#2. Schindler's List
"With Jurassic Park a surefire hit, I'm thinking about following it up with a subject no moviegoer can resist: the Holocaust. Also, it'll be more than three hours long. And in black and white. And much if it won't be in English."
"The real guy looked kinda flabby, so we'll have to sex it up with Liam Neeson."
It Seems Obvious Now ...
Well, of course Steven Spielberg can make that into a success. He could do a movie applauding the Holocaust and people would go see it. Seven Academy Awards, $321 million in worldwide box office later, not a single year goes by without another Holocaust movie featuring some big star or other. Why not? What subject is more ripe for drama than that?
That's right before he gets killed by Darth Maul.
But at the Time ...
Drama? Yes. Money at the box office? Shit, no. Look on a list of all the Holocaust movies ever made and the closest thing you find to a hit before Schindler's List is 1982's Sophie's Choice, and it had the advantage of being based on a best-selling novel (Thomas Kenneally's Schindler's Ark, the book Schindler's List was based on, was not a bestseller).
In interviews, Spielberg quoted an executive "that will remain nameless" as asking why instead of making this movie, Spielberg and Universal didn't just make a gigantic donation to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Why waste the money shooting a movie nobody was going to see anyway?
Replace that human shit with money, and you get the picture.
It's not like Spielberg's 1987 film Empire of the Sun had done anything to increase interest in the Japanese occupation of China during World War II (until this moment, did you even realize that's what that movie was about?). And no one who had just sat through that, The Color Purple, Always, Hook, or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had much reason to expect the director of those five movies to know how to avoid making a movie where Nazi cartoons kill a bunch of Jewish cartoons. During a party, Fred Schepsi, one of Kenneally's original collaborators, yelled at Spielberg, "You'll fuck it up!"
"Though to be fair, I have no clue what I'm talking about."
Hell, Spielberg himself guaranteed that the studio would lose all their money. That's why they had suggested he just donate it -- it was basically just charity anyway.
Or so they thought. Schindler's List wound up as one of the top-10 highest grossing movies of the year. This 195-minute Holocaust depress-a-thon finished ahead of lighthearted hits like Free Willy and Groundhog Day.
You leave Bill Murray alone, Holocaust!
#1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
"Here's an idea -- a movie about genetic freaks, made with a budget that's more than the total value of the studio. Also, it'll be a feature-length animated movie, and we've never, ever made one of those before."
Is it just us, or does Disney look like a pimp in that picture?
It Seems Obvious Now ...
As big of a deal as you think Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is, it's actually bigger than that. It's considered a big deal when a movie grosses $100 million, but Snow White sold 109 million tickets. If they'd charged today's ticket prices, it'd have made more money in the U.S. than Avatar, The Dark Knight ... just about any movie you can name. It was the first cog in the Disney animated money printing machine that would continue with features like Bambi and Cinderella, all the way through to modern-day mega-blockbusters like The Lion King and the Pixar films. And why not? They're classic stories that people of all ages can enjoy.
But at the Time ...
In 1937, animated movies were brand new, and successful animated movies weren't really a thing -- nobody had tried for a decade (the last one was 1926's German film The Adventures of Prince Achmed and it had been a flop). No animated feature had been made in the U.S. before. There had never been one made in color anywhere.
For that matter, movies themselves were still fairly new -- Disney had never made a feature film before, and when Walt Disney plunged ahead with his adaptation of the Snow White tale, the company didn't even know how to distribute the movie, or how much to charge for it (Charlie Chaplin would eventually lend him the reports from his own successful movies to use as reference). And with Snow White, Disney wasn't exactly dipping his toe into the waters -- the production would go 400 percent over budget, an amount more than the total value of the studio. It was less a sensible business venture than something your senile grandpa does at the casino.
"Put it all on red!" "Sir, this is a poker table."
And the movie was about dwarfs. During the 1930s in America, there were often forced sterilizations of people with any kind of abnormality. Movies with major dwarf characters such as Freaks and Terror of Tiny Town had bombed. No less an authority than Walt Disney's wife, Lillian, told Walt that nobody would pay to see "a dwarf picture." In the press the movie acquired the moniker "Disney's folly."
The movie would open to a successful theatrical run in 1937. It made so much money that when the studio needed cash in 1944, they released it again. And people flocked to see it, again. So they re-released it in 1952, 1958, 1967, 1975, 1983, 1987 and 1993. During that last release in 1993, this 56-year-old movie opened in the top five at the box office that week.
"Now that I'm rich, which one of you bitches gets the back of my hand first?"
Not bad, for a dwarf movie.
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