Summer's big fizzle could impact DreamWorks' talks with NBC
Although Michael Bay made his name on loud, explosion-filled pics like “Bad Boys” and “Pearl Harbor,” the biggest crash in Bay’s latest pic, “The Island,” wasn’t onscreen but at the box office.The $130 million DreamWorks and Warners co-production grossed a mere $12 million its opening weekend, making it the summer’s biggest flop so far. Beyond lost revenue, “The Island” could affect the asking price of DreamWorks’ live-action division, which NBC Universal is in talks with to acquire. The discussions are far from complete, and there are several key roadblocks, such as what the studio — which has a lean library of 60 titles — is worth, and what exactly Universal would gain from the deal. NBC U already has homevid rights to DreamWorks pics and distributes them internationally via UIP. Rumors have been around for a while that DreamWorks’ live-action division would eventually be folded into NBC U (the logic is even physical; DreamWorks is based on the Universal lot). The “Island” box office adds impetus to those rumors, pointing up the vulnerability of a production unit that is privately owned and can’t offset its losses by profits in other divisions. There have been clues of a change. In recent months, DreamWorks has been quietly signing execs to only one-year contracts and scaling back on production deals. But, given NBC U’s downturn in TV ad revenues, the company has recently been making noises about belt-tightening. And although Steven Spielberg would be a major asset for Universal, in many ways the director is already on the lot. His upcoming film about the Munich Olympics is a DreamWorks and Universal co-production. Bad news about “The Island” also comes on the heels of a public relations disaster for DreamWorks Animation. The public company is facing six shareholder suits over overly optimistic DVD sales projections and an SEC investigation spurred by stock trading. Though foreign grosses haven’t yet been tallied on “Island” and there’s always the lifeboat of DVD, DreamWorks appears likely to lose more than $50 million. This for a thriller that once seemed a sure-fire hit thanks to the track record of its billion-dollar action director and to the intervention of Spielberg, who’d personally asked Bay to direct the film and offered creative input during the shoot. “The Island” isn’t the first summer fatality. Revolution’s “XXX: State of the Union” and Fox’s “Kingdom of Heaven” have had similar fates (the latter got a boost from foreign grosses). Yet the fact that Bay — whose films regularly break the $100 million mark domestically and in the case of “Armageddon” the $200 million mark — had struck out raises the inevitable question: What happened? The elephant in the room is the notion that people just weren’t interested in seeing the film. In hindsight, “The Island” is practically a step-by-step blueprint for how not to go about making a film. The problems are myriad — from a confused marketing campaign to a hybrid genre to unproven stars — so much so that people involved in the film now confess they were not altogether surprised by the dismal bow. (DreamWorks went through 650 poster concepts and 75 TV spots in the pic’s ad campaign — surely a hint things were amiss.) Bay himself — who’s been a vociferous though not always effusive spokesperson for the film — waxed ambivalent in the press just a week before the film opened, telling Entertainment Weekly, “I don’t know what’s going to happen with this one. I really don’t.” More pointedly, he complained about DreamWorks’ marketing campaign, saying, “I don’t like the TV spots. We’re fighting about it.” Such honesty is rare in Hollywood, where squandering an opportunity to promote, embellish or fabricate is virtually verboten. Bay also lamented to the Los Angeles Times that the posters for “The Island” made Scarlett Johansson — the film’s lead along with Ewan McGregor — look like a “porn star.” In the same article, he seized the opportunity to emphasize his perfect scorecard, saying, “I’ve never had a flop.” Marketing was an issue for the film, in part because “The Island,” which is a futuristic pic about human clones, has both action and sci-fi elements. In effect, it’s two movies, something many reviewers have noted, and the purported reason that producer Jerry Bruckheimer — Bay’s longtime partner on all his previous films — passed on it. Throughout the making of “The Island,” there was disagreement among DreamWorks marketing execs, producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald and Bay over which element to sell. At first, the studio went for the sci-fi/cloning theme. When this failed to resonate with auds, they pushed the action angle. Another factor is that neither McGregor nor Johansson are proven commodities at the summer box office. People close to the movie fault McGregor — who’s been tied up starring in “Guys and Dolls” on the West End — for not doing enough to promote the pic. (The weekend of July 29-31, Sony’s “Stealth” was facing the same test; the film is relying on Josh Lucas and Jessica Biel to draw auds. Jamie Foxx is also cast, but in a smaller role.) Another problem was “The Island’s” release date. When “Wedding Crashers” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which opened the previous weekend, started generating buzz, DreamWorks wanted to move “The Island” back to Thanksgiving, but was prevented because the film’s Japanese bow was locked. This argument doesn’t resonate as strongly as it did when it was used to explain why Universal’s “Cinderella Man” — a serious film that was released in the summer blockbuster season — failed at the box office. “The Island,” after all, is very much a summer movie. From the outset, “The Island” was troubled with spiraling budget issues and a rushed production schedule. The $1 million script by Caspian Tredwell-Owen was bought just 17 months ago, and production was put the fast track in order to produce a summer ’05 tentpole. “The biggest mistake this company made was we made a date, not a movie,” says DreamWorks marketing honcho Terry Press. The finished print for the film was not ready until two weeks before the release, forcing DreamWorks to hold a press conference for the movie during which 45 minutes of footage was shown. Bay appeared at the event looking haggard and unshaven, and he even told the audience that he’d sought in vain to cancel the screening. Because the biggest action sequences weren’t shot until the very end, those shots weren’t available for most summer trailers. A week after its release, the carnage from “The Island” has been mostly picked over, the buzz subdued. And, as it goes in the movie biz, on Monday, Aug. 1, it could easily be another film’s turn.