Why Sandra Bullock, Bradley Cooper Couldn’t Save ‘Our Brand is Crisis’ and ‘Burnt’

Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

The passion project is as old as Hollywood itself.

Film icons like Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Steven Spielberg have all cashed in chits, mortgaged their prestige and wrung their last ounces of influence to bring their visions to the big screen. The results are often mixed, both artistically and commercially. For every “Dances With Wolves” that a driven actor like Kevin Costner can get made at the zenith of his power, raking in riches and Oscar glory in the process, there’s a “Waterworld” or “The Postman” that brings an actor’s star crashing back to earth.

Through it all, the calculus of “one for them and one for me” continues to guide many actors. Someone like Robert Downey Jr. will play Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes into retirement home age if it means getting to stretch his acting muscles in a talky drama like “The Judge.”

That exchange may no longer be financially viable. Take the box office carnage that transpired over Halloween, when “Our Brand is Crisis” and “Burntcollapsed at the box office despite having Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper’s names above the titles. Both were described by the studios that backed them as “passion projects” for the actors and filmmakers involved, and each shows how difficult it will be to get these kinds of pictures made at a time when it’s difficult for anything not featuring a superhero to draw a crowd.

“This is a direct reflection of living in the golden age of television,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “There’s no reason to spend twelve bucks on a film like ‘Burnt’ when you can stay home and watch a whole season of a show on Netflix or HBO that is much better.”

HBO and Netflix may be the future home of such projects. Actors like Frances McDormand (“Olive Kitteridge”) and Brad Pitt (“War Machine”), as well as filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh (“Behind the Candelabra”) and Cary Fukunaga (“Beasts of No Nation”) have already turned to these platforms to release projects that defy an easy marketing pitch. It’s easy to see the attraction. Both channels have a reputation for quality, access to healthy budgets and adhere to business models that don’t lean heavily on opening weekends.

That’s a good thing. When “Beasts of No Nation” debuted in 31 theaters, it made $51,000. That meagre result would have been catastrophic for a traditional studio. Outwardly, however, Netflix seemed sanguine about paying $12 million for a child soldier drama without commercial appeal. The company’s content chief Ted Sarandos said the film is popular with Netflix members, and the allure of exclusive content was enough to justify turning a theatrical run into a tax write-off.

“Burnt” and “Our Brand is Crisis” might have fared better had they depended on streams instead of ticket sales. In an earlier era, Bullock or Cooper’s names above the title might have been enough to guarantee a solid debut, but Hollywood has grown less star-driven over the last decade. Special effects and masked avengers are the main attraction, not Oscar winners and fashion figures. But in the right project, Bullock and Cooper are still invaluable, and should be credited with the popularity of films like “Gravity” or “American Sniper,” that might have been difficult sells without their involvement. It’s just that finding those projects is becoming increasingly difficult.

Clearly, neither “Burnt” nor “Our Brand is Crisis” were the right fits. Bullock lobbied producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov to turn “Crisis'” morally-compromised strategist into a woman, and Cooper was intimately involved in the production of “Burnt,” but the actors’ energies would have been better directed elsewhere.

These films were too wonky, too niche, and as critics were quick to note, not very good. “Burnt,” which centers on a culinary superstar plotting a comeback, was too similar to Jon Favreau’s “Chef,” which managed to make a profit last year thanks to solid reviews and strong word-of-mouth. And “Our Brand is Crisis,” which centers on a spin-doctor trying to manipulate a Bolivian presidential election, joins “Primary Colors,” “Bulworth,” and “Frost/Nixon” in a long line of politically charged films that bombed. Why pay to go see a political carnival-barker when you can see Donald Trump eat up cable news airtime for free?

“This is esoteric subject matter,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “You don’t just plug in a star and get a hit. There’s no sea change in these actors’ careers. Both of them will do huge movies again.”

If they’re serious about finding their next blockbuster, they might do well to avoid movies geared at older audiences. This fall has been brutal for films looking to score with adult crowds. Only “The Martian” and “Bridge of Spies” have found significant riches by pitching their films at this demographic, while the likes of “Steve Jobs,” “Truth,” and “The Walk” have all competed against each other with little to show for it.

“The marketplace is just crowded,” said Erik Lomis, distribution chief at the Weinstein Company, the studio behind “Burnt.” “Maybe they’re looking for lighter fare, but we haven’t hit the right cord with serious adult moviegoers.”

The headlines this weekend will focus on Cooper and Bullock’s failures, but come Monday, both actors will still be in demand. In fact, Warner Bros., which stands to lose millions on “Our Brand is Crisis,” took the rare move of releasing a statement taking full responsibility for the film’s failure.

