‘47 Ronin’: The Inside Story of Universal’s Samurai Disaster

47 Ronin

How postproduction fights and bad buzz led to one of Hollywood's biggest flops of 2013

47 Ronin,” an old Japanese fable about a group of rogue samurai, ends in a horrible bloodbath. It’s a fitting conclusion for a big-budget adaptation that has left Universal deeply in the red, having suffered one of the costliest box office flops of 2013.

When executives at Universal huddled in 2008 to mull over the story, they envisioned “Lord of the Rings” set in the East circa the 1700s. An early treatment of the script was jam-packed with dazzling sword fights. And the material seemed like a potential home run for the U.S. and the lucrative Asian market (where the similarly themed Tom Cruise vehicle “The Last Samurai” had generated disproportionately large grosses in 2003). It was one of the first projects the studio greenlit under chair Adam Fogelson, who was pushed out of his perch in September.

Universal executives declined to be interviewed for the story.

The 3D martial arts project turned out to be a disappointment on many fronts. After months of bad buzz and two postponed release dates, “47 Ronin” finally bowed on Christmas in the U.S. and grossed only $20.6 million in its first five days at the domestic box office. Overseas, it’s fared even worse — with $2.8 million in its home turf of Japan since its Dec. 6 debut. The film’s gargantuan budget of $175 million (it cost even more before tax breaks) means it could lose the studio $120 to $150 million, especially once marketing is factored in.

Universal took the unusual step of announcing prior to the film’s domestic opening that it had already taken an unspecified writedown on the project. It was meant to signal to Comcast shareholders that executives knew they had baked a holiday turkey.

What went wrong?

Several sources close to the project say the ambitious undertaking never found its footing. The story kept changing through rewrites and post-production, as the studio and first-time director Carl Rinsch couldn’t find a balance between the classic Eastern tale and the more Western touches like a CGI dragon and the addition of an American star, Keanu Reeves, to a mostly Japanese cast.

The first draft of the script by Chris Morgan, who has written five of the seven “Fast and the Furious” movies, showed promise. It was slick enough to land on 2008’s Black List of best unproduced work. (A stage direction for a ninja attack read: “It’s like the ambush out of ‘Aliens,’” a clear influence.)

Universal suits were drawn to the idea of creating a unique fantasy world like that of “Avatar” or Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth. The Morgan script made notable additions to the traditional story, including mysterious ogres, doses of black magic and Reeves’ character, a half-breed warrior named Kai.

Fogelson, chairman Donna Langley and Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, the studio’s co-president of production, who was a champion of the project since inception (and handled the day-to-day interference), interviewed Rinsch for the directing job. He won them over after he pitched impressively detailed storyboards of the historic samurai backdrops.

Even though he had never directed a feature before, he was a hot name based on his commercial work and a short film, “The Gift,” involving a frenzied robot chase. “He’s pretty amazing in a room,” says a source involved in the making of the film. “He’s very smart and passionate and can make you believe his ambition.”

Though unusual, assigning a novice director to a project so large and complicated is hardly unprecedented, with Disney’s “Tron: Legacy” (directed by Joseph Kosinski) and Universal’s own “Snow White and the Huntsman” (directed by Rupert Sanders) among recent examples.

But “Ronin’s”s tone grew more muddled as the project barreled forward. One point of conflict was that Rinsch kept wanting to make the film more Japanese, almost like an arthouse samurai movie. The studio, understandably, was nervous. The picture needed to play to mainstream audiences across the world in order to break even. It already had a cast made up entirely of Japanese actors like Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki and Tadanobu Asano. (At one point, Japanese-American actors had been considered.)

Reeves, who hasn’t opened a box office blockbuster since the 2008 remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” expressed interest in playing Kai, but he had his own concerns. He was worried that the character wouldn’t feel integrated into the main arc of the story.

Scribe Hossein Amini (“Drive,” “Snow White and the Huntsman”) was brought in for rewrites to broaden Reeves’ character and to simplify some of the dialogue. It turned out that the Japanese actors, who weren’t fluent in English, were having trouble delivering their lines and had to learn them phonetically.

To help them along, Rinsch had his actors say all of their lines in Japanese first and then in English right after — a puzzling decision in an age when such major hits as “District 9,” “Inglourious Basterds” and even the “Fast and the Furious” movies have elected to have their “foreign” characters speak in their native languages, with the dialogue then subtitled in English. And there were more drafts after that: The story added a wicked, shape-shifting sorceress (Rinko Kikuchi) right out of a horror movie.

