❉ Many films exist on a knife-edge … failure is only a screening away.
Some films succeed, others don’t. Success comes in many forms. Some films are an instant hit from the opening night, some are slower on the uptake while others generate interest only after they have been commended by critics, discerning bloggers or widespread word of mouth.
The producers, director, cast and crew of 2015’s Momentum, which managed to eke out a miserable £46 in its UK opening weekend across the 10 theatres where it was released, could scarcely have feared a worse outcome for their $20 million film about a hi-tech bank robbery.
Perhaps the earliest instance of a big American star brought to the ground by a series of flops is Douglas Fairbanks. The swashbuckling magic-carpet-riding charmer of the Thief of Baghdad (1924) and the action hero of some of the most memorable moments of silent and early sound film was apparently undone by his belief in the infallibility of his stardom. By the 1930s, his once-adoring public had begun to turn away from his repetitive over-made-up appearances as the playboy who refused to acknowledge his age, and even an adaptation like Mr Robinson Crusoe (1932) filmed in the “exotic” location of Tahiti, sank without a trace.
A modern parallel is the often hugely bankable and much-loved Bruce Willis in the Die Hard series. Like his contemporaries Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise in the Terminator and Mission Impossible series of films, Willis has repeatedly reprised his role as John Maclane since the original Die Hard movie in 1988. However, the once popular Maclane’s fortunes wobbled with A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), the fifth film in the series. Box office wasn’t bad, but the reviews largely were rotten.
Know your limitations
Perhaps surprisingly, Willis has had a fair few disappointing flops. Flush with the success of the original Die Hard, Willis co-wrote the script of Hudson Hawk (1991) (In the 1920s, Fairbanks also started writing under the name Elton Thomas). Hudson Hawk, however, had to be rewritten many times in the course of filming, before a damning box office verdict ended its journey. Willis’s attempts at joviality in a pink bunny suit in North (1994) were equally unsuccessful.
John Travolta, who made his name in the classic Saturday Night Fever, fell foul of the market with his 2000 sci-fi epic, Battlefield Earth, in which he played an alien named Terl. Based on a novel by scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, some branded it the worst film ever and it flopped at the box office.
If the refusal of stars to acknowledge their limitations signifies one kind of flop, a second category is surely characterised by film narratives of national, regional or clan identity. Representing national identity on screen in a less than jingoistic way has consistently been a recipe for discomfort, yet it attracts directors and producers like moths to a flame.
Two recent examples are Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008) and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). Both films were lofty in their themes and received mixed reviews from critics and audiences alike. While both films managed to comfortably recover their investments, others were less fortunate.
The Alamo (2004), a well-researched and painstakingly recreated account of the Texas revolution, was a spectacular flop, one of the biggest in the history of American film. There are indications that posterity may look back more kindly at this war film which was too prosaic and uninspiring for its audiences, its narrative distracted by its own meticulous attention to historical detail.
The benefit of hindsight has redeemed a few box office failures from the past, including the redoubtable Heaven’s Gate (1980), a lavishly mounted but nuanced Western-style film set in 1890s Wyoming, which managed to destroy the burgeoning career of its director, Michael Cimino, and the fortunes of its producers, United Artists, while signalling the end of the Western genre in Hollywood film. For a single film to achieve all three distinctions is rare in the history of cinema. Ironically, Heaven’s Gate now ranks among the top 100 American films of all time and is well entrenched in the category of masterpieces that were misunderstood in their own time.
The grandeur of the big budget epic film has lured most directors, but few have negotiated its possibilities with the ease and success of Ben Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960) or, most recently, Gladiator (2000).
By contrast, Cleopatra (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), both sword-and-sandal epics, significantly underperformed at the box office, as did, more recently, director Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004). All three films fell into the trap of being too long, too verbose, and too besotted with their subjects, satisfying neither historians nor audiences.
In recent times, Cleopatra and The Fall of the Roman Empire have been rehabilitated by the collective nostalgia of contemporary cinephiles, while other films have been less fortunate.
Curiously, successful epic films tend to differ from the unsuccessful ones in their narrative ambitions. Ben Hur, Spartacus and Gladiator are all stories of the fall from grace of their protagonists, victims of unfair circumstance, and their struggles to redeem themselves. Set against an epic historical canvas, these are “timeless” stories of endurance of the human spirit, the underdog’s ability to overwhelm the establishment. As such, they strike a resonant chord with their audience.
Some films are successful, while others are not. Film history bears evidence that remakes and formulaic films become unpopular with audiences because they are repetitive, a phenomenon described as “genre fatigue”. Momentum is arguably the latest in a long and undistinguished line of such films. Yet others, original and ambitious in their scope, fail because they are too preoccupied with cults of personality, both real and fictional, to reach across to their audience.