“The film was truly a collaboration between the studio and the filmmakers, and Sandy’s performance is terrific in this film. We cherish our relationship with her. Ultimately, neither the concept of the story nor our campaign connected with moviegoers,” said Sue Kroll, Warner Bros. president of worldwide marketing and distribution.

In a town and an industry that loves a scapegoat, such candor is unprecedented. It’s also a sign of the influence Bullock still wields. Better for Warner Bros. to take the blame than miss out on the next “Blind Side.” If that’s not power, what is?

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  1. Martha C. says:

    Personally, when I saw the trailer, I couldn’t figure out what the heck the movie was about…and the title doesn’t add much to it.

    I still don’t know what it’s about but the trailer makes me think it’s about a PR person trying to remake the image of someone (I have no idea who). If that’s what Our Brand Is Crisis is about I don’t want to see it, sounds awful. Not to mention I detest Sandra Bullock (but love Billy Bob Thornton!).

  2. Gengent says:

    I have a theory about why Our Brand Is Crisis flopped. First of all that dopey, meaningless title. Sandra, I hope YOU didn’t think THAT one up. Next…I don’t, and I wonder how many movie-goers want to see Sandra Bullock looking like a homeless baglady. She didn’t have to be gorgeous in this film but did she have to look like she needed a womans’ shelter? Still one of my faves though.

  3. Stergios says:

    So what’s everyone’s suggestion? Filmmakers and actors having passion projects go searching for another medium like television, otherwise avoid all risks and keep offering generic movies so that they can score big box office numbers and having everyone to like them? Just like that, the art of cinema dies and that doesn’t have to do with Burnt or Our brand is crisis, both of which I saw and I didn’t particularly like any of them (even though Our Brand is crisis is for me far better). An actor’s career has to be reinvented all the time and watching huge stars like Bullock and Cooper reshuffling the cards and trying something different is totally welcome. Here’s hoping they’ll be able by doing that to offer something cinematically more powerful than those well-intentioned but eventually lackluster efforts bring.

  4. 85wzen says:

    It will be interesting to see these films in 6 or so months… many of them are far better than the public has deemed… IMO… luckily we have streaming now… in time things may look a lot different regardless of the money made…

  5. “The Intern” starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway was “geared at older audiences” and has done OK this fall. It just fell out of the Top 10 (to #11) after six weeks. Not bad at all!

  6. tlsnyder42 says:

    Both of these movies are rated R. Also, OUR BRAND IS CRISIS has a communist subtext and is about a Bolivian election over 10 years ago. Despite its communist subtext, the movie wasn’t overt enough for the radical leftist movie critics writing in today’s market, so it failed to become a cause celebre for them. They would have gotten behind the movie, despite its clumsy narrative, if it had been more overt and in-your-face. Even then, however, it would have bombed because American moviegoers generally prefer movies with more conservative content as well as movies that are more exiting and more entertaining.

  7. Lee says:

    Crisis has actually a good storyline, I think it was not marketed the right way though, the trailer I saw was not introducing the main attractive of the film, which was how something perceived so lightly like a marketing campaign destroyed lives and literally killed people, and its a true story. That was the meat and potato of the film and is attractive, but instead the trailer focused in the relationship of Sandra’s character and her rival in the movie, which was a fabricated story and not the most interesting part of the film.

  8. Silvana says:

    Those films got horrible reviews and they’re boring. That’s it.

  9. Alex says:

    Was Reading this article until u wrote trump in a non-sense way. Disgusting

  10. Claude says:

    What was really wrong with both of these film is honestly the subject matter was not very interesting. Both films were too expensive for films that were only notable because of the stars in them. Bullocks film had more promise if they would have released it closer to the election next year. As for Copper’s film it was way too expensive for the kind of film it was.

  11. Elizabeth Page says:

    What the studio spokespeople seem to be forgetting is that when you target an educated sophisticated audience you have to remember that educated sophisticated people have lives. It will take them a minute to get to a film. This was Halloween weekend, World Series weekend, marathon weekend. Seriously – who had time to go to the movies? The audience will seek out these films just not this minute.

  12. Rachel S. says:

    LOL, complete B.S. – dont’ make movies targeted to older audiences. If stars followed that advice we would never have seen some of our greatest films. Honestly, I don’t know why I read Variety. it’s just utter drivel every time I click on an article.

  13. nubwaxer says:

    karma catches up to “american sniper” guy. glad to see it.

  14. dtich says:

    holy cow. apologies, but i must make a grammar comment:

    “Clearly, neither “Burnt” nor “Our Brand is Crisis” were the right fits.”

    is one of the worst sentences i’ve read in ages. the grammar is:

    Clearly, neither “Burnt” nor “Our Brand is Crisis” was the right fit.

