Clearly critics are out of touch with the people who actually vote with their pocketbook. It makes me wonder if the press and critics don't want a movie to succeed because they incorrectly think we are glorifying John Gotti," says veteran marketing and publicity executive Dennis Rice, who is working on Gotti.
Box-office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations says the zero percent Rotten Tomatoes certainly didn't do the film any favors.
He adds: "Passion projects have a history of tanking at the box office and for Travolta, he's become a repeat offender, as Battlefield Earth was a similar debacle. This film never had a chance. I'm actually surprised it made as much as it did."