The thing about a huge pop-culture phenomenon is that it seems so obvious after the fact. It's impossible to imagine people not going wild for something like Star Wars. But at the time, when the checks were being written and not a single ticket had been sold? Yeah, it was a different story. In fact, a lot of the biggest hits in Hollywood history sounded absolutely ridiculous in concept.
So let's start with ...
You are an executive at a movie studio. A young director is coming off a hugely successful movie about teens in 1960s America called Amerian Graffiti. For his next project, he wants more than 10 times that budget to shoot a huge special effects feature with the catchy title Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. The original two-page treatment where he outlines the story begins, "This is the story of Mace Windy, a revered Jedi-bendu of Ophuchi, as related to us by C.J. Thorpe, padawaan learner to the famed Jedi."
"Oh, and he says 'motherfucker' a lot."
Do you write this man a huge check? Or do you call security?
It Seems Obvious Now ...
When it comes to blockbuster movie franchises, Star Wars feels like cheating. A simplistic story of good and evil told over the backdrop of the greatest special effects ever filmed and featuring a smirking Harrison Ford in his prime? Add in the fact that everything you saw on screen could be turned into a kick-ass toy or action figure and it seems like the Hollywood version of an infinite money cheat code. That's how it looks now.
George Lucas: Proof that you don't need the support of a giant studio to sell out.
But at the Time ...
Actually, even George Lucas didn't really want to make Star Wars. He wanted to give us a 1970s reboot of the 1930s sci-fi adventure series Flash Gordon. But the rights had already been purchased by Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, so Lucas had to build his own version effectively from scratch. His own expensive, totally incoherent version.
"Underneath every stormtrooper's helmet is Dino De Laurentiis' head."
And what reason did anyone have to think that Lucas could make a world-changing fantasy blockbuster? The only thing remotely similar on his resume was 1971's THX 1138, a bleak, weird film that had been dismissed as incomprehensible by the studio and bombed at the box office. So imagine being the studio executives when this bearded guy brings in his 200-page script that, as we have pointed out before, was a confusing mish-mash of insanity. Even personal friends of Lucas admitted that they couldn't understand what the script was about.
Sure enough, the studio, Universal, passed, but 20th Century Fox stepped in and gave Lucas $8.5 million, maybe because they were afraid of what he might do otherwise.
If they'd have only known ...
So then Lucas flew off to shoot in Great Britain and Tunisia, while in the U.S. a team of untried special effects artists gathered to start making movie magic. After a year, that FX team had blown half their budget and had exactly three usable special effects shots to show for it. Lucas and some Fox executives dropped in on them to find out what the hell was going on and found the crew standing around, having a refrigerator lifted and dropped on the concrete in front of them because "everyone kinda wondered how it would sound."
And that's where the Death Star explosion came from.
Things weren't going any better in Europe, where Lucas's British crew began to openly mock and rebel against him, taking breaks without permission and refusing to work the long hours they'd need to meet the deadline. The production soared over budget.
But once the actual movie was completed, everybody realized what a work of genius it was, right?
Nope. No theater chain wanted it -- the sci-fi fantasy was completely out of step with the sci-fi hits of the era (they were all dark, adult films like Soylent Green and Logan's Run). To avoid having to just sit on this expensive turkey, 20th Century Fox resorted to underhanded means to get it into theaters -- they told the theaters they couldn't have an upcoming hit (The Other Side of Midnight) unless they agreed to take this Star Wars turd along with it (a practice that is actually illegal).
Thus, Star Wars was booked into a whopping 39 theaters for its grand opening in the hopes that it would at least make a little bit of its money back. All but one of those theaters saw this weird sci-fi fantasy break their all-time attendance records. At the end of all that, the crazy bearded guy was right.
Via Daily Mail
That's a wedding, 30 years after the movie's release.
4Pirates of the Caribbean
The pitch had to have sounded something like this: "So, I know that literally every single pirate movie ever made has been a bomb. But this one will be based on a Disney ride. And it will star that weird guy from all of those Tim Burton movies. Oh, and I'll need $140 million."
"We're not sure if he's gay or not, but we think we can keep the audience guessing, too."
It Seems Obvious Now ...
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise boasts four movies and over $3.6 billion in worldwide box office, plus billions more in DVD, merchandise and video games. And why not? The math is unbeatable: Disney, plus Jerry Bruckheimer, plus Johnny Depp hamming it up in his most famous role, plus monstrous special effects budgets. The only mystery here is why nobody thought of it before.
We know, you're rich. You can stop gloating now.
But at the Time ...
It had been thought of before. And each time, it was a disaster.
It started in 1986, when Roman Polanski did the huge-budget film Pirates. It cost $40 million to make, an absurd number in 1986 money (by comparison, the effects-heavy Star Trek IV that came out the same year cost only $21 million, and it was the most expensive Trek movie ever made). And what did they get for their $40 million investment? Less than $7 million in box office worldwide.
Walter Matthau couldn't quite make the leap from zany football coach to dashing pirate.
OK, so maybe that was an isolated incident. A decade later, Hollywood tried again with Cutthroat Island -- a pirate movie with a $100 million budget, directed by the guy who made Die Hard 2. It was an even bigger disaster -- it only made $10 million on its nine-figure investment. Even Steven Spielberg's Hook was a disappointment. So was Muppets Treasure Island, and it had the Muppets AND Tim Curry. Oh yeah, and also there was a little movie called Treasure Planet that was made and released just a year before PotC ... that was the biggest bomb in Disney's history. Holy shit! Pirates are freaking box office poison.
"Now that we've eaten all the studio's money, let's go shit it over there."
After all that, you have these nutjobs asking for $140 million to make another pirate movie. And the draw is, what, the freaking Disney World ride? Don't say that Johnny Depp was supposed to put asses in the seats -- his biggest box-office hit at the time he was cast was Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. His next biggest hit? Chocolat. Neither of which made as much as this pirate movie's proposed budget.
The whole thing plays out like Disney was trying to intentionally lose money for some complicated investment scheme, like in The Producers. When it made $46 million that first weekend, you can just imagine a couple of conniving producers screaming "Goddamnit!"
Yes, we KNOW, already!