    /nerd rant

  15. macd says:

    Since Mr. Lang asserts that “come Monday, both actors will still be in demand,” I surmise that Lang will be the first to invest in a kickstarter campaign to team Bradley Cooper and Sandra Bullock in the same movie. The filmgoing public, including myself, can already smell the stench.

  16. Flopss says:

    More flops yay!

  17. Flopss says:

    Put more diversity in your films,all the old white people are dead lol

  18. jennifer says:

    My family and I saw Our Brand is Crisis and we enjoyed it.

  19. Marie says:

    “at a time when it’s difficult for anything not featuring a superhero ”

    I really wish people stop being so overdramatic about the damn superhero films. There have been more films without superheroes than they are with them so enough with the BS already. The films that have been recently released have been pure sh*t, plain and simple. Try next year.

  20. Mike Cross says:

    I didn’t see the article nor comments mention this single item: These movies were released on Halloween weekend. Normally, on “event days/weekends” movies tailored for that event’s aspect usually fare better while films not tailored to that, don’t do so well. Sometimes, counter-programming works, but counter-programming is inherently a gamble.

    The majority of people were not going to go to the movies this weekend, unless it was a “Halloween” movie. Otherwise, they are going to parties, trick-or-treating with their kids/friends/family, etc.

    Any other discussion outside of the merit of the films themselves, at this point, seems like studios dropping flicks on a poor weekend then pointing at their poor performance at some notion of a higher failing.

  21. ChrisV says:

    This article sugarcoats the poor reviews. I will cry for a good movie that can’t find an audience… but when film-goers wisely turn away from a bad movie, they deserve to be applauded.

  22. The rapport between the cinema and the average cinema goer is lost. It seems to me it is either mostly rubbish hyperbolic “franchise” infantile business models or special film maker players (prod, stars, directors) ego pet projects. Neither of these agendas plays to the audience as being the primary concern of interest. Good film making will work but this is tough to do when your eye is not on the ball and you have no respect for them. People do respect good work and will patronise it, it’s just that the business (Ie Hollywood) has screwed it up and turned it into something boring and mostly let downs. Hollywood and the distributers, you need a paradigm shift, a revolution (remember auteurs, you know, the actual talented film maker) or you will continue to be boring and be the arbiters of your own death. On second thoughts, maybe that’s a good thing. Unless Apple get to own everything (watch that space!).

  23. Sheyla says:

    Well, this kind of films looks very boring from beginning but some hollywood chiefs thought how those film to be starred by movie stars then the silly audience will buy them but no, people has intelligence and it’s now hollywood business knows that.
    But there are another films like those will come soon like Joy which is promoted as important movie to watch but it’s not important, it hasn’t feminism interesting issue in it, it’s just another O. Russell film to try catch money and catch the Oscar he wants desperately.

    • Dunstan says:

      Sheyla, next time you want to comment, you might want to proofread what you’ve written. The grammar is atrocious, the sentences almost indecipherable and the general gist of what you’re attempting to say is bizarre at best.

  24. therealeverton says:

    “at a time when it’s difficult for anything not featuring a superhero ”

    Sigh more illogical, and nonsensical use of superhero films as a whipping boy. Well no wonder things are so bad. If it is as you say Hollywood is killing itself when it only released 3 super hero films this year and expected to make any money.

    Looks like they’ll have to up their 3 – 7 average to the amount it feels like must be released , baaed on the amount of irrational complaining being done 50 – 100 films per year.

    Also as well as the small number of these films actually released, especially compared to everything else, plenty of other films are making as much, and more, money. Only The Avengers (2012) and The Dark Knight (2008) have topped global box office in the past 25 years, but hey everything else struggles to attract a crowd, so I guess nobody went to the cinema those other 23 years.

    When you stretch the facts so thin to get an agenda in here, why bother reading the rest of the article to work out how much of it is based on reality and how much is just made up nonsense to fit a flawed theory?

  25. Willie says:

    This is why studio keep making those formulaic franchise stuffs and superhero movies. It almost seems it would be wiser for studios to take no risk. I hope cinema isn’t all about making generic movies that fit majority’s appetite.

  26. Shawn says:

    What you don’t mention is the older audience doesn’t want to be preached to with liberal blather that Hollywood dishes and the younger audience is too young and not worldly enough to know better that they fall for Holywierds crap!

  27. Joe says:

    Bridge of Spies has made 45mm on a 40mm budget plus a large p&a spend minus gross deals for Spielberg and Hanks. That’s “significant riches”?

  28. I think most people can’t really to either story. One, about a bunch of wealthy scum who fix elections (not really funny if you think about it) and the other about some temperamental chief who has a restaurant that 99% of people cannot afford. The first one you can see on the news every night and the second you can see on the food network. Go see the Martian.

