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Why ‘Speed Racer’ sputtered

WB tentpole too costly, too young, too fast

When Warner Bros. announced plans in 2006 to team with producer Joel Silver and the Wachowskis on a long-hoped-for bigscreen version of cult-fave toon “Speed Racer,” execs were no doubt thinking big: a summer tentpole and a potential franchise.

But flash forward to a month after the pricey CGI-laden film’s May 9 opening: “Speed” is sputtering bigtime, with grosses of $42 million to date in North America. In fact, it didn’t have much gas coming off the starting line.

Despite a wide opening on 3,606 screens, a massive marketing campaign and promo support from General Mills, McDonalds, Target, Mattel and Lego worth $80 million — the biggest in Warners studio history — the film bowed in third place to just $18.6 million.

In the month since “Speed’s” spinout, there’s been much second-guessing about what went wrong. But the reasons aren’t as elusive as the film’s mysterious Racer X. Here are the top 10 factors leading to the film’s failure:

1. “Speed” was simply too costly to score a hit with its target audience.

The $120-million movie came with a four-quadrant budget but only a half-pint demographic. “It’s in a niche … a small niche,” a former Warner exec says. The movie’s total cost, with global prints and ads, was $200 milllion, split 50-50 with Australia’s Village Roadshow.

2. Producer Joel Silver is on a three-year losing streak.

In recent years, the prolific producer, who has 56 movies to his credit, has been behind a string of disappointments, including “The Reaping,” “The Invasion,” “The Brave One,” “Fred Claus,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “House of Wax.” His golden touch works best when he is collaborating with ace directors at the top of their game, such as Walter Hill (“48 HRS.”), Richard Donner (“Lethal Weapon”) and yes, the Wachowskis (“The Matrix”). “After ‘The Matrix’ was such a success I decided to take some chances,” Silver says.

The veteran inhabitant of the Warner lot had developed “Speed Racer” for 20 years (spending some $20 million) with a series of screenwriters, directors and stars — Julien Temple, Alfonso Cuaron, Gus Van Sant, J.J. Abrams, Hype Williams, Vince Vaughn, Johnny Depp — until finally in late 2006, after a decade of collaborating with Andy and Larry Wachowski, Silver was thrilled to learn that the brothers were eager to turn the Japanese cartoons they loved as kids into “live-action anime.”

Now, amid industry speculation about his future, Silver has a year and a half left on his Warners deal, and 12 low-budget pics to deliver in three years through his 9-year-old DVD-driven Dark Castle Entertainment label, for which he scored indie financing a year ago. The first pic, Guy Ritchie’s “RocknRolla,” starring Gerard Butler, opens in the fall. Silver is working on several projects at the studio, including long-in-the-works “Wonder Woman,” “Logan’s Run,” “Sgt. Rock” and the currently filming “Ninja Assassins.”

3. Franchise fever.

With a blockbuster series in its sights, Warner Bros., a free-spending studio specializing in lavishly produced tentpoles for global audiences, such as the “Harry Potter,” “Batman” and “Superman” series, was dazzled by a four-minute pre-visualization of candy-colored high-def racing cars. The studio granted the Wachowskis final cut and more than $100 million to make “Speed Racer.” The f/x accounted for most of the budget; the movie shot for 60 days against greenscreen in Berlin with a non-marquee cast led by Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci and Susan Sarandon.

“The Wachowskis are amazing talents,” says one rival studio producer. “(But Warners) gave them too much money for too small an idea. It always felt young in its construct.”

Instead of aiming at a PG-13 crowd of 10-year-olds and older, the movie wound up rated PG, or under 10. Warners believed it could make big toy deals (which demands PG) and still cross over to the wider family crowd.

4. Brand confusion.

Inspired by “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” the Wachowskis wanted to create their first family-friendly movie, full of actual sentiment. “Speed Racer” was Silver’s first pic to score multiple toy tie-ins with the likes of Mattel and Lego. “We used the movie to launch a toy and shoe line,” says one source close to the production. Indeed, action figures and shoes flew off the shelves — but didn’t help to sell the movie.