The budget wasn’t so monstrous until Universal, influenced by Hollywood’s latest obsession, decided to shoot the film in 3D. That’s when “47 Ronin” became the Titanic of samurai movies. The creative team scouted Japan, New Zealand and Australia before deciding that none of those regions looked ancient enough. The film was eventually shot in England and Hungary, with a design team constructing 150,000 square feet of samurai villages for all those close-up 3D shots.

By all accounts, the post-production process was fraught with tension. When Universal executives saw an early cut in 2011, they had concerns about the story and started ordering changes. Another week of shooting was slated so that Reeves could be made more integral to the finale. A 2012 article from the Wrap reported Langley kicked Rinsch out of the editing room, but two highly placed sources deny that happened.

Another source with knowledge of the situation said that in post-production, Universal decided to take the film in a different direction. Rinsch then sought the help of the DGA to ensure his contractual rights were being honored.

A revolving door of crew members came and left. Multiple editors worked on the film, including Gore Verbinski’s longtime editor, Craig Wood. But legendary fix-it guy Stuart Baird (“Skyfall”) took the lone editing credit. To this day, members of the creative team have not seen a final cut of the film, including executive producer Scott Stuber. Variety has learned Stuber departed over creative differences after he helped land Reeves as the star and never made it to the production stages.

Universal hosted a world premiere of the film in Japan — it needed support from the region, where the cast was well recognized. But it never gained traction there, despite being released in an alternate edit specifically designed for Japanese audiences. Market research showed the key demographic of young men didn’t buy enough tickets.

U.S. critics were allowed to preview the film only a few days before it opened. The reviews, embargoed until 36 hours before the American release, were not kind. Universal didn’t spend lavishly on an advertising campaign. By then, the box office prospects for “47 Ronin” were grim.

“47 Ronin” is just one of several risky tentpoles (see “The Lone Ranger” and “R.I.P.D.”) that flopped in 2013. But if those expensive failures raise questions about the viability of mega-budget movies that aren’t sequels, don’t count them out yet. While some executives may now be warier of taking $175 million gambles on unproven talent and material, there’s also the fear that a studio may miss out on the next big thing. Which, to put things in samurai terms, is a fate worse than death.

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  1. Anon says:

    Good news is looks like it will be on blu-ray very soon so I don’t have to pay to see it. lol Fuck you Hollywood you deserve this with your stupid 3D shit!

  2. thewanderer says:

    The tale of the 47 ronin isn’t a fable. The fable part of it derived from whether or not what they did was within Bushido and the fictionalized versions of the events in film and television in Japan and the retelling. Historically there was a group of ronin who killed to avenge there masters’ death though the particulars (how many more than 47 out of over 300 possible samurai troops took part in the revenge plot) is a bit up in the air.

  3. Just Confused says:

    Hello Kitty…
    Your summation of Hollywood “integrity” is a riot! Guess that makes you a PUSSY RIOT lol ;-)

  4. I get I’ll like it. I love most of Keanu movies. I doubt this would be any different.

  5. Captain Kirk says:

    This is the reason why MBA’s should be barred from studio’s. They simply can’t grasp the methodology behind the ‘product’.

  6. david weinstock says:

    they should limit remakes to bad movies with potentials. chushingura is an excellent movie, with great story and great acting. why would anybody ‘fix’ something that is far from broken?

  7. Not to mention that this movie is just some kinda stupid US-Live-Action-Version of the Anime-Classic “Ninja Scroll”; not the brave Story of the true 47 Ronin. The flop was somewhat of predictable.

    • Doesn’t this assume that most people (the mainstream audience) know what the hell you’re talking about?

      • I know what he’s talking about. It’s also sometimes called the Wind Ninja Chronicles. I have the DVD in Japanese. That’s the core of the problem. Studio doesn’t seem to know it’s target audience, or it is so afraid that they’ll offend it while trying to grab a broader audience. They had a very good background story and tried to transform it into something it wasn’t. We didn’t need another Hobbit with a dragon, we needed 47 Ronin. Hollywood tried to de-risk it to the point it was just a big mess. If they like the director’s origin pitch, they should have left it alone or found a better base to start from.