  29. Anadult says:

    Do movies with adult themes fail at the theater? Yes. Movie theaters are the equivalent of brick-and-mortar retail stores: Adults don’t go there any more. Why hassle with parking, crowds, overpriced concessions, dirty bathrooms? Why risk one’s safety? (Not that we want to live like hermits, but let’s face it, we were all spooked by Aurora.) I don’t think Bullock or Cooper failed in any way, nor do I think the market for thoughtful movies is “crowded” — if anything, there’s not enough good content available. Their movies will be seen, just not in a theater.

    • Alice says:

      Strange, I was excited to see Dark Knight Rises and even though that shooting occurred a day before I still wanted to go see the film.

    • Marie says:

      You can get killed by walking out your door and getting hit by a car. If you want to live your life in fear then go ahead but don’t think everyone else thinks the same.

    • therealeverton says:

      The opposite is true. The younger audience has been dwindling for years and adults have been the mainstay at the box office for a while now.

  30. Tobin Malone says:

    You’re wrong about “Crisis.” It’s a timely character-driven film set in an interesting locale, and it works. Thank you Sandra Bullock for making an excellent movie with a female lead, a wonderful diverse cast, and a story worth telling. It made me laugh and cry, and its well made-ness guarantees I will watch it again and again. See this film!

  31. B. Hall says:

    The problem with those two movies is they would not appeal to the younger movie goers and the subject matter has zero interest for an adult audience. Why don’t the studios do focus groups to find out what real people want? As the price of going to a movie increases, it has to be something exceptional before I venture out to see it. Otherwise I stay home to watch exceptional programs on Starz, like Outlander.

  32. cheer88 says:

    I saw several movies which spent over 10 millions to make and never had mainstream release recently. Most of them were not exactly box office hits as far as I can tell. I didn’t like any of them as matter of fact. However, the movie industry seems to count on the big starts to gain investments and possibility of mainstream distribution. I haven’t gone to theaters more than 2 years. i enjoyed streaming in my comfort home. I did hate to watch bad movies not eve mentioning about going to the theater to see one. Audiences are more pickier than ever since there are too many choices to watch movies.

  33. Ana says:

    Wow. This is pure Studio agenda. Both movies are doing fine… There is a greater number of adults who do not to cinemas anymore vaca use of the superhero freak show. But hey… If studios wants to go burnt the,selves… Keep going with one to three superhero per year… That is want is DEAD!

  34. Filmjeff says:

    Maybe Cooper and Bullock have to ask if “Our Brand is Burnt”?

  35. Chizz says:

    Another week, another clueless fizzle from old Brent. This kind of analysis fails because Brent cannot figure out the qualitative aspect i.e. if Burnt or Crisis were actually GOOD movies they might have connected with audiences under the right release strategy. But it’s obvious from the marketing that the films are predictable retreads and are being dumped. But no, Cooper and Bullock don’t need freshness and quality according to Brent… they need a cape and a younger demographic. Just like Brent needs a brain and a different job.

    • cadavra says:

      If their problem was that they were “predictable retreads,” then how do you explain the enormous success of FAST & FURIOUS 7, JURASSIC WORLD, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 5, AVENGERS 2, PITCH PERFECT 2, MINIONS, CINDERELLA, ad nauseum?

      • Personally, I’m sometimes happy to watch something predictable but fun. Something predictable and dull… not so happy. I’m actually someone who might have watched a film like Crisis – politics graduate, I follow election news, I liked films like Primary Colours and Frost/Nixon (though both had plenty of flaws)… but I don’t really trust Hollywood to make a film like that interesting these days. So I thought I’d wait and see whether people started raving about it… and they didn’t.

        I suspect that, at least for things that can’t rely on big explosions or strong currents of nostalgia, more and more films are going to have to try to be enjoyable and/or rewarding, and make audiences like them. I think that more and more, films aren’t going to be able to rely on conning people in for a huge opening weekend – because the question is no longer “what’s on at the cinema this week? oh, that’ll do…” but rather “is there anything worthwhile on at the cinema? no? then I’ll watch TV…” (or download an older film, or play a game, or do anything else). And if you can’t get enough people in on the opening weekend, you’re going to have to rely on good reviews, on word of mouth, maybe even repeat viewers…

  36. evelyn says:

    The price of seeing a film in the theater today is obscene. I am patient so I wait for it to be on DVD & I then rent it from the library for $1.00.

    • Randall Starr says:

      Uhhh, get a blu-ray burner and red-box the blu-rays. Buying them for $2.

    • Aga says:

      All the discussion about movies’ flops is useless because we simple don’t know how much studio earns thanks to VOD, TV channels, Netflix etc. If I don’t know better I would think (based on the articles in the entertainment press) that the life of the movie is finished after leaving the cinema.

  37. Pat Huth says:

    Being one of the “older” demographic, I enjoyed Our Brand is Crisis and was entertained by Burnt.

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