But auds and critics identify both Silver and the Wachowskis (who never speak to the press), with R-rated, violent, f/x epics like “The Matrix” and “V for Vendetta.” “You have to be true to yourself,” one screenwriter says. “Joel and the Wachowskis were slumming in youth films, which Pixar does brilliantly. No one can touch them.”

Adds one marketing maven: “It felt like they were trying to reinvent themselves, trying to do a new kind of branding. No one thought it was as limited as it turned out to be.”

5. Marketing Misdirection.

Egged on by a hefty budget and strong test previews, the studio decided to “age the movie up” to a much wider audience than young tots, targeting older parents who had grown up with the cartoons in the ’60s and ’70s, as well as the kids exposed to comics in the ’80s and ’90s reruns on MTV and Cartoon Network.

In truth, the tykes who were most likely to respond were little boys who had never heard of “Speed Racer.” The studio placed spots on NBA broadcasts appealing to adult males and promoted the film as “from the directors of ‘The Matrix’ ” while planting materials featuring the monkey Chim-Chim on Nickelodeon. The movie advertised the Film Advisory Board seal of approval.

Warners thought it could sell the movie’s intense action, which may not have felt family-friendly. At early screenings, not only press but Warner execs were shocked at how young the film actually played.

6. Pixel fatigue.

One father says his 7- and 12-year-old sons experienced “sensory overload” when they saw the bright-colored high-speed “Speed Racer” trailer. “They did not want to see it,” he says. “So we didn’t go. They lost $100 on us.”

While sophisticated cinephiles like Quentin Tarantino embrace the movie’s stylized layering technique and faithful adaptation of the cartoon series, the lion’s share of U.S. film critics dismissed it. With glee. The movie earned just a 35% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

“How can something look so bright, move so fast, and be so dull?” asked NPR’s Bob Mondello.

7. The pic’s soda-pop look might have worked better with older smarthouse audiences.

Even the Internet fanboys rejected the movie. Little kids and their parents may not have been the best guinea pigs for a brand-new art form. “We made an effort to do something real distinct and different,” says one Warners exec. “It was so different no one wanted to see it.”

For example, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez proved there was an audience for their avant-garde, high-style “Sin City,” a low-budget adaptation of Miller’s red-black-and-white graphic novel, before Zach Snyder went all the way with Miller’s period action epic “300.” “With these hybrid movies,” says anime marketing consultant Jeff Conner, “you have to educate the audience. The bluescreen digital style of filmmaking is different; it has its own slanguage.”

8. The running time was simply too long for a family film.

The Wachowskis, with final cut control, refused requests from studio chiefs Alan Horn and Jeff Robinov to cut the two-hour, 15-minute film down to less than two hours. Some insiders insist the movie would have played best at around 90 minutes. But after a preview screening scored 95% in the top two boxes with both parents and kids, the studio lost leverage with the filmmakers.

9. The movie didn’t work anywhere in the world.

While the pic is still to open in its na
tive Japan, in July, no other territory took to “Speed’s” glitzy CGI style.

Other visual experiments in a family vein found their audiences. Bob Zemeckis’ strange performance capture effort “Polar Express” fared better with auds than “Speed” did. In that case, the film brought to life the Chris Van Allsburg picturebook, with the genial Tom Hanks in the lead, which gave moviegoers something to hang onto. “Speed Racer” left people feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and unmoored. “We built a wall between the audience and the screen and they ran into the wall at every scene,” Silver says.

10. The movie was ahead of its time.

Kerry Conran’s greenscreen-driven “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” was also a too-artificial movie that failed to connect with auds. Sometimes filmmakers who are experimenting with something new wind up leaving moviegoers behind. Over time, movies like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Citizen Kane” and “Blade Runner” grew in critical and popular esteem. Whether that will happen to “Speed Racer” remains to be seen.

Read more of Anne Thompson’s blog here

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