  8. harry georgatos says:

    A project such as this should have gone to an established proven director without the interference of studio executives questioning every decision by the director.

  9. Hello Kitty says:

    They changed the ending for the Japanese? How dare they violate the artistic integrity of Hollywood violating the artistic integrity of the original story just so they can get Japanese to watch just because they added a Hollywood actor to a Japanese story just to cater to Americans. After reading all these stories lately complaining about Chinese influence on Hollywood, it’s just laughable.

  10. Spike says:

    you don’t give 175 mill to a first time director without rolling the dice against bad odds. this becomes flop 5 at least, this year, in that range. Too bad, Adam, your choice seems to vindicate your forced exit.

  11. kora87 says:

    The theater was mostly empty when my husband and I saw it, but we both thought it was a good movie. It wasn`t over the top fantasy and it still has a beautiful story.

  12. jackconner says:

    A shame if this is as bad as it sounds. I haven’t seen it yet and am still hoping for the best, but my hopes are seriously tempered now.

  13. M. says:

    Funny, when I watched it, half the theater was weeping by the time the end credits were rolling. Guess someone bought into it after all…

  14. R. Paul Dhillon says:

    The problem with the film for me was that it looked like, from story, performances and direction, like a C-grade film which after I watched it, felt really inconsequential and meaningless! Like why did they even made it when if they wanted to do this story, it needed to be really graphic and intense! When the warriors kill themselves at the end, it should be gut wrenching but it’s corny and really lame! Like what the fuck? Even knowing that the Hari-kari, the act of literal self sacrifice, ie killing yourself, is so integral to Japanese society but I never bought that from the story that was presented. It seemed like just a plot point and not fully integrated in telling of the story! That’s why nobody bought into it and it is an epic disaster!

  15. Shawn A. says:

    Sounds like the director was a gifted smooth talker that lead them down a very expensive garden path, that once walked, was impossible to return!

  16. ted says:

    Why would anyone think a six-foot tall white guy would make a good Japanese man?

  17. M. says:

    We ‘get’ the idea, but you might want to correct an omission in the above article.
    FOREIGN TOTAL : $22,300,000 as of 12/29/13
    just sayin’

    • Hasdi Bravo says:

      Yep. Its #1 in most territories other than Japan and US. It also earned B+ CinemaScore. Box office-wise, it seems to follow the same pattern as Tintin, where it opened weak on Christmas release but did well worldwide. It shouldn’t be too surprising that it did not do well in Japan, as the story of 47 Ronin has been adapted to death. Americans would do the same with the umpteenth adaptation of Peter Pan, Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, Snow White, etc., etc.

      • Stella says:

        The movie was quite beautiful actually. Yet again, ‘critics’ dismiss something they have difficulty comprehending, a movie about the concepts of ‘honor’, unrequited love, sacrifice. The visuals, costumes, and even score was breathtaking and haunting. Cannot get the final music out of my head. And Reeves did a great job and was perfectly cast in my opinion. Read the non-mythological script prior to seeing this and was concerned about the CGI, but it was not over the top and did not distract from the central storyline or theme. Sorry Peter Travers -no sex, drugs, or rock and roll, so I’m sure you hated it. If I wanted to see any of that, I’d just tune into CSPAN for free. Critics must get some kind of HATE on Reeves bonus from their paymasters.

      • Olli Schaefer says:

        Americans would do the same with the umpteenth adaptation of Peter Pan, Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, Snow White, etc., etc

        Mmh, maybe not the best examples for your comment:
        The last Peter Pan made nearly 50 million in the US and around 120 million worldwide.
        The last Robin Hood made made 105 million inthe US and around 320 million worldwide.
        The last Snow Whites made 155 million in the US and nearly 400 million worldwide and even the other Snow White movie (Mirror mirror) of 2012 made 65 million in the US and nearly 170 million worldwide.
        Only the last Three musketeers made just 20 million in the US but around 130 million worldwide.

        Regarding 47 Ronin it was clear from the first unenganging and kind of chaotic looking trailer, that this would be some kind of a mess, so this becoming a flop ist not very surprising to me.

  18. Glenn C. says:

    This to me sounds like a typical Hollywood routine…where all these suits/executives have to get into the mix to justify their positions and where they ALL have their own visions for the film and it ends up just messing things up badly! A big bowl of vegetable soup that doesn’t taste good! All those egos that have to be massaged and cared for!

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